The Mayor of Casterbridge

by Thomas Hardy

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What is the significance of the subtitle in The Mayor of Casterbridge, and how does it describe Micheal Henchard?

Quick answer:

The subtitle of The Mayor of Casterbridge signifies the complex character of Michael Henchard. Although initially presenting as morally flawed, selling his wife and daughter in a drunken state, Henchard's character evolves. After abstaining from alcohol, he becomes a successful grain merchant, and despite multiple personal and professional setbacks, he consistently takes responsibility for his actions. His final will further illustrates his character, demonstrating his willingness to endure suffering alone, proving him to be a 'man of character' in an unconventional sense.

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When you think of a man of character, you think of someone who has good moral standards in their life. Michael Henchard doesn't quite fit this description, however he is a man of character.

Michael starts his life as a young hay trusser. He drinks a lot. One day when he is drunk, he auctions off his wife, Susan, and baby daughter Elizabeth-Jane, and they are brought. The next day, Michael is horrified by what he has done and decides to not drink anymore. 

Eighteen years later, Michael is now a successful and wealthy grain merchant. He presumes his wife and daughter are dead, but doesn't know this for sure. He begins a relationship with Lucetta but won't marry her because he is still married.

A young man named Donald Farfrae arrives from Scotland and Michael hires him and becomes a mentor to Donald. Michael decides to marry Lucetta, but his wife and now grown daughter arrive back in town. With the arrival of his family, things start to fall apart for Michael.

He learns after Susan's death, that this Elizabeth-Jane is not his daughter. He finds that his daughter died as a baby. At first he is hateful and resentful towards the girl, but then soon comes to see her in a different light. Michael begins to make bad business choices and loses all his money and self-respect. Donald, in contrast, becomes very successful and tries to help Michael, always remembering him as his mentor.

As you can see, Michael is not your typical "man of character." He has a drinking problem; he sold his wife and daughter; he evenutally loses everything.

Michael is a man of character, however, because of his ability to shoulder the burden of the things he has done. He knows his mistakes, and he tries to take responsibility for them. He is willing to suffer for the sake of others and has the amazing ability to endure pain. When he dies, he dies alone, so no one will have to take care of him. His last will is the statement that shows he is a man of character.

"That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me, and that I be not bury'd in consecrated ground, and that no sexton be asked to toll the bells, and that nobody is wished to see my dead body, and that no mourners walk behind me at my funeral, and that no flowers be planted on my grave, and that no man remember me. To this I put my name."

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