Friday, October 29, 2010

Michael Henchard and Repentance: Ten Minutes Too Late

“But the proposal came ten minutes too late.”  These are some of the saddest words in The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Michael Henchard, immediately after convincing his stepdaughter (whom he believes is his biological daughter) to take his name, finds out that she is indeed the daughter of the sailor, the man to whom he had sold his wife 19 year before.  His Elizabeth-Jane had died three months after they separated, and Susan (his legal wife) had given the new child the same name--because “she filled up the ache I felt in the other’s loss.”  Michael is too proud to tell Elizabeth-Jane that he is mistaken, and she accepts her step-father’s story and takes his name.  But Elizabeth-Jane notices that something is terribly wrong.  
By accepting her father’s name, she had hoped that the harshness of his manner towards her would be softened, but exactly the opposite happens.  Michael, in his disgust with himself and the situation he has gotten himself into, becomes harsher and more distant.  In her ignorance and innocence Elizabeth-Jane blames herself for her father’s behavior and seeks to improve herself through reading and tries to shed the country mannerisms of her vulgar up bring which always seem to trigger her father’s angry outbursts.  As her father becomes more and more distant and she realizes that she cannot escape from her past (from herself) and thus cannot but distress him, Elizabeth-Jane looks for a way to separate from her father.
Then the opportunity comes: Elizabeth-Jane is invited to be the companion of a comparatively genteel and wealthy young lady who has newly moved into town.  When she asks her father if he has any objections to her going away, he immediate responds (before asking for any details), “No--none whatsoever.”  Moreover, he proposes that he set up an annuity for her “so that I may be independent of you.”  It is not until the next day, when he sees her moving out of the house, that Michael has any second thoughts.  Speaking harshly to her and blaming her for wanting to hurt him by the suddenness of her taking him up on his word, Elizabeth-Jane for the first time says to him bluntly (“with spirit”): “O Father! how can you speak like that? It is unjust of you!”  This little rebuke seems to get him thinking.
Michael goes up to his daughter’s room, a place he hadn’t been since she had moved in.  And here for the first time through the medium of her room, Michael sees, really sees, Elizabeth-Jane:
Evidences of her care, of her endeavors for improvement, were visible all around, in the form of books, sketches, maps, and little arrangements for tasteful effects.  Henchard had known nothing of these efforts.  He gazed at them, turned suddenly about, and came down to the door.
“Look here,” he said, in an altered voice--he never called her by name now—“don’t ‘ee go away from me.  It may be I’ve spoken roughly to you--but I’ve been grieved beyond everything by you--there’s something that caused it.”
“By me?” she said, with deep concern.  “What have I done?”
“I can’t tell you now.  But if you’ll stop, and go on living as my daughter, I’ll tell you all in time.”
But the proposal had come ten minutes too late.
As an Orthodox Christian, I glory in the power of repentance.  The role of the Saints abounds with the names of great sinners who have repented and have been saved.  However, there is also such a thing--although it is not much spoken of--as losing the ability to repent.  St. Paul interprets the story of Jacob and Esau in the book of Hebrews saying that after Esau sold his birthright and wanted to inherit the blessing, “he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears” (Heb. 12:15-17).  There is such a thing as getting what you ask for, reaping what you sow.
Today (October 29th) in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the memory of St. Abramicus and his niece Mary.  Mary became a nun taught by her uncle St. Abramicus.  However, she fell into sexual sin, and then into despondency, and then left her uncle and took up the life of a harlot in the city. (Like many of us, she fell prey to the demons’ common tactic of luring us into sin and then blaming us for the fall, and finally implanting the thought: “what’s the use, I have already lost everything.”)  St. Abramicus disguised himself as a city dweller and found his niece and convinced her to return to the monastery where she went on to become renowned for her holiness.  But Henchard, like Esau, is not like St. Mary.  And the difference, I think, lies in a humble heart.
There are tears and then there are tears: tears are not all the same.  There are the tears of St. Mary: tears of broken-hearted humility, tears at her own weakness, tears at the pain she has caused others.  And then there are the tears of Esau: tears of anger and frustration when the consequences of his actions are more painful than he expected, tears of embarrassment when the foolishness and sin he had sought to hide is exposed, tears of convenience seeking to move to false compassion those whom he supposes can get him out of the pit he has dug for himself.  No, not all tears are the same.  Not all repentance is repentance.  
Ultimately, only God knows the difference.  However, you don’t have to live too long and you don’t have to observe too closely yourself and others before you notice a pattern in people’s lives.  Godly tears bring a repentance that is not repented of (cf 2 Cor. 7: 10 KJV).  While it may be possible for a man who has only abused everyone weaker than himself for the past twenty years to find genuine repentance--God can do anything--it is certainly the case that genuine repentance will not be brought about by the status quo.  If Michael Henchard is ever to find salvation it will only be by “walking in the light” (cf John 3: 18-21), by looking squarely at the hurt he has caused others through his selfishness and pride, by eating the fruit of the tree he has so carefully planted and watered.
Elizabeth-Jane does the right thing, the loving thing, the thing that in the end brings about the circumstances that make real repentance a possibility for Michael Henchard.   Elizabeth-Jane leaves.  Michael’s repentance is ten minutes too late.

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