Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Michael Henchard, Power, and Me

Michael Henchard has lost it all. He lost his wealth trying to squeeze his rival and former employee out of business. Blinded by his desire for revenge and willing to suffer loss to destroy Fanfrae, Henchard seeks in a Saul-like manner the guidance of a seer and based on the seer's words mortgages his business to make a huge purchase only later to doubt the seer's word and sell at a loss. A week later, a week too late for Henchard, the seer's prediction comes true. Losing his wealth, however, is not the greatest loss Henchard suffers this autumn.

Lucette Templeton had compromised her social integrity with Henchard and he promised to marry her--before his lost wife returned. However with the return of Susan and Elizabeth Jane, Michael writes Lucette a letter with a large financial gift explaining that he could not marry her. With the death of Susan, however, Lucette shows up in town--now as a relatively wealthy lady having inherited a small fortune. Lucette comes to Casterbridge and rents a fine house with the hope that Michael will now marry her. Michael, however, shows no eagerness to meet her, and when he finally does agree to meet, he delays and Lucette meets Fanfrae instead.

When Henchard figures out that Lucette's sudden dallying on the matter of marriage is due to her friendship with Fanfrae, he plays the strong hand that he has always played (and has generally worked well for him). He threatens: If Lucette doesn't promise before a witness to marry him, Henchard will tell Fanfrae of their earlier inappropriate relationship. Although Lucette promises before Elizabeth Jane to marry him, Henchard does not suspect Lucette's willingness to deceive him. Lucette is now a woman of independent wealth and marrying Fanfrae will legitimate her social standing as well as marrying Henchard--and if she marries Fanfrae quickly, then no matter what Henchard says to him, it will be too late to change the fact that she and Fanfrae are already married. Henchard's strong hand backfires.

There are seasons and relationships in our life when power is very imbalanced. Adults and children; professors and students; employer and employee; big, aggressive children and skinny, timid children; popular teens and teens who don't seem to fit; the wealthy and the poor; those with authority and those with none. Most of us are very aware of who has more power than we do and are seldom aware of how the power we do have affects those around us. Often, like Henchard, it is easy to use the strong hand, the threat, the bribe, the push, the shove. It does not feel like an abuse of power; it only feels like we are getting things done. Coercion only feels coercive to the coerced one. How often have I couched a threat in it's-for-your-own-good language? How often have I felt good about getting another to do the "right thing" without thinking about why really this person is doing what I have asked him to do? How often have I been Michael Henchard?

Sure there are those who revel in their power over others, who fully realize when they are forcing others to submit to their will. However, I think most of us most of the time do not see ourselves as intimidating; and when someone says or does something revealing that they feel coerced or intimidated, we are certain that it is their problem. Kind of like Henchard is.

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