In June of 1883, Thomas Hardy and his wife Emma settled into their new home in Dorchester. Hardy had long wanted to write a novel that combined his love of history with his love of Dorsetshire. In addition, he wanted to capitalize on the success of the Wessex setting from his earlier novels. After spending several weeks immersed in research, Hardy began to write the novel that would become The Mayor of Casterbridge in the summer of 1884. He wrote it in bursts, constantly writing and putting it aside until he finally completed the novel on April 17, 1885.
The literary magazine Graphic agreed to publish the novel serially, although with misgivings. The publishers wanted to see everything before it was published, since Hardy was known for his ability to offend everyone, even atheists. Hardy felt so constrained by the Graphic’s demands that he alluded to their heavy-handed treatment in the courtroom scene: Stubberd substitutes all the curse words with letters, to the annoyance of the court. Nevertheless, Hardy’s novel eventually began its serialization on January 2, 1886. On May 10 of the same year, The Mayor of Casterbridge was published in two volumes. Although the critics loved Hardy’s realism and poetic style, most agreed that the novel was too improbable and too shocking–opinions that would only increase as Hardy continued to write novels.
The Mayor of Castrbridge is set in the county of Wessex, a land that has relied on the beliefs of the farming folk for centuries. It is one of Thomas Hardy’s most unified works. Never for a moment is Michael Henchard out of our minds. Even when whole chapters are devoted to Donald Farfrae, Lucetta Templeman, Elizabeth-Jane, or some of the minor characters, Michael Henchard’s strength of character lingers on each page like bass notes of impending doom. And indeed, this is how it should be, for Hardy subtitled his novel ‘A Story of a Man of Character’.
The first two chapters of the novel and the very last serve as a frame for the core of the novel’s story. The opening chapters display the unhappy events that initiate the tale, and the last chapter rounds them off, thus bringing the plot full circle. That is, Henchard enters the novel impoverished and miserable, but young, vigorous, and still master of his own fate. In the last chapter he departs from the novel — and from this world — more impoverished, more wretched, barely in his middle-age, master of nothing. If the novel had begun with Henchard already established as mayor, the sale of his wife if pulled out of the closet of obscurity as an old family skeleton, would make the story preposterous.
The first chapter starts with a young hay-trusser named Michael Henchard, his wife, Susan, and their baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, silently walk along a road in the English countryside toward a large village called Weydon-Priors. They meet a turnip-hoer, and Henchard asks if there is work or shelter to be found in the town. The pessimistic labourer tells the young man that there is neither. The family eventually comes upon a fair and stops for food. They enter a furmenty tent, where a woman sells a kind of gruel made from corn, flour, milk, raisins, currants and other ingredients. After watching the woman spike several bowls of the porridge with rum, Henchard secretly sends up his bowl to be spiked as well. The woman accommodates him again and again, and soon Henchard is drunk. As he continues to drink, he bemoans his lot as a married man. If only he were “a free man,” he tells the group gathered in the furmenty tent, he would “be worth a thousand pound.”
When the sound of an auctioneer selling horses interrupts Henchard’s musings, he jokes that he would be willing to sell his wife if someone wanted to buy her. Susan begs him to stop his teasing, declaring that “this is getting serious. O!—too serious!” Henchard persists nevertheless. He begins to bark out prices like an auctioneer, upping the cost of his wife and child when no one takes his offer. When the price reaches five guineas, a sailor appears and agrees to the trade. Distraught, but glad to leave her husband, Susan go off with Elizabeth-Jane and the sailor. Henchard collapses for the night in the furmity tent.
Henchard wakes the next morning, wondering if the events of the previous night have been a dream. When he finds the sailor’s money in his pocket, however, he realizes that he has, in fact, sold his wife and child. He deliberates over his situation for some time and decides that he must “get out of this as soon as [he] can.” He exits the tent and makes his way unnoticed from the Weydon fairgrounds. After a mile or so of walking, he stops and wonders if he told his name to anyone at the fair. He is surprised that Susan agreed to go with the sailor and curses her for bringing him “into this disgrace.” Still, he resolves to find Susan and Elizabeth-Jane and bear the shame, which he reasons is “of his own making.”
Henchard continues on his way, and, three or four miles later, he comes upon a village and enters a church there. He falls to his knees on the altar, places a hand on the Bible, and pledges not to drink alcohol for twenty-one years, the same number of years that he has been alive. He continues the search for Susan and Elizabeth-Jane for several months and eventually arrives at a seaport where a family fitting the description of the sailor, Susan, and Elizabeth-Jane has recently departed. He decides to abandon his search and makes his way to the town of Casterbridge.
Eighteen years have passed. Two women, Susan Henchard, dressed in the mourning clothes of a widow, and her now-grown daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, walk along the same stretch of road toward Weydon-Priors. As the two make their way toward the fairgrounds, they speak of the sailor, Newson, whom Elizabeth-Jane believes to be her father, and his recent death at sea. Susan explains that they are there to look for a long-lost relative by the name of Henchard.
Once at the fair, Susan recognizes the furmity tent and its proprietress, and she takes a private moment to ask the woman whether she remembers a husband selling his wife. After a moment, the furmity-seller does remember, and she states that the man guilty of that deed came back to her tent a year later to ask her to send anyone who came looking for him to the town of Casterbridge. Susan thanks the woman and sets off with Elizabeth-Jane for Casterbridge.
As they approach Casterbridge, Susan and Elizabeth-Jane pass by two men who, they believe, mention the name Henchard in their conversation. Elizabeth-Jane asks her mother if she should run after the men to ask them about their relative, but Susan, fearing that Henchard may be a disreputable citizen, advises against it. They arrive in Casterbridge, hungry from their journey, and ask a woman where the nearest baker’s shop is. The woman tells them there is no good bread in Casterbridge because the corn-factor has sold “grown wheat,” grain that has sprouted before harvest, to the millers and bakers. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane find some biscuits at a nearby shop and head off toward the sound of music in the distance.
Susan and Elizabeth-Jane arrive in front of the King’s Arms Inn, where a crowd is gathered before large, open windows. When Elizabeth-Jane asks an old man what is going on, he tells her that there is an important dinner taking place and that Mr. Henchard, who is the mayor of Casterbridge, and other prominent gentlemen of the community are attending. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are greatly surprised to hear that Henchard is the mayor, and Susan is unsure whether to make her presence known. As the two watch the diners eat, Elizabeth-Jane notices that Henchard’s wineglass is never filled, and the old man tells her that the mayor has sworn an oath to abstain from all liquor.
As Susan, Elizabeth-Jane, and the other bystanders watch the proceedings, someone calls out to the mayor to explain the current bread crisis. Henchard assures the crowd that the damaged wheat was not his fault and that he has hired a manager to ensure that the same situation does not happen again. “If anybody will tell me how to turn grown wheat into wholesome wheat,” he tells the crowd, “I’ll take it back with pleasure. But it can’t be done.”
A young Scotchman who happens to be passing by hears the discussion about the wheat. He writes a note and asks a waiter to deliver it to the mayor. The stranger then makes his way to the Three Mariners Inn. Having witnessed this interaction, Elizabeth-Jane is intrigued by the stranger. She and Susan are also looking for a place to stay, so they decide to follow the young man to the Three Mariners Inn. The note is delivered to Henchard, who reads it and seems quite interested. Privately, he asks the waiter about the origin of the note. Upon learning that it came from a young man who has gone to spend the night at the Three Mariners, Henchard also makes his way to the inn.
Susan and Elizabeth-Jane arrive at the Three Mariners Inn and take a room. Fearing that the accommodations are too expensive, Elizabeth-Jane persuades the landlady to allow her to work in exchange for a more affordable rate. The landlady asks her to bring the Scotch gentleman his supper. After completing her chores, Elizabeth-Jane takes a tray of food to Susan. She finds Susan eavesdropping on a conversation in the adjacent room, which is occupied by the Scotchman. The mayor, Susan reports, is conversing with the young Scotchman.
The women hear Henchard ask the young man if he is Joshua Jopp, who replied to his advertisement for a corn-factor’s manager. The Scotchman announces that his name is Donald Farfrae and that, while he too is in the corn trade, he would not have replied to the advertisement because he is on his way to America. He then demonstrates to Henchard the method for restoring grown wheat described in his note. When Henchard offers to pay him for this information, Farfrae refuses. Henchard offers him the position of manager of the corn branch of his business, but Farfrae declines, intent on traveling to America. Farfrae invites Henchard to have a drink with him, but Henchard confesses his vow to avoid alcohol because of a shameful incident in his past.
After Henchard leaves, Farfrae rings for service, and Elizabeth-Jane goes to take away his dinner tray. Once downstairs, she pauses to listen to the musical entertainment. Soon, Farfrae joins the guests and wins them over by singing a song about his homeland. When they learn that Farfrae is just passing through Casterbridge, they express their sorrow over losing such a skilled singer. Watching from the background, Elizabeth-Jane thinks to herself that she and Farfrae are very similar. She decides that they both view life as essentially tragic. As Farfrae prepares to retire to bed, the landlady asks Elizabeth-Jane to go to his room and turn down his bed. Having completed this task, she passes Farfrae on the stairs, and he smiles at her. Meanwhile, Henchard reflects on his fondness for his new acquaintance, thinking that he would have offered Farfrae “a third share in the business to have stayed.”
The next morning, Elizabeth-Jane opens her windows to find Henchard talking to Farfrae. Farfrae tells Henchard that he is about to leave, and they decide to walk together to the edge of town. Susan decides to send Elizabeth-Jane to Henchard with a message. Upon arriving at Henchard’s house, Elizabeth-Jane is surprised to find Farfrae in Henchard’s office. The narrator explains that when the two men reached the edge of town, Henchard persuaded Farfrae to stay on and work for him, telling the young man that he could name his own terms.
While Elizabeth-Jane waits to speak with Henchard, she overhears a conversation in which Joshua Jopp arrives to accept the position of manager. Henchard tells Jopp that the post has already been filled, and Jopp goes away disappointed. When Elizabeth-Jane finally meets Henchard, she delivers the simple message that his relative, Susan, a sailor’s widow, is in town. Upon hearing this news, Henchard ushers her into his dining room and asks her some questions about her mother. He then writes a note to Susan telling her to meet him later that night, encloses five guineas, and gives it to Elizabeth-Jane for delivery. She brings the note back to Susan, who decides to meet Henchard alone.
Susan meets Henchard in the Ring, “one of the finest Roman Amphitheatres, if not the very finest, remaining in Britain.” Henchard’s first words to Susan are to assure her that he no longer drinks. He asks why she has not returned before now, and she replies that, since she believed the terms of her sale to be binding, she felt unable to leave Newson until his death. They agree that it is impossible for them to begin living together as though they were still married because of Henchard’s estimable position in the town, as well as Elizabeth-Jane’s ignorance of their dishonorable past. Henchard insists that they proceed with caution and devises a plan: Susan will take a cottage in town as the Widow Newson and allow Henchard to court and marry her, thereby restoring both their marriage and his role as Elizabeth-Jane’s father without revealing their past.
When Henchard returns home, he encounters Farfrae still at work. He asks Farfrae to leave off working and join him for supper. As the two men eat, Henchard confides in Farfrae about his present situation. He discloses his relationship with Susan, and Farfrae replies that the only solution is to make amends by living with her as husband and wife. Henchard reveals that he has become involved with another woman in Jersey, where he once traveled on business. He adds that their affair caused quite a scandal in Jersey, for which the woman suffered greatly. To make amends, Henchard proposed to her, on the condition that she run the risk of his first wife being alive. The woman accepted, but now that Susan has returned he regrets that he will have to disappoint the woman in Jersey. Farfrae assures him that the situation cannot be helped and offers to help Henchard write a letter breaking off relations with the Jersey woman.
Susan gets established in a cottage in the town, and Henchard begins to visit her “with business-like determination.” Rumors go around the town concerning the two of them, and a wedding soon follows.
After Susan and Elizabeth-Jane move in with Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane enjoys a peace of mind that makes her more beautiful. One day, Henchard comments that it is odd that Elizabeth-Jane’s hair has lightened since she was a baby. Susan, with “an uneasy expression” on her face, assures him that nothing is amiss. Henchard says he wants to have Elizabeth-Jane’s surname legally changed from Newson to Henchard, since she is actually his daughter. Susan proposes the change to Elizabeth-Jane, who, though reluctant, says she will consider it. When, later that day, Elizabeth-Jane asks Henchard if he wishes the change very much, Henchard says it is her decision. The matter is dropped, and Elizabeth-Jane remains Miss Newson.
Meanwhile, Henchard’s corn and hay business thrives under Farfrae’s management, and the two men become good friends. Elizabeth-Jane notices that, when she and Susan are out walking, Farfrae often looks at them “with a curious interest.” One day, Elizabeth-Jane receives a note asking her to come to a granary on a farm at which Henchard has been doing business. Thinking it has something to do with Henchard’s business, Elizabeth-Jane goes to the farm but finds no one there. Eventually, Farfrae arrives. When he reveals a note similar to Elizabeth-Jane’s, they discover that neither of them wrote to the other. Farfrae theorizes that someone who wished to see them both must have been penned the notes, and so they wait a little longer. They eventually decide that this individual is not coming, and they go home.
Henchard and Farfrae have a quarrel over the treatment of Abel Whittle, a man who is consistently late for his job in Henchard’s hay-yard. When Whittle is late for work the day after Henchard reprimands him for his tardiness, Henchard goes to his house, drags him out of bed, and sends him to work without his breeches. When Farfrae sees Whittle, who claims that he will later kill himself rather than bear this humiliation, he tells him to go home and dress properly. Henchard and Farfrae confront each other, and Farfrae threatens to leave. The two men reconcile, but Henchard, upset by Farfrae’s insubordination, thinks on him with “dim dread” and regrets having “confided to him the secrets of his life.”
A festival day in celebration of a national event is suggested to the country at large, but Casterbridge is slow to make plans. One day, Farfrae asks Henchard if he can borrow some waterproof cloths to organize a celebration. Henchard tells him he can have as many cloths as he wants. Henchard is inspired to plan events for the holiday and begins to organize a grand entertainment on an elevated green close to the town. When the day of the festival arrives, the weather is overcast, and it rains by midday. Henchard’s celebration is ruined, but Farfrae’s, which takes place under a tent he has ingeniously constructed, goes off without a hitch. Henchard sees Farfrae at the center of a great ball, dancing with Elizabeth-Jane. Prominent townspeople tease Henchard, remarking that Farfrae will soon surpass his master. Henchard replies that no such thing will happen, stating that Farfrae will shortly be leaving the business.
Elizabeth-Jane regrets that she has upset Henchard by dancing with Farfrae. She leaves the tent and stands thinking. After a short time, Farfrae joins her to say that, were circumstances different, he would have asked her something that night. He tells her that he is thinking of leaving Casterbridge, and she says that she wishes he would stay. Later, she is relieved to hear that Farfrae has purchased a small corn and hay business of his own in Casterbridge. Upset by what he takes to be Farfrae’s coup, Henchard requests that Elizabeth-Jane break all ties with Farfrae and sends a letter to Farfrae asking the same from him. Elizabeth-Jane dutifully obeys Henchard and engages in no further contact with Farfrae. As Farfrae’s new business grows, Henchard becomes increasingly embittered.
Susan falls ill. Henchard receives a letter from Lucetta Templeman, the woman from Jersey with whom he was having an affair. In it she says that she honors his decision to remarry his first wife and understands the impossibility of any further communication between them. She also requests that he return to her the love letters she has written him. She suggests that he do her this favor in person and announces that she will be on a coach passing through Casterbridge. Henchard goes to meet the coach, but Lucetta is not there.
Meanwhile, Susan has gotten worse. One night, she asks Elizabeth-Jane to bring her a pen and paper. She writes a letter, which she seals and marks, “Mr. Michael Henchard. Not to be opened till Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding-day.” Susan also admits to Elizabeth-Jane that it was she who wrote the notes that caused Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae to meet at the farm, hoping that the two would fall in love and marry.
Soon thereafter, Susan dies. Farfrae hears some of the old inhabitants of the village discussing her death. One villager, Mother Cuxsom, relates that Susan had laid out all the necessary preparations for her burial, including four pennies for weighing down her eyes. After Susan is buried, Christopher Coney, a poor townsman, digs up her body to retrieve the pennies, arguing that death should not rob life of four pence.
One night, about three weeks after Susan’s death, Henchard decides to tell Elizabeth-Jane the truth about the relationship between him and her mother. Henchard does not admit that he sold the pair, but he does tell Elizabeth-Jane that he is her father and that, during Elizabeth-Jane’s childhood, he and her mother each thought the other dead.
Henchard asks Elizabeth-Jane to draw up a paragraph for the newspaper announcing that she will change her name to Henchard and then leaves her alone to collect her thoughts. He goes upstairs to search for some documents to prove his relationship to Elizabeth-Jane and discovers the letter that Susan wrote before her death. Despite the request to leave the letter unread until Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding-day, Henchard opens it and learns that Elizabeth-Jane is not, in fact, his daughter. The letter informs him that his child died shortly after he and his family parted ways and that the young woman he has welcomed into his home is actually the daughter of the sailor who purchased Susan at Weydon-Priors.
In the morning, Elizabeth-Jane comes to Henchard and tells him that she now intends to look upon him as her true father. Henchard’s discovery of the night before renders her acceptance of him bittersweet, but he decides not to traumatize Elizabeth-Jane further with this additional surprise.
Though Elizabeth-Jane continues to live under his roof, Henchard becomes increasingly cold and distant toward her. He criticizes her country dialect, telling her that such language makes her “only fit to carry wash to a pig-trough,” and describes her handwriting as unrefined and unwomanly. One afternoon, Henchard reprimands Elizabeth-Jane for bringing Nance Mockridge, one of the workers in his hay-yard, some bread and cheese. When Nance overhears Henchard insult her character, she tells Henchard that Elizabeth-Jane has waited on worse for hire. Elizabeth-Jane confirms that she once worked at the Three Mariners Inn, leaving Henchard shocked and afraid that Elizabeth-Jane has compromised his reputation through her menial labor. One morning, on her way to visit Susan’s grave, Elizabeth-Jane sees a well-dressed lady studying Susan’s tombstone. Intrigued, Elizabeth-Jane wonders who she is and thinks about her on the way home.
Meanwhile, Henchard’s term as mayor is about to end, and he learns that he will not be named one of the town’s aldermen. In light of this fact, he becomes even more annoyed that Elizabeth-Jane was once a servant at the Three Mariners Inn. Henchard is further rankled when he learns that she served Donald Farfrae. Considering Elizabeth-Jane a burden of which he would like to rid himself, Henchard writes to Farfrae withdrawing his disapproval of their courtship. The next day, Elizabeth-Jane meets the well-dressed lady in the churchyard. As they talk, Elizabeth-Jane reveals that she is not entirely happy with her father. The lady asks if Elizabeth-Jane will come live with her as a companion, explaining that she is about to move into High-Place Hall, near the center of Casterbridge. Elizabeth-Jane gladly agrees, and the lady arranges to meet her again in a week.
During the next week, Elizabeth-Jane walks by High-Place Hall many times and thinks about what it will be like to live there. One day, while looking at the house, she hears someone approaching and hides. Henchard enters the house without noticing or being noticed by Elizabeth-Jane. Later that day, Elizabeth-Jane asks Henchard if he has any objection to her leaving his house. He answers that he has no objections whatsoever and even offers to give her an allowance.
The appointed day for Elizabeth-Jane’s meeting with the well-dressed lady arrives, and she goes to the churchyard as planned. The lady is there and introduces herself as Miss Templeman. She tells Elizabeth-Jane that she can join her at High-Place Hall immediately, and Elizabeth-Jane rushes home to pack her things. Watching her, Henchard regrets his treatment of Elizabeth-Jane and asks her to stay. But she cannot, she says, since she is on her way to High-Place Hall, leaving Henchard dumbfounded.
The narrator shifts back to the night prior to Elizabeth-Jane’s departure, when Henchard receives a letter from Lucetta announcing that she has moved to Casterbridge and will take up residence at High-Place Hall. He then receives another letter, shortly after Elizabeth-Jane leaves, in which Lucetta asks him to call on her. He goes that night but is told that she is busy, though she would be happy to see him the next day. Upset by this rebuff, he resolves not to visit her. The next day, Lucetta waits expectantly for Henchard and is disappointed when he does not come. While she waits, she and Elizabeth-Jane look out on the market and discuss the town and its inhabitants.
Several days pass without a visit from Henchard. Three days later, Lucetta comments to Elizabeth-Jane that Henchard may come to visit her (Elizabeth-Jane). Elizabeth-Jane tells Lucetta that she does not believe he will, because they have quarreled too much. Lucetta then decides to send Elizabeth-Jane on some useless errands and quickly writes a letter to Henchard saying that she has sent Elizabeth-Jane away and asking him to visit. A visitor finally arrives, but when he enters Lucetta sees that he is not Henchard.
Lucetta invites Farfrae, who has come looking for Elizabeth-Jane, to sit down. The two talk and watch the bustling marketplace from Lucetta’s window. They witness a farmer negotiating the employment of an old shepherd. The farmer refuses to take the old man if his son is not part of the bargain, but the young man is hesitant to go, for it means leaving behind the girl he loves. Touched by this scene, Farfrae goes out and hires the young man so that he can remain close to his love. Minutes after Farfrae leaves, Henchard arrives, but Lucetta has her maid tell Henchard that she has a headache and does not wish to see him that day.
Elizabeth-Jane enjoys living with Lucetta, and the days pass pleasantly for both. One day, they look out their window at the market and see the demonstration of a “new-fashioned agricultural implement.” When they go out to take a closer look at it, they meet Henchard, who ridicules the machine. Elizabeth-Jane introduces him to Lucetta, but as he turns to leave she thinks she hears him accuse Lucetta of refusing to see him. Elizabeth-Jane’s suspicions are aroused, but she decides that she must have heard Henchard incorrectly.
Farfrae appears and praises the usefulness of the new machine. Elizabeth-Jane wonders about Henchard’s familiarity with Lucetta but soon learns that they have met previously and that Lucetta is interested in Farfrae. One day, Lucetta tells Elizabeth-Jane a story. Claiming to seek advice for a “friend,” she relates her present situation with Henchard and Farfrae. Elizabeth-Jane is not fooled by the claim that the story is about a friend and tells Lucetta that she cannot give an opinion on such a difficult subject.
Farfrae continues to call on Lucetta with increasing frequency. One day, while Elizabeth-Jane is out, Henchard calls on Lucetta and tells her that he is ready for them to be married. He claims that he is doing her a favor by making “an honest proposal for silencing [her] Jersey enemies,” but Lucetta resists. She refuses to be a slave to the past and defiantly claims, “I’ll love where I choose!”
Henchard and Farfrae meet one day while walking, and Henchard asks the younger man if he recalls the story of the woman from Jersey whom he gave up in order to remarry his first wife. He tells Farfrae that the Jersey woman now refuses to marry him, and Farfrae states that Henchard has no further obligation to her. Later, Henchard visits Lucetta and asks if she knows Farfrae. She says that she does, but she downplays the significance of her reply by claiming to know almost everyone in Casterbridge. Just then, someone knocks at the door, and Farfrae enters. Henchard thus begins to suspect that Farfrae is his rival for Lucetta’s affections.
Henchard decides to hire Joshua Jopp, the man whose managerial position he had earlier given to Farfrae. He tells Jopp that his primary objective is to cut Farfrae out of the corn and hay business. In order to discern harvest conditions, Henchard consults a man known as a “forecaster” or weather prophet. This man predicts that the harvest will bring rain, so Henchard, trusting that the upcoming crop will be bad, buys a large quantity of corn. When harvest comes, however, the weather is fair and the crop is good, which causes prices to fall. Henchard loses money and fires Joshua Jopp.
While corn prices are low, Farfrae buys a large amount of corn, and the weather suddenly turns poor again, causing the harvest to be less successful than predicted. Farfrae prospers as the corn prices rise, and Henchard laments his rival’s success. One night, one of Farfrae’s wagoners and one of Henchard’s collide in the street in front of High-Place Hall. Henchard is summoned to settle the dispute. Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane testify that Henchard’s man was in the wrong, but Henchard’s man maintains that these two cannot be trusted because “all the women side with Farfrae.”
After the conflict is resolved, Henchard calls on Lucetta and is told that she cannot see him because she has an appointment. He hides outside her door and sees Farfrae call for her. As the couple leave for a walk, Henchard follows them and eavesdrops on their declarations of love. When Lucetta returns to High-Place Hall, Henchard surprises her there. He threatens to reveal their past intimacy unless she agrees to marry him. With Elizabeth-Jane as a witness, she agrees to do so
The next day, Henchard goes to Town Hall to preside over a case (he retains his position as a magistrate for one year after being mayor). There is only one case to be heard—that of an old woman accused of disorderly conduct. The constable testifies that the woman insulted him, and the woman interrupts many times during his testimony with objections. Finally, the woman is granted the opportunity to offer her defense. She recounts the story of an event that happened twenty years ago.
She was a furmity-merchant at a fair in Weydon-Priors and witnessed a man sell his wife to a sailor for five guineas. She identifies Henchard as the guilty party and asks how such a man can sit in judgment of her. The clerk dismisses the story as mere fabrication, but Henchard admits its truth and leaves the court. Lucetta sees a crowd around the Town Hall and asks her servant what is happening. The servant tells her of Henchard’s revelation, and Lucetta becomes deeply miserable that she has agreed to marry him. She departs to the seaside town of Port-Bredy for a few days.
Lucetta walks along the road toward Port-Bredy. She stops a mile outside of Casterbridge and sees Elizabeth-Jane, who has decided to meet her, approaching. Suddenly, a bull begins to walk toward them, and the two women retreat into a nearby barn. The bull charges and traps them in the barn. The bull chases them until a man appears; he seizes the bull by its nose ring and secures it outside the barn. The man turns out to be Henchard, and Lucetta is very grateful to him for saving them. The trio heads home. Lucetta remembers that she has dropped her muff in the barn, and Elizabeth-Jane offers to run back and get it. After finding the muff, Elizabeth-Jane runs into Farfrae on the road. He drives her home, then returns to his own lodging, where his servants are preparing to move.
Meanwhile, Henchard escorts Lucetta home, apologizing for his insistence that she marry him. He suggests an indefinite engagement. When she asks if there is anything she can do to repay his kindness, he asks her to tell Mr. Grower, one of his creditors, that they will soon be married—given Lucetta’s wealth, Henchard believes that this arrangement will persuade Grower to treat his debt more leniently. Lucetta replies that she cannot do so, since Grower served as a witness during her wedding to Farfrae, which, she announces, took place this week secretly in Port-Bredy.
Shortly after Lucetta arrives at home, Farfrae follows with all his things. All that remains to be done, she claims, is to tell Elizabeth-Jane of their marriage. Lucetta goes to speak to Elizabeth-Jane and asks if she remembers the story about her friend who was torn between the two lovers. Elizabeth-Jane remembers, and Lucetta makes it clear that that the “friend” of whom she was speaking is actually herself. Lucetta tells Elizabeth-Jane that she wishes her to stay in the house as before, and Elizabeth-Jane says that she will think about it. As soon as Lucetta leaves the room, however, Elizabeth-Jane makes preparations to depart and does so later that night.
The furmity-woman’s revelation about Henchard’s past spreads through the town, overshadowing all the “amends he had made.” His reputation as a man of honor and prosperity declines rapidly. One day, Elizabeth-Jane notices a crowd gathered outside the King’s Arms (the inn at which she first sees Henchard presiding over the prestigious dinner as mayor). She learns that the town commissioners are meeting with regard to Henchard’s bankruptcy. Having surrendered all his assets, Henchard offers the commission his last valuable possession: a gold watch. Though they find the gesture honorable, the commissioners refuse. Henchard sells the watch himself and offers the money to one of his smaller creditors. When the remainder of Henchard’s effects are auctioned off, Farfrae purchases his business. Elizabeth-Jane makes numerous attempts to contact Henchard, wishing for an opportunity to “forgive him for his roughness to her, and to help him in his trouble,” but to no avail. Henchard moves into a cottage owned by Joshua Jopp.
In Casterbridge, there are two bridges where “all the failures of the town” congregate. One evening, while Henchard stands on the more remote bridge, Jopp meets him and explains that Lucetta and Farfrae have just moved into Henchard’s old house, which Farfrae purchased along with all of Henchard’s furniture. Jopp leaves, and Henchard is soon met by another traveler, Farfrae himself. Having heard that Henchard plans to leave Casterbridge, Farfrae proposes that he live in the spare rooms of his old house. Henchard refuses. Farfrae then offers Henchard whatever furniture he might want. Henchard, though moved by the man’s generosity, still refuses.
Elizabeth-Jane learns Henchard has fallen ill and uses his confinement as an excuse to see him. At first, Henchard tells her to go away, but she stays and not only nurses him to a quick recovery but provides him with a new outlook on life. Henchard goes to Farfrae’s corn-yard to seek employment as a hay-trusser. When he hears that Farfrae is being considered for mayor, however, he begins to lapse into his old moodiness, counting the number of days until his oath to abstain from alcohol is up. When that day arrives, Elizabeth-Jane hears that Henchard has begun to drink again.
After Sunday church services, the men of Casterbridge gather at the Three Mariners Inn to discuss the sermon, sing, and “limit [themselves] to half-a-pint of liquor.” Released from his vow, Henchard flouts this tradition by getting drunk and singing insulting words about Farfrae to the tune of a psalm. Elizabeth-Jane arrives to bring Henchard home. On their way, he complains that Farfrae has taken everything from him and that he will not be responsible for his deeds should they meet. Worried that Henchard will make good on this threat, she decides to keep an eye on him and, during the week, goes to the hay-yard to help him with his work.
Several days later, Farfrae and Lucetta come to the hay-yard. Lucetta is surprised to see Henchard there. Henchard speaks to her with bitter sarcasm, and the next day she sends him a note asking him not to treat her so poorly. With this incident, the gulf between Henchard and Lucetta grows wider. Later, Elizabeth-Jane observes Henchard and Farfrae on the top floor of the corn-stores and believes she sees Henchard extend his arm as if to push Farfrae. She decides it is her duty to warn him of the apparent danger in which he is placing himself by associating with Henchard.
The next morning, Elizabeth-Jane approaches Farfrae as he leaves his house. She warns him that Henchard may try to harm him. Unable to contemplate such evil motives, Farfrae dismisses the warning. Wanting to provide a “new beginning” for the man who, years earlier, had offered him a job and position, Farfrae arranges to purchase a seed shop that Henchard can manage. While Farfrae and the town clerk arrange the matter, the town clerk confirms that Henchard hates Farfrae. Farfrae is troubled by this news and decides to delay the purchase of the seed shop.
At home, Farfrae laments to Lucetta that Henchard dislikes him. Afraid that he will learn of her former involvement with Henchard, she urges him to move away from Casterbridge. As they discuss this plan, however, one of the town’s aldermen comes to their house to inform them that the newly elected mayor has just died. He asks Farfrae if he will accept the position; Farfrae agrees to do so.
Lucetta asks Henchard once again to return her letters. Realizing that the letters are locked in the safe of his old house, Henchard calls on Farfrae one evening to retrieve them and, while there, reads several letters to Farfrae. Farfrae still does not know that Lucetta wrote the letters, and so he listens to Henchard politely but with little interest. Tempted as he is to reveal the author of the corres-pondence, Henchard cannot bring himself to ruin Farfrae and Lucetta’s marriage.
Lucetta overhears the conversation between Farfrae and Henchard and becomes extremely agitated, fearing that Henchard will reveal her authorship of the letters. When Farfrae comes upstairs, she gathers that Henchard has not disclosed her. The next morning, she writes to Henchard, arranging a meeting for later that day at the Ring. There, she begs him to have mercy on her and return the letters, which he agrees to do.
When Lucetta returns from her meeting with Henchard, she finds Joshua Jopp waiting for her. He has heard that Farfrae is looking for a business partner and asks if she would recommend him. She refuses, and he returns home disappointed. When Jopp gets home, Henchard asks him to deliver a packet to Mrs. Farfrae. Jopp inspects the packet, discovers that it contains letters, and then goes on his way to deliver it.
Jopp meets the peasant women Mother Cuxsom and Nance Mockridge, who tell him they are on their way to Mixen Lane, the center for “much that was sad, much that was low, some things that were baneful” in Casterbridge. Jopp accompanies them and meets the old furmity-woman, who asks about the parcel he carries. He replies that they are love letters and reads them aloud to the crowd. Nance Mockridge exclaims that Lucetta is the author of the letters and remarks that this information provides a good foundation for a “skimmity-ride,” a traditional English spectacle the purpose of which was to express public disapproval of adultery. A stranger, dressed in a fur coat and sealskin cap, expresses interest in the custom and donates some money for the ceremony. Jopp returns home, reseals the letters, and delivers them to Lucetta the next morning.
The citizens of Casterbridge soon become aware that a “Royal Personage” plans to pass through the town. The town council, which is to address this esteemed guest, meets to arrange the details of the event, and Henchard interrupts the meeting to ask if he can participate. Farfrae says that Henchard’s involvement would not be proper, since he is no longer a member of the council. Henchard vows that he will welcome the Royal Personage in his own way. The special day arrives, and, as the royal carriage stops, a drunken Henchard stands in front of it waving a handmade flag. Farfrae forcefully drags Henchard away.
Incensed by Farfrae’s treatment of him, Henchard decides to seek revenge. He leaves a message at Farfrae’s house requesting that Farfrae meet him at the granaries. When Farfrae arrives, Henchard, who has tied one of his arms to make a more even match, tells him that they will finish the fight begun that morning. The men wrestle, and though Henchard overpowers Farfrae, he cannot bring himself to finish off his opponent. Farfrae leaves, and Henchard is flooded with shame and fond memories of Farfrae. He feels the desire to see Farfrae again but remembers hearing that Farfrae was to leave on a journey for the town of Weatherbury.
The narrator shifts back to the moments following the wrestling match between Henchard and Farfrae. After Farfrae descends from the loft, Abel Whittle delivers a note to Farfrae requesting his presence in Weatherbury. The note has been sent by some of Farfrae’s workers who hope to get Farfrae out of town in order to lessen the damaging impact of the “skimmity-ride.” After Farfrae departs for Weatherbury, Lucetta hears commotion in the distance. Outside her window, she overhears two maids describe the proceedings: two figures are sitting back to back on a donkey that is being paraded through the streets of Casterbridge. Just as Elizabeth-Jane enters the room and tries to close the shutters, Lucetta realizes that the figures are meant to represent her and Henchard. She becomes hysterical and suffers an epileptic seizure, fearing that her husband will see the spectacle. Elizabeth-Jane calls the doctor, who recognizes the seriousness of the situation and tells her to call immediately for Farfrae.
Having observed the skimmity-ride, Henchard goes in search of Elizabeth-Jane. Upon arriving at Farfrae’s house and learning of Lucetta’s condition, Henchard explains that Farfrae must be found on the way to a town called Weatherbury, not another town called Budmouth as originally planned. Because no one believes him, he departs to find Farfrae himself. Eventually, he comes upon Farfrae and urges him to return to Casterbridge, but Farfrae distrusts him and refuses to return. Henchard rides back to Casterbridge only to find that Lucetta is no better. When he returns home, Joshua Jopp tells him that a seaman of some sort called for him while he was out. Farfrae finally returns and sends for another doctor, and Lucetta is much calmed by her husband’s arrival. He sits with her through the night as Henchard paces the streets, making inquiries about the patient’s health. Early the next morning, a maid informs him that Lucetta is dead.
After hearing of of Lucetta’s death, Henchard goes home and is soon visited by Elizabeth-Jane. She falls asleep as Henchard prepares her breakfast, and Henchard, not wanting to disturb her, waits patiently for her to wake. Feeling a surge of love for Elizabeth-Jane, he hopes that she will continue to treat him as her father. Just then, a man knocks at the door and introduces himself as Newson. He says that his marriage to Susan had been happy until someone suggested to her that their relationship was a mockery; she then became miserable. Newson adds that he let Susan believe that he was lost at sea. He tells Henchard that he has heard of Susan’s death and asks about Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard tells him that the girl is dead as well, and Newson departs in sorrow.
Although it appears that Newson is gone, Henchard remains paranoid that his deception will be discovered and that Newson will return to take Elizabeth-Jane away from him. Elizabeth-Jane wakes, and the two sit down to breakfast. When she leaves, however, he becomes despondent, fearing that she will soon forget him. The rest of his life seems unendurable to him, and he goes to the river just outside of Casterbridge with thoughts of drowning himself. As he prepares to throw himself into the water, he sees his image floating in the pool and desists.
Henchard returns home and finds Elizabeth-Jane waiting outside his door. She says she has come back because he seemed sad that morning. He brings her to the river to show her the image, and she realizes that it must be the effigy from the skimmity-ride. Henchard remarks how strange it is that the performance that killed Lucetta has actually kept him alive. Elizabeth-Jane realizes what he means by this statement and asks if she can come to live with him; he joyfully assents.
Henchard continues to fear Newson’s return, but, meanwhile, he and Elizabeth-Jane live happily in his home. They see Farfrae only occasionally, as Henchard now owns a small seed and root business that Farfrae and other members of the town council purchased for him. One day, Henchard observes Farfrae looking at Elizabeth-Jane and begins to think of the possibility of their union. He is very much opposed to the idea but decides he should let Elizabeth-Jane make her own decision. As time passes, Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae begin to meet more frequently. Eventually, Henchard obtains proof of their intimacy when he sees Farfrae kiss Elizabeth-Jane.
Henchard continues to worry about what will become of him if Elizabeth-Jane marries. One day, while spying the spot where Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae normally meet, he sees Newson through his telescope. When Elizabeth-Jane comes home, she has not yet met Newson, but she tells Henchard that she has received a letter from someone asking her to meet him that night at Farfrae’s house. Much to her chagrin, Henchard tells her that he has decided to leave Casterbridge that very evening. Elizabeth-Jane believes that he is leaving because he disapproves of her impending marriage to Farfrae, but he assures her that such is not the case. Alone, Henchard departs town. He compares his fate to that of the biblical figure Cain but declares, “[M]y punishment is not greater than I can bear!”
That evening, at Farfrae’s house, Elizabeth-Jane meets Newson and immediately understands the reason for Henchard’s sudden departure. She is overjoyed at her reunion with the father she had believed dead, but she is upset when she learns of Henchard’s deception. Newson and Farfrae begin to plan the wedding.
Meanwhile, Henchard makes his way through the countryside and eventually arrives at Weydon-Priors, the very spot where he sold his wife more than twenty-five years earlier. He reflects briefly upon those past events and then goes on, settling in a spot some fifty miles from Casterbridge and finding employment as a hay-trusser. One day, he speaks to some travelers who have come from Casterbridge and learns that the wedding between Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane is to take place on St. Martin’s Day. He decides to go to Casterbridge for the wedding and sets off on his journey. On the night before the wedding, he stops in a nearby town and buys some proper clothes and a caged goldfinch as a present for Elizabeth-Jane.
When Henchard arrives at Farfrae’s house in Casterbridge, the celebration is already underway. As he enters, he leaves the caged bird under a bush near the back of the house. He watches the dancing unseen, until Elizabeth-Jane’s housekeeper informs her that she has a visitor. She comes in to see him and reprimands him for deceiving her about Newson. So coldly received, he decides to leave and promises never to trouble her again.
Several days after the wedding, Elizabeth-Jane discovers the birdcage with a bird—now dead from starvation—inside, and she wonders how it got there. About a month later, after speaking to one of her servants, Elizabeth-Jane figures that Henchard must have brought it as a gift, and she begins to regret the way she treated him. When Farfrae comes home, she asks him to help her find Henchard so that she can make her peace with him. They track Henchard to the cottage of Abel Whittle, who tells them that the man has just died. He gives them a piece of paper that Henchard left, which turns out to be his will. The will stipulates that Elizabeth-Jane not be told about his death, that he not be buried in consecrated ground, that no one mourn for him, and that no one remember him. Elizabeth-Jane regrets her harsh treatment of Henchard the last time they met, and she determines to carry out his dying wishes as best she can.
The plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge is essentially a series of incidents in which Henchard tries again and again to expunge the guilt he feels for his shameful behavior at the fair at Weydon-Priors. The depth of Henchard’s guilt is apparent in many of his actions and emotions: his desperate need to divulge his secret to Farfrae, his determination to remarry a woman he never loved, his willingness to care for Elizabeth-Jane even after he learns that she is not his daughter. Above all, the burden that Henchard bears for his guilt manifests itself in his acceptance of the forces that seem bent upon his destruction.
There is an element of self-destructiveness in Henchard’s character. For example, Henchard could have easily denied the accusations of the furmity-woman in the courtroom and spared himself from insult and injury. His willingness to suffer is an important thread in the fabric of his character. His sense of what is right trumps his desire for comfort and makes it impossible for him to live a life he is convinced he has not earned. Henchard believes that he must suffer, as though misery were a means of becoming worthy of such love and comfort. As he leaves Casterbridge, having alienated Elizabeth-Jane and therefore destroyed his last hope of happiness, Henchard compares himself to Cain, the son of Adam and Eve whom God, according to the Bible, condemned to a lifetime of suffering for killing his brother, Abel. His resolute exclamation that, unlike Cain, he can bear his punishment reflects his willingness to do so.
It is through defeat that Henchard becomes a man of true character. His willingness to bear the brunt of his suffering and his continual refusal to foist his misery on others and resist suicide mark him as a hero. Indeed, in many respects, Henchard conforms to the tradition of the tragic hero, a character whose greatest qualities or actions ultimately lead to his or her downfall. In the novel’s last chapters, Henchard’s determination to spare Elizabeth-Jane any sorrow elevates him into this admirable realm. As he faces a lonely death in a humble cottage, his resolve lies in his desire not to burden any further a world that seems so bent on human suffering. The tragic irony of Henchard’s story is that leaving Elizabeth-Jane to live her life in peace is his greatest and most selfless act, proof that he is a man of worthy name and reputation. Instead, the novel ends with the promise of his obscurity. There is no greater punishment for a man whose every struggle has been to secure his public standing than the dictum that he be forgotten; in keeping with his character, Henchard has already embraced this punishment.