The Mayor of Casterbridge, originally entitled The Life and Death of the Mayor of Casterbridge: A Story of a Man of Character, was first published serially in a London periodical in 1886. The first publication in book form was later that year. Thomas Hardy was an established author at the time and had published nine previous novels (a first, unpublished novel has been lost), but The Mayor of Casterbridge is considered his first masterpiece; some regard it as his greatest tragic novel.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is, from beginning to end, the story of Michael Henchard, a skilled farm laborer who, in a drunken rage, sells his young wife, along with their infant child, to a passing sailor. Most of the novel takes place eighteen to twenty years after this event. When the sailor is reported lost at sea, the cast-off wife and now-grown daughter set out to find Michael, who has become an affluent businessman and the mayor of Casterbridge. Michael’s success is temporary, though, as circumstances and his own weaknesses of character combine to bring about his downfall in spite of his attempts to right the wrong he committed years before.