On a late summer afternoon in the early nineteenth century, a young farm couple with their baby arrives on foot at the village of Weydon-Priors. A fair is in progress. The couple, tired and dusty, enters a refreshment tent where the husband proceeds to get so drunk that he offers his wife and child for sale. A sailor, a stranger in the village, buys the wife, Susan, and the child, Elizabeth-Jane, for five guineas. The young woman tears off her wedding ring and throws it in her drunken husband’s face; then, carrying her child, she follows the sailor out of the tent.
When he awakes sober the next morning, Michael Henchard, the young farmer, realizes what he has done. After taking an oath not to touch liquor for twenty years, he searches many months for his wife and child. In a western seaport, he is told that three persons answering his description emigrated a short time before. He gives up his search and wanders on until he comes to the town of Casterbridge. There, he decides to seek his fortune.
The sailor, Richard Newson, convinces Susan Henchard that she has no moral obligations to the husband who sold her and her child. He marries her and moves with his new family to Canada. Later, they return to England. Eventually, Susan learns that her marriage to Newson is illegal, but before she can remedy the situation Newson is lost at sea. Susan and her attractive eighteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, return to Weydon-Priors. There, they hear that Henchard has gone to Casterbridge.
Henchard has become a prosperous grain merchant and the mayor of Casterbridge. When Susan and her daughter arrive in the town, they hear that Henchard has sold some bad grain to bakers and that restitution is expected. Donald Farfrae, a young Scots corn expert who is passing through Casterbridge, hears of Henchard’s predicament and tells him a method for partially restoring the grain. Farfrae so impresses Henchard and the people of the town that they prevail on him to remain. Farfrae becomes Henchard’s manager.
When Susan and Henchard meet, they decide that Susan and Elizabeth-Jane should take lodgings and that Henchard will begin to pay court to Susan. Henchard admits to young Farfrae that he has been philandering with a young woman from Jersey named Lucetta le Sueur. He asks Farfrae to meet Lucetta and prevent her from coming to Casterbridge.
Henchard and Susan are married. Elizabeth-Jane develops into a beautiful young woman for whom Donald Farfrae feels a growing attraction. Henchard wants Elizabeth-Jane to take his name, but Susan refuses his request, much to his mystification. He notices that Elizabeth-Jane does not possess any of his personal traits.
Henchard and Farfrae fall out over Henchard’s harsh treatment of a simpleminded employee. Farfrae has surpassed Henchard in popularity in Casterbridge. The break between the two men becomes complete when a country dance sponsored by Farfrae draws all the town’s populace, leaving Henchard’s competing dance unattended. Anticipating his dismissal, Farfrae sets up his own establishment but refuses to take any of Henchard’s business away from him. Henchard refuses to allow Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae to see each other.
Henchard receives a letter from Lucetta saying she plans to pass through Casterbridge to pick up her love letters. When Lucetta fails to keep the appointment, Henchard puts the letters in his safe. Susan falls sick and writes a letter for Henchard, to be opened on the day that Elizabeth-Jane is married. Soon afterward, she dies, and Henchard tells the girl that he is her real father. Looking for some documents to corroborate his story,...
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he finds the letter his wife had left in his keeping for Elizabeth-Jane. Unable to resist, Henchard reads Susan’s letter; he learns that Elizabeth-Jane is really the daughter of Newson and Susan and that his own daughter died in infancy. His wife’s reluctance to have the girl take his name is explained, and Henchard’s attitude toward Elizabeth-Jane becomes distant and cold.
One day, Elizabeth-Jane meets a strange woman at the village graveyard. The woman is Lucetta Templeman, formerly Lucetta le Sueur, who has inherited property in Casterbridge from a rich aunt named Templeman. She employs Elizabeth-Jane to make it convenient for Henchard, her old lover, to call on her.
Young Farfrae comes to see Elizabeth-Jane, who is away at the time. He and Miss Templeman are immediately attracted to each other, and Lucetta refuses to see Henchard any more. Elizabeth-Jane overhears Henchard berate Lucetta under his breath for refusing to admit him to her house; she becomes even more uncomfortable when she sees that Farfrae has succumbed to Lucetta’s charms.
Henchard is now determined to ruin Farfrae. Advised by a weather prophet that the weather will be bad during the harvest, he buys grain heavily. When the weather stays fair, Henchard is almost ruined by low grain prices. Farfrae is able to buy grain cheap, and, when the weather turns bad late in the harvest and prices go up, Farfrae becomes wealthy.
In the meantime, Farfrae has continued his courtship of Lucetta. When Henchard threatens to expose Lucetta’s past unless she marries him, Lucetta agrees to his demand. However, an old woman discloses to the village that Henchard is the man who years earlier sold his wife and child. Lucetta is ashamed and leaves town. On the day of her return, Henchard rescues her and Elizabeth-Jane from an enraged bull. He asks Lucetta to give evidence of their engagement to a creditor. Lucetta confesses that in her absence she and Farfrae have been married. Utterly frustrated, Henchard again threatens to expose her. When Elizabeth-Jane learns of the marriage, she leaves Lucetta’s service.
The news that Henchard once sold his wife and child to a sailor spreads through the village. Henchard’s creditors close in, and he becomes a recluse. Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane are reconciled during his illness. Upon his recovery, he hires out to Farfrae as a common laborer.
Henchard’s oath expires, and he begins to drink heavily. Farfrae plans to set up Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane in a small seed shop, but the project does not materialize because of a misunderstanding. Despite Lucetta’s desire to leave the village, Farfrae becomes mayor of Casterbridge.
Jopp, a former employee of Henchard, knows of Lucetta’s past, because he lived in Jersey before coming to Casterbridge. He uses this information to blackmail his way into Farfrae’s employ. Henchard finally takes pity on Lucetta and gives Jopp the love letters to return to her. Before delivering them, Jopp reads the letters aloud in an inn.
When royalty visits Casterbridge, Henchard wishes to regain his old stature in the village and forces himself among the receiving dignitaries. Farfrae pushes him aside. Later, during a fight in a warehouse loft, Henchard has Farfrae at his mercy, but the younger man shames Henchard by telling him to go ahead and kill him.
The townspeople are excited over the letters they have heard read and devise a mummery employing effigies of Henchard and Lucetta riding back to back on a donkey. Farfrae’s friends arrange for him to be absent from the village during the mummers’ parade, but Lucetta sees it and is horrified. She dies of a miscarriage that night.
Richard Newson turns out not to have been lost after all. He comes to Casterbridge in search of Susan and Elizabeth-Jane. There, he meets Henchard, who sends him away, telling him that both Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are dead.
Elizabeth-Jane joins Henchard in his poverty. They open a seed shop and begin to prosper again in a modest way. Farfrae, to Henchard’s dismay, begins to pay court to Elizabeth-Jane again, and they plan to marry soon. Newson returns, having realized that he was duped. Henchard leaves town but returns for the marriage festivities, bringing with him a goldfinch as a wedding present. When he sees that Newson has completely replaced him as Elizabeth-Jane’s father, he sadly goes away. Newson is restless and departs for the sea again after Farfrae and his daughter are settled. Henchard pines away and dies, ironically, in the secret care of the simpleminded old man whom he once mistreated.