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, 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...
(The entire section is 1,373 words.)