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The story revolves round the rise and fall of Michael Henchard. From a mere hay-trusser, he rises to become the leading corn and hay merchant of the area. He then becomes the Mayor of Casterbridge. However, his past action of selling his wife and child catch up with him, and circumstances turn against him, reducing him to penury. Because of his love for his stepdaughter, Elizabeth-Jane, he lies to Newson when the latter comes looking for her. He tells him that she had died a year ago.
When Newson reappears, Henchard leaves Casterbridge a penniless man. He takes up his old profession of a hay-trusser. He dies in solitude, a broken and bitter man, without having effected a reconciliation with Elizabeth-Jane.
Michael Henchard is his own antagonist and brings about his own downfall. The weaknesses of his character, including his drinking, his impulsiveness and his arrogance, make him sell his wife and daughter and lie to Elizabeth-Jane about her parentage; these, in turn, lead to his becoming a social outcast. After having great successes in Casterbridge, he dies a lonely and penniless man.
Donald Farfrae is another antagonist to Henchard. His arrival in town changes everything for the protagonist. The two men have many conflicts and clashes, and the competitiveness within their personal lives, both in business and in love, creates the outward conflict in the novel. Farfrae, who outdoes Henchard in everything, does much to hasten Henchard's downfall.
In the court scene, one of the most dramatic moments in the novel, Henchard's past is finally exposed by the 'furmity woman'. From this point forward, Henchard's social and financial ruin is precipitated. Although at one point he is the most influential man in Casterbridge, his exposure, combined with his rash speculation, leads to his declaring bankruptcy in business and his becoming an outcast from society.
The novel is a dark tragedy in which Henchard faces total ruin and lonely death. Although Henchard seeks redemption for his misdeeds, it is too late. As a result of his actions, he dies an outcast, without having reconciled himself with society or Elizabeth-Jane.
SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Michael Henchard, an itinerant hay-trusser, reaches Weydon Priors looking for work. He is accompanied by his wife Susan and their baby, Elizabeth-Jane. Though there are no jobs available, they head towards a spot where a fair is in progress and make their weary way to a tent where furmity is being sold. Michael Henchard quietly signals to the "'furmity woman'" to lace his with rum. When he has imbibed more than enough liquor, he rashly auctions his wife and child to a sailor for five guineas. The next day, when he recovers from his drunken stupor, he is filled with remorse. After making a futile effort to search for them, he leaves, vowing not to touch liquor for twenty-one years. Henchard tells the "'furmity woman'" his destination.
After a passage of eighteen years, Susan and Elizabeth-Jane again make their way to Weydon Priors. Newson, the sailor who has earlier purchased them, has been reported missing at sea. Giving him up for dead, Susan now searches for Henchard. All she tells Elizabeth-Jane is that he is a distant relative. With difficulty the "'furmity woman'" recalls Henchard and tells Susan he left Weydon Priors to go to Casterbridge; Susan sets out to find him there. On reaching Casterbridge, to her utter astonishment, she finds that Henchard has become a leading corn and hay merchant. He has even risen to the position of the Mayor of Casterbridge. Susan feels this is a situation that requires some serious thinking, for she feels she cannot confront her husband immediately. She and Elizabeth-Jane stay the night at the Three Mariner's.
This inn is the very same inn in which Farfrae is currently staying. He is a Scotsman who has a renovating process for restoring bad wheat. Henchard is greatly impressed with him and persuades him to stay on in Casterbridge as his corn manager. Later Farfrae is dismissed by Henchard, and the two of them become business rivals.
When Henchard learns about Susan and Elizabeth-Jane, he wants to make amends. He remarries Susan and writes a letter of regret to Lucetta Templeman, a woman in Jersey, whom he had intended to marry. Unfortunately, Susan soon dies. Henchard then discovers, through a letter Susan left him, that Elizabeth-Jane is really Newson's daughter, his own having died years ago. At the news, his behavior undergoes a drastic change, and he becomes cold and critical of Elizabeth-Jane, whom he had earlier loved.
Lucetta Templeman becomes a rich woman when her aunt leaves her an inheritance. She travels to Casterbridge with the hope of marrying Henchard. In Casterbridge, she encourages Elizabeth- Jane to come and live with her, as her companion; she hopes the girl's presence will give Henchard a pretext to visit and court her. He, however, stays away. Lucetta then meets Farfrae, and they fall in love and marry. Farfrae continues to prosper in business. He and Henchard now become rivals both in business and in love.
Henchard goes in to a period of great decline. His business fails due to his rash decisions, and he must declare bankruptcy. He has no option but to work for Farfrae. Then the "'furmity woman'" appears and exposes Henchard's past crimes. He loses all credibility in Casterbridge.. In the meantime, Elizabeth-Jane has effected a reconciliation with him, but he has also started drinking. Twenty-one years of abstinence have come to an end.
Lucetta becomes apprehensive about Henchard disclosing their past relationship. She begs him to return the numerous love letters she had written to him. Henchard, who had intended to blackmail her, relents. Unfortunately, due to a grave error of judgment on his part, he asks Jopp to return them. Jopp, who nurses a grudge against Lucetta, Farfrae, and Henchard, opens and reads them aloud. The townspeople arrange a "skimmity-ride" through Casterbridge with Lucetta's and Henchard's effigies parading through town. Lucetta is so shocked that she is overcome with an epileptic fit, which kills her. She, however, tells Farfrae her secret before dying.
Henchard, who is now extremely poor, starts living with Elizabeth- Jane and accepts her as his daughter. He finds she is the only source of joy in his life. The thought of living without her is unbearable. Therefore, when Newson comes looking for his wife and daughter, Henchard lies and says that she is dead. Newson goes away. Henchard then begins to fear he will lose Elizabeth- Jane to love. Farfrae, now a widower, renews a courtship with Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard is horrified by this affair, but he does not oppose it.
Newson soon returns to Casterbridge, for his has learned the truth about his daughter. Elizabeth-Jane is shocked to learn the truth about her past and disowns Henchard. He takes the only course open to him and leaves Casterbridge, a penniless man. He goes to work as a hay-trusser. A few months later, he hears of the wedding between Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard desperately wants to see his daughter and beg forgiveness for lying to her.
When Henchard reappears in Casterbridge, Elizabeth-Jane shows she is annoyed with him for having lied to her and receives him like stranger. Heartbroken, Henchard goes away, without saying anything in self-defense. He dies alone, in utter despondency; only his former employer, Abel Whittle, is there to minister to his needs. He leaves behind a will that exposes his acute depression and despair at the time of his death. Elizabeth-Jane, who has had a change of heart, sets out with Farfrae to effect a reconciliation, but reaches him half an hour late. She reads his terrible will of renunciation, which expresses his bitterness with the world.