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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
The novel opens with the introduction of three figures, Michael Henchard, his wife Sarah, and their baby. They are all heading toward Weydon Priors in Upper Wessex. Henchard is a hay-trusser who hopes to find work. On the way, he is depressed to learn from a local that no jobs are available.
When the trio arrives at Weydon Priors, a fair is in full swing, and they decide to attend. The travelers, however, have no heart for the gaiety and fun and head straight for a refreshment tent. While there, the young man realizes that the "'furmity woman'" is generously lacing the mixture with rum and signals her to do so for him. After drinking four basins, Henchard becomes overbearing, argumentative, and quarrelsome. He begins to talk of the ruin of young men by getting married early, using his own life as an example. Impulsively, he offers to sell his wife for five guineas, and his wife Susan defiantly says she will go with whomever he sells her to. A sailor named Newson buys her and her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. The three of them leave the tent, but not before Sarah throws her wedding ring at Henchard, who has fallen asleep due to the liquor. The chapter ends with the 'furmity woman' leaving Henchard and closing up shop
The opening chapter immediately grips the reader's attention. It is improbable, scandalous, and deplorable that a man would auction his wife and daughter to the highest bidder, even in a state of inebriation. Through this startling opening event, the reader quickly understands Michael Henchard's shortcomings; he is impulsive and suffers from a love of alcohol. In the chapter, the drinking, after a weary journey, loosens his tongue, and he openly states his innermost thoughts. He feels that his ambitions have been thwarted due to his early marriage at the age of eighteen. It is obvious that he would like to get rid of a wife and child who have become burdensome to him.
Susan, Henchard's wife, appears to be a weak woman who cannot stand up to her husband. She meekly accepts that her husband is selling her, and almost seems to welcome being rid of him. She obviously knows his weaknesses and has often witnessed his blustery manner and impatience. It is apparent that she is unhappy and bitter at a young age; she feels that she has reached the end of her rope and yet has seen no way out of her unhappy marriage. Being sold by her husband allows her a way out of the relationship without resorting to prostitution or hard labor, the only choices of income for a woman of her class. Although she may be a simple person, she considers the sale of herself binding and valiantly goes off with the sailor.
What should be noted in this first chapter is that the descriptions of the countryside and the dramatic setting of the auction testify to Hardy's skill as a storyteller. He gives the reader vivid word pictures of the area around Weydon Priors, the activity of the fair, and the horror of the sale of Susan and her baby. The rustic spectators in the tent, who comment on the action, serve as a Greek chorus, first telling Susan not to take her husband seriously and then realizing that she would be better off with the sailor. Hardy's skillful use of dialect sets the tone and atmosphere, of the chapter and the whole novel. The tone of the novel is also set by the barren setting of Weydon Priors, which is symbolic of the marriage between Henchard and Sarah. The scene of two horses lovingly rubbing their necks against each other at the end of the chapter draws a sharp contrast between the unconditional friendliness of beasts and the cruel lack of love between husband and wife.
Waking up the next morning, Henchard slowly recalls the incident of the previous evening. He slips out of the tent unnoticed, feeling remorse over his actions. At the same time, he is annoyed that Susan has taken him so literally and left with the sailor. He feels she should have known the befuddled condition he was in and known he was not serious about the sale. He concludes that because of her meekness, she accepted the sale as binding.
In remorse for his actions, Henchard does two things. First, he pledges not to drink for twenty-one years, the same number as his age. Secondly, he searches long and hard for his wife and child. When he cannot find them, he chooses to settle in Casterbridge, a very rural part of Wessex. He tells the 'furmity woman' where he is going, which proves later to be a foolish mistake.
When Henchard wakes up from his drunken stupor, his befuddled state of mind is aptly drawn. The realization of his blunder unfolds in stages that are economically and dramatically delineated. First he finds the wedding ring that his wife threw at him; it is shining amongst the remnants of the previous night's indulgences. Then he feels the rustling bank notes that the sailor has left in his breast pocket for payment of his wife and baby. Slowly, the reality of his actions dawns on him, and he becomes repentant. He promises not to take another drink of alcohol for twenty-one years and goes out in search of his wife and daughter. Several other times in the novel, Henchard will show similar impulsive outbursts, always followed by repentance.
Henchard is obviously a man who acts on the spur of the moment, without thinking about consequences and then tries to blame others for the errors of his ways. He attempts to pin the blame of the auction on his wife, saying that Susan was too meek and took the sale too seriously.
The reader is led to believe that Henchard's search for his wife and daughter is superficial; he never reveals the circumstances of what has happened to anyone he queries about his wife and daughter's whereabouts. He is obviously trying to protect himself more than he is trying to locate his missing family. Henchard's pride and his unwillingness to expose himself as a feckless person will cause him great pain and suffering in the course of the novel.
The first two chapters introduce the major characters of the novel and set up the dramatic conflict of the story, much like the prelude of a Greek tragedy. The chapters cleverly give insight into personalities and foreshadowings of things to come.