Book Summary: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

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The Mayor of Casterbridge is an exciting historical drama about a man who sells his wife and child at a market, which leads to a life of luxury and status as the Mayor of Casterbridge. However, when his past comes back to haunt him and his family reappears, everything takes an unexpected turn.

From these factors, several key concepts about leadership, culture, and strategic management were identified.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

Plot Summary

A poor farmworker rises to a position of wealth and power after selling his wife and daughter, only to have his crime come back to ruin him.

Chapters 1–2 

In 1830, Michael Henchard, a 21-year-old hay-trusser (a farm worker who bundles hay into bales) and his family are walking along a road in upper Wessex. They come across a fair in the rural English village of Weydon-Priors, and find seats in a tent where furmity (a nourishing broth) is being sold. The furmity woman adds rum to Henchard’s broth at his request, and he soon becomes drunk. 

In front of the crowd, Henchard drunkenly announces that he will “sell” his wife and daughter to the highest bidder. He believes his family is responsible for his difficult life and regrets getting married at such a young age. It’s worth noting that this kind of “sale” was illegal and not legally binding, but it did happen sometimes in the early 1800s.

At first, the situation seems like a joke, but it quickly becomes serious when a young sailor named Richard Newson offers to buy Susan and Elizabeth-Jane from Henchard for the amount he requested. 

The crowd falls silent as Michael accepts the money. Newson quickly leads Susan and Elizabeth-Jane away, but not before Susan tearfully throws her wedding ring at Henchard. The tent is closed and Henchard passes out for the night.

When Henchard wakes up the next morning, he regrets his actions and makes a vow to not drink for 21 years. He sets out to find his wife and daughter, only to discover that they have emigrated to Canada with Newson. Henchard decides to end his search and begins a new life in the town of Casterbridge.

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Chapters 3–10 

Susan, now known as Mrs. Newson, returns to the fairground with her daughter Elizabeth-Jane 19 years later. Susan’s husband Richard Newson has recently been reported lost at sea, and she is seeking financial support from Henchard, a distant relative of Elizabeth-Jane’s whom she has lived with as a wife for several years. 

After learning that Henchard has moved to the town of Casterbridge, the two set out to find him. Upon arriving in Casterbridge, they discover that Henchard has become a wealthy grain merchant and the Mayor of the town. They find him at the King’s Arms Hotel, dining with other wealthy locals.

After dinner, some minor tradesmen accuse Henchard of selling poor quality wheat, which has resulted in bad bread. Henchard explains that the seller had taken advantage of him, but he has resolved the issue by advertising for a manager of his grain department.

As they speak, a handsome Scottish man named Donald Farfrae approaches Susan and Elizabeth-Jane and sends Henchard a note. After reading the note with great interest, Henchard leaves the conversation.

Susan and Elizabeth-Jane then go back to their room at the Three Mariners Hotel, where they overhear Farfrae, in the next room, telling Henchard about a way to make poor quality wheat more nutritious. Henchard gratefully offers Farfrae a job, but Farfrae says he plans to emigrate to America.

Later that night, Elizabeth-Jane hears Farfrae singing in the crowded inn and finds herself attracted to him. The next morning, she takes a letter from her mother to Henchard. When she arrives at his office, she discovers that Farfrae has changed his mind and is now working as Henchard’s foreman.

Elizabeth-Jane then introduces herself to Henchard as the daughter of Susan Newson, a sailors’ widow and a “distant relative” of Henchard. Shocked, Henchard realizes that his wife is in town. He sends word back to Susan to meet him that night at the Ring on the Budmouth Road, the ruins of a Roman amphitheater outside of town.

Chapters 11–20 

Henchard and Susan meet and Henchard, wanting to protect his reputation, proposes that he secretly establish Susan in town and then “innocently” court and marry her. Susan agrees to this plan. 

Later, Henchard impulsively confesses to Farfrae that he must break off his engagement to a young woman with whom he had a compromising affair in another town.

Henchard’s plan goes smoothly and he and Susan are “married” within a few months. Meanwhile, Farfrae starts courting Elizabedi-Jane and Henchard’s business thrives under Farfrae’s expert management. 

However, Henchard and Farfrae argue over Henchard’s harsh punishment of a worker and Henchard is forced to give in to Farfrae, fearing that Farfrae will reveal Henchard’s past.

The conflict between Farfrae and Henchard reaches a boiling point when they each plan celebrations for a national holiday. When Henchard’s event is ruined by bad weather and Farfrae’s attracts more people, Henchard becomes jealous and fires Farfrae. 

Farfrae then starts a grain business that competes with Henchard’s, causing Henchard to forbid Farfrae from seeing Elizabeth-Jane. Susan becomes very ill and gives Henchard a letter to be opened only after Elizabeth-Jane marries; she then passes away quietly. 

After Susan’s funeral, Henchard tells Elizabeth-Jane that he is her real father, but then discovers, upon impulsively opening Susan’s letter, that his own daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, had died three months after the incident at the fair 19 years earlier. This revelation means that Elizabeth-Jane is actually Newson’s child. 

Henchard is devastated but decides not to tell Elizabeth-Jane about her true identity to avoid causing unnecessary problems. His anger about Elizabeth-Jane’s true identity causes him to become distant with her.

 Eventually, Elizabeth-Jane is forced to accept a job as a live-in companion to a wealthy young woman who has recently moved to town.

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Chapters 21–30 

Elizabeth-Jane is revealed to be living with Lucetta Le Sueur, a woman with whom Henchard had an affair. Lucetta has changed her name to Lucetta Templeman and moved to Casterbridge to be with the widowed mayor, Henchard. 

However, she falls in love with Farfrae and rejects Henchard, causing him to become even more angry with Farfrae. 

Henchard’s influence in the town wanes further when he loses his position as mayor, and he decides to try to ruin Farfrae’s business by speculating that bad weather will destroy the harvest. However, the weather stays good and Henchard goes bankrupt while Farfrae becomes wealthy.

In a desperate attempt to make Lucetta marry him, Henchard threatens to reveal that their past affair ruined her reputation in her hometown.

Afterwards, Henchard serves as judge in the trial of an old woman who had witnessed the illegal sale of his family 19 years earlier. During the trial, the woman exposes Henchard’s questionable credentials as a judge. As a result, Lucetta, who had been afraid to marry Henchard after learning of his actions, decides to elope with Farfrae, who had been courting her. 

Elizabeth-Jane is heartbroken by the elopement and moves out of Lucetta’s house to a small apartment in town.

Chapters 31–40 

Henchard, a bankrupt and disgraced man, moves from his grand house to a smaller residence. Farfrae takes over what remains of Henchard’s business, and with little work available, Henchard is forced to work for Farfrae as a laborer. Henchard hates Farfrae for ruining his life and frequently threatens him.

On the final day of Henchard’s vow of abstinence, he starts drinking heavily. Farfrae’s victory over Henchard is complete when he is elected mayor. Henchard threatens to reveal love letters that Lucetta wrote him when they were involved to Farfrae, who is unaware of his wife’s affair with Henchard. 

However, Henchard ultimately decides not to ruin Lucetta’s marriage and agrees to return the letters to her. He entrusts the letters to Joshua Jopp, a dishonest person who holds a grudge against Lucetta for not helping him get a job at Farfrae’s company. 

Jopp reads the letters to a group of disreputable people in a dirty pub, who decide to mock the affair by performing a “skimmington ride” with effigies of Lucetta and Henchard.

While drunk, Henchard disrupts a ceremony honoring a member of the royal family and gets into a fight with Farfrae, the mayor. 

Despite getting the upper hand, Henchard can’t bring himself to kill Farfrae. Later that night, Farfrae is called away from town by some townsfolk who don’t want him to know about a ceremony called a skimmington ride. 

Lucetta, who is pregnant, witnesses the ceremony, which involves effigies of her and Henchard being paraded on donkeys. She faints and miscarries, then calls out for Farfrae. 

Henchard goes to find him, but Farfrae doesn’t believe his story and arrives too late to say goodbye to his wife before she dies.

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Chapters 41–45 

After Lucetta’s death, Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane reconnect. Henchard believes that Elizabeth-Jane’s love is the only thing that can bring him happiness.

However, Newson arrives the next morning and tells Henchard that he faked his own death at sea in order to free Susan from a forced relationship that was established through the sale of Susan to Henchard. Newson asks about Elizabeth-Jane, but Henchard lies and says that she is dead.

Newson then leaves town, but Henchard is worried that Newson will eventually find out the truth. Henchard goes to a remote river and tries to drown himself, but he changes his mind when he sees his effigy floating in the water. The townsfolk had discarded the effigy out of guilt.

In the following months, Farfrae begins courting Elizabeth-Jane again. However, Henchard’s worst fear is realized when he learns that Newson has returned to Casterbridge. Henchard leaves town in shame before Elizabeth-Jane can learn the truth from Newson.

When she meets Newson and finds out that he is her father, Elizabeth-Jane decides to never speak to Henchard again due to the extent of his deception.

Henchard, on the other hand, becomes a wandering laborer in the countryside near Casterbridge. When he learns that Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae are getting married, he buys a goldfinch in a cage as a gift and goes to town. He arrives at the Farfrae home’s back door, where the wedding reception is taking place, and quickly leaves the birdcage in the bushes.

Elizabeth-Jane then coldly rejects Henchard, refusing to forgive him for his deceit. A remorseful Henchard apologizes and promises never to trouble her again, then quickly runs off into the darkness. A month later, Elizabeth-Jane finds the caged goldfinch that Henchard left outside her house, but the bird is dead. She realizes it was Henchard’s gift and regrets her coldness towards him. Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae then set off to find Henchard.

After searching for many miles without success, they are told by Abel Whittle, a humble peasant, that Henchard died half an hour before they arrived in the area. Abel had followed Henchard to the reception the night of the wedding and had cared for him when he fell ill afterwards.

Elizabeth-Jane has Henchard buried anonymously and humbly, as requested in his will. She then settles into married life with Farfrae, strengthened by the hard-earned understanding that “happiness is just a temporary respite in a generally painful journey.”

Key Characters

Michael Henchard: Mayor of Casterbridge. Headstrong, hot-tempered, and impulsive. He sells his wife and child while still a young, unemployed farm laborer, then works to become a wealthy grain merchant and mayor. He tries to make amends for his crime, but his bad temper and reckless personality eventually alienate those close to him. He becomes a common laborer and dies a lonely man.

Susan Henchard: Michael’s wife. Simple and honest. Though heartbroken by Henchard’s rash “sale” of her to Newson, she believes the sale to be legal. She moves to Canada with Newson, where her infant daughter, Elizabeth-Jane Henchard, dies three months later. She and Newson have a daughter, Elizabeth-Jane Newson, then move to the small English town of Falmouth, where she stays with Newson until he is reported dead at sea. She then goes to Henchard but tries to keep Elizabeth-Jane Newson’s true identity a secret from him.

Richard Newson: Honest and kind sailor who buys Susan and Elizabeth-Jane. He fakes his death to free Susan and returns after Susan dies to provide for her daughter.

Elizabeth-Jane Newson: Daughter of Susan and Newson. Modest, humble, and sensible. She is able to cope with bad luck and hardship. She marries Farfrae after Lucetta’s death. She believes Henchard to be her father and refuses to forgive him when Newson tells her the truth. Eventually, she relents, but he dies before they can be reunited.

Donald Farfrae: Young Scottish businessman. He is shrewd, practical, and good-natured. Hired by Henchard to manage his business, but they become rivals. Eventually, he takes over Henchard’s business and house and marries Henchard’s former lover, Lucetta. After Lucetta’s death, he marries Henchard’s “daughter” Elizabeth-Jane.

Lucetta Le Sueur: Impulsive and passionate young woman. She comes to Casterbridge to renew her affair with Henchard after Susan’s death but falls in love with and marries Farfrae. She dies from a miscarriage after witnessing the skimmington ride that reveals her affair with Henchard.

Themes and Ideas

1. Character is Fate

In this idea, Hardy suggests that a person’s fate is determined by their character and actions in life, rather than by the universe. Henchard’s downfall is caused by his pride and impulsive behavior, which lead him to sell his wife and daughter, mistreat his employees, and seek revenge against those he perceives as his enemies. Meanwhile, characters like Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane, who are patient, humble, and rational, are able to overcome difficulties and find happiness.

2. Justice and Moral Order

Hardy argues that there is a moral system in the universe that punishes those who act arrogantly or irrationally. Henchard is punished for his crime of selling his wife and daughter, even though he tries to repent for it later on. =

Lucetta, who also defies the moral order by having an affair and hiding it from her future husband, suffers a similar fate. On the other hand, characters who obey the moral code and act with honesty and humility, like Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane, are able to thrive and avoid punishment.

3. The Shift Toward Urbanization

Hardy explores the transition from a rural, agricultural economy to an urban, machine-based one, and the impact this has on people’s sense of identity. Henchard’s sale of his wife and daughter is motivated by his financial struggles as an unemployed farm worker.

When he moves to Casterbridge and becomes a grain merchant, he becomes ruthless and cunning, sacrificing his integrity for the sake of prosperity and power. This sets him on a morally corrupt path that nature eventually punishes.

4. Nature

Hardy highlights the close relationship between humans and nature, and contrasts society’s man-made rules with the natural laws that govern the world. Henchard’s crime is portrayed as an act against nature, which ultimately punishes him for it. By working as a humble farm laborer, Henchard learns to respect and appreciate the power of nature.

5. Society

Hardy shows how corrupt societies can work to restore moral order. Henchard’s presence as the mayor of Casterbridge corrupts the town, but the town is able to cleanse itself by not reelecting him and humiliating him in the skimmington ride.

Lucetta also suffers the consequences of her past actions and refusal to do the right thing. By punishing these characters and replacing them with more virtuous ones, Hardy suggests that society can regain its moral footing.

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The Mayor of Casterbridge Review

Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is a literary classic that delves into the complexities of human nature, presenting an array of characters, each grappling with their own desires and flaws. Hardy’s poetic background is evident in the vivid descriptions of landscapes, although his affinity for the natural world seems to be limited. The novel’s plot, revolving around the repercussions of a farmer’s impulsive decision to sell his wife and child, captivates readers from the onset.

Henchard, the protagonist, is a narcissistic and jealous character, whose unyielding desire for control brings about suffering, not only to others but also to himself. Hardy’s portrayal of Henchard is nuanced, with moments of sympathy and hints of a troubled past. The author’s understanding of human behavior and his ability to portray the darkness within some characters is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s work, albeit with less philosophical vigor.

Despite a missing chapter in the Kindle edition, The Mayor of Casterbridge remains a compelling read, with unexpected twists that keep readers engaged until its satisfying conclusion. Hardy’s exploration of human nature in this novel may be unsettling, but it is undeniably thought-provoking and well-crafted.

About The Author

Thomas Hardy was a renowned author born in Higher Bockhampton, England in 1840. He was the first child of a successful stonemason and received training in architecture.

Hardy wrote several popular novels, including Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), The Return of the Native (1878), Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). Although these novels were widely acclaimed, they also generated controversy during his lifetime. Jude the Obscure, in particular, was criticized for its perceived pornographic content, causing Hardy to give up writing novels and focus on poetry and drama instead.

Hardy’s literary works often depicted humans struggling alone against the inevitable tragedies of life, as well as the harsh realities of a universe that is cold and indifferent to human fate. Although he has been referred to as a pessimist, Hardy himself preferred to be called a “realist,” as he believed that he was accurately portraying the world as it truly is.

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