At a country fair near Casterbridge, Wessex, a young hay-trusser named Michael Henchard gets drunk on rum-laced furmity and argues with his wife, Susan. He decides to auction off his wife and baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, to a sailor, Mr. Newson, for five guineas. Sober the next day, he is too late to recover his family. When he realises that his wife and daughter are gone, he swears not to touch liquor again for as many years as he has lived so far (21).
Eighteen years later, Henchard is now a successful grain merchant and Mayor of Casterbridge, known for his staunch sobriety. Henchard has avoided explaining the circumstances of the "loss" of his wife, allowing people to assume he is a widower.
On a visit to Jersey on business, Henchard falls in love with Lucette Le Sueur, who nurses him back to health after an illness. Although Henchard never tells Lucetta exactly how he "lost" his wife, he does tell her he has a wife who is probably dead, but who may return. Besotted, Lucetta develops a relationship with him despite the risk. The book implies that they have a sexual relationship, and Lucetta's reputation is ruined. Henchard returns to Casterbridge, leaving Lucetta to face the social consequences of their fling.
To rejoin polite society Lucetta would have to marry him, although Henchard is already technically married. Yet just as Henchard is about to send for Lucetta, Susan unexpectedly appears in Casterbridge with her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. Newson appears to have been lost at sea, and without means to earn an income Susan is looking to Henchard again. Susan believed for a long time that her "marriage" to Newson was perfectly legitimate. Only recently, just before Newson's disappearance, had Susan begun to question whether or not she was still legally married to Henchard.
Just as Susan and Elizabeth-Jane arrive in town, a Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, is passing through on his way to America. He has experience as a grain and corn merchant, and is on the cutting edge of agricultural science. He befriends Henchard and helps him out of a bad financial situation by giving him some timely advice. Henchard persuades him to stay and offers him a job as his corn factor, rudely dismissing a man named Jopp to whom he had already offered the job. Hiring Farfrae is a stroke of business genius for Henchard, who, although hardworking, is not well-educated.
To preserve appearances, Henchard sets Susan up in a nearby house, pretends to court her, and remarries her. Both Henchard and Susan keep the truth from Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard also keeps Lucetta a secret. He writes to her, informing her that their marriage is off.
Henchard's relationship with Farfrae deteriorates as Farfrae becomes more popular than Henchard. Eventually they part company and Farfrae sets himself up as an independent merchant. The rivalry and jealousy for the most part is one-sided, and Farfrae conducts himself with scrupulous honesty and fair dealing. Henchard meanwhile makes increasingly aggressive, risky business decisions that put him in financial danger.
Henchard's jealousy leads him to oppose a marriage between Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane, until after Susan's death, at which point Henchard learns he is not Elizabeth-Jane's father from a letter which Susan, on her deathbed, marked to be opened only after Elizabeth-Jane's marriage. His own daughter had died in infancy; this second Elizabeth-Jane is Newson's daughter. Henchard is no longer concerned about blocking the marriage, but he conceals the secret from Elizabeth-Jane and grows cold and cruel towards her.
In the meantime, Lucetta arrives from Jersey and purchases a house in Casterbridge. She has inherited money from a wealthy relative. Initially she hopes to resume their relationship, but propriety requires that they wait a while. She takes Elizabeth-Jane into her household as a companion, thinking it will give Henchard an excuse to come to visit, not knowing of Henchard's hatred of Elizabeth-Jane.
Farfrae visits Lucetta's house to see Elizabeth-Jane and falls for Lucetta, not knowing she has come to marry Henchard. Lucetta is also attracted to Farfrae. At the same time, she begins to question Henchard's character, when it becomes public knowledge that he sold his first wife. Although initially reluctant, Henchard decides that he wants to marry Lucetta, particularly since he is in financial trouble - he believes that his creditors would extend credit if he was about to be married to a wealthy woman. Frustrated by her stalling, Henchard bullies Lucetta into agreeing to marry him. But by this point she is in love with Farfrae, and they run away one weekend to get married. She does not tell Henchard until well after the fact. Henchard's credit collapses, he goes bankrupt, and has to sell all his personal possessions to pay creditors.
Farfrae buys Henchard's old business and tries to help the man who helped him get started, whom he still regards as a friend and a former mentor, by employing him as a journeyman. He does not realise Henchard is his enemy, even though the town council and Elizabeth-Jane both warn him.
Lucetta keeps her former relationship with Henchard a secret, but all is revealed when Henchard lets his enemy Jopp deliver Lucetta's old love letters. Jopp makes the secret public and the townspeople publicly shame Henchard and Lucetta in a skimmington ride. Lucetta, who by this point is pregnant, dies of an epileptic seizure.
When Newson, Elizabeth-Jane's biological father, returns, Henchard is afraid of losing her companionship and tells Newson she is dead. The twenty-first year of his oath is up, and he starts drinking again. By the time Elizabeth-Jane, who months later is married to Donald Farfrae and reunited with Newson, goes looking for Henchard to forgive him, he has died and left a will requesting no funeral
"That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me. "& that I be not bury'd in consecrated ground. "& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell. "& that nobody is wished to see my dead body. "& that no mourners walk behind me at my funeral. "& that no flowers be planted on my grave, "& that no man remember me. "To this I put my name.
The first of the two Mayors of Casterbridge presented, Michael Henchard starts his life as a poor journeyman hay-trusser. He rises above his humble beginnings to become a successful businessman, until his secrets catch up with him and combine with his inherent character flaws to bring him down. Henchard belongs to what at the time was the working class, but aspires to genteel status. Although literate, he is poorly educated, and not good at arithmetic or the record-keeping aspect of his business.
Henchard is physically strong and stands more than six feet tall. He is twenty-one years old at the start of the story, forty-two to forty-three at its end, and is described as having dark hair and eyes.
Henchard has a very impulsive temperament, although he also has a tendency to depression. He tends to take a sudden liking, or a sudden dislike, to other people and can be verbally aggressive even when sober. Henchard is respected in Casterbridge, having built up a strong business almost from nothing, but he is not well liked, and when he drinks, he can be abusive. Indeed, one of the reasons he does so well in business is because, after he sells his wife and child, he swears an oath not to touch alcohol for twenty-one years. When he decides Farfrae is his enemy, he wages an economic war that, at first, is extremely one-sided. A risk-taker, Henchard eventually lets his personal grudge against Farfrae get in the way of his reasoning abilities. He takes too many risks, gambles too aggressively, and loses his credit, his business, and most of his fortune.
Henchard has a softer, emotional side. This is shown through the genuine love he has for Elizabeth-Jane; how he cannot bring himself to reveal to Farfrae the fact that it was Lucetta who wrote the love letters he is reading out; as well as the fact that he gives food to the poor and provides for Abel Whittle's mother. Furthermore, his guilt about his past also leads him to reunite with Susan even though he does not love her.
A Scotsman named Donald Farfrae is the second character in the novel who becomes the Mayor of Casterbridge. He is Michael Henchard's opposite in nearly every way. They are physical opposites. Whereas Henchard is tall, strong, and somewhat clumsy Farfrae is short, lithe, and well coordinated. Whereas Henchard is not well-educated, Farfrae is intelligent and very well informed about the scientific and business aspects of the grain and corn industry. Henchard is aggressive and abrasive, but Farfrae is gentle and likeable. Henchard is a labourer, but Farfrae is a well-educated member of the merchant class. In short, Farfrae is everything Henchard would love to be, and loves to pretend that he is. This initially causes Henchard to admire and like Farfrae, but it eventually leads to jealousy and resentment.
Donald Farfrae arrives in town by chance and passes along a valuable technique for improving wheat, which saves Henchard a great deal of money and embarrassment. Henchard prevails upon him to stay in town, hiring him as his manager over the head of another man named Jopp to whom he had already made a job offer. He immediately brings Henchard's business up to date in terms of technology and business discipline, and he is charismatic enough to be a far better manager and leader than Henchard himself.
Farfrae takes an interest in Elizabeth-Jane Newson, who at the time is living as Henchard's stepdaughter. Both Mr. and Mrs. Henchard approve of the match, until Henchard's growing jealousy and resentment of Farfrae cause him to feel threatened. Yet Farfrae is too naïve to realise Henchard is competing with him. He shows Henchard up quite unintentionally by throwing a better party than Henchard himself, and Henchard fires him. Afterwards, Farfrae considers leaving town but stays for Elizabeth-Jane's sake until Henchard tells him to keep away from her. Henchard revokes that order later, after he reads Susan's deathbed confession and realises Elizabeth-Jane is not really his daughter, at which point Farfrae attempts to start courting Elizabeth-Jane again and is distracted by Lucetta.
Farfrae does not realise he is competing with Henchard for Lucetta's attention, or that Lucetta is the woman his former boss wooed, abandoned, and is trying to reclaim. Farfrae marries her and does not learn of her association with Henchard until after Lucetta's first seizure. After Lucetta's death and Henchard's return to the bottle, followed by the return of Captain Newson, Farfrae marries Elizabeth-Jane.
Susan is an honest but simple-minded woman who, as a young woman, is married to Michael Henchard but sold (along with her baby girl Elizabeth-Jane) at a drunken auction to a sailor by the name of Newson. She believes there is something legally binding about the sale, and goes to live with Newson as his wife. The baby Elizabeth-Jane dies three months later, and Susan has a daughter with Newson whom she names Elizabeth-Jane. It is this second Elizabeth-Jane whom she later passes off as Henchard's daughter.
After living for years with Newson in Canada, the family of three returns to England. One spring, Newson (who believes his wife is having second thoughts about the validity of their marriage) is lost at sea. The impoverished "Widow Newson" returns with Elizabeth-Jane, who is now about eighteen years old. Susan has never told Elizabeth-Jane about Henchard or her first marriage, and certainly never told her about the auction incident.
Because she has no way to earn a living, Susan approaches Henchard for help. She does not correct his assumption that he is Elizabeth-Jane's father, nor does she tell anyone about the auction incident. Henchard sends her a gift of five guineas (the amount for which he sold her to Newson) and sets her up as a genteel new arrival to town. He courts her and remarries her. She does not tell him the truth about Elizabeth-Jane until her death a year or two later, when she writes a deathbed confession and seals it in an envelope to be opened only on Elizabeth-Jane's wedding day.
About eighteen years old when she and her mother arrive in Casterbridge, Elizabeth-Jane is the daughter of Newson. She is a sweet, innocent young woman who is ignorant of the social graces required of a mayor's stepdaughter. She strives to improve herself, reading constantly and studying Latin and geography. Gradually she transforms herself into the kind of sophisticated young lady Henchard believes he ought to have as a daughter. When Henchard alternates between doting on her and verbally abusing her, she never understands why, especially when Henchard (mistakenly) reveals the "truth" about who her father was.
After her mother's death she accepts Lucetta's invitation to live with her as a companion or chaperone. She develops feelings for Donald Farfrae until Lucetta attracts him away from her, and is disappointed for a while but is ultimately happy when she is reunited with her father Newson (who turns out not to be lost after all) and marries Farfrae.
A native of the island of Jersey, the Francophone Lucette Le Sueur is the daughter of a military officer. She lives a nomadic life, and after the death of her parents takes lodging in a boarding-house in Jersey. There she meets Michael Henchard, who is travelling on business and who is taken sick with a bout of severe depression. She becomes infatuated with him, and he indulges her affection for him without too much regard for appearances.
Lucetta is a few years older than Elizabeth-Jane and far more refined. She speaks fluent French as well as English, but conceals her knowledge of the language because she does not want her history in Jersey to become well known. She's impulsive, like Henchard, but not spiteful or mean although she lets money and status go to her head. After she marries, she slights Henchard and puts on airs, alienating Henchard and refusing to help Jopp (an old acquaintance of hers) obtain employment.
Exactly how far the affair between Lucetta and Henchard went is unclear. The book strongly suggests that the two of them have had sexual relations, but is ambiguous enough to not offend the sensibilities of 19th century readers. Whatever happened was enough for Lucetta's reputation to be so irreparably tarnished that the only solution for her is to leave Jersey and change her name. She takes the last name of her deceased relative, Templeman, and alters her first name to make it sound more English.
It is important to notice that scandal would not have broken out if all Lucetta and Henchard did was walk, talk, or dine together in a boarding house. They would have had to spend a considerable amount of time alone together, or they would have had to be caught in a very compromising situation. In any case Henchard does propose marriage, stating that there was a risk his first wife would return. Lucetta accepts the proposal, so the two are engaged. Henchard returns to Casterbridge leaving Lucetta to bear the full brunt of the scandal until he is ready to bring her to town, and she writes him passionate letters on a daily basis. Of course, it is at this inopportune time that Susan arrives. Henchard cancels the engagement and sends Lucetta a substantial gift of money.
Lucetta is scheduled to stop and pick up her love letters to Henchard, but a family emergency (specifically, the death of her only living relative who was quite wealthy) intervenes. Lucetta is left with substantial means. When she learns of Susan's death, she moves to Casterbridge to determine whether she should pick up her association with Henchard where she left off. She's agreeable to the match at first, but as she learns more about Henchard she likes him less and her rosy outlook and tendency to rationalise away his cruel treatment of others decreases over time. Besides, she's attracted to Donald Farfrae instead.
Given that Henchard married somebody else, their original engagement to each other is null and void. Yet Henchard, who finds himself very interested in Lucetta particularly since she has come into money, bullies Lucetta into accepting his proposal again. Lucetta elopes with Farfrae, and incurs Henchard's wrath. He retrieves her love letters, toys with the idea of exposing her secret to her new husband, and eventually sends her love letters by way of Jopp, who has reason to hate both Henchard and Lucetta. The love affair becomes public, and the scandal eventually contributes to Lucetta's death.
A relatively minor character, Jopp lived in Jersey until Henchard invited him to Casterbridge to work as his new manager and corn-factor. He was effectively hired by Henchard, subject to an interview that never happened because Henchard impulsively hired Farfrae instead, leaving Jopp without employment.
After being brushed off by Henchard, Jopp is unable to find regular employment and gradually sinks into poverty. Henchard hires him after he dismisses Farfrae, thinking to bring Farfrae down but only through lawful means. But Jopp is not the manager Farfrae was and the business collapses, leaving Jopp out of work and Henchard bankrupt.
When Lucetta marries Donald Farfrae, Jopp (who knew her in Jersey) asks her, as an old acquaintance, to put in a good word for him with Farfrae so as to help him find work. Lucetta refuses for reasons that are not clear, but that could be read as reluctance to keep a potential blackmailer close by or a high-and-mighty refusal to help anybody. Henchard by this time is using Jopp to run errands, and charges him with the important task of returning Lucetta's love letters, which Jopp decides to publicly read first. He is instrumental in putting together the skimmington ride, which is a public procession designed to mock and humiliate people, to publicise the affair between Henchard and Lucetta so as to hurt both. It is during the skimmington ride that the pregnant Lucetta suffers her first seizure and becomes fatally ill.
Newson starts out as a sailor of indeterminate rank. He does have ready money, which he uses to buy Susan and Elizabeth-Jane at the beginning of the book, and is described in the latter stages of the book as a captain.
Newson has light-coloured hair, a trait that Elizabeth-Jane shares and that initially causes some confusion for Henchard, since his infant daughter had dark hair like Henchard's own. He appears to have been kind to Elizabeth-Jane, who loves him dearly. He also seems to be somewhat gullible, believing at first that his marriage to Susan is legally binding. When he returns after Susan's death looking for Elizabeth-Jane, he believes Henchard who tells him that Elizabeth-Jane died too. He doesn't even look for his daughter's grave, but leaves town quickly only to return, hopefully, once more. He is eventually reunited with Elizabeth-Jane.Bowling Alley Walks
Dorchester Market (opposite the Police Station)
The Corn Exchange
The King's Arms Hotel
A 1921 silent film The Mayor of Casterbridge directed by Sidney Morgan
In 1951, the novel was adapted as an opera by the British composer Peter Tranchell.
A 1978 television series by Dennis Potter for the BBC starring Alan Bates as Henchard, Anna Massey as Lucetta, and Anne Stallybrass as Susan. The 1978 version was broadcast in the US by PBS as part of Masterpiece Theatre.
A version of the story was also filmed in 2000 as The Claim, with the setting changed to a town (called Kingdom Come) in the American West of the 19th Century. The film was directed by Michael Winterbottom from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce.
In 2001 (broadcast as a series on ITV 2003) by Georgina Lowe for Sally Head Productions, with Ciarán Hinds as Henchard, Juliet Aubrey as Susan, Polly Walker as Lucetta, James Purefoy as Farfrae and Jodhi May as Elizabeth-Jane. The series was released as a 2-disc DVD in 2004.
In 2008, Helen Edmundson adapted it into a three-episode radio play for BBC Radio 4's Classic Serial slot.