Eighteen years have passed. Two women, Susan Henchard, dressed in the mourning clothes of a widow, and her now-grown daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, walk along the same stretch of road toward Weydon-Priors. As the two make their way toward the fairgrounds, they speak of the sailor, Newson, whom Elizabeth-Jane believes to be her father, and his recent death at sea. Susan explains that they are there to look for a long-lost relative by the name of Henchard. Once at the fair, Susan recognizes the furmity tent and its proprietress, and she takes a private moment to ask the woman whether she remembers a husband selling his wife. After a moment, the furmity-seller does remember, and she states that the man guilty of that deed came back to her tent a year later to ask her to send anyone who came looking for him to the town of Casterbridge. Susan thanks the woman and sets off with Elizabeth-Jane for Casterbridge.
As they approach Casterbridge, Susan and Elizabeth-Jane pass by two men who, they believe, mention the name Henchard in their conversation. Elizabeth-Jane asks her mother if she should run after the men to ask them about their relative, but Susan, fearing that Henchard may be a disreputable citizen, advises against it. They arrive in Casterbridge, hungry from their journey, and ask a woman where the nearest baker’s shop is. The woman tells them there is no good bread in Casterbridge because the corn-factor has sold “grown wheat,” grain that has sprouted before harvest, to the millers and bakers. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane find some biscuits at a nearby shop and head off toward the sound of music in the distance.
Susan and Elizabeth-Jane arrive in front of the King’s Arms Inn, where a crowd is gathered before large, open windows. When Elizabeth-Jane asks an old man what is going on, he tells her that there is an important dinner taking place and that Mr. Henchard, who is the mayor of Casterbridge, and other prominent gentlemen of the community are attending. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are greatly surprised to hear that Henchard is the mayor, and Susan is unsure whether to make her presence known. As the two watch the diners eat, Elizabeth-Jane notices that Henchard’s wineglass is never filled, and the old man tells her that the mayor has sworn an oath to abstain from all liquor.
As Susan, Elizabeth-Jane, and the other bystanders watch the proceedings, someone calls out to the mayor to explain the current bread crisis. Henchard assures the crowd that the damaged wheat was not his fault and that he has hired a manager to ensure that the same situation does not happen again. “If anybody will tell me how to turn grown wheat into wholesome wheat,” he tells the crowd, “I’ll take it back with pleasure. But it can’t be done.”
A young Scotchman who happens to be passing by hears the discussion about the wheat. He writes a note and asks a waiter to deliver it to the mayor. The stranger then makes his way to the Three Mariners Inn. Having witnessed this interaction, Elizabeth-Jane is intrigued by the stranger. She and Susan are also looking for a place to stay, so they decide to follow the young man to the Three Mariners Inn. The note is delivered to Henchard, who reads it and seems quite interested. Privately, he asks the waiter about the origin of the note. Upon learning that it came from a young man who has gone to spend the night at the Three Mariners, Henchard also makes his way to the inn.
Compared to the high and often unbelievable drama of later chapters, little happens in Chapters III through VI. Given that eighteen years have passed since Henchard’s sale of his family at the fair in Weydon-Priors, the function of these chapters is largely expository, and they serve mainly to provide necessary information rather than dramatic development. Here, we learn that Henchard, whose prospects for the future seem limited (if not doomed) after his shameful introduction, has managed to become one of Casterbridge’s most prominent citizens. Interestingly, Hardy chooses to bypass the story of Henchard’s rise from a young, emotionally volatile hay-trusser to the mayor and primary grain distributor of a small agricultural town. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane’s ignorance of Henchard’s rise to power emphasizes Hardy’s decision to eliminate the story of Henchard’s development from the narrative scope of the novel.
Instead, as the full title of the novel promises, the subject of Hardy’s focus and interest is Henchard’s character. The word “character” has several relevant meanings here. First, and perhaps most obvious, the word connotes the artistic portrayal of a person in a work of fiction. Second, it refers to a quality or feature that distinguishes one person or group from another. In his portrayals of Henchard, Farfrae (the Scotchman), Lucetta, and Elizabeth-Jane, Hardy relies heavily on traits that make his characters subject to larger social phenomena or forces. In these chapters, for example, he establishes the essential conflict between a world marked by tradition—as represented by Henchard, who has no means of salvaging a damaged harvest—and a world marked by progressive and sometimes miraculous modern methods. The third meaning of “character” is the suggestion of moral or ethical strength, as in the novel’s subtitle: A Story of a Man of Character. Although the narrative traces Henchard’s fall from grace and social respectability, it positions him, time and again, as a man of moral integrity through his limitless resolve.
The idea of integrity manifests itself several times during the short dinner at the King’s Arms. First, as Elizabeth-Jane notices, Henchard’s is the only wineglass among the celebrants’ to remain empty. This simple detail balances the image of Henchard, for although he is a man whose temper can lead him to make rash decisions that are as unwise as they are unkind, he is also a man of exceptional resolve and a man who honors the vows—no matter how extreme—that he makes. The incident involving the sale of “grown wheat” offers a look into another of Henchard’s interesting motives. A frustrated citizen’s questioning of Henchard as to how he plans to repay the villagers for the past points to Henchard’s biggest anxiety: how to make amends for past wrongs. Henchard’s actions indicate that he wonders if the mistakes of the past can be undone, and he hones his resolve for the possibility that he may be able to atone for it. But, stricken by guilt, first by his sale of his wife and daughter and, eighteen years later, by the suggestion of shady business dealings, Henchard longs to expunge the dark spots from his personal history.
All of the characters (besides the troubled Henchard) are almost completely shallow and almost petty. Isn't it odd how Frafaer had no difficulty getting back together with Elizabeth-Jane after he hurt her so terribly by going for Lucetta? And how Lucetta practically refuses to own up to her own actions by claiming it was a misfortune she fell into? Although it is almost annoying how Henchard never learns from his mistakes, he truly does seem like the only "deep" character in this book.
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I didn't like most of the characters, but that does not imply that I disliked the book. The book was fantastic and the story was gripping. I was initially fond of Farfrae, but then I grew to dislike him. I despised Lucetta since the first time she was described, and my hatred kept increasing as the story progressed. Elizabeth-Jane was the only character I liked; whereas, my feelings towards Michael Henchard were those of confusion. I disliked him at times. Other times, I felt pangs of sympathy towards him, and anger towards how others treate
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