In presence of this scene after the other there was a natural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe. . . .
In the first half of the nineteenth century, a young hay-trusser named Michael Henchard, his wife, Susan, and their baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, silently walk along a road in the English countryside toward a large village called Weydon-Priors. They meet a turnip-hoer, and Henchard asks if there is work or shelter to be found in the town. The pessimistic laborer tells the young man that there is neither. The family eventually comes upon a fair and stops for food. They enter a furmity tent, where a woman sells a kind of gruel made from corn, flour, milk, raisins, currants and other ingredients. After watching the woman spike several bowls of the porridge with rum, Henchard slyly sends up his bowl to be spiked as well. The woman accommodates him again and again, and soon Henchard is drunk. As he continues to drink, he bemoans his lot as a married man. If only he were “a free man,” he tells the group gathered in the furmity tent, he would “be worth a thousand pound.” When the sound of an auctioneer selling horses interrupts Henchard’s musings, he jokes that he would be willing to sell his wife if someone wanted to buy her. Susan begs him to stop his teasing, declaring that “this is getting serious. O!—too serious!” Henchard persists nevertheless. He begins to bark out prices like an auctioneer, upping the cost of his wife and child when no one takes his offer. When the price reaches five guineas, a sailor appears and agrees to the trade. Distraught, but glad to leave her husband, Susan go off with Elizabeth-Jane and the sailor. Henchard collapses for the night in the furmity tent.
Henchard wakes the next morning, wondering if the events of the previous night have been a dream. When he finds the sailor’s money in his pocket, however, he realizes that he has, in fact, sold his wife and child. He deliberates over his situation for some time and decides that he must “get out of this as soon as [he] can.” He exits the tent and makes his way unnoticed from the Weydon fairgrounds. After a mile or so of walking, he stops and wonders if he told his name to anyone at the fair. He is surprised that Susan agreed to go with the sailor and curses her for bringing him “into this disgrace.” Still, he resolves to find Susan and Elizabeth-Jane and bear the shame, which he reasons is “of his own making.”
Henchard continues on his way, and, three or four miles later, he comes upon a village and enters a church there. He falls to his knees on the altar, places a hand on the Bible, and pledges not to drink alcohol for twenty-one years, the same number of years that he has been alive. He continues the search for Susan and Elizabeth-Jane for several months and eventually arrives at a seaport where a family fitting the description of the sailor, Susan, and Elizabeth-Jane has recently departed. He decides to abandon his search and makes his way to the town of Casterbridge.
Many critics believe that Michael Henchard, the “Man of Character” to whom the subtitle of The Mayor of Casterbridge refers, is one of Thomas Hardy’s greatest creations. Henchard is constructed with a great deal of ethical and psychological complexity, and the first two chapters show some of the contradictions of his character. As a young man, Henchard is volatile, headstrong, and passionate. Even before Henchard works himself into a fury in the furmity tent, Susan’s meek behavior as she walks along beside him (“she kept as close to his side as was possible without actual contact”) implies his volatile and potentially violent nature. The events that take place in the furmity tent at the fair demonstrate a cycle into which Henchard falls frequently throughout the novel. After finding himself in a shameful situation—this time, having sold his wife and child—he takes full responsibility for his mistakes and sets out to correct them. In fact, his desire to make amends is overpowering. He spends several months searching for his wife and child, proving that his remorse is not halfhearted. This audacious spirit is a hallmark of Henchard’s character, as he switches quickly from ungrateful misogyny to sincere penitence. Ultimately, though, critics have remained interested in Henchard because his success in atoning for his transgressions is ambiguous.
Although Henchard’s search for his wife seems to be an example of honest contrition, his true motivation is more likely concern over his personal honor. When Henchard wakes, his remorse stems more from a fear of being disdained than from any sense of moral irresponsibility. His interest in his good name plays a significant role in his sacrifice of personal satisfaction when he swears off alcohol and determines to find his wife. Before he begins to scour the English countryside for his wife and child, he reflects that it is not his own but rather his wife’s “idiotic simplicity” that has brought disgrace on him. As he stands outside the fairgrounds at Weydon-Priors, anxiously wondering whether he revealed his name to anybody in the furmity tent, Henchard displays an obsession with public opinion concerning his character that greatly shapes his actions and personality. Critic Irving Howe refers to this trait as Henchard’s “compulsive and self-lacerating pride.” Henchard’s initial irresponsibility suggests that the novel’s subtitle may not be an accurate description of him. In a way, then, the subtitle foreshadows Henchard’s transition to a man of character.
Though Hardy resented being labeled a pessimist, the The Mayor of Casterbridge is at times bleakly realistic. Hardy described himself as a meliorist—one who believes that the universe tends toward improvement and that human beings can enjoy this progress as long as they recognize their proper place in the natural order of things—but the world that the novel describes seems pessimistic and difficult. Hardy uses Susan Henchard, who has “the hard, half--apathetic expression of one who deems anything possible at the hands of Time and Chance except, perhaps, fair play,” to demonstrate the importance of realistically understanding the natural order of things. We get the sense that the natural world, embodied by “Time and Chance,” has little interest in human life or misery. Hardy substantiates this idea by inserting an image of several horses lovingly rubbing their necks together after the ridiculous scene in the furmity tent. Juxtaposing compassion and heartlessness, Hardy shows us that love and violence are competing aspects of both human behavior and the natural world.