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Lucetta overhears the conversation between Farfrae and Henchard and becomes extremely agitated, fearing that Henchard will reveal her authorship of the letters. When Farfrae comes upstairs, she gathers that Henchard has not disclosed her. The next morning, she writes to Henchard, arranging a meeting for later that day at the Ring. There, she begs him to have mercy on her and return the letters, which he agrees to do.
When Lucetta returns from her meeting with Henchard, she finds Joshua Jopp waiting for her. He has heard that Farfrae is looking for a business partner and asks if she would recommend him. She refuses, and he returns home disappointed. When Jopp gets home, Henchard asks him to deliver a packet to Mrs. Farfrae. Jopp inspects the packet, discovers that it contains letters, and then goes on his way to deliver it.
Jopp meets the peasant women Mother Cuxsom and Nance Mockridge, who tell him they are on their way to Mixen Lane, the center for “much that was sad, much that was low, some things that were baneful” in Casterbridge. Jopp accompanies them and meets the old furmity-woman, who asks about the parcel he carries. He replies that they are love letters and reads them aloud to the crowd. Nance Mockridge exclaims that Lucetta is the author of the letters and remarks that this information provides a good foundation for a “skimmity-ride,” a traditional English spectacle the purpose of which was to express public disapproval of adultery. A stranger, dressed in a fur coat and sealskin cap, expresses interest in the custom and donates some money for the ceremony. Jopp returns home, reseals the letters, and delivers them to Lucetta the next morning.
The citizens of Casterbridge soon become aware that a “Royal Personage” plans to pass through the town. The town council, which is to address this esteemed guest, meets to arrange the details of the event, and Henchard interrupts the meeting to ask if he can participate. Farfrae says that Henchard’s involvement would not be proper, since he is no longer a member of the council. Henchard vows that he will welcome the Royal Personage in his own way. The special day arrives, and, as the royal carriage stops, a drunken Henchard stands in front of it waving a handmade flag. Farfrae forcefully drags Henchard away.
Incensed by Farfrae’s treatment of him, Henchard decides to seek revenge. He leaves a message at Farfrae’s house requesting that Farfrae meet him at the granaries. When Farfrae arrives, Henchard, who has tied one of his arms to make a more even match, tells him that they will finish the fight begun that morning. The men wrestle, and though Henchard overpowers Farfrae, he cannot bring himself to finish off his opponent. Farfrae leaves, and Henchard is flooded with shame and fond memories of Farfrae. He feels the desire to see Farfrae again but remembers hearing that Farfrae was to leave on a journey for the town of Weatherbury.
Because Henchard feels things more deeply than any other character, with such conviction and force, it is difficult to hold him accountable for his actions. When, for example, he reads Lucetta’s letters to Farfrae, he does so not to torment the woman who eavesdrops from a neighboring room, but because he is seized by the profound and helpless feeling that he has been wronged. Similarly, his determination to fight Farfrae arises not from the “rivalry, which ruined” him or the “snubbing, which humbled” him, but rather from the “hustling that disgraced” him. Henchard’s concern about his public image makes him particularly despise the idea of being disgraced (this same concern compels him to seek to make amends with Susan nearly two decades after their shameful parting). When he fights Farfrae, then, he is motivated less by vengeance than the need to free himself from the burden of feeling shamed. Indeed, Henchard’s complete subservience to his own emotions is manifested in his cries as he breaks from the struggle that “no man ever loved another as I did thee at one time. . . . And now—though I came here to kill ‘ee, I cannot hurt thee!”
Though powerful, Henchard is no bully, and he uses his both his physical and political strength sparingly. Though he laments that he has taken Farfrae’s dismissal “like a lamb,” he wants nothing more than a fair fight from the Scotchman. This desire for fairness is further manifested in his decision to bind one arm before the wrestling match begins, since he is the stronger of the two men. Furthermore, he cannot bring himself to destroy Lucetta, whose duplicity and wayward emotions have left him feeling abandoned and unloved. Nothing would be easier for Henchard than to bring shame upon Lucetta, but he determines, quite honorably, that “such a woman was very small deer to hunt.” These moments of restraint—rare for a man of Henchard’s domineering passions—prove and preserve Henchard’s humanity. Indeed, these conflicts reveal the complexity of Henchard’s character and are the reason that many critics have found him to be the most human of all Hardy’s creations.
In addition to giving us a more fully developed understanding of Henchard’s character, these chapters build suspense by hinting at two major imminent events: the skimmity-ride and the arrival of Newson. The interest displayed in the skimmity-ride, manifest in the fur-wearing stranger’s piqued curiosity about the ritual, hints at the ride’s inevitability. The ride was a custom popular in rural towns and involved a parade of effigies and music used to shame publicly those guilty (or suspected) of adultery. Although the custom was prohibited by law in 1882, it continued for years after. Hardy foreshadows Newson’s arrival very cleverly, using the details of his clothes. In describing a stranger “dressed with a certain clumsy richness—his coat being furred, and his head covered with a cap of seal-skin,” Hardy evokes the weatherproofed sailor who, as many years ago at Weydon-Priors, has money at his disposal.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Mayor of Casterbridge!