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The narrator shifts back to the moments following the wrestling match between Henchard and Farfrae. After Farfrae descends from the loft, Abel Whittle delivers a note to Farfrae requesting his presence in Weatherbury. The note has been sent by some of Farfrae’s workers who hope to get Farfrae out of town in order to lessen the damaging impact of the “skimmity-ride.” After Farfrae departs for Weatherbury, Lucetta hears commotion in the distance. Outside her window, she overhears two maids describe the proceedings: two figures are sitting back to back on a donkey that is being paraded through the streets of Casterbridge. Just as Elizabeth-Jane enters the room and tries to close the shutters, Lucetta realizes that the figures are meant to represent her and Henchard. She becomes hysterical and suffers an epileptic seizure, fearing that her husband will see the spectacle. Elizabeth-Jane calls the doctor, who recognizes the seriousness of the situation and tells her to call immediately for Farfrae.
Having observed the skimmity-ride, Henchard goes in search of Elizabeth-Jane. Upon arriving at Farfrae’s house and learning of Lucetta’s condition, Henchard explains that Farfrae must be found on the way to a town called Weatherbury, not another town called Budmouth as originally planned. Because no one believes him, he departs to find Farfrae himself. Eventually, he comes upon Farfrae and urges him to return to Casterbridge, but Farfrae distrusts him and refuses to return. Henchard rides back to Casterbridge only to find that Lucetta is no better. When he returns home, Joshua Jopp tells him that a seaman of some sort called for him while he was out. Farfrae finally returns and sends for another doctor, and Lucetta is much calmed by her husband’s arrival. He sits with her through the night as Henchard paces the streets, making inquiries about the patient’s health. Early the next morning, a maid informs him that Lucetta is dead.
After hearing of of Lucetta’s death, Henchard goes home and is soon visited by Elizabeth-Jane. She falls asleep as Henchard prepares her breakfast, and Henchard, not wanting to disturb her, waits patiently for her to wake. Feeling a surge of love for Elizabeth-Jane, he hopes that she will continue to treat him as her father. Just then, a man knocks at the door and introduces himself as Newson. He says that his marriage to Susan had been happy until someone suggested to her that their relationship was a mockery; she then became miserable. Newson adds that he let Susan believe that he was lost at sea. He tells Henchard that he has heard of Susan’s death and asks about Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard tells him that the girl is dead as well, and Newson departs in sorrow.
Although it appears that Newson is gone, Henchard remains paranoid that his deception will be discovered and that Newson will return to take Elizabeth-Jane away from him. Elizabeth-Jane wakes, and the two sit down to breakfast. When she leaves, however, he becomes despondent, fearing that she will soon forget him. The rest of his life seems unendurable to him, and he goes to the river just outside of Casterbridge with thoughts of drowning himself. As he prepares to throw himself into the water, he sees his image floating in the pool and desists.
Henchard returns home and finds Elizabeth-Jane waiting outside his door. She says she has come back because he seemed sad that morning. He brings her to the river to show her the image, and she realizes that it must be the effigy from the skimmity-ride. Henchard remarks how strange it is that the performance that killed Lucetta has actually kept him alive. Elizabeth-Jane realizes what he means by this statement and asks if she can come to live with him; he joyfully assents.
Henchard continues to fear Newson’s return, but, meanwhile, he and Elizabeth-Jane live happily in his home. They see Farfrae only occasionally, as Henchard now owns a small seed and root business that Farfrae and other members of the town council purchased for him. One day, Henchard observes Farfrae looking at Elizabeth-Jane and begins to think of the possibility of their union. He is very much opposed to the idea but decides he should let Elizabeth-Jane make her own decision. As time passes, Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae begin to meet more frequently. Eventually, Henchard obtains proof of their intimacy when he sees Farfrae kiss Elizabeth-Jane.
In these chapters, the full complexity of Henchard’s character reveals itself. Despite his hatred for someone who now enjoys all the benefits he once did—his business and his lover—he cannot bring himself to enact the vengeance he desires. Instead of seeking revenge, Henchard takes it upon himself to fetch Farfrae and urge him back to Lucetta’s bedside. When Henchard declares to Farfrae, “I am a wretched man but my heart is true to you still,” his words point not to the fickleness of his affections but to the deeply conflicted nature of his psyche. His motivations are as muddled as his emotions: given his previous efforts to protect his name and reputation, Henchard may hope to mend his damaged image in the eyes of those who “would not believe him, taking his words [regarding Farfrae’s whereabouts] but as the frothy utterances of recklessness.” But a self-imposed desire to restore his good name is not the only thing that sets Henchard on the road to Weatherbury. As his unwillingness to pummel Farfrae when he has him pinned down in Chapter XXXVIII shows, he still harbors genuine affection for the man.
Like Farfrae’s budding romance with Lucetta when Henchard is ready to take Lucetta as his wife, Newson’s unexpected arrival at Henchard’s house disrupts Henchard’s life noticeably. His newfound desire to have a close relationship with Elizabeth-Jane, like his desire to marry Lucetta, constitutes a heavily considered and deliberate change of attitude on his part. The unpredictable obstacle Newson presents to the happiness Henchard seeks with Elizabeth-Jane is made painfully clear by Hardy’s melodramatic rendering of Newson’s reappearance:
In truth, a great change had come over [Henchard] with regard to [Elizabeth-Jane], and he was developing the dream of a future lit by her filial presence, as though that way alone could happiness lie. He was disturbed by another knock at the door. . . .
By juxtaposing Henchard’s apparent sole way to happiness and Newson’s knocking, Hardy suggests that Newson’s intrusion actually disturbs Henchard’s “dream of a future.” Given the structure of the novel thus far, wherein peripheral characters, such as the furmity-woman, tend to appear at the most inopportune times, Newson’s reappearance can only bode ill.
Henchard’s selfish and deceitful means of dealing with Newson threaten to rob him of his last bit of self-respect. Despite all this deception, pettiness, and his rabid temper, Henchard remains an essentially sympathetic character. Given his deep, newfound love for Elizabeth-Jane, and the desperateness of his desire to have that love returned, we understand Henchard’s deceitful behavior. Like so many of Henchard’s decisions, fooling Newson has nothing to do with calculation or manipulation and everything to do with “the impulse of a moment.” In this light, Henchard’s treatment of Newson is the frantic act of a scared, lonely, and highly pitiable man.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Mayor of Casterbridge!