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.