[T]hey laid a slippery pole, with a live pig . . . tied at the other end, to become the property of the man who could walk over and get it.

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Summary: Chapter 15

Henchard and Farfrae have a quarrel over the treatment of Abel Whittle, a man who is consistently late for his job in Henchard’s hay-yard. When Whittle is late for work the day after Henchard reprimands him for his tardiness, Henchard goes to his house, drags him out of bed, and sends him to work without his breeches. When Farfrae sees Whittle, who claims that he will later kill himself rather than bear this humiliation, he tells him to go home and dress properly. Henchard and Farfrae confront each other, and Farfrae threatens to leave. The two men reconcile, but Henchard, upset by Farfrae’s insubordination, thinks on him with “dim dread” and regrets having “confided to him the secrets of his life.”

Summary: Chapter 16

A festival day in celebration of a national event is suggested to the country at large, but Casterbridge is slow to make plans. One day, Farfrae asks Henchard if he can borrow some waterproof cloths to organize a celebration. Henchard tells him he can have as many cloths as he wants. Henchard is inspired to plan events for the holiday and begins to organize a grand entertainment on an elevated green close to the town. When the day of the festival arrives, the weather is overcast, and it rains by midday. Henchard’s celebration is ruined, but Farfrae’s, which takes place under a tent he has ingeniously constructed, goes off without a hitch. Henchard sees Farfrae at the center of a great ball, dancing with Elizabeth-Jane. Prominent townspeople tease Henchard, remarking that Farfrae will soon surpass his master. Henchard replies that no such thing will happen, stating that Farfrae will shortly be leaving the business.

Summary: Chapter 17

Elizabeth-Jane regrets that she has upset Henchard by dancing with Farfrae. She leaves the tent and stands thinking. After a short time, Farfrae joins her to say that, were circumstances different, he would have asked her something that night. He tells her that he is thinking of leaving Casterbridge, and she says that she wishes he would stay. Later, she is relieved to hear that Farfrae has purchased a small corn and hay business of his own in Casterbridge. Upset by what he takes to be Farfrae’s coup, Henchard requests that Elizabeth-Jane break all ties with Farfrae and sends a letter to Farfrae asking the same from him. Elizabeth-Jane dutifully obeys Henchard and engages in no further contact with Farfrae. As Farfrae’s new business grows, Henchard becomes increasingly embittered.

Summary: Chapter 18

Susan falls ill. Henchard receives a letter from Lucetta Templeman, the woman from Jersey with whom he was having an affair. In it she says that she honors his decision to remarry his first wife and understands the impossibility of any further communication between them. She also requests that he return to her the love letters she has written him. She suggests that he do her this favor in person and announces that she will be on a coach passing through Casterbridge. Henchard goes to meet the coach, but Lucetta is not there.

Meanwhile, Susan has gotten worse. One night, she asks Elizabeth-Jane to bring her a pen and paper. She writes a letter, which she seals and marks, “Mr. Michael Henchard. Not to be opened till Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding-day.” Susan also admits to Elizabeth-Jane that it was she who wrote the notes that caused Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae to meet at the farm, hoping that the two would fall in love and marry.

Soon thereafter, Susan dies. Farfrae hears some of the old inhabitants of the village discussing her death. One villager, Mother Cuxsom, relates that Susan had laid out all the necessary preparations for her burial, including four pennies for weighing down her eyes. After Susan is buried, Christopher Coney, a poor townsman, digs up her body to retrieve the pennies, arguing that death should not rob life of fourpence.

Farfrae’s character was just the reverse of Henchard’s, who might not inaptly be described as Faust has been described. . . .

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Analysis: Chapters 15–18

If there is a main argument in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy states it implicitly in Chapter XVII, where he suggests that “[c]haracter is Fate.” These chapters do much to support the notion that one’s personality determines the course of one’s life—they contain a turning point that hinges upon Henchard’s disposition. It is clear that Henchard’s emotions dominate his life and tend to determine his actions. When he enters into his friendship with Farfrae, for instance, he does so wholeheartedly. It is not until their relationship begins to sour—first as a result of their disagreement over Abel Whittle and later as a result of Henchard’s failed celebration—that Henchard’s emotional involvement with and dedication to a man he hardly knows seems reckless. This characteristic extremity of emotion shapes the course of Henchard’s life. Just as his exceptional guilt over mistreating Susan leads him to marry for the second time a woman he does not love, his jealousy of Farfrae forces him into a competition that he cannot win.

In terms of their emotional vulnerability, both Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae stand as counterpoints to Henchard. Their reactions to Henchard’s request that they no longer see one another mark them as beings ruled by something other than feeling. Given their mutual affection, their willingness to agree to Henchard’s demand without so much as a word of protest seems odd. Of course, it is possible that Farfrae’s respect for Henchard’s wishes makes him noble (later, while remembering Henchard’s initial kindness toward him, Farfrae refers to his loyalty to Henchard). But Farfrae’s behavior also reveals his distance from passionate emotion. Similarly, Elizabeth-Jane emerges as a study in emotional moderation. Like Farfrae, she bows to Henchard’s wish without objection. Hardy encapsulates her character brilliantly in the opening passage of Chapter XV, in which she carefully constructs an outfit so as not to appear too artful or excessive. Her behavior here serves as an important contrast to that of Lucetta, whose eventual ostentatious appearance matches the excess of her emotions.

The closing scene of Chapter XVIII makes use of a secondary cast of characters that appears throughout the novel. These characters resemble and serve a function similar to that of Shakespeare’s rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—the band of crude, uneducated peasants charged with the responsibility of providing comic relief. With their colorful dialect, the crew of Nance Mockridge and Christopher Coney certainly do lighten the tone of Hardy’s tragedy, but the peasants also serve as a Greek chorus, in that they appear on the scene to judge the action of the primary characters and comment on the world at large. Although Christopher Coney’s insistence that death should not rob life of four pennies is comical, it also points to the vast and profound nature of human suffering as reflected in these minor characters’ poverty and drive to steal.