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One night, about three weeks after Susan’s death, Henchard decides to tell Elizabeth-Jane the truth about the relationship between him and her mother. Henchard does not admit that he sold the pair, but he does tell Elizabeth-Jane that he is her father and that, during Elizabeth-Jane’s childhood, he and her mother each thought the other dead.
Henchard asks Elizabeth-Jane to draw up a paragraph for the newspaper announcing that she will change her name to Henchard and then leaves her alone to collect her thoughts. He goes upstairs to search for some documents to prove his relationship to Elizabeth-Jane and discovers the letter that Susan wrote before her death. Despite the request to leave the letter unread until Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding-day, Henchard opens it and learns that Elizabeth-Jane is not, in fact, his daughter. The letter informs him that his child died shortly after he and his family parted ways and that the young woman he has welcomed into his home is actually the daughter of the sailor who purchased Susan at Weydon-Priors.
In the morning, Elizabeth-Jane comes to Henchard and tells him that she now intends to look upon him as her true father. Henchard’s discovery of the night before renders her acceptance of him bittersweet, but he decides not to traumatize Elizabeth-Jane further with this additional surprise.
Though Elizabeth-Jane continues to live under his roof, Henchard becomes increasingly cold and distant toward her. He criticizes her country dialect, telling her that such language makes her “only fit to carry wash to a pig-trough,” and describes her handwriting as unrefined and unwomanly. One afternoon, Henchard reprimands Elizabeth-Jane for bringing Nance Mockridge, one of the workers in his hay-yard, some bread and cheese. When Nance overhears Henchard insult her character, she tells Henchard that Elizabeth-Jane has waited on worse for hire. Elizabeth-Jane confirms that she once worked at the Three Mariners Inn, leaving Henchard shocked and afraid that Elizabeth-Jane has compromised his reputation through her menial labor. One morning, on her way to visit Susan’s grave, Elizabeth-Jane sees a well-dressed lady studying Susan’s tombstone. Intrigued, Elizabeth-Jane wonders who she is and thinks about her on the way home.
Meanwhile, Henchard’s term as mayor is about to end, and he learns that he will not be named one of the town’s aldermen. In light of this fact, he becomes even more annoyed that Elizabeth-Jane was once a servant at the Three Mariners Inn. Henchard is further rankled when he learns that she served Donald Farfrae. Considering Elizabeth-Jane a burden of which he would like to rid himself, Henchard writes to Farfrae withdrawing his disapproval of their courtship. The next day, Elizabeth-Jane meets the well-dressed lady in the churchyard. As they talk, Elizabeth-Jane reveals that she is not entirely happy with her father. The lady asks if Elizabeth-Jane will come live with her as a companion, explaining that she is about to move into High-Place Hall, near the center of Casterbridge. Elizabeth-Jane gladly agrees, and the lady arranges to meet her again in a week.
During the next week, Elizabeth-Jane walks by High-Place Hall many times and thinks about what it will be like to live there. One day, while looking at the house, she hears someone approaching and hides. Henchard enters the house without noticing or being noticed by Elizabeth-Jane. Later that day, Elizabeth-Jane asks Henchard if he has any objection to her leaving his house. He answers that he has no objections whatsoever and even offers to give her an allowance.
The appointed day for Elizabeth-Jane’s meeting with the well-dressed lady arrives, and she goes to the churchyard as planned. The lady is there and introduces herself as Miss Templeman. She tells Elizabeth-Jane that she can join her at High-Place Hall immediately, and Elizabeth-Jane rushes home to pack her things. Watching her, Henchard regrets his treatment of Elizabeth-Jane and asks her to stay. But she cannot, she says, since she is on her way to High-Place Hall, leaving Henchard dumbfounded.
The narrator shifts back to the night prior to Elizabeth-Jane’s departure, when Henchard receives a letter from Lucetta announcing that she has moved to Casterbridge and will take up residence at High-Place Hall. He then receives another letter, shortly after Elizabeth-Jane leaves, in which Lucetta asks him to call on her. He goes that night but is told that she is busy, though she would be happy to see him the next day. Upset by this rebuff, he resolves not to visit her. The next day, Lucetta waits expectantly for Henchard and is disappointed when he does not come. While she waits, she and Elizabeth-Jane look out on the market and discuss the town and its inhabitants.
Several days pass without a visit from Henchard. Three days later, Lucetta comments to Elizabeth-Jane that Henchard may come to visit her (Elizabeth-Jane). Elizabeth-Jane tells Lucetta that she does not believe he will, because they have quarreled too much. Lucetta then decides to send Elizabeth-Jane on some useless errands and quickly writes a letter to Henchard saying that she has sent Elizabeth-Jane away and asking him to visit. A visitor finally arrives, but when he enters Lucetta sees that he is not Henchard.
The presence of several extremely unlikely coincidences in these chapters underscores the fact that The Mayor of Casterbridge does not attempt to portray reality. Even before this section of the novel, a number of rather fantastic occurrences have accumulated: not only does Henchard sell his wife and daughter, but Susan happens to come upon the furmity-woman who not only has witnessed the event of eighteen years ago but also remembers that Henchard left for Casterbridge, where he still happens to live.
The many coincidences in Henchard’s life serve an important function in that they confirm Hardy’s bleak conception of the world. In each of his major novels, Hardy makes his characters suffer in unbearable circumstances and, as a result, learn their true place in the universe. As he begins to lose the comforts and position of mayor and businessman, Henchard moves more steadily toward an understanding of life’s harshness. In Chapter XIX, he muses, “I am to suffer, I perceive. This much scourging, then, is it for me?” attempting to understand the reality of his emotional pain. As life presents unpleasant obstacles, Henchard becomes convinced there is “some sinister intelligence bent on punishing” him. His acceptance of suffering—“misery taught him nothing more than defiant endurance of it”—illustrates his bleak and fatalistic outlook. The twists and turns of the novel’s plot, each of which serves to tighten the screws on Henchard’s misery, derive from Hardy’s belief that the universe is designed to create human suffering.
Because this philosophy dominates the novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge is a prime example of naturalistic writing. This school of writing, prevalent in the late nineteenth century, sought to render ordinary life. According to the naturalist novelist Frank Norris, it concentrates on “the smaller details of everyday life, things that are likely to happen between lunch and supper.” Naturalism describes the details of everyday life but does so according to the philosophical tenets of determinism, the belief that human beings are shaped by the forces that operate on them. Certainly these forces—whether they are the workings of fate or social conventions—are the forms of “sinister intelligence” that Henchard believes are bent on punishing him.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Mayor of Casterbridge!