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.