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While corn prices are low, Farfrae buys a large amount of corn, and the weather suddenly turns poor again, causing the harvest to be less successful than predicted. Farfrae prospers as the corn prices rise, and Henchard laments his rival’s success. One night, one of Farfrae’s wagoners and one of Henchard’s collide in the street in front of High-Place Hall. Henchard is summoned to settle the dispute. Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane testify that Henchard’s man was in the wrong, but Henchard’s man maintains that these two cannot be trusted because “all the women side with Farfrae.”
After the conflict is resolved, Henchard calls on Lucetta and is told that she cannot see him because she has an appointment. He hides outside her door and sees Farfrae call for her. As the couple leave for a walk, Henchard follows them and eavesdrops on their declarations of love. When Lucetta returns to High-Place Hall, Henchard surprises her there. He threatens to reveal their past intimacy unless she agrees to marry him. With Elizabeth-Jane as a witness, she agrees to do so.
The next day, Henchard goes to Town Hall to preside over a case (he retains his position as a magistrate for one year after being mayor). There is only one case to be heard—that of an old woman accused of disorderly conduct. The constable testifies that the woman insulted him, and the woman interrupts many times during his testimony with objections. Finally, the woman is granted the opportunity to offer her defense. She recounts the story of an event that happened twenty years ago. She was a furmity-merchant at a fair in Weydon-Priors and witnessed a man sell his wife to a sailor for five guineas. She identifies Henchard as the guilty party and asks how such a man can sit in judgment of her. The clerk dismisses the story as mere fabrication, but Henchard admits its truth and leaves the court. Lucetta sees a crowd around the Town Hall and asks her servant what is happening. The servant tells her of Henchard’s revelation, and Lucetta becomes deeply miserable that she has agreed to marry him. She departs to the seaside town of Port-Bredy for a few days.
Lucetta walks along the road toward Port-Bredy. She stops a mile outside of Casterbridge and sees Elizabeth-Jane, who has decided to meet her, approaching. Suddenly, a bull begins to walk toward them, and the two women retreat into a nearby barn. The bull charges and traps them in the barn. The bull chases them until a man appears; he seizes the bull by its nose ring and secures it outside the barn. The man turns out to be Henchard, and Lucetta is very grateful to him for saving them. The trio heads home. Lucetta remembers that she has dropped her muff in the barn, and Elizabeth-Jane offers to run back and get it. After finding the muff, Elizabeth-Jane runs into Farfrae on the road. He drives her home, then returns to his own lodging, where his servants are preparing to move.
Meanwhile, Henchard escorts Lucetta home, apologizing for his insistence that she marry him. He suggests an indefinite engagement. When she asks if there is anything she can do to repay his kindness, he asks her to tell Mr. Grower, one of his creditors, that they will soon be married—given Lucetta’s wealth, Henchard believes that this arrangement will persuade Grower to treat his debt more leniently. Lucetta replies that she cannot do so, since Grower served as a witness during her wedding to Farfrae, which, she announces, took place this week secretly in Port-Bredy.
Shortly after Lucetta arrives at home, Farfrae follows with all his things. All that remains to be done, she claims, is to tell Elizabeth-Jane of their marriage. Lucetta goes to speak to Elizabeth-Jane and asks if she remembers the story about her friend who was torn between the two lovers. Elizabeth-Jane remembers, and Lucetta makes it clear that that the “friend” of whom she was speaking is actually herself. Lucetta tells Elizabeth-Jane that she wishes her to stay in the house as before, and Elizabeth-Jane says that she will think about it. As soon as Lucetta leaves the room, however, Elizabeth-Jane makes preparations to depart and does so later that night.
The clash between the wagoners of Farfrae and Henchard is symbolic of the larger clash between the two men and the forces they represent. As the drivers meet on the cramped street outside High-Place Hall, the confrontation seems to indicate a clash between two competing corn merchants. But the confrontation is also between age and youth, tradition and modernity, past and future.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is filled with such symbolic events; one of Hardy’s preferred techniques is the encapsulation of larger issues and conflicts into passing details. Another example of this technique is Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane’s confrontation with the bull. If malicious forces dominate the world, then the bull might be read as a manifestation of those forces. It tracks Lucetta as deliberately as her past and the scandal that ultimately destroys her. This scene also provides a moving counterpoint to Henchard’s decline. Having lost his position of mayor, his prominence as a businessman, and now, with the testimony of the furmity-woman, much of his dignity, Henchard is given the opportunity to demonstrate what he still possesses. His physical strength is on display as he corrals the bull and ushers the women to safety, but so too is the generosity of his spirit. Although he is increasingly estranged from Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane, he risks danger on their behalf, proving that, despite bouts of petty behavior, he is essentially a good man, in full control and possessing fortitude and resolve.
In this section, Henchard’s beneficence becomes clearer through his responsible reaction to the furmity-woman’s accusations against him. A man in Henchard’s position could easily dismiss the old woman’s accusations and protect his reputation. The other aldermen turn to Henchard, expecting he will deny her charges. Henchard’s willingness to admit the truth of the furmity-woman’s story elevates the former mayor in our eyes: he seems dedicated to the truth, even when the truth threatens disastrous consequences. However, Henchard is not moved to confess by some romantic appreciation of the truth. In fact, Henchard has chosen not to tell the truth numerous times throughout the novel: he makes a pact to keep the past a secret from Elizabeth-Jane, then, upon discovering that he is not her biological father, keeps this information from her as well. Given the degree of guilt Henchard feels after selling Susan and her daughter, we can assume there is a degree of masochism in Henchard’s admission in the courtroom: he is still punishing himself for his past misdoings. By this point, his residual guilt and self-inflicted punishments have assumed the force of a habit.
Hardy suggests also that Henchard’s self-destructive actions are a result of his overly direct nature, a characteristic he rarely represses in the novel. If Henchard fully believes that “some power was working against him” and that he is destined to fail, then his confession to the aldermen is an acknowledgment of his inevitable fate. His “sledge-hammer directness” may serve him well in the town’s court, but it is disastrous in terms of public relations.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Mayor of Casterbridge!