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.