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The furmity-woman’s revelation about Henchard’s past spreads through the town, overshadowing all the “amends he had made.” His reputation as a man of honor and prosperity declines rapidly. One day, Elizabeth-Jane notices a crowd gathered outside the King’s Arms (the inn at which she first sees Henchard presiding over the prestigious dinner as mayor). She learns that the town commissioners are meeting with regard to Henchard’s bankruptcy. Having surrendered all his assets, Henchard offers the commission his last valuable possession: a gold watch. Though they find the gesture honorable, the commissioners refuse. Henchard sells the watch himself and offers the money to one of his smaller creditors. When the remainder of Henchard’s effects are auctioned off, Farfrae purchases his business. Elizabeth-Jane makes numerous attempts to contact Henchard, wishing for an opportunity to “forgive him for his roughness to her, and to help him in his trouble,” but to no avail. Henchard moves into a cottage owned by Joshua Jopp.
In Casterbridge, there are two bridges where “all the failures of the town” congregate. One evening, while Henchard stands on the more remote bridge, Jopp meets him and explains that Lucetta and Farfrae have just moved into Henchard’s old house, which Farfrae purchased along with all of Henchard’s furniture. Jopp leaves, and Henchard is soon met by another traveler, Farfrae himself. Having heard that Henchard plans to leave Casterbridge, Farfrae proposes that he live in the spare rooms of his old house. Henchard refuses. Farfrae then offers Henchard whatever furniture he might want. Henchard, though moved by the man’s generosity, still refuses.
Elizabeth-Jane learns Henchard has fallen ill and uses his confinement as an excuse to see him. At first, Henchard tells her to go away, but she stays and not only nurses him to a quick recovery but provides him with a new outlook on life. Henchard goes to Farfrae’s corn-yard to seek employment as a hay-trusser. When he hears that Farfrae is being considered for mayor, however, he begins to lapse into his old moodiness, counting the number of days until his oath to abstain from alcohol is up. When that day arrives, Elizabeth-Jane hears that Henchard has begun to drink again.
After Sunday church services, the men of Casterbridge gather at the Three Mariners Inn to discuss the sermon, sing, and “limit [themselves] to half-a-pint of liquor.” Released from his vow, Henchard flouts this tradition by getting drunk and singing insulting words about Farfrae to the tune of a psalm. Elizabeth-Jane arrives to bring Henchard home. On their way, he complains that Farfrae has taken everything from him and that he will not be responsible for his deeds should they meet. Worried that Henchard will make good on this threat, she decides to keep an eye on him and, during the week, goes to the hay-yard to help him with his work.
Several days later, Farfrae and Lucetta come to the hay-yard. Lucetta is surprised to see Henchard there. Henchard speaks to her with bitter sarcasm, and the next day she sends him a note asking him not to treat her so poorly. With this incident, the gulf between Henchard and Lucetta grows wider. Later, Elizabeth-Jane observes Henchard and Farfrae on the top floor of the corn-stores and believes she sees Henchard extend his arm as if to push Farfrae. She decides it is her duty to warn him of the apparent danger in which he is placing himself by associating with Henchard.
The next morning, Elizabeth-Jane approaches Farfrae as he leaves his house. She warns him that Henchard may try to harm him. Unable to contemplate such evil motives, Farfrae dismisses the warning. Wanting to provide a “new beginning” for the man who, years earlier, had offered him a job and position, Farfrae arranges to purchase a seed shop that Henchard can manage. While Farfrae and the town clerk arrange the matter, the town clerk confirms that Henchard hates Farfrae. Farfrae is troubled by this news and decides to delay the purchase of the seed shop.
At home, Farfrae laments to Lucetta that Henchard dislikes him. Afraid that he will learn of her former involvement with Henchard, she urges him to move away from Casterbridge. As they discuss this plan, however, one of the town’s aldermen comes to their house to inform them that the newly elected mayor has just died. He asks Farfrae if he will accept the position; Farfrae agrees to do so.
Lucetta asks Henchard once again to return her letters. Realizing that the letters are locked in the safe of his old house, Henchard calls on Farfrae one evening to retrieve them and, while there, reads several letters to Farfrae. Farfrae still does not know that Lucetta wrote the letters, and so he listens to Henchard politely but with little interest. Tempted as he is to reveal the author of the corres-pondence, Henchard cannot bring himself to ruin Farfrae and Lucetta’s marriage.
After word spreads of the furmity-woman’s accusation, it is remarkable how quickly and completely Henchard “passe[s] the ridge of prosperity and honour and [begins] to descend on the other side.” Whereas he earlier enjoys a position of prominence as the mayor of the town, he now stands on a bridge where thwarted lovers and other desperate figures contemplate suicide. Henchard’s desperation has much to do with Farfrae and his successes, which seem like some sort of betrayal to Henchard, who helped Farfrae establish himself in Casterbridge. Since Farfrae’s introduction, he and Henchard have moved steadily in opposite directions, the former toward prosperity and achievement, the latter toward failure and obscurity. In these chapters, where Farfrae purchases the debt--ridden Henchard’s home and business, the transition is complete. Whatever bright eminence the former mayor enjoyed is now eclipsed by his protégé’s development, as the refurbished sign outside the grain market makes clear: “A smear of decisive lead-coloured paint had been laid on to obliterate Henchard’s name, though its letters dimly loomed through like ships in a fog. Over these, in fresh white, spread the name of Farfrae.”
We can understand why Henchard would wish not to live with the man he considers his archrival, let alone with his ex-lover, but his refusal of Farfrae’s charity is, as these chapters illustrate, more a function of his character than an aspect of his relationship with Farfrae. Henchard does everything to an extreme: he cannot merely be dissatisfied with married life but, instead, must feel the need to sell his wife; he cannot drink responsibly but, instead, must swear off liquor for twenty-one years, only to return to it with an alcoholic’s vengeance. Similarly, just as his emotions for Farfrae run hot or cold, his extreme contempt for Elizabeth-Jane becomes a boundless and needy love. The extremity of Henchard’s passions is, in large part, responsible for the severity of his fall. Hardy, appropriating the words of the eighteenth-century German writer Novalis, stresses that “[c]haracter is Fate.” Henchard’s response to his bankruptcy hearing validates such a hypothesis. His extreme emotions and inability to compromise or show restraint lead him to sell his last valuable possession, his gold watch. Thus, an honorable act launches him further into poverty and despair.
Henchard’s behavior remains consistent throughout the novel. He does not undergo a significant change, nor does he learn from his past mistakes and alter his ways. Farfrae’s plan to purchase a small seed store for Henchard to manage shows that Farfrae does believe that such change is possible. Ultimately, though, the novel adheres to a philosophy of determinism, which suggests that human beings are never free enough to exert their own will on the universe. Instead, there are forces that determine the course of every human life, regardless of human desire. As Henchard observes: “See now how it’s ourselves that are ruled by the Powers above us! We plan this, but we do that.”
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Mayor of Casterbridge!