Michael Henchard is traveling with his wife, Susan, looking for employment as a hay-trusser. When they stop to eat, Henchard gets drunk, and in an auction that begins as a joke but turns serious, he sells his wife and their baby daughter, -Elizabeth-Jane, to Newson, a sailor, for five guineas. In the morning, Henchard regrets what he has done and searches the town for his wife and daughter. Unable to find them, he goes into a church and swears an oath that he will not drink alcohol for twenty-one years, the same number of years he has been alive.
After the sailor’s death, eighteen years later, Susan and Elizabeth-Jane seek Henchard; Elizabeth-Jane believes he is merely a long-lost relative. They arrive in Casterbridge and learn that Henchard is the mayor. The parents meet and decide that in order to prevent Elizabeth-Jane from learning of their disgrace, Henchard will court and remarry Susan as though they had met only recently.
Meanwhile, Henchard has hired Donald Farfrae, a young Scotchman, as the new manager of his corn business. Elizabeth-Jane is intrigued by Farfrae, and the two begin to spend time together. Henchard becomes alienated from Farfrae, however, as the younger man consistently outdoes Henchard in every respect. He asks Farfrae to leave his business and to stop courting Elizabeth-Jane.
Susan falls ill and dies soon after her remarriage to Henchard. After discovering that Elizabeth-Jane is not his own daughter, but Newson’s, Henchard becomes increasingly cold toward her. Elizabeth-Jane then decides to leave Henchard’s house and live with a lady who has just arrived in town. This lady turns out to be Lucetta Templeman, a woman with whom Henchard was involved during Susan’s absence; having learned of Susan’s death, Lucetta has come to Casterbridge to marry Henchard.
While Lucetta is waiting for Henchard to call on her, she meets Farfrae, who has come to call on Elizabeth-Jane. The two hit it off and are eventually married. Lucetta asks Henchard to return to her all the letters she has sent him. On his way to deliver the letters, the messenger, Jopp, stops at an inn. The peasants there convince him to open and read the letters aloud. Discovering that Lucetta and Henchard have been romantically involved, the peasants decide to hold a “skimmity-ride,” a humiliating parade portraying Lucetta and Henchard together. The event takes place one afternoon when Farfrae is away. Lucetta faints upon seeing the spectacle and becomes very ill. Shortly afterward, she dies.
While Henchard has grown to hate Farfrae, he has grown closer to Elizabeth-Jane. The morning after Lucetta’s death, Newson, who is actually still alive, arrives at Henchard’s door and asks for Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard tells him that she is dead, and Newson leaves in sorrow. Elizabeth-Jane stays with Henchard and also begins to spend more time with Farfrae. One day, Henchard learns that Newson has returned to town, and he decides to leave rather than risk another confrontation. Elizabeth-Jane is reunited with Newson and learns of Henchard’s deceit; Newson and Farfrae start planning the wedding between Elizabeth-Jane and the Scotchman.
Henchard comes back to Casterbridge on the night of the wedding to see Elizabeth-Jane, but she snubs him. He leaves again, telling her that he will not return. She soon regrets her coldness, and she and Farfrae, her new husband, go looking for Henchard so that she can make her peace. Unfortunately, they find him too late, discovering that he has died alone in the countryside. He has left a will: his dying wish is to be forgotten.