One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. They were plainly but not ill clad, though the thick hoar of dust which had accumulated on their shoes and garments from an obviously long journey lent a disadvantageous shabbiness to their appearance just now.
Summary: Michael and Sarah Henchard are respectable but nearly destitute and are traveling with their baby, Elizabeth Jane, as Michael Henchard looks for work as a hay trusser. Stopping at a village fair, Henchard buys some furmity (what we would usually call 'frumenty' today) laced with rum, and, having a taste for rum, he eats quite a bit. Henchard is clearly unhappy with his lot and frustrated with his inability to provide for wife and child, and as he eats and gets drunk from the eating, it manifests itself in increasing expression of resentment, so that when he gets into an argument with his wife, he start offering to sell her and the child off to anyone who will buy them. A sailor named Newsom offers, and Sarah, fed up with Henchard's temper, voluntarily goes with him. Because she is not well educated, she assumes that in doing so she is sealing a legitimate contract, and will only learn much later that in fact you can't change spouses by means of an auction. Henchard, once he sobers, regrets his actions and tries to find them, but he cannot, and he makes a vow not to touch strong drink for twenty-one years.
Newsom as a sailor is often away, and one time he apparently is lost at sea, so Sarah, who by now recognizes that her relationship with Newsom, while amicable, was not really legitimate, goes with her daughter, Elizabeth Jane, to find Henchard again. They discover him in the agricultural town of Casterbridge, in Wessex, which is Hardy's fictionalized rural England, Casterbridge itself being a fictional English town with Roman roots (hence the Roman element in the name). Henchard has done well for himself in the eighteen years that they have been away. While not profoundly educated or talented, he nonetheless has an extraordinary energy and willingness to work at things, which has led to his rising from day laborer to the most prosperous seller of hay and grain in the area to Mayor of Casterbridge. He is in a sort of relationship with a woman from Bath (although we learn that things are more complicated than that) named Lucetta, and they are contemplating marriage, or at least Lucetta is. However, on Sarah's reappearance, Henchard breaks it off with Lucetta and they reunite with a superficial courtship and purely symbolic private wedding for public appearances, so that neither of them have to explain the awkward problem of their not having lived as man and wife. Instead, they pass of their old marriage as a new thing, and while people think it's odd, they pass off the Mayor marrying a poor widow of lower status with a grown daughter as just one of those things that happens in the romances of prosperous men. Lucetta is not happy, but Henchard, who has a certain sort of honor despite his unreasoned impulsiveness, has let her know in broad outlines the problem (without mentioning his own role in the absence of his wife).
In the meantime, a young Scotsman named Donald Farfrae passes through town and, without asking anything in return, helps Henchard out of a difficult business situation. Henchard is somewhat floored at someone doing a purely a benevolent deed for him, and impulsively takes a vehement liking to the man. He convinces Farfrae to stay, hiring him as a corn factor, and things are going well for the moment. However, Henchard finds that Farfrae is quite competent -- very, very, very competent -- and Henchard comes to resent how much more people look to Farfrae than to him, particularly as Farfrae is not afraid to cross him if he thinks Henchard is wrong. Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane also are beginning to show signs of a budding romance, and the combination leads to a clear break betwen the two men, although the break is almost entirely on the part of Henchard. Farfrae and Henchard become business competitors, although Farfrae still regards them as friends in at least a general way; but, again, Farfrae is very competent, and by focusing on repeated small profits rather than the kind of heavy gambling on the future that characterizes most of the other grain merchants, he is soon the most significant merchant in the area. Henchard, on the other hand, is continually hamstrung by his own impulsiveness, and his fortunes decline. Things become even worse when Sarah dies and Lucetta, thinking she can now marry Henchard, moves into tow, having newly become very wealthy; but she soon falls in love with Farfrae and marries him.
Henchard's own fortunes will continue to deteriorate, although almost always due to his own headstrong impulsiveness. It's very important to the story that Henchard is not in any way a villain. He is in many ways a very decent man, capable of extraordinary generosity and a sort of rough honor and a willingness to make amends. But he is proud, capable of nursing a grudge and inclined to refuse help from someone else even when it would obviously improve the situation for everyone, and when this is combined with his impulsiveness, he keeps making rash decisions he comes to regret but then through pride keeps refusing to back down from them. This is a recipe for disaster, and Henchard, having risen so high and having so many resources by which to avoid a bad end, will nonetheless end worse than he began. It's a tragic life. It's a tragedy for which he himself is almost entirely to blame, but it's a tragic life nonetheless. But it is not a very foreign sort of life, although most of us are prevented by good luck and different temperament from going as far as Henchard does. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Sometimes, indeed, we are, like Henchard, our only real enemy. The thing about being your own enemy is that, no matter what happens, you are guaranteed to lose that battle. And others may suffer as collateral damage.
Favorite Passage: The book, while well written, and often showing a striking turn of phrase, doesn't have many striking extended passages, but I like the following for its capturing both Henchard's and Farfrae's characters completely in a brief passage that features neither of them directly.
Abel Whittle was edging his skeleton in at the wicket, and she said, “Mr. Farfrae is master here?”
“Yaas, Miss Henchet,” he said, “Mr. Farfrae have bought the concern and all of we work-folk with it; and ’tis better for us than ’twas—though I shouldn’t say that to you as a daughter-law. We work harder, but we bain’t made afeard now. It was fear made my few poor hairs so thin! No busting out, no slamming of doors, no meddling with yer eternal soul and all that; and though ’tis a shilling a week less I’m the richer man; for what’s all the world if yer mind is always in a larry, Miss Henchet?”
The intelligence was in a general sense true; and Henchard’s stores, which had remained in a paralyzed condition during the settlement of his bankruptcy, were stirred into activity again when the new tenant had possession. Thenceforward the full sacks, looped with the shining chain, went scurrying up and down under the cat-head, hairy arms were thrust out from the different door-ways, and the grain was hauled in; trusses of hay were tossed anew in and out of the barns, and the wimbles creaked; while the scales and steel-yards began to be busy where guess-work had formerly been the rule.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.