Hardy describes the Ring as a Roman amphitheater in Casterbridge, a city that was built in the spirit of old Rome. Although the Ring was the Casterbridgian equivalent of Rome's Coliseum, it was now a meeting place for any other groups needing secrecy--but never for lovers. Henchard chose this place because it would be improper to invite her to his house.
Michael and Susan meet in the middle of the arena. He beings by saying that he no longer drinks; then he asks why she has never contacted him. Susan says she was moved by faithfulness to Newson. Michael says she is innocent because of her faith. They agree that Elizabeth-Jane must not know the truth of their relationship. Michael suggests that Susan take the name Mrs. Newson and live in a cottage with Elizabeth-Jane. Michael will meet, court and marry her. This will save his reputation and bring his child back to her proper home. Susan meekly agrees. Michael promises to provide them with money to keep a wealthy lifestyle. Susan is pleased to repeat her marriage. She runs away, leaving Michael to run to his home a few moments later.
Hardy describes the Ring in gruesome detail at the beginning of the chapter. It is a marvelous example of Hardy using his life experience. The description of the Ring's shape and dimensions reflects his many years as an architect, and his comparison of the Ring to the Coliseum as well as noting the other Roman features shows his lifelong interest in the classical world.
Yet the place, despite its architectural glory and reflection of cultures past, has a sinister aura. A spot such as the Ring is a common setting in Hardy's works--an outdoor place, steeped in pagan superstition, with a grotesque past. Nothing positive can take place within the Ring: the boys cannot make the Ring a good cricket arena, lovers cannot meet there, and no one can meet there without having a hidden secret.
The one thing keeping the positive experiences away are the ghosts of the past: the gladiator killed in battle or in a sporting contest, and the woman who was strangled and burned. These past ghosts serve as "metaphors" for Michael and Susan, who have their own past problems haunting them. Although the meeting seems to bring the couple together, they are actually being led to their destruction as those in the past were. Michael will fall in a "battle" for his pride, while Susan is being strangled by Michael's control.
Farfrae has been busily working in the office while Michael had his meeting. Michael enters and orders the young man to join him for supper. After dinner, Michael wants to tell the young man about his family matter. Farfrae listens intently as Michael tells him about his early marriage, his sale of his wife, and how his family has returned. Michael says that another woman is wronged by the return of his family. A young, well-bred woman in Jersey nursed the young Henchard to health, and during his recovery they fell in love. The young woman was careless of appearances; through her carelessness a scandal arose. She wrote many letters to Michael describing the severity of the scandal. Finally Michael promised to marry her if his wife never returned. Now that Susan is alive, Michael must honor his promise to her. Farfrae agrees that a letter must be written to the young lady to tell her of the situation, and to let her go. He also thinks that Elizabeth-Jane should know the truth, but Michael refuses to tell her. Farfrae writes the letter to the young lady in Jersey, and Michael sends it.
Hardy now combines foreshadowing and the previous implications in this chapter. In Chapter 3, we speculated that Michael may have an attachment to another woman, and here we learn that there was, in the form of the young lady from Jersey. Having learned that Hardy never introduces anyone who does not affect the plot, we know that the young woman from Jersey will not be forgotten that easily.
Michael remains true to his mercurial character, and Hardy presents these traits in equal portions, both good and bad. Here he shows real remorse for all his actions against the women in his life, and a determined willingness to make everything right again. He wants to relieve his loneliness, so he confesses to the man whom he regards as his best friend. Yet he shows recklessness and impulsiveness in revealing his past to a man he has known for only a day.
Farfrae also has the ability to handle sticky situations with people. Although he planned to eat alone, he changes his plans to accommodate Michael's whim. He also gives Michael good advice in handling the woman from Jersey. However, there is a sign of discord between the friends. Michael disregards Farfrae's advice on telling Elizabeth-Jane the truth. This foreshadows future disagreements for the men.
Michael begins calling upon the women in the cottage near the Roman ruins. The conversation is so skillfully made that Elizabeth-Jane has no idea of the plot her parents have created. Susan worries that this is taking up too much of Michael's time, but Michael says he will have free time now that he has a new manager.
Soon the town begins to gossip openly about the relation between the mayor and the widow. Most of the townspeople are confused by his choice because Mrs. Newson is so pale and fragile. Still, no one can tell that Michael courts only out of a sense of duty to Susan and as a punishment to himself. The townspeople agree that the couple will eventually grow tired of each other.
Michael finally lives up to his promise, making amends to Susan by openly courting and marrying her. Despite this, the whole chapter carries a tone of ill will and melancholy that is revealed in the natural world and within the townspeople of Casterbridge. Hardy uses pathetic fallacy--the act of having nature reflect the feelings the characters--to show the couple's true feelings about the wedding. The wind and rain that fall as they enter the church foreshadow the darkness, oppressiveness, and futility of their relationship, as well as showing the turbulent feelings of the man and woman who have no feelings for each other.
The townspeople also give a sense of uneasiness about the wedding. Although they don't know the secrets behind the proceedings, they understand that something is not quite right with the marriage. Ironically, they feel that Susan is of lower birth than Michael, a strange judgment since Susan exhibits more restraint and delicacy than Michael should as a gentleman.
At the center of the turbulence Michael and Susan stand. Again Michael is willing to lower himself to make amends to Susan--going so far as to abase himself in the eyes of the community. Susan is in a difficult position: she secretly fears him and feels that their deception is wrong, but again she succumbs to her meekness and allows Michael to have his way.
Susan and Elizabeth-Jane settle into their new household happily. Elizabeth-Jane in particular flourishes in her new environment, becoming more beautiful over time. However, her change in status does not change her mindset in any way. She is still respectable and sober in tastes.
One day, Michael looks at Elizabeth-Jane's brown hair and asks Susan if the girl's hair was black when she was a baby. An astonished Susan jerks Michael's foot, and he saves himself from giving away their secret. However, after Elizabeth-Jane leaves, Michael continues to press for a deeper connection to his daughter. He wants her to take the name Henchard. Susan is hesitant, but agrees only if Elizabeth-Jane will accept it. Later, the mother goes to her daughter and convinces her not to take the name Henchard.
Elizabeth-Jane watches her stepfather's business and relationship from her new position as well. Under Farfrae's guidance, the corn business runs more smoothly. Michael also regards the younger man as a best friend, and he refuses to be separated from him for any reason. Elizabeth-Jane wants the attentions of the handsome Farfrae, but notices sadly that he never looks at her.
One day, Elizabeth-Jane finds a note from someone who wants to meet her at the granary on Durnover Hill. As she waits there, Farfrae arrives, looking for someone as well. Elizabeth-Jane hides, but a machine covers her in wheat husks and the noise catches the attentions of Farfrae. They realize that someone has sent them the same letter. Farfrae thinks someone has played a trick on them. He tells Elizabeth-Jane not to mention the incident to anyone. Before she leaves, Farfrae helps dust the embarrassed young woman off. He looks at her thoughtfully, affected by her beauty.
Hardy introduces more elements of suspense in this chapter. Obviously something about Elizabeth-Jane's birth is amiss. We can see this in Michael's insistence on her hair color and in Susan's reluctance to give her Michael's name. In addition, Hardy hints that the relationship between Michael and Farfrae may not be as rosy as it seems. Farfrae tries to separate from Michael and do his job, but Michael dismisses his feelings by saying, "don't take too much thought about things." Finally, we wonder who wants to bring Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae together--is it really an act of fate, or has someone like Michael planned to bring them together?
Elizabeth-Jane begins to grow in this new environment, gaining beauty and more freedom. However, she still retains the lessons that her previous lifestyle has taught her. She retains her mother's mistrust of destiny, believing that Providence will ruin her if she shows too much happiness and gaiety. She also retains her sensitivity, offering to change her name if Michael really wishes it.
Hardy begins by describing Elizabeth-Jane's rise in stature as the town beauty. Michael gives her some tinted gloves one day, and she slowly purchases articles that match the gloves. When she finally completes the ensemble, she wears it into town, delighting everyone with her beauty. At home, she expresses wonder at her new status, but then feels sadness because she hasn't received a good education.
Downstairs, Michael and Farfrae are watching the workers leave for the day. Michael stops one worker, Abel Whittle, and says that Abel should show up on time for work the next day. Abel has a history of oversleeping and being late for work. The next morning, Abel is late, and Michael is so angry that he threatens to get Abel out of bed himself if he is late again.
Again, the next day Abel is late. Michael marches to Abel's home on Black Street, yanks him out of bed, and orders him to work--without his breeches. Farfrae sees the man arriving without pants, and is shocked. In front of all the workers, Farfrae orders Abel back home to get his pants. When Michael objects, Farfrae threatens to leave. Michael bends to his wishes, but not without feeling embarrassment. Later in the day, Farfrae learns that Michael cared for Abel's mother last winter. Michael continues to behave coldly towards the young man.
One day a young messenger asks for Farfrae to look at a haystack. The messenger says that the townspeople have more respect for Farfrae. When Michael meets Farfrae later in the day, Michael explodes in anger. He accuses Farfrae of trying to hurt his feelings. When the confused Farfrae apologizes, Michael quickly forgives him, but begins to regret confiding in him.
This chapter has a bit of allegorical progression. Elizabeth-Jane and Michael serve as opposing forces (youth and old age, respectively) that open and close the chapter. Both use Farfrae as a measure of how far they have come or fallen, with Farfrae and the townspeople acting as catalysts for change. Through the characters of father and stepdaughter, Hardy seems to imply that youth has more freedom to fight fate, simply because young people are not as set in their ways as their elders are.
Elizabeth-Jane, the embodiment of gentle youth and beauty, is appreciated by Farfrae alone at first. As she begins to wear finer clothing to impress him, the Casterbridgians become more aware of her and begin to regard her as a good person. While she does feel a little prideful, however, she chooses to find ways to improve herself, so that she can properly meet the high regard of the townspeople. Michael, however, closes the chapter with a more negative view. Because the wiser Farfrae is present, the townspeople are not as fond of the older and bullish Michael. His outdated morals (severe punishment for a tardy but overworked man) and headstrong nature make him seem foolish. Rather than attempt to change himself for the public, Michael places all the blame on his young friend, becoming cold and moody.
In the character of Abel, Hardy utilizes several levels of Biblical allegory. Abel represents his namesake in the Cain and Abel story, who in turn has been taken to be a metaphor for Christ. Here Michael acts as a Cain figure, slaying his brother (that is, fellow worker's) with a weapon (the embarrassment of going to work without pants). After that, Abel becomes a Christ figure, crucified by the "mortification" of losing his pants. His fear that the townswomen are "laughing me to scorn" cites a Biblical passage, "All they that see him laugh him to scorn" (Psalm 22), often used to foretell the Crucifixion scene.