The novel opens in the early part of the nineteenth century. One summer evening, a young family is walking towards the village of Weydon-Priors, in the region of England known as Wessex. From the beginning, it is obvious that something is strange about this family. Although the man, woman, and child are not poorly dressed, the dirt that has collected on them during their journey makes them look shabby. In addition, the man and woman do not regard each other at all, even though they are clearly traveling together.
Eventually the family stops to rest. While they rest, a turnip-hoer speaks to them. From him, the family learns that there is no work and no housing available in Weydon-Priors; however, since it is Fair Day, there is some excitement in the village. The family goes to the fair-field, but ignores all the goings-on in favor of finding food. They decided to stop in a furmity tent, a place where they can buy some pudding. The man demands some liquor for his furmity, and drinks it lustily, ignoring his wife's pleas for lodging. Soon the man, who has been called Michael, complains loudly about his marriage and his poverty.
Outside, Michael hears an auction of horses, and he wonders why men can't sell their wives at auction. Some people inside the tent actually respond favorably to this question, and Michael openly offers his wife for sale (with the child as a bonus). Although the wife, named Susan, begs her husband not to do such a thing, Michael ignores her. A sailor soon speaks from the doorway. He will take Susan and Elizabeth-Jane (the child) for five pounds and five shillings--though he will not if Susan is unwilling. Susan sweeps out of the tent with Elizabeth-Jane and the sailor, cursing her husband.
As Michael drinks, the villagers wonder about the sailor and the woman's spirit. Michael says that he will never take his wife back, and begins to fall asleep in the tent. Eventually, the other villagers depart, leaving Michael there to sleep off his drunken state.
The setting of the novel reflects the emotions of the characters. On the way to Weydon-Priors, nature is in a state of decay. The road is surrounded by clouds of dirt; the dirt obscures any radiance that the grass might have; the leaves and the trees are rotting. Thus nature adequately reinforces the feelings that both Michael and Susan have about their marriage--Michael feels that his marriage at a young age rotted any chance he had of living decently, while Susan is soiled by the fact that her husband would sell her as he would sell a horse.
Indeed, the natural world frequently identifies with the characters and mirrors their actions. This extends not only to trees, but to animals as well. For instance, while Michael announces the auction for the first time, a sparrow flies into the tent, and everyone watches until the sparrow is able to fly away. The sparrow serves as a metaphor for Susan's plight. She is seen as a sparrow: her husband frequently dismisses her complaints as "bird-like chirpings," and everyone in the furmity tent is forced to watch until Susan can escape the tent with the sailor.
Michael, the drunken husband, is not seen as an animal, but his physical appearance hints at his inner nature. He is a tall man "of fine figure." This outward goodness is reflected in his haste to get food for his family and his asking about employment and lodging. Yet he will frequently show his darker side as a sharp contrast to his goodness. Just as he is dark and "swarthy" while he is of a fine figure, he does harsh things while he behaves admirably. He searches for food for the family, then wants to drink himself into a state and actually sells his wife and child. The alternate title for the novel is "A Story of a Man of Character," and the contrasts such as these in the character of Michael will be what drives the novel.
Hardy wrote a number of novels set in the fictional shire of England known as "Wessex." Readers followed the novels that Hardy set in this region because of Hardy's skill in bringing life to the Wessex natives. The Weydon-Priors characters are examples of this skill. Although we don't see the turnip-hoer for more than a few lines, we have already learned that he is a morose man, intent on finding the negative in every situation (even the happy events such as the village fair). In a novel dealing with the character of one man, Hardy also tries to explore how one character touches others--another theme that one should trace through the story.
The next morning, the hay-trusser awakens, confused about his surroundings and about the events of the previous evenings. Upon discovering his wife's wedding-ring and the five guineas the sailor gave as payment, the man suddenly remembers the auction. He decides that he must find his wife and Elizabeth-Jane, and he leaves the furmity tent. As he walks from the deserted fair-field, he realizes that no one ever learned his name. Then he becomes angry that his simple-minded wife actually thought the auction was binding. Soon he returns to blaming himself and searching for his family.
Before he begins his investigation, the hay-trusser resolves to swear an oath: he will not drink any strong liquors for twenty-one years. He enters a nearby church, places his head upon the bible, and makes the oath. Then he begins looking for the woman and girl. Days, then weeks pass, and he gets no clues from anyone. Because he cannot explain why he is searching for his family (he is ashamed of his actions), his search is hampered. Eventually, he stops at a seaport. Three people that match his descriptions have left the country some time before. Discouraged, he gives up his search and heads for Casterbridge, a town in the southwestern part of Wessex.
In the last chapter, we saw the dark side of Michael Henchard through his drunkenness, greed, and temper. In this chapter, we realize that Michael does have positive attributes. He shows great determination in tirelessly searching for his wife and daughter, and he takes responsibility for his actions in accepting the blame for the sale. However, his negative qualities also return in this chapter. He blindly blames Susan for being simple enough to believe that such a sale is lawful. He also shows his excessive pride when he refuses to tell anyone why he has lost his family. The tension between Michael's good and bad qualities will be one major theme of the book that concerns itself with "a man of character."
This chapter also concludes the development of the primary dramatic conflict within the novel. Although there will be other conflicts arising later in the novel, the wife auction will come back to haunt all the characters involved. It will shape the later decisions of Michael, Susan, Newson, and Elizabeth-Jane.
Eighteen years later, a mother and daughter travel on the road to Weydon-Priors. They are the cast-off wife and daughter of long ago, Susan Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane. Susan remembers that this is where she met Newson the sailor, and the women mourn the man who is now lost at sea. Now they have returned to Weydon-Priors to find their lost "relative," Michael Henchard. Elizabeth-Jane does not know the real connection between Susan and Michael, and Susan wants to keep it that way.
The mother and daughter stop at the old furmity tent. Elizabeth-Jane tells her mother that it is not respectable to stop there, but Susan ignores her and goes inside. She is greeted by the old furmity seller, who says that she has seen better days in her business. Susan asks if she remembers the wife auction, and after a few moments of thought, the woman does remember. In fact, the husband returned to the tent a year later and said he lived in Casterbridge. Susan leaves the tent. She tells Elizabeth-Jane that they will go to Casterbridge, even though a lot of time has passed since Michael's last visit to Weydon-Priors.
This chapter begins with a recreation of the walk to Weydon-Priors that occurred in the opening of the novel. However, the scene is different. This time there are two women who obviously have connections to each other. They both dress in similar black gowns (emphasizing their connection through their mourning for the dead Newson), and they walk hand in hand. We can infer that Susan's marriage to Newson has made her more able to connect with people, as well as bringing Elizabeth-Jane to a more loving lifestyle.
Elizabeth-Jane does seem to be a very nice girl. She loves her mother, as we can see from her willingness to walk hand in hand with her mother and her unquestioning belief in her mother's story. However, Hardy injects a bit of irony into her character in making her concerned with what is proper and what is not. She tries to keep her mother away from the furmity tent by saying, "It isn't respectable"--despite our belief that Elizabeth-Jane came from the same improper conditions within the tent, with her working-class parents.
Hardy also includes a few elements of suspense into the story. We wonder why Susan is so determined to find Michael, and why Susan has never told Elizabeth-Jane about her former marriage. Then the question arises: What will happen when she finds Michael? Will he take his family back, or has he made another engagement in the years since his marriage? We must also remember the furmity seller, who is now desperate for any sort of business. Now that she remembers the auction, can she ruin the Henchards by announcing it? Hardy brings all these questions to mind to keep the reader engaged and eager to see how the story will unfold.
The chapter begins by recounting the eighteen previous years for Susan and Elizabeth-Jane. Elizabeth-Jane grew up believing that Newson and Susan were legally married, because Susan believed it. The new family traveled to Canada and stayed a while before returning to England. When Susan told Newson that she could no longer live with him, he left on a trade ship and was lost at sea. While Susan gained peace of mind from her "husband's" death, she wanted to make a better life for Elizabeth-Jane. Returning to Michael might give the women a better life, and Susan planned the trip specifically to find Michael.
The women arrive in Casterbridge, and Elizabeth-Jane finds it an "old-fashioned place." As they walk, they hear two men arguing. The men drop Henchard's name in their argument, and the women hear it. However, Susan stops Elizabeth-Jane from talking to the men, since their relative could be a criminal. They continue through the town, passing shops and churches. They ask a group of women where they can find good bread. The women explain the town's latest crisis. There is no good bread because the cornfactor has been selling grown wheat. The grown wheat has made the bread flat. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane buy a couple of biscuits at a nearby shop, then go towards a place that has music playing.
Hardy hastens the present action of the novel in his flashback. By relating the events of the past eighteen years quickly instead of relating them, he forces us to focus on the events of the present and on the characters who will be directly influenced by those events. In addition, he heightens suspense in the events of the present by mentioning
We learn much more about Susan's temperament and beliefs in this chapter. We know that she is naive: she blindly believes that the auction makes marriage to Newson binding. She is also swayed by public opinion. After sharing the events of her marriage with a friend who ridiculed her position, she instantly changes her mind and decides she cannot live with Newson anymore. Yet she is intensely devoted to Elizabeth-Jane and will do anything for her. Returning to find her former husband is a sign of this devotion: although she fears him, she will return to him if her can provide Elizabeth-Jane with a future.
Casterbridge is described in great detail. Hardy's gift for description brings the town to life. From his description, we can learn a lot about the people here. They have a connection with the land, as we can see from their stores selling "scythes, reaphooks, sheep-shears...plough-harness..." and other agricultural needs. However, the people are all concerned with the gathering places. They gather at the church, the bar, the streets. They also share gossip, as shown in the willingness of the townswomen to share the town gossip with the strangers. The public opinions will be a force in Casterbridge, as we shall see through the novel.
The music is coming from Casterbridge's main hotel, the King's Arms, where people are having fun and drinking. Susan is nervous, but she sends Elizabeth-Jane inside to ask about Michael. An old man, Christopher Coney, tells the young woman that a public dinner has brought everyone to the inn, including the mayor--Michael Henchard! Susan overhears this and hurries to her daughter's side. They get a glimpse of Michael in his finery. Susan becomes agitated and says she wants to die. Elizabeth-Jane is confused: in her eyes, their relative seems very grand, although no one fills his wineglass. The old man says that the mayor never drinks because he swore an oath. Another old man, Solomon Longways, says that the mayor punishes any worker who is drunk in his presence. He also tells the women that he is a powerful man in the wheat, oats, and barley business.
Inside the tavern, Michael is telling stories of his business exploits when a group of minor tradesmen mock his sales of grown wheat. The poor people watching outside take up the jeers. Michael grows angry, and tells them that businesses have accidents. However, he is looking for a general manager who can help him. When a baker asks how the mayor will repay their losses, Henchard says he cannot change the grown wheat, then sits down stiffly.
As we can see, the events of eighteen years ago still haunt the personalities of Susan and Michael. Susan continues to be swayed by the power that men have over her. She is awed at the power and splendor of her husband even as she fears that her husband can actually overpower her. Meanwhile, Michael remains true to his oath, even to the extent of forcing others to follow his example (though no one knows why he has made such an oath, a very important omission). He still has the paradoxes inherent in his character. He reveals his caring side in his concern for the wheat that is unhealthy to his citizens. Yet again Hardy proves that Michael also has a darker and angrier side, subtly shown in both his "coarse build" and his sharp retort at the end of the chapter.
Like Dickens, Hardy is very skilled in bringing his minor characters to life, a talent that is revealed in portrayal of the townspeople of Casterbridge. These villagers actually comment upon the action, taking more of a role in the story than the people of Weydon-Priors were willing to take. Because of their running commentary on all the events, the Casterbridgians serve as a Greek chorus. As such, they all carry a dark and pessimistic tone, as befits the chorus in a tragedy. However, Hardy tries to give each villager a distinct personality that can sometimes be determined in his or her name. For instance, Solomon Longways frequently behaves as his Biblical counterpart, giving a rational perspective on the events.