The Mayor of Casterbridge

The Mayor of Casterbridge Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-20

Chapter 16:


Michael becomes more reserved towards Farfrae since the incidents of the last chapter. While the men are still close business partners, Michael no longer invites the young man to dinner with his family.

To celebrate a public holiday, Farfrae borrows some rick-cloths from Michael for some sort of entertainment. Michael lets him have the cloths, but then wonders why he (in his role as Mayor) has not found a way to celebrate the holiday. With the blessing of the city council, he plans a large outdoor entertainment with games. To ensure that everyone will come, he even announces that the festivities will be free of charge (unlike Farfrae's entertainment, which have an admission charge).

On the holiday, the stormy weather completely ruins Michael's fair. Gloomily he closes his own festivities and goes into Casterbridge, where all the townspeople are going to Farfrae's dance. Farfrae has used the cloths to form a tent, using some nearby trees for poles. Now the whole company dances wildly in the warm surroundings. Even Susan and Elizabeth-Jane have arrived, and later Farfrae has a dance with Elizabeth-Jane. The evening is a great success for Farfrae, as Michael jealously sees. After overhearing the remarks of the townspeople and the taunts of the councilmen, Michael says that Farfrae's time as manager is coming to a close. Farfrae quietly agrees.

That night, Michael goes home, pleased that his reputation will be protected by firing Farfrae. The next morning, with his jealous rage spent, he regrets his mistake.


Although Hardy adopts the omniscient narrator's voice through the novel, he manipulates the viewpoint throughout the novel to get inside a character's head. It is a way of understanding the character's motivations and a means of creating sympathy for the characters. In this chapter, Hardy writes so we see the events unfolding from Michael's view. This is an ironic choice, since we are looking at the events of a public holiday from the viewpoint of a private person who is nearly disconnected from the community. Yet we can experience Michael's frustrations by hearing only the jibes of the townspeople and the councilmen, and we can feel the jealousy that Michael feels upon seeing Farfrae's successful dance.

Even nature sides with Farfrae. The rain that ruined Michael's entertainment magically disappears in the evening, when Farfrae's dance is about to begin. The natural world appears to work for the success of the dance: the trees provide convenient, living poles for the tent cloths. Of course, Farfrae is the one who had the idea to use this spot in the first place. Like the townspeople, he is able to understand and adapt to nature. Perhaps the fate that is working against the business-oriented Michael works so well for the nature-loving Farfrae.

Chapter 17:


Elizabeth-Jane feels ashamed when a friend tells her that she should have considered her position as the Mayor's stepdaughter before dancing. Susan has already left the ball, so Elizabeth-Jane leaves alone. Farfrae runs into her and offers to walk her home. As they walk, he says that he must leave Casterbridge because he has offended her stepfather. He also reveals that he would "ask her something" if he were richer. Elizabeth-Jane shyly hopes that he will not leave, then rushes home. She spends the following days waiting to hear any news about Farfrae.

Farfrae is not leaving Casterbridge; in fact, he plans to open his own hay and corn business. Upon hearing this, Michael openly calls Farfrae his enemy in front of the city council. The councilmen, however, practically ignore Michael's hurtful words, since Michael is rapidly falling out of favor in the town. Undaunted, Michael forbids Elizabeth-Jane to have any relationship with Farfrae. Next, he writes Farfrae to say that Elizabeth-Jane has promised to obey her stepfather and stay away.

Farfrae's business grows quickly, but he avoids any competition with Farfrae's company as a gesture of goodwill. He even sends away a customer who had dealt with Michael's company three months ago. Nevertheless, eventually the two men meet at the weekly market. When Farfrae receives an official stall at the marketplace, Michael considers the action to be a new attack. Michael becomes so bitter that he cannot stand it when Susan and Elizabeth-Jane mention the Scotsman's name at home.


The chapter gives the upright Elizabeth-Jane more of a human character. Although her reckless dancing makes her blush, she indulges herself with fantasies of Farfrae's love letters. In addition, she also voices the same concerns that we as readers have. What will happen to their courtship now that Michael and Farfrae are on bad terms? While Susan seems to encourage the suit by conveniently leaving the dance early and by talking about Farfrae, Michael simply silences her.

Once again, Michael quickly changes his mind about his friends. He drags his hatred into the business arena by encouraging competition. Despite this, Farfrae continues to act friendly, even refusing business from customers to keep his friendship. It is worth noting that the city councilmen don't seem to share the belief that Michael can take Farfrae in competition.

"Character is Fate, said Novalis." This is one of the most debated comments in Hardy's novels. At first it seems to run against all of Hardy's insistence that man is ruined by an impersonal fate. Is Michael's fate determined by the gods, his own flaws, or a combination of the two? A case can be made for each response, since the novel seems to change opinions in several places.

Chapter 18:


To Elizabeth-Jane's shock, Susan becomes too ill to leave her room. Michael sends for the richest and busiest doctor in town. Elizabeth-Jane spends the time at her mother's bedside.

One morning, Michael receives a letter from his former lover, the young lady in Jersey named Lucetta. She writes that she understands the situation of his remarriage, and that he is not to blame for her misfortunes. She only hopes that he can return the letters that she wrote to him early in their relationship. She plans to get them next Wednesday as she passes through town. Michael sighs and wishes that he could have married Lucetta. On the appointed day, he waits for her, but she does not appear, to his relief.

Meanwhile, Susan grows weaker. One day she asks to write something. After pen and paper are brought to her, she writes for a short while, then seals the letter, addressing it to "Michael Henchard. Not to be opened till Elizabeth-Jane's wedding day." Then she locks the letter in her desk.

Elizabeth-Jane, who has been lovingly watching over her mother, awakens at Susan's call. Susan confesses that she was the one who wrote the notes to the girl and Farfrae asking them to meet each other. She says that she wanted Farfrae to marry the girl, and laments that she will never see them wed.

One Sunday morning, Farfrae passes the house only to notice that all the blinds are down. When he rings the bell, he is informed that Susan has died. The townspeople discuss her death around the water pump.


As usual, Hardy introduces more elements of suspense as he furthers the plot. Susan dies, but not before writing a cryptic letter that cannot be opened until a certain time. To replace Susan's role in more ways than one, Lucetta appears once more through her letters, though she does not appear when she is expected.

Susan leaves the novel with no real change in her outlook on life. Fate continued to treat her cruelly until the very end. As she says, "Nothing is as you wish it." In a sense nothing in her life has been as she wished it. Her "first" marriage ended horribly both times, and her "second" marriage was loving but eventually unlawful in her eyes. Her plan to bring Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane together failed miserably. Through it all, she has remained meek, moved by the whims of her men. She cannot control the amount of happiness that Elizabeth-Jane gets after she is gone, though she lived for the girl's happiness. The poor woman does not even have the power to die in our presence--we only learn that she has died from Farfrae's questioning. Is the writing of this letter her last attempt to manipulate fate and take some sort of control? Mrs. Cuxsom foreshadows that the secret of the letter will be harmful: "Little things a' didn't wish seen, anybody will see."

Both Michael and the townspeople have little regard for Susan's death. Michael wishes that he had married Lucetta as Susan is dying. Mrs. Cuxsom shares the details of Susan's death with the eager listeners over the water pump. Coney even digs up the pennies that Susan had placed on her dead eyes and buried in the garden. These actions continue the disregard that everyone in Casterbridge has for Susan's feelings. They also emphasize the gruesome touch that Hardy brings to every novel.

Chapter 19:


Three weeks after Susan's funeral, Michael and Elizabeth-Jane speak of the old times. Elizabeth-Jane repeatedly refers to Newson as her father. This annoys Michael: after his wife's death and Farfrae's forced estrangement, the mayor feels a deep loneliness again. After a few moments, he confesses that he is her real father, and tells her an abbreviated version of their first marriage (carefully omitting the auction). Elizabeth-Jane bursts into tears as Michael says he will do anything to be a real father to her. He then asks if she is willing to change her last name to Henchard, and she helps him write up an announcement for the Casterbridge Chronicle. With that, he sends the girl to bed, telling her that he will have proof for her in the morning.

As he searches for the proof in Susan's desk, he thinks joyfully of his daughter and her good sense. Soon he comes across the letter that Susan wrote on her deathbed. The letter was not sealed very well, and as a result, the letter was already opened. Believing that the note on the front was just a whim of Susan's, Michael opens the letter and reads it. In the letter, Susan confesses that Elizabeth-Jane is actually Newson's daughter. The Elizabeth-Jane that was sold with Susan died three months after the sale. At first, Michael doesn't believe the letter, but the sleeping Elizabeth-Jane's features are definitely like Newson's features.

Michael spends the rest of the night cursing his fate. He walks past the jail and the gallows in the northeastern side of town, the most barren part of Casterbridge. When he returns, he is convinced that he must continue the lie rather than tell the truth and face humiliation. He experiences a deep blow to his emotions when Elizabeth-Jane admits that she believes Michael's confession from the night before, and she resolves to call him Father.


Hardy delivers the most painful bit of irony yet in this chapter, revealing that Elizabeth-Jane is actually the sailor's daughter just as Michael convinces her of his claim to her. Mrs. Cuxsom's words from the last chapter were prophetic: "Little things a' didn't wish seen, anybody will see." Michael is forced to see everything that Susan didn't want him to see, both the letter that reveals the secret and the resemblance to Newson evident in Elizabeth-Jane's face.

Hardy has again shifted the viewpoint of the chapter back to Michael. We feel sympathy for him because we experience the joy of making her his daughter, followed quickly by the defeat the letter symbolizes, all through his eyes. We even see Nature mocking the fact that he does not have a child, as he walks through the section of Casterbridge that is the most barren, where "frost lingered" in springtime. As before, however, "Character is Fate." If Michael had not been so insistent on making Elizabeth-Jane his daughter, he would not have felt such a crushing blow when he learned the truth. If he had not blindly ignored the note on the front of the letter, he could have saved himself the pain. The bullish nature that he cannot shake has brought all of this upon him.

Chapter 20:


Elizabeth-Jane is extremely shocked to feel Michael's cold demeanor so soon after his announcement. Soon he begins mocking the girl in the open, critical of her country dialect, her bold handwriting, and her consideration of the servants. Another fact brings him great shame. One day, when Elizabeth-Jane brings Nance Mockridge some bread and cider, Michael scolds her for helping the commoners. Nance indignantly tells Michael that Elizabeth-Jane once worked as a waitress in the Three Mariners. Elizabeth-Jane tries to explain, but Michael is convinced that her actions have cast him into the deepest shame. His beliefs seem to be confirmed when he is informed that he is not in the running for the position of alderman when his term as mayor ends. In addition, he becomes even angrier when her realizes that Farfrae will be given a position on the council. Wishing to rid himself of the girl who seems to have brought all of his misfortune, he invites Farfrae to continues his courtship of Elizabeth-Jane.

Now that her "father" avoids her, the miserable Elizabeth-Jane tries to win him back by devoting herself to her studies, teaching herself Latin with books and from the relics of Casterbridge's past. On the nice winter days, she spends some time at her mother's grave. One day, she goes to the graveyard to find a pretty young lady reading her mother's gravestone. The young lady is not from Casterbridge, but Elizabeth-Jane cannot catch up to speak to her. On another visit, the young lady finally speaks to Elizabeth-Jane after overhearing her lamentations. She is so sympathetic that Elizabeth-Jane pours out her heart to the young woman. The young lady is so moved that she offers the girl a position as companion. Elizabeth-Jane joyfully accepts, but the young woman promises to return for her final answer in a week.


The suspense continues in this chapter. Who is the mysterious young lady that Elizabeth-Jane meets in the graveyard? Why is she so concerned about Elizabeth-Jane's problems? What will happen when Farfrae gets the letter about courting Elizabeth-Jane?

Now the viewpoint of the chapter shifts to Elizabeth-Jane. We automatically feel for the young lady who is being treated so cruelly by her "father." Hardy is so skilled at evoking pathos for her that we can easily turn on Michael, the man whom we sympathized with in the last chapter. Yet Hardy avoids making the girl into a saint and tries to make her behavior more human. Elizabeth-Jane works hard at being the perfect girl for Michael, but she does it with tears streaming down her face and while wishing that she would die. Fortunately, the chapter also hints that good things are in store for the girl. She has a position with a charming young lady, and she has the promise of a courtship from Farfrae. In addition, she attempts to grow closer to the townspeople, giving them food and trying to learn more about the town.

Michael behaves very ironically in this chapter. He asks his stepdaughter, "Why do you lower yourself so confoundedly?" when in fact he seems to lower himself. He also shows that he prefers to believe both factions of public opinion. He is concerned with what the upper classes think, as in his concern for the girl's handwriting and her speech. Yet he also easily believes the lower classes, listening to Nance's words rather than Elizabeth-Jane's explanation. The ultimate irony is that the townspeople don't even like Michael anymore, choosing Farfrae over Michael for the city council.