Again from the vault:
I must have been a total loser to hate this novel so much when I was sixteen. Illiterate, really. I mean, I just wasn’t smart enough yet to understand the language he was writing in, much less care about the concerns he’s dealing with.
Michael Henchard, a hay-trusser, gets drunk and sells his wife and baby daughter to a sailor. He then sobers up and tries to find them, but fails. He takes a vow not to drink for as many years as he is old (21), and then moves on. Zip forward about twenty years, and he’s now a prosperous corn (grain) merchant and mayor in the town of Casterbridge. His sold wife, Susan, and her daughter Elizabeth-Jane come to town looking for him, because the sailor, Newson, is reported dead at sea, and they have no place else to turn. Henchard marries Susan, both of them pretending it’s their first marriage so as not to let the town or EJ know the truth of their pasts.
Meanwhile, at the same time they come to town, a young Scot named Farfrae comes to town. He’s smart and knows the corn business, and immediately impresses Henchard so much that he hires Farfrae as his manager. Farfrae is so modern and charming, however, that he soon outstrips his boss in popularity—everyone believes he knows what he’s doing more than Henchard. Henchard fires him, and Farfrae sets up on his own in the same business. Henchard tries to crush him, but goes bankrupt himself. He loses everything: Farfrae buys him out, buys his house, and becomes mayor.
Meanwhile, Susan has died, and Henchard has found out from a letter she wrote on her deathbed that EJ is not his child—his child died, and EJ’s father is Newson. This turns Henchard against EJ, but he still doesn’t tell her the truth—he’s only just convinced her to accept him as her true father. Meanwhile meanwhile, a woman named Lucetta comes to town. This is a woman who Henchard had an affair with a while back, and who he had promised to marry just before Susan came back. Susan’s return meant he had to jilt Lucetta, but Susan’s death means she can make him keep his promise, which is why she’s moved to town. In the meantime, she has inherited money, which makes her charming to the single Farfrae, who had previously hinted at an interest in EJ. EJ is so alienated by Henchard’s new coldness to her that she befriends Lucetta and moves in with her; Henchard now actually wants to marry Lucetta, but she’s putting him off now, because she’s falling in love with Farfrae. Lucetta and Farfrae marry, with Farfrae ignorant of the scandal in her past. EJ accepts her personal setback with philosophy.
Henchard does not—he feels everything has been taken from him. The years of his vow over, he takes to drinking; he also has to beg a job of Farfrae to support himself, but he can’t bear the shame long, and finally he tries to fight Farfrae to the death in an empty hay-barn. He beats Farfrae, but at the last minute can’t kill him. Meanwhile, the secret of Lucetta and Henchard’s past gets out (through Henchard’s doing, although he does not intend it). The townspeople stage a “skimmington ride,” in which effigies of the two illicit lovers are paraded through town. This is such a shock to Lucetta that she takes sick and dies.
Henchard is full of remorse for all he’s done, and tries to be supportive of both Lucetta and Farfrae through this, but all he succeeds in doing is drawing closer to EJ, who still thinks he’s her real father. She’s all he has left, and she moves in with him. He’s poor and humiliated, but happy to have someone who loves him. Then Newson comes back, looking for her. Henchard lies and says EJ died when Susan did, but he knows this lie won’t keep Newson away for long. So when he hears that Newson is coming back, he leaves town to become a wandering hay-trusser again.
Newson and EJ are reunited, and EJ and Farfrae marry. Henchard tries to come to the wedding, but EJ rebuffs him, and he wanders off to die of a broken heart. This is when EJ realizes how much he always blamed himself—he was never exactly a good man, but he never thought he was, either, and so when it all came crashing down he never even tried to salvage his position, feeling he deserved it.
It’s clear, as the intro notes, that Henchard and Farfrae are based on Saul and David, and there’s something touching and mythical about Henchard. He’s larger than life, with his towering moodiness and gargantuan inarticulateness. He’s doomed, clearly, and we know he deserves it—but he’s partially redeemed in our eyes because we know he knows he deserves it.
The intro also points out how shallow Farfrae is as a man—not a David himself by any means. This I find interesting because of how clearly Farfrae is meant to represent the coming of modernity to this backwater agricultural community. Henchard does business the old way, estimations and handshakes and divination; Farfrae, with his Scottish efficiency, brings in machinery and exact calculations and written contracts. It’s good for the town, and everybody knows it, but at the same time there’s a tremendous sense that the ancient pagan ritualistic communal aspect of life there is going to disappear with the arrival of the new ways. Henchard represents this. The old ways are crude, inexact, and not too nice—just like Henchard—but at least they have great depth of feeling, which Farfrae doesn’t have. This is what Hardy seems to be saying, on one level, and it’s a pretty interesting way of putting it.