The Mayor of Casterbridge | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Chapters 17–18 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 17

This chapter recounts the complete break between Henchard and Farfrae, who had previously been "inseparable." Farfrae bids Elizabeth-Jane farewell, and she is melancholy about his departure. However, Farfrae does not actually leave Casterbridge. Instead, he buys the business of another corn and hay merchant, thus becoming a competitor of Henchard, although on a smaller scale. Furious at the young man's new status as a commercial rival, and stung by Farfrae's unwillingness to continue as his manager, Henchard declares him unwelcome ("an enemy in our house"), forbids Elizabeth-Jane to see him, and tells Farfrae in a note to cease his attentions to her.

For his part Farfrae refuses to intrude on Henchard's business or his customer base. His ethical character is very different from Henchard's sulkiness and jealousy.

Chapter 18

This chapter presents several important turns in the novel's plot. As it opens, Susan is too ill to leave her room. At the same time, a letter for Henchard arrives from Jersey. The letter is from his old companion Lucetta, who tells him she is on her way to Bristol to see a wealthy relative and will stop off in Casterbridge on her return journey. She asks him to return to her all the letters she wrote to him at the time of their romance.

Susan becomes weaker. She writes Henchard a letter and seals it, indicating it must not be opened until Elizabeth-Jane's wedding day. Before she dies, Susan tells Elizabeth-Jane she wrote the notes prompting the awkward meeting with Farfrae at the granary because she wanted Elizabeth-Jane to marry him. The chapter closes with Susan's death and the superstitious and pessimistic comments of the local townspeople.

Analysis

Chapter 17 presents another case study in the novel's exploration of Henchard's explosive and paradoxical personality. Referring to "the mayor's headstrong faculties," the narrator comments pointedly about Henchard: "Loving a man or hating him, his diplomacy was as wrong-headed as a buffalo's." Farfrae's character, remarks the narrator, was "just the reverse of Henchard's." In an allusion to the literary character Faust, made famous in Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus (first performed in 1592) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's verse drama Faust (1808–32), Hardy stresses Henchard's unconventional and impulsive nature. In another significant allusion at the end of the chapter, Hardy refers to the Greek mythological hero Bellerophon, whose early victories and successes were more than offset by a wretched existence in later life, when he became a bitter and solitary wanderer.

Chapter 19 centers on two of the most important women in Henchard's life. For the first time, readers hear directly—via a letter—from Lucetta, Henchard's old flame on the island of Jersey. Perhaps not coincidentally, a letter also plays a part in the final scene involving Susan, just before her death. The fateful contents of this missive will be revealed in Chapter 19. In the meantime, Susan's demise becomes the occasion for a series of comments from the locals on the inevitability and grimness of death.

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