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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Chapters 19–20 | Summary



Chapter 19

Susan neglected to properly seal her letter to Henchard, and seeing no reason to delay, he opens the letter and learns Elizabeth-Jane's true father is Richard Newson. This revelation causes Henchard to suffer from a bout of extreme gloom and depression.

Chapter 20

Upset over the news about Elizabeth-Jane, Henchard lashes out with a series of sharp, petty criticisms of her behavior, finding fault with her handwriting and for her use of dialect. When Nance Mockridge, a working-class local, saucily says Elizabeth-Jane once waited on clients at the Three Mariners Inn, Henchard becomes irritated. He is worried such talk will damage his local reputation.

To improve her education Elizabeth-Jane embarks on the study of Latin. She is inspired in her effort by the ancient Roman roots of Casterbridge.

Henchard now reconsiders his decision to forbid any contact between Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae. He writes to his former manager to this effect, withdrawing his objection.

On a visit to the churchyard where Susan is buried, Elizabeth-Jane encounters a strange lady. In the course of a courteous and kindly dialogue, the stranger—who soon will be revealed as Lucetta—invites Elizabeth-Jane to visit her, and perhaps to remain as a housekeeper and companion, at her new Casterbridge residence, High-Place Hall.


Chapter 19 serves as a showcase for dramatic irony, one of Hardy's favorite literary techniques. Among the many examples of this device is Henchard's opening declaration to Elizabeth-Jane that he, not Newson, is her real father—a statement soon to be contradicted by the contents of Susan's letter. This irony is reinforced when Elizabeth-Jane, to please Henchard, formally changes her surname to his and makes a public announcement of the change in the local newspaper.

Just before Henchard reads Susan's fateful letter, the narrator delivers another highly significant comment on Henchard's psychology: "He was the kind of man to whom some human object for pouring out his heat upon—were it emotive or were it choleric—was almost a necessity." In other words, Henchard is, in today's parlance, passive-aggressive or even bipolar—an individual of strong, conflicting impulses, with unpredictable and stress-inducing mood swings.

When he learns Elizabeth-Jane is Richard Newson's child, Henchard is stunned. He looks at Susan's letter "as if it were a window pane through which he saw for miles." The letter suddenly clarifies many things: for example, Susan's reluctance to acquiesce to a change in Elizabeth-Jane's surname, and Elizabeth-Jane's surprisingly fair features. At the chapter's conclusion, dramatic irony reigns once more, as Elizabeth-Jane cheerfully declares her joy and satisfaction at knowing Henchard is her real father. The narrator offers a pessimistic allusion to the Biblical phrase "dust and ashes"—a phrase connoting worthlessness (see Genesis 18:27 and Job 30:19).

In Chapter 20 Henchard's disillusionment results in his "open chiding" of Elizabeth-Jane, as he reproaches her for all kinds of petty faults, including her use of local dialect and her unsatisfactory handwriting. Henchard's disillusionment and embarrassment at the latest turn of events are magnified by the challenging disrespect of Nance Mockridge, who reminds the mayor that Elizabeth-Jane once acted in a working-class capacity. In a poignant reaction to Henchard's reproaches, Elizabeth-Jane makes a strenuous effort to further her education. Meanwhile, the estranged Henchard—perhaps in an effort to distance himself from Elizabeth-Jane still further—changes his mind about her contact with Farfrae.

At the end of the chapter, with Lucetta's first appearance, readers are compelled to speculate on her role in the rest of the novel. Clearly she will play a major part in the plot, as forecast by her past connection with Henchard and her installation at a grand residence in town.

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