The Mayor of Casterbridge | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Chapters 5–6 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 5

Susan and Elizabeth-Jane make their way to the King's Arms, the chief hotel in Casterbridge, where a great public dinner is in progress. The center of attention is Michael Henchard, who is now the mayor of the town. Henchard, a picture of prosperity and influence, has a loud, boisterous laugh. Amazed at the sight of him, and the changes "Time the magician" has wrought, Susan experiences a wave of anxiety. Elizabeth-Jane, on the other hand, is brightly optimistic about the prospect of protection and aid from such a powerful figure as Henchard. From the dialogue of some of the locals, readers learn Henchard has remained true to his vow to abstain from liquor. The locals also tell Elizabeth-Jane that Henchard has achieved his prominent position through hard work and a focus on building his career. At the end of Chapter 5, however, a note of conflict arises when Henchard's irascible temper is provoked by complaints about the sale of inferior grain.

Chapter 6

A stranger appears at the festivities. Hailing from Scotland, he happens to overhear Henchard's retort concerning the sale of bad grain. He immediately writes a note and asks for it to be delivered to the mayor. He then departs in the direction of a more modestly priced hotel, the Three Mariners Inn. Concerned about expense, Susan and Elizabeth-Jane repair to the same destination to find lodging for the night. Intrigued by the note from Farfrae, Henchard also finds his way to the Three Mariners.

Analysis

The centerpiece of Chapter 5 is the description of Michael Henchard as he appears 18 years after he auctioned off his wife and daughter. He is now a prosperous and influential figure, a "pillar of the town," in the phrase of the local resident Solomon Longways. The locals single out hard work and determination as two of his chief character traits. He has, in fact, abided by his solemn oath not to touch liquor for 21 years.

But Hardy subjects this rosy picture to some crosscurrents. For example, Susan and Elizabeth-Jane have quite different reactions to Henchard—not surprising, given Henchard's harsh treatment of his wife when Elizabeth-Jane was only an infant. The narrator also speculates on the nature and effects of Henchard's loud laugh, portending a temperament "which would have no pity for weakness." The narrator uses the terms "fitful" and "aggressive" and questions whether Henchard has any goodness in his nature.

These hints accord with Henchard's irritated reaction when complaints are voiced about the sale of inferior grain. The narrator refers to "temper under the bland surface" and explicitly refers to Henchard's sale of his wife "nearly a score of years before." Despite all the changes in his outer circumstances, one can reasonably infer Henchard's nature remains impulsive and potentially fiery at its core.

In Chapter 6 Donald Farfrae, the stranger from Scotland, makes his first appearance. Throughout the novel Farfrae will be portrayed as a character foil to Henchard. The two men's similarities and differences will dominate much of the tale's dramatic action. Significantly, as with Henchard earlier, Hardy delays identifying Farfrae until the middle of Chapter 7, as if implying the character and his actions will be the source of considerable suspense in the story.

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