Henchard begins the novel with a smashing blow at social convention, putting his wife and child up for auction. He then swears a solemn vow not to touch alcohol for 21 years. By dint of self-control and hard work, he becomes wealthy and influential. But he then suffers reverses—financial, social, and personal—that leave him a lonely wanderer who dies in a poor cottage. Is Henchard a tragic hero? Hardy suggests he is. Henchard is acutely aware of his character flaws, but in the end he cannot overcome them.
Susan is portrayed as meek and pliable. To a remarkable degree she submits to Henchard's dominating nature. However, Hardy hints Susan is capable of some initiative. For example, she writes notes in an effort to unite her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, with Donald Farfrae.
Elizabeth-Jane is the most balanced and morally principled of the novel's major characters. Respectability and propriety are her watchwords. She contrasts strongly with Michael Henchard and Lucetta Templeman, who both have impulsive natures.
Farfrae has many of the traits Henchard sorely lacks: practicality and discretion, to name a couple. In a series of situational ironies, Farfrae displaces Henchard on nearly every front: in marriage, in wealth, and as mayor of Casterbridge, and he earns Henchard's obsessive jealousy.
Lucetta appeals to the reader's sympathy because she refuses to conform strictly to convention. On the other hand, she is portrayed as somewhat petulant, self-centered, and manipulative.