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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Michael Henchard, the novel's protagonist, is a young, hot-tempered hay-trusser (someone who composes hay into bundles or bales, also called trusses). While intoxicated at a village fair, he impulsively sells his wife and infant child at auction for the sum of five guineas. Waking up the next day, he experiences extreme remorse and makes a solemn vow not to touch alcohol for the next 21 years.

After a gap of 18 years, Henchard's wife, Susan, and her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, track Henchard down. Through hard work and iron self-discipline, he has become wealthy and socially influential as the mayor of Casterbridge, the principal town in the region of Wessex. Susan agrees to remarry him. Henchard also befriends Donald Farfrae, a young newcomer from Scotland, who helps Henchard to prosper in business.

Soon, however, Henchard and Farfrae part ways, becoming bitter rivals. Susan becomes ill, and shortly before her death she writes a letter to Henchard, telling him Elizabeth-Jane is not really his daughter. Her father is the sea captain Richard Newson, the man who bought Susan at auction. Henchard is powerfully disillusioned and comes to treat Elizabeth-Jane with cold indifference.

A new character now enters the picture: Lucetta Templeman. Lucetta and Henchard were romantically linked in the past. Henchard presses this claim, but Lucetta is captivated instead by young Donald Farfrae. Her shift of affections enrages Henchard, and he becomes obsessed with ruining Farfrae to get his revenge.

Henchard miscalculates, however, and suffers huge losses in the grain business, while Farfrae prospers. Henchard is finally forced to declare bankruptcy. He also becomes a social outcast when everyone learns he sold Susan at auction.

Meanwhile, local envy and gossip lead to Lucetta's downfall as well. Both she and Henchard are publicly humiliated in a "skimmity-ride," a raucous procession organized to bring disgrace on people suspected of adultery or other sexual laxity. Lucetta is so unnerved she becomes fatally ill.

After Lucetta's death, Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane are married. This is the last straw for Henchard, now an impoverished, embittered wanderer. He dies a lonely death in a poor cottage.

The Mayor of Casterbridge Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Michael Henchard sells his wife and child at a fair.

Rising Action

2 Henchard's wife comes to Casterbridge and remarries him.

3 Henchard hires and then quarrels with Donald Farfrae.

4 Henchard's old flame, Lucetta, marries Farfrae.

5 The furmity-woman reveals Henchard's shameful past.

6 Lucetta's love letters to Henchard become publicly known.


7 After the town mocks Lucetta and Henchard, Lucetta dies.

Falling Action

8 Elizabeth-Jane's father appears; she and Farfrae marry.


9 Henchard dies a miserable death in a poor cottage.

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