Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 - A Wife Is Sold
Michael Henchard, an unemployed hay-trusser "of fine figure, swarthy and stern in aspect," his wife Susan, and their little child Elizabeth-Jane are wearily approaching the Wessex village of Weydon-Priors at the end of a late-summer day in the year 1826. When she looks at the child, Susan is pretty, but her face often has "the hard, half-apathetic expression" of one who expects the worst. They learn from a passer-by that there is no employment in the village. A fair is still in progress, and once the trio has arrived Michael attempts to enter a refreshment tent which advertises "Good Home-brewed Beer, Ale, and Cyder." However, Susan persuades him to enter the booth where "furmity" is sold, since the food is nourishing even if repulsive in appearance.
In the tent Michael pays the furmity woman, "a haggish creature of about fifty," to spike his basin of furmity with large dosages of rum. He quickly finishes a number of well-laced portions and, in a "quarrelsome" mood, begins to bewail the fact that he has ruined his life by marrying too young.
As the liquor takes hold, Michael offers his young wife for sale to the highest bidder. Susan, who has experienced his outrageous displays before, swears that if Michael persists, she will take the child and go with the highest bidder. She ignores the advice of "a buxom staylace dealer" and stands up for the bidding. Michael continues the bidding with renewed vigor and raises the price to five guineas for wife and child. The staylace dealer rebukes him to no effect. Before long, a sailor offers to meet Michael's terms. With the appearance of "real cash the jovial frivolity of the scene departed," and the crowd of listeners "waited with parting lips." Michael accepts the sailor's offer, pocketing the money with an air of finality. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane leave with the sailor, but before they depart she turns to Michael and, sobbing bitterly, flings her wedding ring in his face. The staylace vendor says: "I glory in the woman's sperrit." The shocked spectators — who until now had thought it all a joke — quickly depart, leaving Michael to his own conscience. Within a few moments he falls into a drunken slumber. The furmity woman closes up shop, and Michael is left in the dark, snoring loudly.
The physical surroundings in this chapter serve to reinforce the dramatic movement of the unpleasant events. The road toward Weydon-Priors is barren, the leaves on the trees are dull green, and powdered dust covers the road and shrubbery. There is no employment in this village, and, as Michael and Susan learn from a passing stranger, "Pulling down is more the nater of Weydon . . ."
As we gather soon enough, Michael is portrayed as one given over to fits of despondent self-pity, violent outbursts, and irrevocable spur-of-the-moment decisions. Michael has too much of a liking for strong drink: He at first wants to enter the tent where beer and ale are sold; he is not satisfied with one or two bowls of spiked furmity; he becomes boisterous from the effects; after he has sold his wife, he falls into a stupor. Hardy is, of course, showing that at this point the flaw in Michael's character is aggravated by his liking for drink, which leads him to commit an outrageous act that haunts him for years and finally proves to be his downfall.
Why does Susan go with the sailor? First of all, Hardy has shown that the couple's marital relationship is not healthy, and from his opening descriptions we can easily imagine the silent, endless day's journey passed in an "atmosphere of stale familiarity." Also, it must be remembered that in the early part of the nineteenth century women often had no trades by which they could support themselves in a decent manner. Women were usually completely dependent upon their husbands for their sustenance. Susan realizes all these things. Furthermore, aside from the emotional justification she has for leaving — that is, being sold like a common streetwalker to the highest bidder — she also realizes that Michael has disclaimed all responsibility toward her and the child. Under these circumstances, Susan's choice is understandable.
Hardy lets the reader know in the first sentence that the novel will be laid in Wessex. "Wessex" is an ancient name for the West Saxon kingdom of the Middle Ages, which Hardy revived as a term for the region in which he set most of his novels and stories. (Unlike "Essex," "Sussex," and "Middlesex," it is a term no longer used geographically.) Wessex comprises Dorsetshire and parts of other western English counties, which have a number of local features exploited to great effect by Hardy.
By the time he published The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy had built a considerable following for his Wessex novels and tales: The reader could expect colorful dialogue, faithfully reproduced; a certain half-humorous, half-crabbed character in the natives; a good deal of poetic treatment of both town and country. The region was large enough not to be too confining for a novelist handling important themes, but small enough to impart color and character to setting.
fustian coarse cotton.
thimble-riggers tricksters, conjurers. The expression may refer to the trick of trying to guess under which of three thimbles a pea is hidden. The hand of the "thimble-rigger" was, of course, faster than the eye of the spectator.
Weydon-Priors a village in upper Wessex, probably the fictitious name for Weyhill in northwest Hampshire.
begad By God! A slightly toned down oath.
be-right truly; by-right.
rheumy sniffling, runny-nose. The word refers to having a cold.
'od shortened from the exclamation, "God!," so as to avoid profanity.
keacorn dialect for throat.