Summary and Analysis
Chapter 4 - Henchard's Name Is Overheard
A flashback reveals the events of Susan's life as Mrs. Newson. "A hundred times she had been upon the point of telling" Elizabeth-Jane about the past, but it had become "too fearful a thing to contemplate." We learn that the family had emigrated to Canada. We also see that during the eighteen years of their "marriage," Susan's simple nature was manifested by her absolute belief that their relationship was legal and binding. Thus, she and her new husband dwelled together humbly and peacefully for about twelve years in Canada. When Elizabeth-Jane was about twelve, the family returned to England and took up residence at Falmouth, a fishing town in South Cornwall. For a time Newson worked on the docks; he then acquired work in the Newfoundland trade which caused him to make seasonal trips at sea.
Susan's peace of mind is destroyed when, after confiding in a friend, she learns that her relationship with Newson is not a valid one. She finally tells him that their relationship cannot be maintained. The next season Newson is reported lost during a trip to Newfoundland. This news, though painful, is almost a relief to Susan.
Because she has seen Elizabeth-Jane's desire to learn and advance herself, Susan decides to seek out Henchard's help. She fears that without aid the girl, who has "the raw materials of beauty" and a fine mind, will be ruined by endless years of poverty.
Having arrived at Casterbridge, the women hear Henchard's name mentioned by two passing men, but Susan persuades her daughter not to seek him out — "He may be in the workhouse, or in the stocks . . ." They also learn from a gossip that the agricultural town is suffering from a shortage of decent bread, since the "corn-factor" had sold poor wheat to the millers and bakers.
This chapter, by means of flashback, brings us up-to-date concerning the intervening years of Susan and Elizabeth-Jane's lives. It also reinforces our understanding of Susan's naive belief in the validity of her second "marriage." Furthermore, we are shown that Elizabeth-Jane is endowed with beauty and intelligence, and that for the encouragement of her daughter's promise only is Susan willing to seek Henchard's aid. Hardy heightens suspense by having Henchard's name mentioned but without the disclosure of details.
Hardy's intimate knowledge of Dorchester (the town after which Casterbridge is modeled) is revealed in the highly detailed description of its streets and layout, its proximity to the countryside, and "the agricultural and pastoral character of the people." His use of concrete detail is a constant feature of Hardy's realism, contributing greatly to his wonderful "atmosphere," although it is sometimes excessive, in the critic Robert B. Heilman's view.
carkings disturbing, worrisome, vexing. This usage is archaic.
butter-firkins a firkin is a wooden vessel for holding butter or lard. Its capacity is usually the equivalent of one-fourth of a barrel. A butter-firkin is also termed as a unit of measurement approximating 55 or 56 pounds.
seed-lips baskets for seeds.
manna-food the food which God supplied to the Children of Israel during their wanderings in the desert.
swipes weak beer.
growed wheat underdeveloped, poor wheat which looks developed to the untrained eye.
plim blown up, swollen.
corn-factor a factor is a commission merchant. In Scotland the meaning may be applied to a managing agent of an estate.