Summary – Chapters One and Two
The Mayor of Casterbridge begins with a description of a young man and woman and the latter is carrying a child. It is an evening in late summer, ‘before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span’. They are approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. They are not speaking to each other as they walk and he is reading, ‘or pretending to read’, a ballad sheet. She is not surprised by his silence and appears to accept it as a ‘natural thing’. They are married and the child is theirs as ‘no other than such a relationship would have accounted for the atmosphere of stale familiarity which the trio carried along with them like a nimbus as they moved down the road’.
The man asks a turnip hoer if there is any trade in the area in hay trussing or if there is a house to let. He is told there is neither. It is fair day, however, and the family makes its way to the event. There is little business taking place except for the auction of a few inferior animals and the family goes to the furmity tent (for food) as the child (Elizabeth-Jane) is hungry.
As they eat, the man buys rum from the serving woman and talks to others there as he shows his bitterness at marrying at the age of 18. He also complains that he has only 15 shillings left. He hears the auctioneer selling a horse and says he does not see why a man cannot sell his wife when he does not want her anymore. One of the men praises her, and the husband says he is open to offers. She turns to her husband (Michael) and murmurs that he has talked this nonsense before in public and he should not make this joke too often.
He drops the subject for a quarter of an hour and then returns to it again and asks who will have her. She tries to stop him and then says firmly that she wishes somebody would as ‘her present owner is not at all to her liking’. He tells her (Susan) to stand up and show herself. He asks for five guineas and she appears to be indifferent. A sailor agrees to pay the amount and Susan tells Michael that if he touches the money, she and the girl will go with the man and it is no longer a joke. However, he takes the money and the sailor asks (kindly) for her and the child to come along. As she leaves, she removes her wedding ring, throws it at her husband and sobs bitterly. Concern fills his face and the others tell him she has left. The chapter ends with him falling asleep in the tent alone.
Chapter Two begins the next morning as Michael looks about and sees his wife’s ring. He remembers a confused picture of the previous night’s events. He picks up his tool basket and leaves the fair ground. A mile from the scene he stops and wonders if he told anybody his name the night before. He concludes he did not and his demeanour suggests he is surprised and ‘nettled’ that his wife took him so literally. He decides to walk about until he finds her and roars out, ‘why didn’t she know better than bring me into disgrace’. When he calms down he returns to thinking he must find her and Elizabeth-Jane and ‘put up with the shame as best he could’. Before this, he resolves to ‘register an oath’. He finds a church and drops his head on ‘the clamped book’ on the Communion table. He then swears to avoid alcohol for the next 21 years, as this will be a year for everyone he has lived.
After kissing the book, he buys breakfast and sets out on his search for his family. He searches day after day with no luck and is hindered by not knowing the sailor’s name. He is also shy about his conduct and so does not set up with the necessary hue and cry. The search continues for months until he arrives at a seaport and discovers that people matching the description emigrated a little time before. He then decides to give up and goes to settle in Casterbridge in ‘a far distant part of Wessex’.
Analysis – Chapters One and Two
In the novel’s introductory pages, marriage is critiqued. The stale atmosphere between Michael (Henchard) and his wife is attributed to this relationship. His drunken decision to sell her is later seen to be regretted in Chapter Two, but the act symbolizes disillusionment with the family ideal.
The sale of Susan Henchard for five guineas in the first chapter is the catalyst that shapes both her life and her husband’s. This is a shocking shameful secret that needs to be suppressed for decency’s sake yet this suppression also hinders the search for the wife and daughter once the alcohol has worn off. In these first two chapters alone, the disastrous effect the past may have on the present is highlighted
Conversely, the oath not to drink for another 21 years symbolizes Henchard’s regret at his actions and also represents his ability to be steadfast when required. This oath is an attempt of penance for past mistakes and allows Henchard to be seen as a human that is flawed yet capable of shame.