The Mayor of Casterbridge: Chapters 15,16,17

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Summary – Chapters Fifteen, Sixteen and Seventeen

Chapter Fifteen begins with a description of how Elizabeth-Jane is starting to enjoy wearing finer clothes and is being regarded as a beauty in the town.


The narrative then shifts to Abel Whittle, who is one of Henchard’s employees. He has difficulty in getting up early for work and Henchard loses patience with him one morning and goes to his cottage to wake him. He orders him to work in his waistcoat, night shirt and boots and says it will teach him a lesson to work without his breeches. Farfrae orders Abel home again to put on his trousers, but Henchard will not allow it. In front of the workers, Farfrae says he will leave for good if Whittle is not allowed to go home. This hurts Henchard and when they are alone he asks Farfrae why he had to speak to him in this way. He goes on to presume it is because he has told him his life’s secrets and he (Farfrae) is taking advantage of him. Farfrae says ‘simply’ that he has forgotten this.


Henchard looks down and walks away. Farfrae learns from the men later that Henchard had kept Whittle’s mother in coal and snuff through the winter and this makes Henchard appear less antagonistic. However, Henchard begins to feel overlooked as people turn to Farfrae for advice when they would have previously asked him. The chapter ends with their friendship renewed, but Henchard now has a ‘dim dread’ and regrets confiding in him.


For this reason, Henchard becomes more reserved with Farfrae in Chapter Sixteen. He no longer puts his arm on his shoulder or shouts invitations for him to come to dinner. Unaware of his feelings, Farfrae is quite surprised at this new exhibition of ‘good breeding’.


Their lives roll on until a day of public celebrations is called for and Farfrae asks Henchard if he may borrow some rick cloths as he and some others are going to put on some entertainment and will need these for shelter. He tells Farfrae to use as many as he likes, but later he is ‘fired with emulation’. He decides to prepare a greater and free celebration for the town and refrains from consulting Farfrae as has become accustomed to doing.


Everyone is pleased with the Mayor’s proposed entertainment, which includes donkey racing, climbing greased poles and a mammoth tea for everyone. On the day, though, it rains heavily and by 3 pm Henchard has to admit it has failed. The storm has abated by 6 pm but there is no one about; he is told that people are at ‘Farfrae’s affair’.


After tea, Henchard visits his rival’s entertainment and notes he has constructed a gigantic tent without poles or ropes. Inside, he sees Farfrae in the midst of the other dancers in the costume of a wild Highlander and notices the women admiring him. The entire town has crowded there and this includes Susan and Elizabeth-Jane.


As Henchard waits for his wife, he overhears people comparing him negatively to Farfrae. Later, other men joke to him about how more successful Farfrae has been and one says that Farfrae will soon be the ‘top sawyer’ of the two. Henchard responds by saying this will not happen as Farfrae is shortly going to leave him. Farfrae assents quietly and when others ‘deplore the fact’, he replies simply that Mr Henchard no longer requires his help.


Henchard goes home apparently satisfied, but his jealous temper has passed by the next day. He is far more disturbed when he finds out that Farfrae is to take him at his word.


Chapter Seventeen returns to the night of the dance and how Elizabeth-Jane perceives from Henchard’s manner that he does not want her to dance. A nodding acquaintance tells her that as the Mayor’s step-daughter it is not her place to dance in such a mixed throng. She worries about bringing herself into disgrace and retreats. Farfrae finds her after his conversation with Henchard and he tells her he will be leaving soon on business. He tells her if he were richer and that he had not offended Henchard, he would have asked her something in a short time, or even tonight. However, he does not ask her anything and she remains ‘incompetently silent and they carry on walking. The conversation turns when he asks if she ever found out who sent them on the fool’s errand to the granary. She replies no and when they part she runs home.


The next day, she picks up a piece of paper in Farfrae’s handwriting and where it says ‘Dear Sir’ she writes over ‘Sir’ and replaces it with ‘Elizabeth-Jane’. She looks at the handiwork, flushes, then tears up the paper and laughs at herself. At length she discovers Farfrae is not going to leave the town after all and has bought a small business in the same trade as Henchard. She wonders if he still cares for her and dresses in the same clothes she wore to the dance to see if it was her appearance that caught his ‘fleeting regard’. She also worries that her ‘informing spirit’ is too homely for him.


The narrative then shifts to Henchard and his anger at Farfrae setting up in business independently. He shows this anger by shouting and reveals that under the skin he is still the same Michael Henchard who sold his wife at Weydon Fair. He thinks Farfrae has defied him and decides to tussle with him in buying and selling. However, he is not popular with his friends of the Corporation (who witness his outburst) as ‘they have been made to wince individually on more than one occasion’. He is declining in popularity even though they have profited from his business.  


When Henchard reaches home, he tells Elizabeth-Jane that he does not want her to see Farfrae any more. She agrees and he writes a note to inform him of his decision.


The narrative shifts to Farfrae and how he believes there is room in the town for both his and Henchard’s business. He is determined not to have problems with Henchard and turns down his first customer as he had dealt with him earlier whilst working for Henchard. Farfrae does, however, go on to prosper.


He receives the note concerning Elizabeth-Jane and, although he has ‘considerable interest’ in her, he decides that for both of their sakes he will not act the part of Romeo. Henchard and Farfrae encounter each other every Saturday in the market place and the former snubs the latter. Henchard is further stung when he notices Farfrae’s name on an official stall in the corn-market room.


Analysis – Chapters Fifteen, Sixteen and Seventeen

Henchard’s jealousy of Farfrae and barely disguised temper come to the surface in these chapters as Farfrae moves from being employee to business rival. It is pointed out in Chapter Seventeen that Henchard is still recognizable as the man who sold his wife as he continues to act according to impulses rather than restrained logic. He fails to see that it is his jealousy that has instigated this situation (that is, his dismissal of Farfrae) and his pride is too great to renege on his initial inflamed decision at the dance. 

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