The Mayor of Casterbridge: Chapters 18,19,20

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Summary – Chapters Eighteen, Nineteen and Twenty

In Chapter Eighteen, Henchard receives a letter from his female friend in Jersey (and we are now told she is called Lucetta). She informs him that she will no longer write to him and also wants their connections to be kept secret. She wants him to return all of the letters she has sent him and is passing through Casterbridge on Wednesday evening and will collect them then. He does as she asks, but she does not appear.


At this time, Susan has become ill and is ‘weakening visibly’. She writes something and seals up the sheet. It is addressed to Henchard and has the direction that this should not be opened until Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding day. As Elizabeth-Jane watches over her sleeping, she wakes up and admits that she sent her and Farfrae the notes to bring them together as she would like them to marry. Susan falls asleep and some time later Farfrae passes the house and notices the blinds are all down. He discovers that she died that hour.


Three weeks after Susan’s funeral, Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane sit talking by the fire in Chapter Nineteen. He asks if she thinks much of the old times and she says she thinks of her mother and father. Although this is a painful subject for him, he asks if Newson was kind and she replies, yes, very. He then enquires if he Henchard had been her real father, would she have cared as much for him as she does for Richard Newson. She says quickly that she cannot think of this – she can think of no other as her father ‘except my father’.


Henchard thinks of how he has lost Susan and is now estranged from Farfrae and sees that only the relationship with his daughter can be ‘recalled’. He attempts and fails to restrain his impulse and then reveals he is her father and explains that shame alone prevented her ‘wretched parents’ from telling her the truth. She cries when she realizes he is to be believed and he begs her not to take against him. He also asks her again to take his name and she agrees this time.


When he leaves the room for the second time, she weeps for Newson but Henchard is pleased that she now knows. Whilst looking for papers, he comes across Susan’s letter that was not to be opened until Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding day. It has come unsealed and he reads it (despite the restriction). He discovers that Susan has kept a secret from him; Elizabeth-Jane is not his daughter. Their child died three months after he sold them and the living one is Newson’s. He sees the ‘blasting disclosure’ as that which he deserves. He also considers the letter to be ‘another illustration of that honesty in dishonesty which had characterized her in other things’ and understands why Susan was so reluctant for the girl to take the Henchard name.


He walks into town and eventually decides on a plan and is too self-willed ‘to recede from a position’ especially if humiliation is involved. However, he is not prepared for Elizabeth-Jane’s reaction the next day. She says she will call him father from now on and thinks her poor mother married Newson ‘by such a strange mistake’ (as Henchard has not told her the truth about the sale). He has thought of this moment with pleasure for so long, but now it is ‘miserable insipidity’ and ‘dust and ashes’ to him.


In Chapter Twenty, Elizabeth-Jane is confused by Henchard’s behaviour. From this next morning after he has revealed he is her father, he is constrained in his manner towards her. The coldness soon breaks out into ‘open chiding’ and, for example, he corrects her use of dialect words and criticizes her handwriting. He also tells her off for waiting on Nance Mockridge, who works for him. Nance is stung by his rudeness and she reveals that Elizabeth-Jane has served worse than her when she worked in a public house in town. From this time, Henchard shows distaste for Elizabeth-Jane. He eats out and leaves her in solitude and she uses the time for self-education and ‘improvement’.


When visiting her mother’s grave, she encounters another woman dressed in mourning. She appears to be similar to Elizabeth-Jane in size and age, but is beautifully dressed. Elizabeth-Jane returns home and has another of her bad days. Henchard has come to the end of his two year run as Mayor and is not going to be chosen as an alderman. Furthermore, he has learned that Farfrae is to become one of the Council and knows that Elizabeth-Jane has waited on him (in the Three Mariners). Henchard believes his luck has changed since the arrival of his wife and Elizabeth-Jane. He snaps at her when she comes in and thinks about his mistake of forbidding Farfrae from seeing her. If Farfrae had been allowed to court her, he would not be ‘encumbered’ with her now and writes him a note in which he withdraws the objection.


The next day Elizabeth-Jane visits the churchyard again and hopes to see the lady again. Farfrae walks past and only glances at her and she feels depressed enough to say aloud that she wishes she were dead with her dear mother. She then turns and sees the woman. The stranger asks what has happened and guesses correctly that the tomb is for her mother. She also extracts from Elizabeth-Jane the news that she has had a disagreement with her father: ‘Her anxiety not to condemn Henchard while siding with Elizabeth-Jane was curious.’ She asks Elizabeth-Jane about her history and she tells her as much as she knows. She then offers her a position as part housekeeper and part companion at High-Place Hall (as she is moving in that day). Elizabeth-Jane is overjoyed about the offer and assents.


Analysis – Chapters Eighteen, Nineteen and Twenty

It is ironic that Henchard finally reveals the truth, as he believes it to be, about being Elizabeth-Jane’s father only to discover shortly after that Susan has lied to him. His initial decision to tell his step-daughter the news that he is her father is based on his own need to have such contact in his life, but when he discovers she is not his blood relation after all he impulsively distances himself from her. He is characteristically driven by his own needs throughout the majority of the novel and this is evident in his desire to be free of her once he has discovered she is not his biological daughter. This wish to get rid of her is made literal when he writes to Farfrae to inform him he is now at liberty to court Elizabeth-Jane.

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