The Mayor of Casterbridge starts out with a very memorable and shocking scene. A young man of 21 years of age is walking along the road towards a fair at a place called Weydon Priors. He is concentrating on reading a book even though he has two companions with him, a woman and a young child of two or three years of age. Hardy tells us that the man's name is Michael Henchard, and his two companions are his wife Susan, and their daughter Elizabeth Jane. All three members of the family are wearing old clothing and are obviously quite poor, although not yet to the point of destitution. Henchard is carrying a bundle of hay trusser's tools on his back, and we're told that he intends to find work in this area of the country.
The trio soon stops at the fair to take some refreshment and inquire about employment prospects. They enter a tent where an older woman is selling furmity (a kind of porridge), which they eat quite ravenously. The furmity seller slyly offers to spike their bowls with rum to make things go down more smoothly, as she puts it Henchard agrees, and enjoys the concoction very much. He has another, then another, and still more. Hardy does a wonderful job here of describing the way Henchard progresses through different emotions with each passing bowl of furmity until he finally reaches a point where he becomes loudly belligerent.
The focus of Henchard's anger while in his drunken state is his wife. He blames Susan for his current poverty, saying that he never would be in such dire straits if he hadn't gotten married at age 18 to such a woman as her. In fact, Henchard loudly proclaims to fellow patrons in the furmity tent that he would willingly sell his wife to the highest bidder. At first, no one takes Henchard seriously. But he presses the point and finally gets someone to act as auctioneer during the proceedings. The onlookers can't help but be fascinated by what was taking place at that moment, and Henchard managed to cajole a few men into submitting half-hearted bids.
Impatient with the way things are going, Henchard finally just names a price of five pounds and five guineas. Suddenly, a man in a sailor's uniform pipes up near the doorway of the tent and takes Henchard up on his offer. The sailor hands over the money, and takes possession of Susan and Elizabeth Jane there and then. Henchard sleeps off his drunkenness in the furmity tent, and awakens the next morning with the dim realization that he has done something terrible. Susan and Elizabeth Jane are still gone, and he suddenly remembers what he has done. Henchard searches the immediate surroundings for his now missing wife and daughter, but can't find them. On that day, he makes a vow that he will not touch a drop of alcohol for the next 21 years as a penance for the terrible thing he did.
The novel then flashes forward nearly two decades, and the action shifts to a town called Casterbridge, which is in the vicinity of Weydon Priors. Hardy doesn't fill us in on the intervening action, but does briefly tell of how Henchard settled in Casterbridge, amassed a small fortune by making shrewd business dealings in hay and corn, and now is mayor of that town. The reader is also informed that Henchard has remained true to his word and has not had a strong drink in all the intervening time.
Susan and Elizabeth Jane soon come back into the picture as well. The sailor who "bought" them at auction had treated them kindly, but was recently lost at sea and presumed dead. Though the sailor provided well for his family while he was alive, there wasn't anything for Susan and Elizabeth Jane to subsist on after he died, so Susan decided to try to find Henchard once more. The old furmity seller was still at the same spot, and she directed the pair towards Casterbridge, where Susan and Elizabeth Jane do eventually meet up with Henchard again.
After ascertaining Henchard's high position and the fact that he has not remarried in all that time, Susan sends Elizabeth Jane to the mayor with a sealed note. Elizabeth Jane does not know the true history between her mother and Henchard; she has just been told that Henchard is related to them "by marriage."
Elizabeth Jane carries the note to Henchard, who at first fears that these two women might be imposters. But after he meets Susan, he of course realizes that she is indeed the woman that he wronged all those years ago. Henchard seizes up this opportunity to make things right, so he orchestrates a courtship, and soon remarries Susan so that the three might live as a family once more.
But anyone who is familiar with Hardy's novels knows that things never end so peacefully for the protagonists. So the rest of The Mayor of Casterbridge deals with a number of events that happen to Henchard, Susan, and Elizabeth Jane after the second marriage.
Another major character that is introduced once the action switches to Casterbridge is a man named Daniel Farfrae. A native of Scotland, Farfrae was just passing through Casterbridge when he happened to meet Henchard, and was able to help the mayor with a particularly troublesome problem that Henchard was having with recent crops of corn. Henchard takes an immediate liking to Farfrae, and somehow convinces the kind, generous-natured man to stay on in Casterbridge as Henchard's foreman and business manager. Farfrae agrees, and the decision will have a profound effect on all the other characters in the novel.
On the whole, I have to say that The Mayor of Casterbridge was a very engaging story. It starts off with the very intriguing and unique wife-selling scene, and manages to maintain the readers interest throughout the rest of the pages. There are a few slow-moving passages that Hardy devotes to describing the town, the surrounding countryside, or a few of the minor characters involved in the story, but those passages are few and far between, which is somewhat surprising for a novel from this era.
True to Hardy's own personal style, the themes of fate and destiny are very important in The Mayor of Casterbridge. In fact, a reader who is not familiar with Hardy's other novels might have a tendency to pass off the events of this particular work as too contrived and coincidental to be believed. And indeed, many of the events do seem to be a bit convenient for the direction of the plot. Nevertheless, the events are at least within the realm of possibility, so the fact that they appear doesn't detract from the overall experience too much.
When considering all the major aspects of the novel, including character development, storylines, and the amount of reader interest that Hardy was able to generate, I can definitely recommend The Mayor of Casterbridge. It is not a perfect work, of course, but its strengths greatly outweigh its deficiencies, and I think most people would agree that reading the novel would be a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor.