The Mayor of Casterbridge opens with a scene of remarkable cruelty: Michael Henchard, drunk on rum, sells his wife and daughter at a county fair. The book immediately fast-forwards eighteen years to the point at which Henchard, still distraught at his actions, has become a profitable businessman and mayor. When his wife and daughter return to find him, it presents him with, he hopes, an opportunity for redemption.
As it happens, at that same moment Henchard has made a purchase of bad grain (ohmygod there's so much in this book about grain) which prompts this exchange:
"But what are you going to do to repay us for the past?" inquired the man who had before spoken, and who seemed to be a baker or miller. "Will you replace the grown flour we've still got by sound grain?"
Henchard's face had become still more stern at these interruptions, and he drank from his tumbler of water as if to calm himself or gain time. Instead of vouchsafing a direct reply, he stiffly observed--
"If anybody will tell me how to turn grown wheat into wholesome wheat I'll take it back with pleasure. But it can't be done."
This is a bit on the nose for me, but it sets up the B-story, in which Henchard hires a young Scotsman named Donald Farfrae to run his grain business. Farfrae, as it happens, has invented a process that turns "grown wheat into wholesome wheat" and so offers Henchard a different kind of redemption.
But redemption is elusive. Henchard's wife soon dies, and leaves him with his daughter, who does not know she is Henchard's offspring. To make matters worse, his wife leaves him a letter that confesses she's not actually his, but that their daughter died in infancy and she named her next daughter after the first. Feeling cheated, he spurns her at the same time that his reliance on Farfrae turns to jealousy, and they become bitter rivals.
Casterbridge is a story about a man who works tirelessly to redeem himself, but cannot get out of his own way. As his place in society declines, he blames bad luck and the machinations of Farfrae, but cannot see that his pettiness, viciousness, and pride are what unravel his successes, just as they severed his marriage. After the sale he imposes a 21-year tee-totaling sentence on himself, but alcohol is not to blame for his powerful vices.
I did not find Casterbridge to be a success on the order of Far From the Madding Crowd (though the jacket erroneously calls it his "first masterpiece"). The prose is comparatively muted, and without the high-toned whimsicality of Crowd it is difficult to ignore how over-plotted it is. But it had me by the end, where Henchard, destitute, estranged from his "daughter" Elizabeth-Jane (who has married Farfrae!), has died and left this as a will:
MICHAEL HENCHARD'S WILL
"That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.
"& that I be not bury'd in consecrated ground.
"& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell.
"& that nobody is wished to see my dead body.
"& that no murners walk behind me at my funeral.
"& that no flours be planted on my grave.
"& that no man remember me.
"To this I put my name.