On a late summer evening in the 1820s, a man, wife, and child approach the village of Weydon-Priors on foot. The married couple, Michael and Susan Henchard, is silent as they walk. Michael is a skilled countryman with a cynical air of indifference. Susan is beautiful in moments of animation, when her face softens as she interacts with her child. Michael reads from a ballad-sheet he carries. On the road, they encounter a turnip-hoer and Michael, who works as a hay-trusser, inquires about work in Weydon. The turnip-hoer says there is no work at this time of the year, but that it is Fair Day in Weydon and an animal auction has been taking place throughout the day.
Michael and Susan Henchard are introduced in the middle of Michael’s quest to find work as a hay-trusser, a lower class, laboring position. The initial descriptions of the characters highlight Michael’s talents that stand in contrast to his lowly position as an out-of-work hay-trusser. Susan is characterized by her love and care for her child, which appears to be her only source of happiness. The Fair in Weydon becomes the significant site of Michael’s cruelty to his family.
Michael and Susan arrive at the Weydon Fair. Michael tries to lead his family to a food tent advertising good beer, ale, and cider, but Susan insists on going to the food tent selling “furmity”: a mixture of corn, milk, raisins, and currants. Michael discovers that the furmity-woman serving is lacing some bowls with rum, and pays her extra to slip rum into his food. Michael’s personality changes as he becomes drunk, progressing from jovial to quarrelsome.
Michael and Susan disagree over the minor matter of food at the Fair, but this disagreement reflects their different personalities and the unhappiness of their marriage: the pair no longer gets along. Michael’s drinking problem is a recurring topic throughout the novel. He makes terrible decisions while drinking.
Despite Susan’s reminder that they must seek lodgings for the night, Michael continues to speak animatedly with the crowd in the furmity tent. He bemoans his early marriage and bondage to his wife and child. Outside the tent, the auctioneer can be heard as he sells the last, and poorest quality, horses at the fair. Michael exclaims that men should be able to likewise auction off their unwanted wives, and says he’d sell his wife then and there, if anyone wished to buy her.
Michael’s complaints about his wife are set against the backdrop of the horse auction. Michael realizes the connection and wishes he could auction off his wife. The parallel of these two events demonstrates Michael’s view of his wife as property, as well as the way that women and children were often treated as commodities at this time.
Susan attempts to control her husband. He has made such jokes before in public places, but she feels he is carrying his complaints with his marriage too far. Michael begins an auction for his wife, as a short man offers himself as the auctioneer. Someone jokingly offers five shillings for Susan, but Michael says the price must be higher, concluding that he won’t sell her for less than five guineas. Susan stands and goes along with her own auction. No one in the tent will speak up and offer a bid, perceiving the whole situation to be primarily a joke.
Many of the people in the furmity-tent perceive Michael’s auction of Susan as a joke, but Susan feels Michael has crossed a line this time. This shows that Michael has continuously mistreated Susan in this way, and in public. The price of Susan’s sale becomes a recurring symbol in the novel, as Michael later sends Susan money to support her, in the amount of five guineas.
Suddenly a voice from the doorway accepts Michael’s offer to sell Susan for five guineas. A sailor, named Richard Newson, has appeared there as the auction progressed. He walks to the table and produces the money, the appearance of which changes the tone of the proceedings to silent seriousness. The sailor says he will buy Susan and the child, so long as she is willing, and Susan agrees that she is willing to part from Michael.
Richard Newson’s appearance reflects his occupation as a sailor, and as a sailor he is a traveler, and a stranger, who will not be expected to stay in one place. He qualifies his “purchase” of Susan by asking for her agreement, demonstrating that he cares more about her free will and happiness than Henchard does.
Michael takes the money, and, as Susan leaves with Newson, she whirls back to her former husband and hurls her wedding ring at him, accusing him of his dreadful temper and claiming she will try her luck elsewhere. Michael is somewhat disoriented by this outcome.
Susan’s action of throwing away her wedding ring symbolically reflects the end of her marriage to Henchard from her perspective. Later on, however, both characters will still feel legally bound to the other.
The crowd looks out the door after the retreating trio. The world beyond the tent is peaceful: horses waiting for the journey home, the rosy clouds hanging in the sky, and the quiet woods and valleys. All of nature contrasts sharply to the scene that took place inside the tent. The other customers feel that Susan’s departure has served her husband right for his behavior. Michael exclaims that she shouldn’t have taken his child with her. As the other customers depart, Michael falls asleep at a table, and the furmity-woman leaves him there for the night.
The narrator acknowledges the sharp contrast between the emotional events in the tent and the serene natural world outside. Throughout the novel, the natural world will play a role in the plot, as well as provide a backdrop for human actions. Henchard’s reaction to Susan’s disappearance reflects his perception of their child as his, more so than hers, or theirs.