Exactly eighteen years have passed since Michael Henchard sold his wife and child at the Weydon fair. On this early fall day, a much-changed Susan and Elizabeth-Jane take the little-changed road to Weydon-Priors. Susan is dressed in black as a widow, and Elizabeth-Jane is a grown young woman. The mother and daughter walk hand-in-hand. The Weydon Fair has changed, as the entertainments show marks of advancing inventions and improvements, but the sale of livestock and products has reduced by half. The new great markets in neighboring towns have interfered with the business of the fair.
Despite this jump forward in time, the setting is the same. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are placed on the same road toward Weydon-Priors, so that the reader is able to see the physical change that eighteen years has produced. The pair holds hands, showing their close mother-daughter connection. The reduction of animal auctions at the fair may also reflect the changing roles of women, who Henchard once equated with property.
Elizabeth-Jane questions her mother as to why they are stopping at the fair. Susan says she first met Newson at this very fair, and Elizabeth sighs over the death of Richard Newson, recently drowned at sea. She is unaware that Newson is not her biological father. Hesitantly, Susan also admits that at this fair she last saw the relative she and her daughter are seeking: Michael Henchard. When questioned further by Elizabeth-Jane about their relation to Henchard, Susan says he is a distant relative by marriage who never knew Elizabeth-Jane.
The death of Richard Newson is clearly a sad memory for both women, reflecting his kindness to them both. However, his death is also the reason that Susan is seeking Henchard. Susan’s concealment of the truth from Elizabeth-Jane reflects the still-painful nature of the situation. It also shows Susan’s natural tendency to conceal problematic truths if possible.
At the fair, Susan spots the same furmity-woman, now grown old and poor. Her furmity pot is outside, without the grand tent it once had, and she is selling only to the poorest of customers. Elizabeth-Jane stays back when her mother goes to the speak with the old woman, cautioning her mother that it isn’t respectable for her to speak to such a poor woman.
The furmity-woman’s reduction in success and wealth is a portrait of the changes in fortune that can happen to any individual. Her situation is strongly contrasted to Henchard’s own successes, which will be discussed later.
Susan purchases a small bowl of furmity and the woman offers to add rum to it, which Susan refuses, recalling how this very rum and furmity lead her husband to auction her off. Susan questions the woman about her past and her better days at the fair. She asks if the woman can remember a man who sold his wife in her tent eighteen years ago today.
The rum offered by the furmity-woman reminds Susan of Henchard’s past actions. It provides a further link between drinking and Henchard’s self-destructive nature: when he is drinking, he and others suffer, when he abstains, he is able to excel.
The furmity-woman does remember Henchard, but only because, she says, he returned to the fair the following year. At that time, Henchard told the furmity-seller that if a woman every inquired about him to say that he had gone to Casterbridge. Susan returns to her daughter to report that she has heard about their long-lost relative, and that they will head to the distant town of Casterbridge.
The furmity-woman points Susan toward Casterbridge, as Henchard himself requested she do. Henchard’s message to the furmity-woman reflects some faith that he might one day be reunited with Susan, or some belief that Susan might seek him out.