Not long after Henchard learns of Lucetta’s death, he is sitting up at home when Elizabeth-Jane arrives. She gives him the news, which he has already heard. He says how kind of her it was to come and invites her to rest there while he prepares some breakfast. Elizabeth-Jane lies down and falls asleep, and Henchard waits with the breakfast, contemplating a better future with his stepdaughter.
This domestic interaction between Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane marks a change for both characters: Henchard is able to care for another and put Elizabeth-Jane’s needs first, and Elizabeth-Jane is willing to be taken care of, and to trust Henchard.
Henchard answers a knock at the door and is greeted by the stranger who stopped at Peter’s Finger in Mixen Lane. The stranger identifies himself as Richard Newson, and a chill goes through Henchard upon hearing this name. Newson speaks of Susan’s innocence in the matter of her own sale; how she did not realize that the transaction between them was not binding. Newson explains how he hoped to give Susan a better life and how she had seemed happy once she had a second child to replace the first who died.
Richard Newson’s arrival is ironically timed: just at the moment when Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane were forming a closer bond, a “ghost” from the past appears to disrupt this. Newson, despite his ill-timed appearance, is presented as a good-hearted man who expresses his care for Susan and their daughter.
Newson says that eventually Susan realized she was not bound to stay with him and was tormented by her sense of duty to return to Henchard. Therefore, when a storm at sea meant that many sailors were supposed dead, Newson decided to leave Susan with the belief that he had died and so free her to return to Henchard. He says that he learned of Susan’s death, but wishes to find Elizabeth-Jane, his daughter.
Newson further demonstrates his honorable nature in his explanation of his “death”: he let Susan believe him dead, so that she could return to Henchard, which was the thing that would bring her peace and fulfill her sense of duty. Newson hopes to reconnect with his biological daughter.
Henchard doggedly replies that Elizabeth-Jane has also died. He says she is buried next to her mother and died more than a year previously. Newson exclaims that his journey to Casterbridge has therefore been in vain, and departs. Realizing that Newson may discover the truth in town, and take away Henchard’s only remaining companion and hope in life, Henchard follows Newson until he sees him leave in a coach. His simple faith in the truth of Henchard’s words prevents him from inquiring elsewhere for Elizabeth-Jane.
Henchard’s lie to Newson is entirely selfish. Earlier in the novel, when Henchard believed Elizabeth-Jane to be his biological daughter and then discovered the truth, he demonstrated the importance in his mind of biological parentage. However, he is able to turn Elizabeth-Jane’s biological father away with the most painful lie: a story of her death. Newson, an honest man, believes this.
Henchard realizes that perhaps Newson’s grief at believing Elizabeth-Jane dead has also prevented him inquiring further. But he feels that Newson’s grief could be nothing next to his if Elizabeth-Jane were taken from him. He returns home and has breakfast with Elizabeth-Jane, who is grateful for his kindness and attentiveness. Elizabeth-Jane asks if Henchard is lonely, and promises to come visit him frequently. After she departs that day, Henchard knows that she would come live with him if he asked, and yet he fears that Newson will still discover her and take her away from him.
After his initial reaction, which was to fearfully lie to Newson, Henchard does consider Newson’s connection to Elizabeth-Jane and his grief. He feels his own grief must be greater, despite having ignored Elizabeth-Jane for a portion of their lives in Casterbridge. Henchard often changes his emotions suddenly and intensely, and he now sees Elizabeth-Jane as his only source of happiness and stability.
Henchard thinks about his life, in which he may live on for many more years, and he sees nothing in it to look forward to, no hobbies or interests to occupy him in place of the people who have been taken from him. He walks to the second bridge and follows the river to a place called Ten Hatches. He takes off his hat and coat and stands at the very edge of the river. But as he looks down, he sees a figure in the water, which is revealed to be himself. Henchard turns away, overwhelmed as if witnessing a miracle. He takes his hat and coat and leaves the river.
Fear of losing Elizabeth-Jane drives Henchard to nearly commit suicide. This occurs at the second bridge, a place that has already been symbolically linked with tragedy. What stops Henchard’s suicide attempt is the image of himself. More so than any natural forces, Henchard considers a message from himself to be a sign, “a miracle.” Henchard has always relied primarily on his own strength.
Henchard returns home to find Elizabeth-Jane waiting to see him, saying that he had appeared sad that morning and that she wished to visit again. He asks her if she believes in miracles. He asks if she will come with him, so that he can show her something and the pair returns to Ten Hatches. Elizabeth-Jane sees in the water Henchard’s effigy from the skimmington-ride. Henchard says that the performance of the skimmington-ride killed Lucetta, but saved his life.
Henchard takes Elizabeth-Jane to witness his “miracle,” which is revealed to be the effigy of himself from the skimmington-ride. Although the image stops Henchard’s course, it is an ominous image, showing Henchard’s figure, broken, and cast out of Casterbridge into the river at the second bridge, foreshadowing future events.
Elizabeth-Jane comprehends the seriousness of Henchard’s situation and asks if she might come and live with him. He says he wishes she would, but wonders how she can forgive him for his past treatment of her. Elizabeth-Jane says that it is forgotten and the two plan to live together. She overhears Henchard later say that someone must be looking out for even such an outcast as himself.
The seriousness of Henchard’s situation causes Elizabeth-Jane to want to spend time with him and help him, rather than to fearfully turn away. Elizabeth-Jane demonstrates her fortitude, and her power to move past Henchard’s treatment of her, in this moment.