Henchard travels back to Weydon-Priors and visits the location of the fair where he made the error of selling his wife and daughter. He visits this place as an act of penance and feels fully the bitterness of his situation. He had planned to travel far away from Casterbridge, but because his mind is on Elizabeth-Jane, he continues circling distantly around the town. He often sneers at himself for this weakness and for caring so deeply about a girl who is not his daughter.
When Henchard returns to Weydon-Priors, the same physical place indicates to the reader that the novel has come full circle. Through the years that have passed, Henchard has changed. The major change is that he has come to love his “daughter” when he once gave up his family members willingly. And yet he is also warped by self-hatred, and by a continuing sense that to be dependent on anyone is weakness.
Henchard obtains work again as a hay-trusser and so finds himself in exactly the same circumstance in life where he found himself twenty-five years earlier. He has no interest, at this point, in attempting to better his situation, as he once did. He often thinks as he works of the people everywhere dying before their time, while he, an outcast who no one will miss, lives on.
One day, Henchard hears the word “Casterbridge” spoken by someone in a passing wagon and runs to the road to inquire about news from the town. He asks about a wedding, and hears that one is taking place on Martin’s Day. He thinks of writing to Elizabeth-Jane, remembering that she had said she wished him to be at her wedding, but he is unsure how to reverse his own self-willed seclusion.
Henchard receives news of Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae’s wedding, and of Casterbridge, by word of mouth. Despite Henchard’s choice to isolate himself, he is not beyond the reach of society, which has been connected throughout the novel with news and gossip spread by villagers.
Henchard decides to arrive at the wedding, in the evening, so as to make as little disruption as possible. He travels toward Casterbridge, planning to wear his working suit, the only clothes he owns, to the event. He buys Elizabeth-Jane a gift of a goldfinch in a cage.
Henchard wants to go to the wedding, unable to resist the appeal of seeing Elizabeth-Jane. The gift he buys reflects how he has always seen the girl: a possession in a cage to be admired and enjoyed.
He arrives at Farfrae’s house that evening and sees the lively proceedings within. He can hear Farfrae’s voice singing. The door is open and everything inside is brightly lit. Henchard’s courage fails him. He does not want to appear among such splendor as an embarrassment to Elizabeth-Jane. He enters by the back door instead and sends a servant to pass a message to his stepdaughter.
The liveliness of the wedding party is intimidating to Henchard because he no longer sees himself as part of the world of splendor he once enjoyed. He is outside looking in on success, as Susan and Elizabeth-Jane once gazed in at him at a brightly lit dinner at the Golden Crown.
Henchard watches the dance underway in the other room, and sees one man who dances particularly grandly. This happy man, Elizabeth-Jane’s dance partner for that number, is Newson.
Newson is fulfilling all that Elizabeth-Jane needs in a father, as he dances with her at her wedding.
Elizabeth-Jane appears, having been summoned by the servant. She tells Henchard she might once have cared for him, but she no longer can knowing that he deceived her about her parentage and deceived Newson, her true father, into believing that she was dead. Henchard cannot begin to explain his own limited knowledge and confusion about these matters, but only apologizes for distressing her at such a happy time and swears he will not trouble her again until his dying day.
Elizabeth-Jane shares her changed opinion with Henchard. She has never, before this, directly stood up to her stepfather. She has avoided him, moved away from him, and forgiven him, but she has reached the point when she cannot forgive. This is, despite all he has experienced, the most painful blow to Henchard.