With The Mayor of Casterbridge, we should ask, "What's up with the endings," because there is more than one version of it! Hardy first published the novel in serial form (small installments, like episodes of a HBO series) in a magazine called The Graphic. Later it was released in traditional book form, but with significant changes. And just like with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, there were differences between the American and British versions. Magazine editors changed the serial versions slightly (mostly because of space constraints), but Hardy himself had a hand in editing and changing later book editions.
So today, editors of The Mayor of Casterbridge have a big question to ask themselves: which version of the ending should they use? You should check out the editor's "Note on the Text" at the beginning of your book to see what version you're looking at – you don't want to miss out on any important scenes that may not be included in your edition!
The biggest difference among the various versions of the novel is the ending. But before you get too excited, you should know that in all versions, Elizabeth-Jane marries Donald Farfrae and Michael Henchard exiles himself from Casterbridge, eventually dying in the cottage of a former employee just before Donald and Elizabeth-Jane find him. (Yep, it's depressing, but that's typical of a Thomas Hardy novel.) The main difference between the versions is the reasons Michael Henchard gives for leaving Casterbridge and whether or not he returns to see Elizabeth-Jane on her wedding day.
In later editions of the novel, Thomas Hardy includes a longer ending: Michael Henchard leaves Casterbridge because he's afraid that Captain Newson, Elizabeth-Jane's real father, is coming back to Casterbridge and will reveal to Elizabeth that Henchard lied to her about her parentage. Henchard goes away and works as a farm laborer until he hears that Elizabeth-Jane is going to be married to Donald Farfrae. He decides that Elizabeth-Jane will surely be able to forgive him now, so he travels to Casterbridge for the wedding with a caged goldfinch as a wedding present. When he arrives, he leaves the birdcage under a bush because he's afraid it would be a little awkward to show up at a wedding reception with a birdcage under his arm (yeah, he's probably right).
When Elizabeth-Jane sees Henchard, she tells him off. She says she can't forgive him for having lied to her about who her real father was and for lying to Captain Newson to keep them apart. Henchard leaves in despair, forgetting the bird. When the housekeeper finds the bird several days later, it's dead. Elizabeth-Jane feels sorry for rejecting her stepfather and sets out to find him, but it's too late – she arrives just after Henchard dies.
In the version we use for our "Summary" (the Penguin Classic edition from 1997), the editor, Keith Wilson, uses the first English book version. This is the shorter of the two endings. In this version, Henchard leaves Casterbridge because he feels irrelevant now that his step-daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, is going to be married to his long-time rival, Donald Farfrae. He wanders around the general vicinity of Casterbridge for a while, eventually dying before Elizabeth-Jane and her new husband can find him.
Both endings are sad, but the longer one is probably the sadder of the two. Most modern copies of the book will include the alternate ending in an appendix at the back. It's fun to read both versions so you can compare them. Which ending do you prefer? Why do you think Hardy had a hard time making up his mind about which version to use? How does each ending help shape your impressions of the novel, and of Michael Henchard's character?