Based on The Mayor of Casterbridge, 19th Century English classic novel by Thomas Hardy. Set in Wessex – the West Country (Dorset, Devon, Somerset) – with the town of Casterbridge representing the actual Dorchester. It is a parable of spiritual ups and downs, mirrored by material success and failure. While essentially a towering romantic tragedy, it has both comic highlights and melodramatic moods to enliven it. Its main characters are riveting figures, full of depth and pathos, while the secondary characters are fun in their sharply defined peculiarities.
Michael Henchard, a pretentious and tempestuous impoverished young wanderer, comes to a fairground with his wife, Susan and their baby. He gets outrageously drunk and auctions his wife off to the highest bidder – a sea captain. As she takes off for Canada with the captain, Henchard passes out. When he comes to and realizes what he's done, he swears an oath not to drink liquor for 21 years.
Much time has elapsed, and Henchard is now a successful grain merchant and mayor of Casterbridge. Susan, whose husband the sea captain has died, returns to Casterbridge with Elizabeth–Jane, their daughter, now grown up, to find Henchard. He welcomes them, “marries” Susan as though they'd never been acquainted before, and "adopts" Elizabeth-Jane. In the meanwhile, he has welcomed a traveling Scotsman, Donald Farfrae into his business, with whom he is smitten. But affection turns to simmering jealousy as the popular and competent Farfrae achieves success, and Henchard turns him out of the business. At this point, Susan dies, revealing to Henchard that Elizabeth-Jane isn't his daughter, their baby having perished in infancy, but rather the child of her relationship with the sea captain. His incipient love for Elizabeth-Jane, now curdles.
Farfrae, who was starting to fall in love with Elizabeth-Jane (but with whom Henchard now forbids any further contact), sets up his own business in competition with Henchard. Through a confluence of bad weather and bad decisions, Henchard loses his grain business, the which Farfrae then snaps up, the coup making him more successful yet. Also, a mysterious, charismatic woman with whom Henchard had had a fleeting romance in the past, Lucetta, comes to Casterbridge to reestablish their liaison. When Henchard spurns her, she turns to Farfrae, who falls in love with her and marries her. At this point, Farfrae is mayor, has Henchard's old business and his old flame.
Henchard – no longer mayor, impoverished, isolated – goes to work for his rival Farfrae, in a menial position. They fight out their festering differences in a wrestling match in a hayloft, after which Henchard takes to the high road, abandoning Casterbridge. Shortly after, Lucetta dies. Elizabeth–Jane and Farfrae once again notice each other and fall in love. As they embrace, they entertain wistful thoughts for Henchard, feeling that something crucial is now missing from his life.