The first chapter starts with a young hay-trusser named Michael Henchard, his wife, Susan, and their baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, silently walk along a road in the English countryside toward a large village called Weydon-Priors. They meet a turnip-hoer, and Henchard asks if there is work or shelter to be found in the town. The pessimistic labourer tells the young man that there is neither. The family eventually comes upon a fair and stops for food. They enter a furmenty tent, where a woman sells a kind of gruel made from corn, flour, milk, raisins, currants and other ingredients. After watching the woman spike several bowls of the porridge with rum, Henchard secretly sends up his bowl to be spiked as well.
The woman accommodates him again and again, and soon Henchard is drunk. As he continues to drink, he bemoans his lot as a married man. If only he were “a free man,” he tells the group gathered in the furmenty tent, he would “be worth a thousand pound.” When the sound of an auctioneer selling horses interrupts Henchard’s musings, he jokes that he would be willing to sell his wife if someone wanted to buy her. Susan begs him to stop his teasing, declaring that “this is getting serious. O!—too serious!” Henchard persists nevertheless. He begins to bark out prices like an auctioneer, upping the cost of his wife and child when no one takes his offer. When the price reaches five guineas, a sailor appears and agrees to the trade. Distraught, but glad to leave her husband, Susan go off with Elizabeth-Jane and the sailor. Henchard collapses for the night in the furmity tent.
Henchard wakes the next morning, wondering if the events of the previous night have been a dream. When he finds the sailor’s money in his pocket, however, he realizes that he has, in fact, sold his wife and child. He deliberates over his situation for some time and decides that he must “get out of this as soon as [he] can.” He exits the tent and makes his way unnoticed from the Weydon fairgrounds. After a mile or so of walking, he stops and wonders if he told his name to anyone at the fair. He is surprised that Susan agreed to go with the sailor and curses her for bringing him “into this disgrace.” Still, he resolves to find Susan and Elizabeth-Jane and bear the shame, which he reasons is “of his own making.”
Henchard continues on his way, and, three or four miles later, he comes upon a village and enters a church there. He falls to his knees on the altar, places a hand on the Bible, and pledges not to drink alcohol for twenty-one years, the same number of years that he has been alive. He continues the search for Susan and Elizabeth-Jane for several months and eventually arrives at a seaport where a family fitting the description of the sailor, Susan, and Elizabeth-Jane has recently departed. He decides to abandon his search and makes his way to the town of Casterbridge.