Michael Henchard sold his wife and daughter when drunk 18 years ago. Now, his wife has come for him with their daughter, only to find out that he is now the mayor of Casterbridge. She is reluctant to meet him but he wants to see her.
Michael remarries Susan. He hires Donald Farfrae to manage his business but there is tension between them. Michael's standing goes down and, unable to take any more, Donald leaves him to set up a business in opposition to Michael.
After Susan dies, Michael tells Elizabeth-Jane about he being her father. However, he then finds a letter explaining that Elizabeth-Jane is not his daughter, which he keeps this secret. Donald's business rises just as Michael's slumps.
Michael's business reaches rock bottom. Lucetta and Donald become serious so Michael extracts a promise from Lecetta to marry him by blackmailing her with her past. However, Donald and Lucetta marry anyway.
A drunk Michael disrupts Prince Albert's visit to Casterbridge, which angers Donald. Jopp discloses some of Lucetta's and the townspeople decide to humiliate her. Shocked, she collapses and dies. Newson turns up looking for Elizabeth-Jane.
Newson unexpectedly returns to Casterbridge and Michael promptly decides to leave the town. Newson and Elizabeth-Jane are reunited and then she and Donald get married. Elizabeth-Jane is angry when Michael appears at the wedding.