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The shadow of that one horrible sin committed at the fair chases Henchard all his life. Even after so much repentance, he knows there is no penance.
Hardy hastens the present action of the novel in his flashback. By relating the events of the past eighteen years quickly instead of relating them, he forces us to focus on the events of the present and on the characters who will be directly influenced by those events. In addition, he heightens suspense in the events of the present by mentioning