Ch. 1: Description of Farmer Oak—An Incident
This chapter introduces a major character, twenty-eight-year-old Gabriel Oak, a bachelor with smile lines “extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.” On work days Oak is a man of “sound judgment” and “good character,” while Sundays find him “a man of musty views.” He’s tall and modest, generally dressed in old work clothing and possessed of an old, inaccurate silver watch. The time is December, the place the village of Norcombe, in Hardy’s fictional Wessex, the “partly-real, partly dream-county” setting, as he described it, of most of his novels. Walking along the fields, Oak sees a painted wagon carting goods. The wagoner walks beside it, while perched on top sits a lovely young woman. When the wagoner discovers that the tailboard has fallen off, he must walk back for it. Unseen, Oak observes the young woman as she unpacks a mirror and admires her reflection till she hears the wagoner’s step and hastily hides the mirror. Oak meets the wagon at a toll gate where he pays the extra two pence for the heavily-laden cart to proceed. The woman does not thank him as the wagon proceeds. Oak thinks, as he watches the wagon leave, of the young woman’s vanity.
The two characters at the center of the novel meet for the first time in the opening chapter. Gabriel Oak, the phlegmatic farmer, is presented positively as thoughtful and capable, while the as yet unnamed young woman comes across as vain and spoiled. The “Incident” of the chapter’s title seems slight, yet it sets in action a relationship that will develop throughout the novel.
Ch. 2: Night—The Flock—An Interior—Another Interior
It is nearly midnight on December 21, the solstice, and Oak is tending his sheep in the windy cold of Norcombe Hill. It is lambing season, so Oak takes what snatches of sleep he can in a shepherd’s hut and plays his flute to pass the time. Oak has just leased 200 sheep to start his own farm; before this, he had been a bailiff, the manager of someone else’s farm. As he interrupts his sleep to care for the new lambs, he appreciates the beauty of the winter sky and feels as if he is alone on earth under them. To his surprise, he sees a light in a nearby shed. An aunt and niece are also working late, tending to a cow that has just calved. The younger woman is irritated; she has lost her hat in the wind and complains that they cannot afford to pay a man to do this midnight work. Oak, peering in through a gap in the wall, cannot see her face but imagines her, based on her voice, to be beautiful. As she prepares o leave, her cloak slips to reveal her face—it is the vain young woman from the wagon.
This chapter reveals more of Oak’s good qualities. Deeply attuned to the natural world, he cares for the sheep tenderly and ably. It also offers another glimpse of the young woman, who seems petulant, yet there she is, in the freezing night, helping her aunt capably in the barn. There may be more to her that Oak assumed when he first saw her.
Ch. 3: A Girl on Horseback—Conversation
At dawn Oak walks back to the cowshed. He sees the young woman riding a pony. When Oak finds her hat, he decides to return it to her; but as he gets nearer, he sees an astonishing sight: The young woman performs horseback tricks. Oak withdraws from view, but later the woman rides back with feed for the cow and calf and goes in to milk. Oak speaks to her and offers her the hat. She is modest but not shy, pretty and well-formed, he notes. She blushes, thinking he may have seen her acrobatics, and he looks away to allow her to compose herself. Both return to work, but five days later when they meet again, she states that she is offended by his “want of tact” in watching her.
That night, a freezing wind blows, and Oak shuts the vent hole in his shepherd’s hut, just for a bit, to warm up. He falls asleep and is wakened by the furious howling of his dog and the young woman’s insistent shaking. She has doused him with warm milk in her desperation; he nearly suffocated in the smoky hut. Oak blames the hut, but the young woman reminds him that he stopped up the vent himself. She heard his dog howling to get into the hut. He should be grateful, she says, that she happened to be passing by on her way to milk the cow—had this happened next week, she says, she would have been gone from the neighborhood. Oak asks for her name, which she refuses, and tries to hold her hand, which she denies him teasingly.
The mystery of the pretty young woman increases in this chapter, as does Oak’s admiration for her. She is capable, athletic, self-possessed, and persistently anonymous. At the same time, readers see for the first time that Oak, the able and steady farmer, is fallible. And now he is in debt to the nameless woman who will soon be moving away from Norcombe.
Ch. 4: Gabriel’s Resolve—The Visit—The Mistake
Gabriel Oak is in love with the young woman, to his surprise and alarm: “His dog waited for his meals in a way so like that in which Oak waited for the girl’s presence that the farmer was quite struck with the resemblance, felt it lowering, and would not look at the dog.” Through inquiries he finally learns her name—Bathsheba Everdeen. Oak loves simply to say her name and decides that he must marry her. One January morning finds cause to go to Bathsheba’s aunt’s home, where she has been staying. Oak dresses up a little, slicks back his hair, and takes a lamb as a gift. She “might like to rear it,” he tells Mrs. Hurst; “girls do.” Then he asks the aunt if she thinks Bathsheba would marry him. Mrs. Hurst exaggerates, saying that her niece has “a dozen young men” courting her, so Oak starts home, disappointed. However, Bathsheba has overheard the conversation and runs after him to assure him that she has no suitors. Oak thinks that she is accepting his proposal and is startled to hear her object, “I hate to be thought men’s property in that way.” Oak protests that he can make her happy, but she will not have him. No gift or financial security is worth having a husband around all the time, and besides, she yawns, she is not in love with Oak. For his part, he declares his love in such strong terms, saying that he will “love you, and long for you, and keep wanting you till I die,” that she is distressed and wants to escape the conversation. She lists her disqualifications to be his wife: She has not enough money and too much education. Though it pains him to do so, he agrees not to press her again.
Readers learn that both Oak and Bathsheba are strong-minded. He, once he decides to marry her, wastes no time in proposing. She, when she hears his plans, states her opposition clearly and forcefully. The basis of their relationship is thus fixed in these cross purposes. Moreover, readers learn that Bathsheba is unusual for her time in her desire not to be a man’s property but rather to maintain her independence. Love matters more to her than financial security; she seems a romantic on this matter, much as Oak is a romantic in his attachment to the natural world.
Ch. 5: Departure of Bathsheba—A Pastoral Tragedy
When Oak hears that Bathsheba has left Norcombe, he takes the news hard. In her absence he idealizes her and tries to catch word of her whereabouts. Bathsheba had moved about twenty miles away to the town of Weatherbury.
Oak’s dogs are then described—George, the older dog, and his pup, a dog still trying to learn the business of shepherding. One evening Oak goes to put the dogs up for the night and finds the pup gone. Unconcerned, Oak retires for the night. At dawn, he wakes to the sound of his flocks’ bells ringing; the flock is running. Oak follows their trail to find the pup on a ridge above a chalk pit, next to a break in the hedge fence. The untrained, over-eager dog has herded about two hundred sheep over the edge and to their deaths. Oak feels “pity for the untimely fate of these gentle ewes and their unborn lambs”; their demise is also the demise of his farm because the sheep were uninsured and were his only asset. “Thank God I am not married: what would she have done in the poverty now coming upon me!” is his first thought. The pup must be killed, and Oak must sell all he owns except his clothes to pay his debts.
In this chapter Oak’s resolve and confidence are tested, and readers see the depth of his love for Bathsheba when he frames the “pastoral tragedy” in terms that pertain to her rather than to himself. In addition, readers are reminded that even in this least dire of Hardy’s works, the novelist incorporates the chance events and seemingly unimportant choices that shape characters’ lives, often for the worse.