The first chapter introduces us to Gabriel Oak, our hero, a 28-year-old shepherd who has earned enough to acquire a small piece of land of his own. He has bought a farm of 200 sheep, many of the ewes pregnant. In the first scene, he watches a young woman with black hair drive up in a carriage laden with goods. Gabrielobserves her as she waits for her driver. Thinking she is alone, she takes out a mirror and gazes at herself. Shortly afterward, he sees her again, stopped at a toll gate. She is arguing with the gatekeeper over the toll and Gabriel steps in to pay the two pence for her. When she drives off, he speaks with the gatekeeper and tells him that the black-haired woman has one fault: "vanity."
Tendingto his sheep over the next few weeks, Gabriel spots the woman on several occasions as she walks to milk a cow at a nearby dairy. In several scenes he watches her without being seen, and he learns that she lives with her aunt. They meet when he goes to look for the hat she has lost, but he embarrasses her with his bold manner. Then, one night, Gabriel falls asleep in his shepherd's hut with thewindows closed but the hearth still lit; he nearly dies from smoke inhalation but the woman breaks in and saves his life. He thanks her and asks her name; she refuses to tell him outright, challenging him to find it out for himself.
Gabriel learns that her name is Bathsheba Everdene. He visits her aunt in order to ask for her niece's hand in marriage, but the aunt tells him that Bathsheba already hasmany lovers. Bathsheba runs after Gabriel to tell him that what her aunt has said is untrue, and in a funny and misunderstanding-laden exchange, the two discuss the possibility of their marriage. Gabriel assumes that if she has run after him to tell him he may court her, then she must be interested; however, she assures him that she would never marry him because she does not love him. When heasks her a second time and she again refuses, he at last agrees to drop the matter, though he declares he will always love her.
Not long after he proposes, Gabriel Oak hears that Bathsheba Everdene has left the neighborhood and gone to a place called Weatherbury. He finds "that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in" and loves her all the more onceshe is gone.
The rest of Chapter Five describes a tragic event that changes Gabriel's fate forever. He has two sheepdogs, a loyal and reliable one named George and George's son, who is still learning to herd sheep and is often too enthusiastic. One night, on one of the rare occasions when Gabriel goes to sleep in his own bed rather than in the fields, he wakes in the middle of the night to thesound of sheep bells clanging wildly. He goes outside and follows their footprints to the edge of a steep chalk-pit: Looking in, he sees hundreds of dying sheep and mangled sheep carcasses; the younger dog has unwittingly chased them over the edge in his zeal. Ruined financially without his sheep, Gabriel can no longer farm. However, he does not immediately dwell upon his own misfortune: His firstimpulse is to pity the gentle ewes and their unborn lambs; his second impulse is to thank God that Bathsheba did not marry him, for he wishes only prosperity for her. He regretfully shoots the dog, pays his debts, and finds himself with nothing more than his clothes.
Chapter Six begins two months later at a hiring fair for farm laborers, including shepherds, bailiffs (men who run a farm andoversee the workers), carters, waggoners, and thatchers. Hardy describes the 200-300-man group as a whole and then focuses in on one particular man, who turns out to be Gabriel. After unsuccessfully advertising himself as a bailiff, he resignedly offers his shepherding skills for hire; still no one gives him a job. Finally, he earns a little money by playing his flute for the passers-by, and he...