Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1208
Gabriel Oak is a small-scale farmer, but his honesty, integrity, and ability win him the respect of all of his neighbors. When he hears that a young woman named Bathsheba Everdene has moved into the neighborhood, he goes out of his way to see her and falls immediately in love. Gabriel is the kind of man who looks only once to know that he has found the right woman. After seeing her only a few times, he goes to her aunt, for whom Bathsheba works, and asks for the girl’s hand in marriage. Although he is refused, he feels that it is the relative, not Bathsheba, who denies him.
A short time later, Gabriel’s sheepdog becomes excited and chases his flock of sheep over a cliff, killing them all. Ruined, Gabriel gives up his farm and goes elsewhere to find work. On his way across the country, he passes a burning barn and runs to aid the men fighting the flames. After the fire is put out, the owner of Weatherbury Farm arrives, and it is suggested that Gabriel be hired as shepherd in return for the fine work he did. To his surprise, the owner of the farm is Bathsheba, who recently inherited the place from her uncle. Gabriel becomes her shepherd. He is struck by the change in their positions in such a short while. Now Bathsheba is the landowner, and Gabriel is the servant.
On his way to his new quarters, Gabriel meets a girl standing in the woods. She speaks to him and asks him not to say that he saw her, and he promises to keep silent. The next morning while working at his new job, he hears that Fanny Robin, one of Bathsheba’s maids, disappeared, and he rightly guesses that Fanny is the girl he met. It is suspected that she went off to meet a soldier who was stationed in the area a short time before. This suspicion is correct. Fanny went to find Sergeant Troy at his new station, for he promised to marry her if she came to him. A date is set for the wedding, but Fanny goes to the wrong church. When she finally finds Troy, he refuses to make arrangements for a marriage a second time.
Bathsheba is a good manager, and Weatherbury Farm prospers; but she has her caprices. One of these is to send an anonymous valentine to William Boldwood, a conservative, serious man who is her neighbor. Boldwood is upset by the valentine, especially after he learns that Gabriel recognized Bathsheba’s handwriting. The more Boldwood sees of Bathsheba, however, the more deeply he falls in love with her. One day during the sheep washing, he asks her to marry him, but she refuses his proposal. Nevertheless, Gabriel and the rest of the workers feel sure that she will eventually marry Boldwood.
About that time, Sergeant Troy returns to the neighborhood. Bathsheba is attracted to him at once. Gabriel knows enough of Troy’s character to know that he is not the man for Bathsheba, and he tells her so. Not knowing the story of Fanny, Bathsheba is furious at Gabriel’s presumption. She and Troy are married soon afterward, and the former Sergeant becomes the master of Weatherbury Farm. With Troy running the farm, things do not go well. Gabriel is forced to do most of the work of overseeing, and often he is compelled to correct the mistakes Troy makes. Troy gambles and drinks and causes Bathsheba much unhappiness. Gabriel and Bathsheba are alternately friendly and unfriendly. One day Troy and Bathsheba, riding in a horse cart, pass a young woman walking down the road. Troy stops the cart and goes to talk to her. The woman is Fanny, who is feeble and ill. Troy tells her to go on to the next town and wait there for him to come and give her money. As soon as they arrive home, Troy asks Bathsheba for some money. She gives it to him after a quarrel.
Fanny goes on to Casterbridge, but she is so weak and ill when she arrives there that she dies shortly afterward. When news of her death reaches Weatherbury Farm, Bathsheba, unaware that Troy was the girl’s lover, sends a cart to bring the body to the farm for burial. When the body arrives, Gabriel sees scrawled on the coffin lid a message that both Fanny and a child are inside. He erases the last words in his fear that the real relationship of Fanny and Troy might reach Bathsheba’s ears; but Bathsheba, suspecting that the coffin conceals some secret, opens the casket late that night. At the same moment, Troy enters the room and learns of Fanny’s death and of the death of his child. Torn with grief, he tells Bathsheba that she means nothing to him, that Fanny was the only woman he ever loved, and that he married Bathsheba only for her looks and for her money. Bathsheba shuts herself up in an attic room.
Troy has a beautiful tombstone put up over Fanny’s grave, which he covers with roses and lilies. During a heavy storm that night, water pours from the church roof through the mouth of a gargoyle, splashes on the grave, and ruins all of his work. Troy disappears from Casterbridge. News comes shortly afterward that he was caught in a dangerous current while swimming in the ocean and drowned. Bathsheba does not believe that Troy is really dead; Boldwood, convinced of Troy’s death, does his best to get Bathsheba to promise to marry him if Troy does not reappear within seven years, at the end of which time he will be legally declared dead. At a party Boldwood gives for her one night, Bathsheba yields to his protestations of love and says that after the time passes, she will marry him. As she is leaving the party, Troy enters. He was rescued at sea and wandered slowly back to Casterbridge in the character of a strolling player.
At his entrance, Bathsheba faints and falls to the floor. Everyone is so concerned for her and surprised by Troy’s appearance that they do not see Boldwood when he takes down a gun from the wall. Boldwood aims at Troy and shoots him in the chest. Troy dies immediately. Boldwood is tried for the murder, but because his mind has given way, he is committed to an institution. Gabriel, who makes every effort to save Boldwood from hanging, becomes a leader in the neighborhood. As Bathsheba’s bailiff, he manages her farm and that of Boldwood as well. Of her three lovers, he is the only one left.
One day, Gabriel goes to Bathsheba and tells her that he is planning to leave her service. Bathsheba listens quietly and agrees with all he says. Later that night, however, she goes to his cottage and there tells him, by gesture more than by word, that he is the only person left to her now and that she needs both his help and his love. The farmers of the district are all delighted when Bathsheba becomes Mrs. Oak, and Gabriel becomes the master of Weatherbury Farm.