Egdon Heath is a gloomy wasteland in southern England. Against this majestic but solemn, brooding background, a small group of people are to work out their tragic drama in the impersonal presence of nature.
Guy Fawkes Day bonfires are glowing in the twilight as Diggory Venn, the reddleman, drives his van across the heath. Tired and ill, Thomasin Yeobright, the young girl whom Diggory loves, lies in the rear of his van. She had rejected his marriage proposal in order to marry Damon Wildeve, proprietor of the Quiet Woman Inn. Now, Diggory is carrying the girl to her home at Blooms-End. She had gone to marry Wildeve in a nearby town, but the ceremony did not take place because of an irregularity in the license. Shocked and shamed, Thomasin has asked her old sweetheart, Diggory, to take her home.
Mrs. Yeobright, Thomasin’s aunt and guardian, hears the story from the reddleman. Concerned for the girl’s welfare, she decides that the wedding should take place as soon as possible. Mrs. Yeobright has good cause to worry, for Wildeve’s intentions are not wholly honorable. Later in the evening, after Wildeve has assured the Yeobrights, rather casually, that he intends to go through with his promise, his attention is turned to a bonfire blazing on Mistover Knap. There old Captain Vye lives with his beautiful granddaughter Eustacia. At dusk, Eustacia has started a fire on the heath as a signal to her lover, Wildeve, to come to her. Although he intends to break with Eustacia, he decides to obey her summons.
Meanwhile, Eustacia is waiting for Wildeve in the company of young Johnny Nunsuch. When Wildeve throws a pebble in the pond to announce his arrival, Eustacia tells Johnny to go home. The meeting between Wildeve and Eustacia is unsatisfactory for both. He complains that she gives him no peace, and she, in turn, resents his desertion. Meanwhile, Johnny Nunsuch, frightened by strange lights he has seen on the heath, returns to Mistover Knap to ask Eustacia to let her servant accompany him home, but he keeps silent when he comes upon Eustacia and Wildeve. Retracing his steps, he stumbles into a sandpit where the reddleman’s van stands. Diggory learns from the boy of the meeting between Eustacia and Wildeve. Later, he overhears Eustacia declare her hatred of the heath to Wildeve, who asks her to run away with him to America. Her reply is vague, but the reddleman decides to see Eustacia without delay to beg her to let Thomasin have Wildeve.
Diggory’s visit to Eustacia is fruitless. He then approaches Mrs. Yeobright, declares again his love for her niece, and offers to marry Thomasin. Mrs. Yeobright refuses the reddleman’s offer because she feels that the girl should marry Wildeve. She confronts the innkeeper with vague references to another suitor, with the result that Wildeve’s interest in Thomasin is awakened once more.
Shortly afterward, Mrs. Yeobright’s son, Clym, returns from Paris, and a party to welcome him gives Eustacia the chance to view this stranger about whom she has heard so much. Uninvited, she goes to the party disguised as one of the mummers. Clym is fascinated by this interesting and mysterious young woman disguised as a man. Eustacia dreams of marrying Clym and going with him to Paris. She even breaks off with Wildeve, who, stung by her rejection, promptly marries Thomasin to spite Eustacia.
Clym Yeobright decides not to go back to France. Instead, he plans to open a school, although Mrs. Yeobright strongly opposes her son’s decision....
(The entire section is 1439 words.)