Ch. 21: Troubles in the Fold—A Message
It’s Sunday afternoon, and Oak has been off the job for a scant twenty-four hours when some of the laborers run to Bathsheba with the news that a large flock of sheep has broken into a field of new clover and grazed. This is a crisis because the early clover, when digested, produces gasses that bloat a sheep’s stomach, causing pain and death if untreated. Bathsheba, exasperated at the stupidity of sheep in general, goes to the field and is moved with pity for the suffering sheep, which are lying down, panting and foaming at the mouth, and grossly swollen. The men say that each sheep must be pierced in the side, at just the right place, with a special tool—and only Oak has both the knowledge and the tool to save them. When Bathsheba refuses to send for Oak, the men leave her with the flock. She sees a ewe writhe in pain, leap suddenly, and fall dead to the ground, at which point she sends Laban Tall on horseback to summon Oak. He returns with Oak’s refusal—unless Bathsheba “come civilly and in a proper manner” to beg the favor. At first Bathsheba’s anger stops her, but as another ewe dies horribly, she runs to the farmhouse and writes a letter begging Oak’s assistance, ending with the words “Do not desert me, Gabriel!” This letter brings Oak to the field, where Bathsheba scolds him for the delay while looking at him gratefully. Oak quickly treats the remaining sheep, saving all but one. When the “love-led man” finishes the task, Bathsheba smiles and asks him to stay on, and he agrees to do so.
Bathsheba’s admiration for Oak’s capabilities grows because of this event, and the bonds that link them are strengthened. At this point in the novel, readers may predict that, despite Boldwood’s wealth, a marriage to the clever, compassionate shepherd will attract Bathsheba. Readers also see that Bathsheba’s pride is tempered, here and elsewhere, by her sympathetic nature. The suffering of the sheep motivates her to admit that she needs Oak and to beg him to return.
Ch. 22: The Great Barn and the Sheep-shearers
Though he has agreed to stay, Oak is aware that “loitering beside Bathsheba stole his time ruinously.” The world around him is in bloom, but he is stagnant—stuck as an underpaid shepherd in the employ of a beautiful woman whom he loves. Lightly dressed, the laborers prepare to shear the sheep. The narrator indulges in a long, loving description of the ancient barn in which he compares it repeatedly to a church; Hardy’s appreciative memories of the countryside where he grew up and his praise for the continuity of the past into the present are on full display in this description. With Oak in charge, the men shear, the women gather the fleeces, and the mistress oversees the work. Bathsheba is impressed with Oak’s skill and leadership, while he is “fed with a luxury of content by having her over him.” But their contented labor is interrupted when Boldwood shows up and takes Bathsheba aside to speak to her. Distracted, Oak nicks a sheep, and Bathsheba turns to scold him—a little reminder that the laborer should mind his own business, not the mistress’s. Bathsheba listens to Boldwood, blushes, and turns away. Meanwhile, the laborers gossip about the marriage they assume is on the horizon and look forward to the feast that follows the shearing.
As yet, only Bathsheba, Oak, and Boldwood know that Oak loves Bathsheba; the shepherd takes pain to hide his affection from the villagers. Yet it is painful to him, and difficult not to respond, when he listens to them gossip about whether Bathsheba and Boldwood have kissed and thus will marry. Readers may need to remind themselves of the novel’s setting, a time at which a courting couple remained quite chaste before marriage. A kiss would be, to the villagers, proof positive of a coming marriage.
Ch. 23: Eventide—A Second Declaration
A long table has been set up for the shearing supper, with on end propped on the farmhouse windowsill so that Bathsheba can preside over the feast from within the house, “thus at the head without mingling with the men.” Bathsheba, in high spirits, places Oak at the foot of the table, in the other seat of honor; but when Boldwood shows up, Oak must yield the seat to his better, wondering if this rearrangement was planned. The laborers feast and sing as the sun sets; then Oak notices that Boldwood has left his seat and is inside, hovering around Bathsheba. The laborers ask Bathsheba to sing, so she does, accompanied by Oak on flute. One verse that she sings stays in his memory for years: “For his bride a soldier sought her, / And a winning tongue had he . . . .” Then Bathsheba bids all good night and closes the window, with Boldwood still inside. He presses his suit again, and she agrees, trembling, to “try to love him.” If she can love him and be a good wife, she’ll marry him, but she asks for more time to decide. Elated with this progress, Boldwood says that he must leave town for five or six weeks and will ask again when he returns.
This happy feast portrays country life ideally—food for all, work well done, bucolic music. But a bit of dramatic foreshadowing occurs when the narrator tells readers that Oak recalls the words Bathsheba sang about the soldier for years to come. Who is the soldier, and what bride does he seek with his “winning” words?
Ch. 24: The Same Night—The Fir Plantation
Since the farm has no bailiff, Bathsheba makes the rounds each evening to make sure all is well before she goes to bed. She is unaware that Oak precedes her, setting any problems right. Her path on the evening of the shearing supper takes her past a dark stand of firs, “a vast, low, naturally formed hall, the plumy ceiling of which was supported by slender pillars of living wood, the floor being covered with a soft dun carpet” of fallen fir needles. As Bathsheba walks among the firs, she hears another footstep on the path. Her dress snags on something, causing her to trip into a soldier, “brilliant in brass and scarlet.” Her dress is caught on his spur, and as he tries to untangle it by lantern light, their hands brush and he calls her face beautiful. When Bathsheba tells this man to leave her, he merely teases her and introduces himself as Sergeant Troy. Troy says his wishes that the tangle had been “the knot of knots, which there’s no untying!” to keep them near each other longer. They part. At home, Bathsheba pumps Liddy for information about Troy, who calls him “a clever young dand” and “a doctor’s son by name . . . an earl’s son by nature.” Troy, Liddy says, is bright and educated and had a promising future but threw it away by enlisting, though he did rise quickly to his rank. That night, Bathsheba tries to decide whether Troy’s banter was insulting or flattering. She feels, all in all, sorry that she fled the encounter so soon. The narrator comments drily that is was “a fatal omission of Boldwood’s that he had never once told her she was beautiful.”
Troy is a good candidate for the description of the soldier whose “winning tongue,” in the song Bathsheba sang, sought a bride; yet readers know that he is supposed to have a bride already, the pregnant Fanny. Dramatic irony results because readers know unsavory information about Troy of which Bathsheba is ignorant. The scarlet of his uniform and his knowingly impolite language attract the unwary Bathsheba when they should be clear warnings about his nature.
Ch. 25: The New Acquaintance Described
The narrator takes time to describe Troy, whom readers have only glimpsed till now. His nature combines “idiosyncrasy and vicissitude,” and he is “a man to whom memories were an incumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity.” Not only does he live utterly in the present, but being a man who expects little, he’s rarely disappointed. Troy is “moderately truthful towards men” but lies “like a Cretan” to women to get what he wants. Active yet unproductive, witty yet not thoughtful, Troy is pleasant company in the short term but trouble to anyone who requires steadfastness in a friend. Troy’s understanding of women is that a man may flatter them or swear at them, but “treat them fairly, and you are a lost man.”
When haymaking begins, Troy turns up in Bathsheba’s fields to help—or at least to impress her with the impression of helpfulness. But when he sees her, he leaves his work, such as it is, to walk and talk with her. Taken in, she blushes and welcomes his attentions.
Most of the chapter is devoted to describing this man as inconstant, pleasure-loving, and parasitic. The chapter bears close reading because Troy will be the mainspring of much of the action in the second half of the novel. Also worth noting is how quickly and totally Bathsheba falls for Troy, paralleling the rapidity with which Boldwood, who is still out of town, became infatuated with her. Neither love-stricken character sees the situation, or the beloved, clearly.