The difference between the peacefulness of interior nature and the wilful hostilities of mankind was very apparent at this place. In contrast with the harshness of the act just ended within the tent was the sight of several horses crossing their necks and rubbing each other lovingly as they waited in patience to be harnessed for the homeward journey. Outside the fair, in the valleys and woods, all was quiet. The sun had recently set, and the west heaven was hung with rosy cloud, which seemed permanent, yet slowly changed. To watch it was like looking at some grand feat of stagery from a darkened auditorium. In presence of this scene after the other there was a natural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe; till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent, and that mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet objects were raging loud.
In Chapter I, after selling his wife and daughter to a sailor for five guineas, Michael Henchard steps out of the furmity-merchant’s tent and considers the world described above. Here, Hardy employs his talent for description that serves to make the physical world of the characters real and accessible, while carrying a symbolic meaning that resonates with the larger themes of the work as a whole. First, he evokes beautifully the natural world of Weydon-Priors: the horses, the surrounding woods, the “rosy cloud[s]” at sunset. With the patient horses that rub their necks lovingly and stand as a counterpoint to Henchard’s patently unloving treatment of his wife, the passage departs from strict realism and veers toward symbolism. By contrasting the human and natural worlds in this way and determining that “all terrestrial conditions were intermittent,” that love and hate, kindness and cruelty are in constant flux, Hardy effectively sets the stage for his drama.