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. Gabriel observes 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."
Tending to 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 the windows 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 has many 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 he asks her a second time and she again refuses, he at last agrees to drop the matter, though he declares he will always love her.
From the very first chapter, the novel's rustic focus emerges. Hardy's treatment of his subject alternates between a painstaking realism and an idealized romanticization: While he details the minutiae of rustic culture and includes specific information about the practice of farming, he also links Gabriel to the pastoral literary tradition, an ancient classical form that enjoyed new popularity during the Renaissance. Playing his flute as he tends his sheep, Gabriel evokes the carefree, flute-playing shepherds that populated these poems' idyllic landscapes. Furthermore, throughout the novel Gabriel will occupy the position of the observer who watches others make mistakes without ever implicating himself in the action; the traditional pastoral lyric commented on the civilized world in a tone of similar detachment.
At the same time, the novel has the plot of a romance: A man meets a woman and falls in love. Hardy avidly analyzes the way a person in love forms ideas about the loved one, even if the two share only the slightest acquaintance. He avidly analyzes the delusions of human psychology, particularly regarding love, concluding that love is rarely returned with equal intensity, despite what the lover leads himself/herself to believe.
Gabriel's conversation with Bathsheba shows her to be a capricious, spirited young woman who has never been in love. The two discuss marriage with remarkable frankness. Bathsheba admits that she would like to have all the trappings of marriage--she would delight in a piano, pets, and her own carriage; she would enjoy seeing her name in the newspaper's marriage announcements--but she objects to the concept of having a husband in the first place and to losing her freedom. While Bathsheba seems a bit superficial, her independence and strength are admirable, and she remains a sympathetic character.