The lengthy Chapter 49 covers several months after Troy's supposed death, from late autumn to late summer of the next year. It charts Gabriel's increasing success. Bathsheba relinquishes control of the farm, letting Gabriel oversee it. Similarly, Boldwood, who has lost all his crops from the previous year because of his neglect, decides to hire Gabriel, as well. Gabriel is given a horse and acts as bailiff for both farms. Boldwood even gives Gabriel a share of his profits. The farm laborers comment that Gabriel is miserly because he refuses to change his lifestyle despite his new property.
In the meantime, Bathsheba lives in a state of abstraction. She does not fully believe that Troy is dead and only reluctantly wears clothes of mourning.
Boldwood develops hopes that in six years (the period legally necessary for a missing person to be declared dead), Bathsheba may be willing to forget Troy and marry him. He quizzes Liddy about the likelihood of her mistress remarrying. His preoccupation is turning into a full-blown obsession.
Chapter 50 is built around the Greenhill Sheep Fair, where farmers and shepherds meet from all over the countryside in September. Hardy describes the fair in detail. Gabriel's sheep, from both Boldwood and Bathsheba's farms, are universally admired. The fair also contains a "circular tent, of exceptional newness and size" in which a theatrical show is being performed. Called "The Royal Hippodrome Performance of Turpin's Ride to York and the Death of Black Bess," it stars Troy as the lead role. We see the farm laborers, Poorgrass and Coggan, in the audience, engaged in comical bickering.
The narrator briefly explains that Troy has been wandering through England and America over the past few months. In America he has worked as a professor of gymnastics and sword exercises, but, not liking it, he has returned to England. He intends to wait and see what Bathsheba's financial situation is before revealing his presence to her, not wanting to be held financially "liable for her maintenance." In the meantime, he has taken up with a traveling circus.
Boldwood approaches Bathsheba once the sheep have been sold, and he gets her a seat at the show. Troy recognizes her, and, explaining to the manager that he has a creditor in the audience, asks if he might perform the rest of the play in pantomime, in order to disguise his identity. After the show, Troy thinks that Pennyways, Bathsheba's former bailiff, may have recognized him nonetheless. Pennyways approaches Bathsheba, giving her a note saying her husband is alive, but Troy hides behind her and snatches the note from her before she can read it. Troy and Pennyways go off together to talk.
Boldwood contrives to take Bathsheba home from the fair, and on the way, he reminds her that Troy is dead and asks her whether she would consider marrying him. He asks her to take pity on him, even though she does not love him. Bathsheba is intimidated by him almost to the point of fear, and through timidity and guilt, she tells him, "I will never marry another man whilst you wish me to be your wife, whatever comes--but to say more--" It is another half- promise. Finally, she agrees to tell him for certain at Christmas whether she is willing to marry him six years later.
Bathsheba asks Gabriel for advice a few weeks later, telling him that if she does not give Boldwood her word, she thinks he will go out of his mind. Gabriel replies that "The real sin, ma'am, in my mind, lies in thinking of every wedding wi' a man you don't love honest and true." After their conversation, Bathsheba feels piqued that Gabriel has not mentioned his own love for her.
The Greenhill Fair chapter, Chapter 50, contains an enormous amount of factual information about life in Dorsetshire. One of Hardy's projects in this novel is to preserve a detailed account of the rural habits of the region that he saw becoming extinct in an age of increasing industrialization. The agricultural economy would suffer in the late 1800s through competition with produce from other countries. Faster transportation and technological advances in refrigeration meant that by 1900, the English no longer had to subsist on food grown on British soil alone. The agricultural fair, then, is a ritual that Hardy sees dying out, and the chapter serves as a sort of historical document or record.
Much of the plot of this chapter is built around unlikely coincidence: Troy meeting up with Bathsheba, being recognized by Pennyways but not by his wife, being able to steal the note that Pennyways gives Bathsheba. The intense acceleration of events in this part of the novel makes it seem far less realistic than the slower, more carefully drawn scenes in the novel. Yet Hardy's somewhat contrived states of affairs allow him to experiment with interesting psychological situations. The way the characters respond to their strange circumstances sheds light on their personalities and minds. For example, the fact that Troy persists in hiding from Bathsheba, despite being in her immediate presence, exposes the depth of his callousness: he has not seen her in months, she is in mourning for him, and yet he still waits to see how financially well-off she is before making his presence known.