Not long after he proposes, Gabriel Oak hears that Bathsheba Everdene has left the neighborhood and gone to a place called Weatherbury. He finds "that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in" and loves her all the more once she is gone.
The rest of Chapter Five describes a tragic event that changes Gabriel's fate forever. He has two sheepdogs, a loyal and reliable one named George and George's son, who is still learning to herd sheep and is often too enthusiastic. One night, on one of the rare occasions when Gabriel goes to sleep in his own bed rather than in the fields, he wakes in the middle of the night to the sound of sheep bells clanging wildly. He goes outside and follows their footprints to the edge of a steep chalk-pit: Looking in, he sees hundreds of dying sheep and mangled sheep carcasses; the younger dog has unwittingly chased them over the edge in his zeal. Ruined financially without his sheep, Gabriel can no longer farm. However, he does not immediately dwell upon his own misfortune: His first impulse is to pity the gentle ewes and their unborn lambs; his second impulse is to thank God that Bathsheba did not marry him, for he wishes only prosperity for her. He regretfully shoots the dog, pays his debts, and finds himself with nothing more than his clothes.
Chapter Six begins two months later at a hiring fair for farm laborers, including shepherds, bailiffs (men who run a farm and oversee the workers), carters, waggoners, and thatchers. Hardy describes the 200-300-man group as a whole and then focuses in on one particular man, who turns out to be Gabriel. After unsuccessfully advertising himself as a bailiff, he resignedly offers his shepherding skills for hire; still no one gives him a job. Finally, he earns a little money by playing his flute for the passers-by, and he decides to try another fair the next day.
He falls asleep in a wagon and wakes up to find it moving toward Weatherbury, where Bathsheba has settled. He allows it to take him most of the way and then slips out of the wagon unseen. Intending to continue on to Weatherbury on foot, he pauses when he sees a strange light and realizes something large is on fire in the distance. A crowd gathers helplessly around a straw-rick (a large stack of straw, wheat, or other grain) but Gabriel knows just what to do; without regard to his own safety, he coordinates the effort to extinguish the fire, climbing himself to the top of the rick to stamp out the flames with his shepherd's crook. In the meantime, two women watch the proceedings, one of whom is the mistress of the farm. Once Gabriel has put out the fire, she asks him how she can repay him. He approaches her and asks if she has need of a shepherd's services; when she lifts her veil, the two figures stare at each other in astonished recognition.
Bathsheba decides to hire him, and she asks him to speak to the bailiff, a bad-tempered man. As Gabriel walks through the forest to an inn called Warren's Malthouse, he comes across a "slim girl, rather thinly clad" who asks him not to say that he has seen her. As he reaches to give her a shilling, seeing that she is poor and worrying she may be cold, he touches her arm by mistake: We read, "Gabriel's fingers alighted on the young woman's wrist. It was beating with a throb of tragic intensity. He had frequently felt the same hard, quick beat in the femoral artery of his lambs when overdriven. It suggested a consumption too great of a vitality which, to judge from her figure and stature, was already too little." Gabriel passes her and joins the other farm laborers in the malthouse.
Chapter Eight takes place in the malthouse and introduces us to the local laborers and their culture. Hardy attentively records the men's dialect and their ways of life, and he takes care to differentiate one from another, though to some extent the characters fit into types. Gabriel drinks with them, and after he has left, news arrives that Bathsheba has fired her bailiff, Pennyways, having caught him stealing, and her youngest servant, Fanny Robin, has run away. This, we guess, is the slim girl Gabriel met in the forest. Bathsheba asks her workers for help in finding her or information about the lover with whom she may have fled.
Up until now, most of the narration has been told from the point of view of Gabriel. In these chapters, the reader remains privy to Gabriel's thoughts but also receives information to which he has no access. He does not learn about the bailiff's crime or about Fanny Robin's possible elopement, and we see the whole crowd at the fair before the narrator focuses in on Gabriel. This practice of gradually moving in on a scene from an initial great distance, eventually singling out a familiar character, is a favorite of Hardy's. He analyzes the way we perceive a group of people, noting the fact that they all seem the same until we recognize a prior acquaintance.
The scene characterizing the farm laborers is also typical of Hardy's novels. Here, Hardy pauses the plot for an entire chapter, giving a detailed account of how the laborers speak, how they spend their free time, and their opinions about each other. These groups of lower-class, common characters figure in almost all of Hardy's novels; like Shakespeare, he often uses them to effect comic relief, offsetting a tragic scene--here, the deaths of Gabriel's ewes--with one of a more light-hearted tone. With this scene, Hardy also intends to introduce urban or middle-class readers to the many different kinds of people that exist in the lower classes. In a later essay on the Dorsetshire laborer, he complains that people tend to stereotype farm workers and lump them all together.
These chapters also serve to test Gabriel by presenting him with a series of difficulties. Yet Gabriel consistently passes the test: Indeed, the way in which he repeatedly overcomes his challenges, honor intact, constitutes part of Gabriel's idealized portrayal in the novel as a whole. While Bathsheba and Sergeant Troy interest us precisely because of the ways in which each character's strengths and faults play against each other, Gabriel is almost utterly noble and reliable. He loses his sheep and reacts by mourning for the sheep rather than for himself; he comes across a fire and knows exactly how to stop it. Gabriel is the idealized hero of the novel.
Hardy artfully sets up the meeting between Gabriel and Bathsheba so as to highlight the changes both have undergone in the intervening months. The last time they met their situations were precisely reverse: She was penniless and he was a prosperous young farmer. In two months their relative stations have changed dramatically, and Gabriel finds himself asking for a job rather than for her hand in marriage. The meeting marks a new phase in both characters' lives; the change in setting also heralds this realigned relationship.