In the interior of a church, several women watch a soldier enter and realize that a wedding is about to occur. As he waits for his bride to arrive, the clock strikes the quarter hour, and the women titter. Finally, after a full hour of waiting, the soldier leaves the church humiliated; just at that moment his bride runs across the square to meet him. She has been waiting at All Souls' rather than at All Saints' and has just realized her mistake. The two are Fanny Robin and Sergeant Troy. She asks him when they can reschedule their wedding, but he refuses to set a date.
In the market place again, Boldwood sees Bathsheba Everdene as if for the first time. He finds her unbelievably beautiful and asks someone nearby whether she is generally considered handsome. Bathsheba notices his attention and regrets having sent the valentine. She decides to explain and apologize, but she realizes that he might misread her initiation of conversation as a sign of romantic interest.
Chapter 18 gives us a little background about Boldwood. He is a confirmed bachelor, wealthy and well established at the neighboring farm. Hardy warns us that Boldwood's is not an "ordinary nature": the "positives and negatives" in his character balance only precariously, and he plunges easily into extreme emotions. The narrative focuses in on Bathsheba and Gabriel as they watch Boldwood from afar; Gabriel sees Bathsheba blush, and, remembering the valentine, he begins to suspect something between the pair.
At a village-wide sheep-washing, Boldwood approaches Bathsheba, who tries to avoid him. He follows her off toward the river, and when they are alone, he proposes to her. She refuses, and he continues to try to persuade her, finally getting her to permit him to propose again later.
Chapter 20 charts Bathsheba's reaction to Boldwood's offer. Hardy tells us that Bathsheba feels no "wish whatever for the married state in the abstract." She also enjoys the independence of running a farm on her own. As she is considering the possibility, she approaches Gabriel and begins to ask him about what the farm workers had thought of her appearing together with Boldwood. The two of them quarrel when she asks his opinion of her conduct concerning the bachelor, and he tells her "it is unworthy of any thoughtful, comely woman." She then accuses him of being jealous, but he tells her that he has long ago given up all thoughts marrying her. Finally, she orders him to leave the farm, and he agrees.
Only one day after Gabriel's departure, the farm workers announce that another disaster has occurred--the sheep have eaten young clover, and their stomachs are expanding fatally. Only Gabriel knows how to perform the operation that can save them. Bathsheba sends him an order to come back. He replies by messenger that she will have to ask him properly, and she does so, writing, "Do not desert me, Gabriel!" He returns and saves all the sheep but one. Bathsheba regrets firing him, and he agrees to come back to the farm.
During the annual sheep-shearing, the workers discuss Bathsheba and Boldwood, wondering if they will marry, and at the sheep-shearing supper, Bathsheba allows Boldwood to sit with her inside the house. At the very end of the supper, they are left alone together, and Bathsheba tells him that she will try to love him. She finally almost promises herself to him, saying that she may feel ready to marry by harvest-time.
This section of the novel sets up a number of different couples--Fanny and Troy, Bathsheba and Boldwood, and Bathsheba and Gabriel--and analyzes the dynamics of each. Many parallels can be drawn; for instance, much as a chance circumstance of Bathsheba deciding to send the valentine to Boldwood changes his life forever, Fanny's simple mistake about the church means that Troy refuses to marry her. By setting up several sets of relationships, Hardy explores the way chance generates a variety of fates from what were initially parallel circumstances.
Hardy plays upon the traditional novel by choosing a heroine who has no abstract desire to get married. In some ways, Far From the Madding Crowd is a traditional novel of marriage in that a heroine is given a choice of two or more suitors, and at the end of the novel, she makes the "correct" choice. Yet a novel such as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility focuses on a character who wants to find a husband; in contrast, Bathsheba's economic and emotional independence allow her the choice of not marrying, and she has an interest in maintaining the farm and preserving her freedom. Many of Hardy's female characters show similar independence and interest in work or scholarship.
The scenes of sheep-shearing and sheep-washing present the farm workers as a kind of Greek chorus and also help to create a sense of the rituals built around the seasons of the farm.