Summary and Analysis
When Boldwood finally called on her, Bathsheba was not in. He had forgotten that, being a serious farmer, she might well need to be out-of-doors. Having put her on a pedestal, he found it difficult to see in her an everyday individual like himself. Their relationship was one of "visual familiarity, oral strangeness. The smaller human elements were kept out of sight; the pettinesses that enter so largely into all earthly living and doing were disguised by the accident of lover and loved one not being on visiting terms." Boldwood resolved to find her.
The sheep-washing pool in the blossoming meadow, full of the clearest water, made a pretty spectacle. Several farmhands stood there with Bathsheba, who was in an elegant new riding habit. Two men pushed the sheep into the pool, then Gabriel pushed them under as they swam and, as the heavy wool became saturated, hauled them out with a crutchlike device. Bathsheba bade Boldwood a constrained good-day, momentarily thinking he had come to watch the washing. She withdrew, but he followed her. She sensed his silent emotion. Then, without preamble, he proposed. He stated his age, his background, and declared his need of her.
Very formally, Bathsheba declined. He continued, regretting his inarticulateness, and said he would not have spoken, had he not hope. "You are too dignified for me to suit you sir," she said, and blurted out apologies for thoughtlessly sending the valentine. He insisted, however, that it was not thoughtlessness but instinct that promoted it. Again he entreated, until she begged him to stop, asking for time. "Then she turned away. Boldwood dropped his gaze to the ground, and stood long like a man who did not know where he was. Realities then returned to him like the pain of a wound received in an excitement which eclipses it, and he, too, then went on."
Hardy's rendering of the sheep-washing portrays a particularly lovely bit of country life, a seemingly placid performance that contrasts with the intense emotion of Boldwood. In this highly unlikely situation, in the midst of something as earthy as washing sheep, the overwrought gentleman chooses to plead his suit. Bathsheba regrets her "wanton" and "thoughtless" act, is sympathetic toward Boldwood, and is frightened by the unanticipated consequences of her deed.