Summary and Analysis
Swirling winds blew over Norcombe Hill one St. Thomas' Eve. "The trees on the right and the trees on the left wailed or chaunted to each other in the regular antiphonies of a cathedral choir." Mingling with the wintry midnight sounds came the sounds of a flute. They issued from a small, arklike structure on wheels, of the type shepherds dragged about the fields to shelter themselves as they attended to their ewes at lambing time.
Gabriel was keeping vigil. After less than a year "as master and not as man," he now owned (but had not yet paid for) two hundred ewes, which he kept on leased land. With his lantern, he made the rounds of the straw-thatched hurdles around which the ewes stood. Cradling a fragile, newborn lamb, he hastened back to his hut and placed it on some hay before the bit of fire. The hut's furnishings were meager: they consisted of a small stove, a bed of corn sacks, a few medications and ointments, some food, and the flute. Not stopping to adjust the two round ventilating holes, Oak instantly fell asleep on his cornshuck bed. Soon the warmth restored the lamb, which began to bleat. Gabriel roused instantly and carried it back to its mother. The stars told him, his timepiece having failed as usual, that scarcely an hour had passed.
Perceiving a faint light on the horizon, Gabriel went to the edge of the plantation to check. The light came from a hut built into the slope. As he looked through the chinks in the roof, the light illuminated two women tending an ailing cow, and a second cow just delivered of a calf. The older woman was glad the cow was improving; the younger lamented that there was no man to do these heavy chores and that she had lost her hat. All the same, she volunteered to ride to town to fetch cereals in the morning.
As the enshrouding cloak fell from her head, Gabriel discerned the dark tresses and red jacket of the girl he had seen in the wagon.
One cannot be unaware of Hardy's sense of the unity of man with nature: the eternal hills of his Wessex, the sounds of wind and weather, the ever-circling constellations, the light at different times of day and different seasons, the growth of vegetation, and the behavior of living creatures. His characters convey a general feeling of being a part of the universe; his narrative captures its rhythms. Far from the madding crowd, he seems to say, man comes into his own. Gabriel is so perfectly attuned to nature that he does his tasks, at whatever hour, faithfully and unquestioningly.
The notes of Gabriel's flute, "a sequence which was to be found nowhere in nature," remind us of Hardy's own participation in a church choir and his playing in an orchestra in his youth; there is an obvious musical dimension to his art appreciation.
Hardy notes that a limited view causes our imagination to fill in the outlines "according to the wants within us." And so it is with Gabriel: "Having for some time known the want of a satisfactory form to fill an increasing void within him, his position moreover affording the widest scope for his fancy, he painted her a beauty." This statement shows us another side of Gabriel. He has a romantic as well as a practical sensibility.