Summary and Analysis
The malthouse was "inwrapped with ivy" and had a cupola on the roof and one window, which formed a small square in the door. Inside, the room glowed with light from the hearth. "The stone-flag floor was worn into a path from the doorway to the kiln, and into undulations everywhere." At one side were a curved settle and a small bedstead. The fragrance of malt filled the room. As Gabriel entered, everyone turned to look at him. An old maltster recognized Gabriel's name; he had known Oak's father and grandfather, and he launched into a garrulous account of them. This made Gabriel seem less of a stranger. He was offered a drink from the "God-forgive-me," a tall, two-handled mug standing among the coals. Gabriel rejected an offer to get him a cleaner cup, and, thus, drinking with the group, he was accepted by them.
There were many country types present, including men of all sorts — the old and decrepit, the scroungers, the cheerful, the shy, and the aggressive. They recalled other drinking bouts and discussed Miss Everdene's family. Her late uncle, who had left her the farm, and her father, a "celebrated bankrupt," fickle and romantic, were properly gone over. Bathsheba had become a beauty, they thought. And her bailiff was dishonest. Gossip was rampant, and all was punctuated by the reminiscences of the ancient maltster.
Gabriel's flute showed from his pocket, and the men asked for a tune. He obliged, confessing that he was down on his luck and the flute had served to earn him a little money. When the men began leaving, Gabriel went off with Jan Coggan, who had offered him a room.
Shortly, a man came running in with the news that Miss Everdene had caught her bailiff stealing and had dismissed him, and that Fanny Robin, the mistress's youngest employee, had disappeared. Bathsheba sent word that she would like to talk with one or two of the men, and those who were left in the malthouse went to see her. On their arrival, she spoke to them from an upper window, instructing them to make inquiries about Fanny the next day in the neighboring villages. Someone reported that Fanny had a soldier friend in Casterbridge.
Gabriel, in a bed at last, lay awake thinking of Bathsheba, delighted to have seen her again. He resolved to fetch his belongings, which consisted mostly of the few books which "constituted his library; and though a limited series, it was one from which he had acquired more sound information by diligent perusal than many a man of opportunities has done from a furlong of laden shelves."
The malthouse chapter is important to Hardy's project of depicting his Wessex world. Besides offering some fine sketches of local figures, Hardy presents the atmosphere of the old malthouse, showing us country customs and affording us a general insight into the variety of characters composing this "simple" world. There is a veritable gallery of personality types, all speaking variations of the local dialect, and all charming in their idiosyncrasies. They serve as foils for each other and also as the medium for disseminating background information. Most important, together they function as a collective commentator on country life and current events.