We begin with a description of a farmer, Gabriel Oak, who is generally of good judgment and character, though lags a bit on Sundays—he yawns and thinks of dinner during Mass, for instance. When his friends are in a bad mood he’s considered a bad man, and when they’re happy they think the opposite: most of the time he’s rather morally mixed. He wears a low felt hat and large, solid boots.
This initial character sketch emphasizes the everyday nature of the world that Hardy is creating, one that will deal in grand questions of fate, judgment, and morality, but which always nonetheless draws such grandness down to the proportions proper to country people.
Gabriel carries a small silver watch, once his grandfather’s, which doesn’t always work very well, such that Gabriel has to shake it and sometimes simply compare it to the stars or to the clocks in his neighbors’ windows.
Gabriel’s watch is in many ways humdrum like him, but it also underlines his sense of pragmatism and capacity for problem-solving—both admirable traits.
Gabriel’s face maintains some aspects of a boy, though he has just left youth behind, only now reaching the flourishing of male life. He is no longer an impulsive young man, but he is not yet stabilized by wife and family: he is a twenty-eight-year-old bachelor.
The conclusion to Gabriel’s character sketch underlines that he is at a moment of transition between youth and full adult self-sufficiency: it also suggests that a wife and family may lie in his future.
Gabriel is in a field by Norcombe Hill one December morning, when he sees a yellow wagon winding down it. The wagon reaches the other side of a hedge where he’s resting, then stops. The driver tells the girl sitting atop it, next to a number of plants, that the tailboard has fallen. The girl asks him to go back and fetch it. As she waits, she looks down at a package tied in paper. She looks to see if the driver is returning, then reaches and unties it to reveal a looking-glass, which she peers into and smiles, then blushes.
The setting of the novel, the country landscape of Wessex, includes vistas and sloping land that allow the characters to survey what is going on around them and learn about the goings-on of others. This unknown girl is a natural part of such a landscape, but she also conforms to stereotypes about women’s vanity, though she knows she should hide it.
Gabriel recognizes that the lady has no reason for looking, whether adjusting her hat or patting her hair: she just looks at herself, almost triumphantly. Perhaps, though, he is just imagining this, he thinks. The wagoner returns and she slips the mirror back in.
Gabriel’s initial view of this lady is not exactly positive, as he recognizes that vanity and pride alone are the occasion for her actions.
Gabriel withdraws and turns down the road until he reaches the bottom of the hill, where there’s a dispute concerning the toll payment. The driver says that according to the lady, he’s paid enough: the turnpike keeper says he won’t pass unless he pays two pence more. Gabriel steps forward and gives two pence to the gatekeeper, then looks up at her.
Still, it seems that Gabriel doesn’t entirely despise the lady, who retains enough allure and mystery for him that he wants to help her, despite what he’s observed about her apparent superficiality.
The woman looks carelessly back, then tells her driver to go on. The gatekeeper tells Gabriel that she is handsome: Gabriel says she has faults: the gatekeeper suggests it’s cheapness, but Gabriel says, “Vanity.”
Now it’s Gabriel’s pride that’s hurt by the woman’s lack of concern for him, underlining his conviction about her pride and vanity.