Since Poorgrass is now suffering from his ‘multiplying eye,’ and Gabriel is busy, Bathsheba accepts Boldwood’s offer to ride aside her as she drives home herself. She’d rather have Gabriel’s company, but resolves to be civil to Boldwood. She pities him, recognizing how devoted he still is.
Bathsheba continues to think of one former suitor as a devoted friend and confidant, but of the other as a victim of her thoughtlessness, for which she thinks she’ll have to continue to do penance.
Suddenly, Boldwood asks if Bathsheba will marry again some day. She says she hasn’t thought of it, and indeed she’s not legally a widow: gently, she says while she at first doubted Troy’s death, she now has no more doubts, yet still would never think to marry another. After a pause, Boldwood reminds her of when he carried her, fainting, in his arms: he will never recover from her refusal to marry him.
Boldwood’s second proposal of marriage takes shape within a different landscape than the first, now that Bathsheba is in mourning and yet not a legal widow. Bathsheba tries to balance her ethical requirements as widow with her pity for Boldwood.
Boldwood asks if Bathsheba likes or respects him. She says it’s difficult to define her feelings in a language made for men’s. She does regret her behavior towards him: he asks if she might repair the wrong by marrying him. She cannot say; certainly not now, but perhaps, she says, as he prods her, at a future time—say six years. She cries that that seems long, though he says it will be short. Boldwood tells her he is willing to protect her for the rest of their lives, and there would be no fault in making such a bargain with him: that if she marries again it will be him.
While Boldwood keeps insisting on measuring Bathsheba’s feelings for him, Bathsheba objects to the question entirely, as well as to the social landscape in which men both rule and demand that women find a way to fit into their own constructions of society. But Boldwood is deaf to such protests: he feels that while love might be too much to ask, a mere contract might work.
Almost afraid, she says she’ll never marry another while Boldwood wishes her to be his wife. But she hesitates to promise to marry him in six years. She finally is persuaded to think about it until Christmas, and give her answer then. Bathsheba feels coerced by a force stronger than her own will.
Bathsheba can’t imagine ever marrying someone else, so this first promise seems more possible for her to make; Boldwood, meanwhile, has traded his brief calm for his former intensity.
One day Bathsheba is working with Gabriel and mentions Boldwood: Gabriel says he’ll never forget her. Suddenly Bathsheba shares with Gabriel her anxiety about her promise. She admits she worried Boldwood would go insane if she didn’t promise to consider it: she holds his future in her hand. Gabriel tells her that his manner has always been dark and strange, but that it couldn’t hurt to make the conditional promise.
Now Bathsheba feels that she’s not only caused Boldwood pain as a result of her one careless action—he’s actually, as a result of his love for her, going mad. Gabriel tries to convince Bathsheba that she doesn’t need to take on this as well as her own responsibility, even if he recognizes that she may be right.
Bathsheba says the scheme is absurd, and asks if it wouldn’t be immoral. What stops it from being immoral, Gabriel says, is that she doesn’t care for him: a mere contract isn’t wrong. There is, though, he says, a sin in thinking of marrying someone one doesn’t love. Bathsheba says she’s willing to pay that penalty for her idle jest. She wishes she could pay him damages in money for what she did. This, though, is penance if only because she hates the idea of marriage so much now, as well as the class of women that she’d seem to belong to if she married Boldwood.
With Troy’s apparent, though not fully proven, death, Bathsheba is once again unmoored from her sense of what is right and wrong: she wants to do her duty but now reaches out for the opinion of another to help her figure out what her duty even is. Bathsheba momentarily imagines a kind of financial penance, which for her would be eminently preferable to a moral one.
Gabriel says it depends whether Bathsheba really thinks, like everyone else, that Troy is dead: she says she’s long ceased to doubt it. He suggests she speak to Mr. Thirdly, but she says she wants a broad-minded opinion: she prefers the parson’s opinion on law and the lawyer’s on doctoring, for instance. In love, though, she sticks to her own opinion: Gabriel, with a sad smile, says there’s a mistake in that logic. She pauses, then bids him good evening. She has a slight pang that he never once wished her free so that he could marry her himself. She wouldn’t have listened to it, but his lack even of playful jest hurts her.
Gabriel is more pragmatic than Bathsheba, although he considers her dilemma with all the thoughtfulness that she asks from him. At the same time, while Bathsheba begins to speak to him in a way that could be construed as teasing, Gabriel remains serious and unmoved. Once again, even while Bathsheba doesn’t love (or doesn’t believe she loves) Gabriel, she’s hurt by the way he seems to have lost all his feelings for her.