Outside Boldwood’s house, a few men are whispering about Troy being seen in Casterbridge that afternoon. One, Sam Samway, says that means mischief: he pities the girl. Another says such an independent, strong-willed woman should never have married him: it almost serves her right. But others disagree.
As is often the case, news and gossip—even information that is of personal, private interest to Bathsheba—reach others in the village before they reach her.
William Smallbury walks up to the group in the darkness and hears the tale. Laban Tall also arrives, and says they should keep quiet, as if it’s false it will unnecessarily worry Bathsheba, and if it’s true it won’t do any good to tell her in advance. She’s only ever been fair and true to him: another agrees that she never tells “women’s little lies.”
The chorus of voices at Warren’s Malt-house has moved temporarily to the darkness outside Boldwood’s house, where Bathsheba’s character and situation are once again discussed and dissected at length.
Boldwood can be seen walking down the path, and the men stand still: they can hear him speaking softly to himself, hoping to God that she’ll come. Suddenly Bathsheba does arrive, and he welcomes her as she apologizes for being late. As they go inside, one of the men remarks that he didn’t know it was like that between the two. Another says uneasily that they should have made the report, but it’s no use now.
This chorus of men is also witness to Boldwood’s private drama and his own personal desires. This group can already foretell the danger that threatens to interrupt the evening, especially if Bathsheba agrees to marry Boldwood, now that her husband is known to be alive.
Samway, Tall, and Smallbury go out to the gate, deciding to go to Warren’s instead of inside. As they approach the tavern, Smallbury points into the windowpane: Troy’s face peers in, listening to Gabriel and the maltster talking about Boldwood’s party and his love of Bathsheba. The men withdraw back to the house, and decide someone should alert Bathsheba. It’s decided that Tall will. He goes inside, but soon appears again, abashed, saying that the mood is somehow dispirited, and he hates to cast a further pall over it. Samway suggests they all go in together.
As the group returns to their regular spot—too uneasy to join the festivities—the men are also privy to new information, the fact that Troy now is aware of Boldwood’s feelings for Bathsheba. Still, while the men are skilled at discussing all the gossip around town, they’re evidently not quite adept at turning such knowledge into action that will help someone.
Inside, Bathsheba has resolved not to dance or sing, though it would have been unkind not to come at all. After an hour, she decides she can leave, and she goes into the parlor. But then Boldwood enters, saying he’s been meaning to speak to her: she knows perhaps why. Does she give the promise? he asks. She says she does feel she owes the promise, though she is unhappy. He adds that she’s beautiful, though this honest remark has little effect on her now. In a flat voice, she says she has no feeling at all on the subject, but she will give her promise as the rendering of a debt. He asks her to name the date. But she lashes out, saying she wants to be just without wronging herself, and that there’s still a shadow of doubt as to Troy’s death. Let her ask a solicitor, she begs him.
Bathsheba is still trying to balance her requirements as a widow in mourning with the knowledge of Boldwood’s expectations, as well as her suspicions of his disturbed mental state. Finally she is unable to avoid him any more, having hoped that she might be able to make an appearance at his party without her private drama coming to a head. Boldwood’s earlier mistake, contrasted with Troy’s behavior, had been never to tell Bathsheba she was beautiful: now, though, she’s changed, and such a declaration has little effect.
Boldwood, in turn, begs her to promise marriage after six years: he deserves it, for loving her more than anyone. Sobbing, Bathsheba asks him not to press her more if she agrees: he says yes, he’ll leave it to time. Solemnly, she says she’ll marry him in six years to the day. Boldwood asks her to wear the ring he draws out, but she exclaims that no one can know they are engaged—he must not insist, she says, stamping her foot. Quietly, now, he says it’s simply a pledge. She says it’s too wild a scheme: she can’t wear it. But finally she agrees to wear it only for that night. Boldwood leaves her alone.
Boldwood’s behavior becomes increasingly violent and unrelenting—it almost doesn’t seem to matter to him whether or not Bathsheba really loves him or even wants to marry at all, as long as he can get what he wants. Bathsheba, in turn, is devastated by the tragic, dramatic climax of what began as a silly, thoughtless affair. She’s tried to atone for it, and yet her penance continues to be drawn out.
Boldwood now gazes into the fire, when at once he notices a few concerned whispers from the working men. He asks what’s wrong, and orders Samway to tell him. Samway tells Tall he should alert Bathsheba now. Boldwood asks Bathsheba if she knows what they mean: she doesn’t. Then, a man at the door says a stranger is wanted for Mrs. Troy: he opens the door, and Troy stands in the doorway. In silence, those who had heard the news recognized him; no one else does. But Bathsheba grows pale and clutches the railing.
Other guests, now, seem to have learned the gossip about Troy’s presence in Weatherbury. Only Bathsheba and Boldwood remain ignorant. In a dramatic moment, the open doors frames the figure of the husband Bathsheba had thought dead: Bathsheba recognizes him even if few other people, including Boldwood, do.
Boldwood doesn’t recognize Troy, and invites him in cheerily. Troy takes off his cap and looks Boldwood in the face: he begins to laugh mechanically, and Boldwood finally does recognize him. Troy turns to Bathsheba, who has sunk to the lowest stair, her eyes fixed vacantly on him, and says he’s come here for her: she must come home with him.
The drama is undercut by Boldwood’s light, jovial attitude—but that tragicomic element is elevated anew once Boldwood, too, recognizes Troy, who is now triumphantly able to claim what he thinks of (and what society considers to be) his property.
At first Bathsheba doesn’t move; when Troy repeats his order, Boldwood tells her to go with her husband. Still she doesn’t move: she is frozen in place, but shrinks back when Troy stretches out his hand. Irritated, he seizes her arm and she screams. Suddenly the oak partition shakes and the room fills with smoke. Everyone turns to Boldwood, who was standing in front of a gun case. When Bathsheba had cried out a Boldwood had seized one of the guns, cocked it, and shot at Troy, who fell. Troy sighs, contracts, and then lies still.
Initially Bathsheba, who has suffered a wide swath of emotions tonight, finds herself unable to react to this new addition. It’s the touch of her husband that rouses her from her frozen state, but it’s also her scream that triggers the moment of climax in the book, as Boldwood makes one final defense of Bathsheba and all-too-violent declaration of his love for her.
Boldwood, meanwhile, is trying to turn the gun on himself. Samway sees this, darts up to him, and manages to turn the gun so that it discharges into the ceiling. Boldwood gasps that there’s another way for him to die. He kisses Bathsheba’s hand, then opens the door and leaves.
Boldwood doesn’t manage to kill himself in turn, but he does on some level recognize that this was his final sacrifice, and that he can’t expect a future with Bathsheba now.