Far From the Madding Crowd opens with a description of farmer Gabriel Oak, a man just out of youth who has established himself as a sheep-farmer in the past year, putting all of his savings into the livestock. One day he catches sight of a woman in a carriage and, while she thinks she’s alone, he watches her admire herself in her mirror. Later he sees her ride sidesaddle, not exactly ladylike, and when he finally meets the lady—Bathsheba Everdene—in person, he lets slip that he saw her. She’s embarrassed and would rather have nothing to do with him, but soon after that he falls asleep in his cottage without leaving a window open to let out smoke from his fire, and Bathsheba saves him just in time. Gabriel begins to fall in love with her, and finally musters up the courage to go to her aunt’s house and ask for her hand in marriage. Bathsheba isn’t home, and the aunt, Mrs. Hurst, tells Gabriel that her niece has already had a host of suitors. Dejected, Gabriel leaves. But Bathsheba soon arrives and races after Gabriel, who is immediately cheered—but Bathsheba only wanted to say that she can’t bear him imagining she has many suitors when she’s independent and doesn’t want to marry anyone.
Not long after, Gabriel hears that Bathsheba has left for Weatherbury: her uncle has died and she is going to take over as mistress of his farm. Soon after that, Gabriel wakes in the middle of the night to find that one of his over-eager dogs has chased his entire flock of sheep across the fields, and they’ve fallen over a cliff to their deaths, destroying his entire life’s savings. Gabriel settles his debts and is left penniless. He goes off in search of employment as a bailiff or even shepherd, and hears that there’s work to be had near Weatherbury. On his way to the job fair, he comes across a fire, and takes charge of the disorganized farmhands trying to put it out: he manages to save it. Impressed, the mistress of the farm rides over and unveils herself: it’s Bathsheba. Cool and unflustered, she says she needs a shepherd, and hires Gabriel. He goes to Warren’s Malt-house, where a number of the farm hands, including Jan Coggan, Matthew Moon, Henery Fray, Joseph Poorgrass, and Laban Tall often gather to gossip and discuss town affairs. Tonight there’s two pieces of news: first, the Bailiff Pennyways has been caught stealing, and second, Fanny Robbin, Bathsheba’s youngest servant, is missing.
It’s soon discovered that Fanny Robbin ran off with her lover, a soldier in another town. Gabriel had run into the girl on his way into town, and she had looked scared and desperate. He gave her a little money then, and she now sends him the money back with a letter telling him that she’s going to be married to Sergeant Francis Troy, but asks him to keep this news quiet. Meanwhile, Fanny goes to see Troy, calling up to his barracks window from the outside and reminding him that he’s promised to marry her. He waffles for a little while, but then admits that if he did promise, then they will indeed get married.
Meanwhile, Bathsheba is growing accustomed to her role as female farmer, even though not everyone accepts that, as a woman, she can do it. Nonetheless, she impresses everyone as she participates adeptly at the corn market. Almost all the men’s eyes are on her—only one man, the serious middle-aged farmer Mr. Boldwood, fails to pay any attention to her. Bathsheba’s pride is slightly bruised at this, even though she doesn’t want to be the utter center of attention. Not long afterwards, she’s sitting with her servant and companion, Liddy Smallbury, and preparing to send a valentine to one of the little boys in the village, Teddy Coggan. Liddy suggests that it would be hilarious to send the valentine to Boldwood instead. On a whim, Bathsheba decides to do so, and seals the anonymous letter with a joke seal that says, “Marry me.”
Boldwood is thunderstruck upon receiving the letter. After spending some time in a daze, he decides to go to Warren’s Malt-house, where a number of the other workers are drinking and chatting. He leaves with Gabriel, and asks him if he can identify the handwriting. Both upset and shocked at the cavalier thoughtlessness of it, Gabriel says that it’s Bathsheba’s hand.
At the next market, Boldwood does really study Bathsheba for the first time, and is amazed at her beauty. Bathsheba is satisfied that she’s finally gotten his attention, though she has a pang of regret at how she’s done so. He resolves to speak with her and asks her to marry him. Now deeply uncomfortable, Bathsheba refuses, but Boldwood insists, saying that he wouldn’t dare to ask if he hadn’t been led to believe that she had feelings for him. Bathsheba is unable to convince him that it was all a game—finally, she agrees to think about his proposal for a time. Still, she doesn’t love him, but she admits to herself that she should accept the moral consequences for her actions. She goes to Gabriel to talk about it, but instead of sympathy she finds that he is disappointed in her actions. Bathsheba grows angry and dismisses him. Soon enough, though, Gabriel’s services are needed when the sheep get into clover and risk being poisoned. He manages to save almost all of them, and Bathsheba turns on her charm once again in order to convince him to stay.
During the sheep-shearing time, Boldwood asks for Bathsheba’s hand once again. Knowing she should make amends for her actions, Bathsheba says she will try to love him, but would like him to wait a few more weeks before she promises. Thrilled, he agrees. That night, though, Bathsheba is pacing the grounds when she literally runs into a man on a path—a piece of fabric on her dress gets stuck to one of his soldier’s buttons. The man begins to tease her about her beauty and charm, and Bathsheba isn’t sure whether she should be pleased or angry. Upon arriving home, she asks Liddy who the soldier might be. She thinks it’s Sergeant Troy, who’s known to be a trickster with women, but whom she also finds charming and handsome. A week later he introduces himself to her formally, continuing to tease and jest with her. He eventually convinces Bathsheba to meet him in a clearing later that night; she does so, and he kisses her.
Bathsheba falls in love with Troy, something that Gabriel notices, though it pains him. He decides to speak with Bathsheba about it, reminding her that she owes something to Boldwood (who has been traveling). Bathsheba grows angry with Gabriel and orders him to leave again, which he refuses. With Liddy, meanwhile, Bathsheba moves wildly from one temper to the next, worrying about Troy’s character but unable to stamp out her feelings for him. She sends a letter to Boldwood telling him she can’t marry him, but she happens to meet him in person the day after and he goes into a rage against Troy, who has just left town for a few days. Worried that they’ll quarrel or hurt each other, Bathsheba decides she can either try to prevent Troy from coming back for a while or else break things off with him. Late at night, she takes her horse, Dainty, and rides off. But Gabriel and Jan Coggan think that the horse has been stolen, so they follow its tracks until they meet Bathsheba at the tollbooth. They resolve not to say anything of it.
Bathsheba is gone for a few weeks, and Gabriel’s helper, Cainy Ball, brings news to the farm hands that he saw her arm in arm with Sergeant Troy in Bath. Gabriel is upset and troubled, but that night he hears Bathsheba’s voice, and thinks that since she’s come home all must be well. Boldwood, though, catches sight of Troy outside an inn in town, and decides to follow him. At first, he says he’ll pay Troy to marry Fanny, as is his duty, and Troy agrees; but Bathsheba soon comes to see him, and Boldwood, hiding in the bushes, recognizes just how much she loves him. Deeply upset, he tells Troy to marry Bathsheba so as to save her honor—he’ll pay him for that instead. They go to Bathsheba’s farm together, and Troy slips him a newspaper announcing that he and Bathsheba already got married. Troy laughs in Boldwood’s face.
Bathsheba soon grows upset with Troy’s laziness, penchant for drinking, and love of gambling and horse racing. On the night of the harvest dinner, he ignores Gabriel’s warnings that a storm is coming and the ricks should be battened down to protect the produce. Instead, he plies the workers with brandy until they’re in a drunken stupor: only Gabriel, and later Bathsheba, work all night to protect the farm.
Soon afterward, Troy and Bathsheba are leaving the Casterbridge market when they see a poor, ragged woman walking along the road. Troy tells Bathsheba to go ahead: he’s recognized Fanny, and they agree to meet a few days afterward so that Troy can help her and find her a place to stay. At home, Bathsheba discovers a lock of blond hair in Troy’s watch-case: he admits it belonged to the girl he loved before her.
Only a few days later, the news reaches town that Fanny is dead—she had walked all the way to the Casterbridge Union-house and had died soon after arriving. Bathsheba is troubled by this news, wondering if there’s any connection to Troy. She has Fanny’s casket brought to her own house, since Fanny was her uncle’s servant. Mary-ann tells Bathsheba of a rumor that there are two people in the casket, not one—indeed, Gabriel had seen “Fanny and child” written on the coffin and had rubbed out “and child.” That night, Bathsheba dares to open the coffin and she sees the two, as well as Fanny’s golden hair. Later Troy arrives and sees Fanny’s body: he kisses it, and tells Bathsheba that he only ever loved Fanny, and that Bathsheba is nothing to him. He storms off. First he spends all his money getting a gravestone engraved and plants flowers around it, though the rain wipes them away. He then decides he cannot return home. He leaves and, near Budmouth, decides to go for a swim. Troy is drawn out by the current and finally is picked up by a boat. His clothes are not where he left them, so he accepts the sailors’ proposal to join them on a voyage to America for six months.
Back at Weatherbury, Bathsheba has reached a dull apathy: at first she refuses to believe that Troy is dead, as is reported, but as time passes her doubts cease. Boldwood proposes that she agree to marry him seven years from Troy’s disappearance, since she will not legally be a widow until then. Bathsheba again puts him off, torn about what to do since she knows she owes him a great deal. At the late-summer fair, Troy returns as an employee of the circus. He catches sight of Bathsheba in the audience, but manages to avoid her. He gets Bailiff Pennyways to join his side, and together they scheme on how best for Troy to reclaim his “property,” in his wife and her farm.
That Christmas, Boldwood prepares a grand party—quite out of keeping with his personality. As it approaches, Bathsheba grows increasingly anxious. Finally, at the party, Boldwood once again proposes to her, and finally she agrees to marry him at the aforementioned date. Even though she’s clearly distraught, Boldwood seems satisfied that he’s gotten an answer from her, and forces her to wear a ring he’s bought for her. As they emerge, though, the doorman calls that a stranger is outside, and Troy walks in. He orders Bathsheba to leave with him. Bathsheba freezes, but then Boldwood tells her to go with her husband. As Troy seizes her arm, though, she screams, and suddenly Boldwood shoots Troy dead. He calmly walks outside and turns himself in to the Casterbridge jail.
Gabriel goes to fetch the doctor, and when they return Bathsheba is sitting regally, her full composure regained, with Troy’s head in her lap. But when they return to her home, she begins to wail about her guilt for everything that has happened. Boldwood is initially sentenced to death, but thanks to a petition, is given a life sentence.
Gabriel tells Bathsheba that he’s planning to leave the farm and perhaps even the country. She grows increasingly upset at what seems to be a greater coolness from him and disregard for her. Finally she goes to see him at his cottage, where he tells her that he’s agreed to take on Boldwood’s farm. Bathsheba admits that she’s been waiting for him to ask her to marry him once more: Gabriel is surprised but thrilled. Although he’d like a larger affair, Bathsheba insists on a small, simple wedding. They get married with only a few witnesses, but that evening many of the farmhands come to wish them well, bringing instruments and singing songs at their porch.