The treatment of rustic characters lends to this novel its touch of comedy, whereas the story of the central character Bathsheba Everdene and her three lovers - Gabriel Oak, Boldwood and Sergeant Troy – imparts a tone of tragedy to it.
The story of the novel centres round Bathsheba Everdene who rejects Gabriel Oak's proposal of marriage with her, because she is bored with the prospect of having always to be near him and of his being near her. Later, falling on evil days, Oak has to work as Bathsheba's shepherd and also her bailiff, and cannot gather courage to renew his proposal. Another man to fall in love with Bathsheba is Farmer Boldwood who is rejected by her too. She ultimately marries Sergeant Troy, but feels disgusted on coming to know that he has been the seducer of Fanny Robin and the cause of her tragic end. Troy ill- treats Bathsheba and finally deserts her. Reported to be dead, he returns only to die at the hands of Boldwood for his deceptive acts. Boldwood is sent to prison for this crime. Bathsheba is now free from the marital ties with Troy. She finds herself convinced of Gabriel Oak's love for her, and feels that she loves him too. She expresses her love to him, and tells him about her decision to marry him. The novel deals with one of Hardy's favourite themes, i.e. the contrast between selfish and unscrupulous love represented by Sergeant Troy, and the selfless and patient devotion embodied in Gabriel Oak. It shows Hardy's skill in plot-construction and characterization as well as in the portrayal of rustic life. According to Richard Carpenter, it is "the most representative and balanced of Wessex novels…… a significant novel in its own right - a kind of golden mean among the major novels."
We here see the contrast between two types of love – the one selfish, violent, and unscrupulous, but withal exercising a dangerous fascination; and the other patient, unselfish, and devoted. These two kinds of love are represented by Sergeant Troy and Gabriel Oak. Troy, who has already deserted one woman and left her to die in child-birth in a work-house, marries the beautiful, but willful Bathsheba Everdene, with whom Gabriel Oak is in love. After the marriage, he ill-treats Bathsheba and is killed by Farmer Boldwood, who is also in love with her. Boldwood becomes insane, and Hardy, in whom pessimism had not yet overridden all other considerations, allows Gabriel and Bathsheba to be united.