Chapter 1 – The Rencounter by the Pool
It is July. Clym and Eustacia live in their cottage on the heath, comfortable with their wedded bliss. However, their divergent dreams are beginning to emerge, as Clym is keen to take up teaching as soon as possible, and Eustacia maintains the hope that she can persuade him to take her to Paris. Clym studies constantly, believing he has much learning to complete before he can found an effective school.
Eustacia’s anxiety hits its peak six weeks after the wedding, because of Mrs. Yeobright. The older woman had recieved Thomasin's thanks for the guineas, but naturally had not heard from Clym. Mrs. Yeobright plans to visit Eustacia to ensure the guineas were put to good use. However, when Christian admits that he lost the money to Wildeve, Mrs. Yeobright begins to suspect that Wildeve, who was rumored to have been Eustacia's former lover, might have given the money to her. She visits and confronts Eustacia with that charge.
Eustacia is enraged at the suggestion that she accepted money from Wildeve. In anger, she exclaims that she would never have married Clym if she knew they would reside on the heath. The two women part without reconciling.
Chapter 2 – He is Set Upon by Adversities but He Sings a Song
Eustacia returns home and tells Clym of the confrontation with his mother. She begs him to take her to Paris. He is firm in his refusal, but decides to intensify his studies so as to found the school sooner.
The next day, Thomasin visits to explain the confusion over the guineas, and she gives Clym his share. Eustacia is not present for this meeting.
Unfortunately, Clym's incessant studies strain his eyes, and he loses most of his sight. After treatment, he is relieved to learn he will not become totally blind. However, Eustacia is tortured by the idea that her Paris dreams will not be met. Even worse, she is horrified to learn of Clym's desire to take up furze-cutting during his recovery, both to stay active and to generate some moderate income. She finds it to be a common enterprise, but he insists it is necessary.
One day, she visits him while he is working and hears him singing a song. She is mortified to discover that he can find happiness in such common work, and depressed that he could feel satisfaction when she is so unsatisfied. It is apparent that their passion for each other is declining.
Chapter 3 – She Goes Out to Battle against Depression
Eustacia slides into depression. Clym realises that his work as furze-cutter is part of the cause, but does not know how to improve her situation.
She resolves to battle her depression, and her first act of defiance is to attend a dance on the green, in a neighboring area where she does not know anyone. She is initially envious of the merry dancers, but cannot bring herself to join them until Wildeve suddenly appears and asks her to dance. He was there by coincidence. She agrees, but covers her face with a veil so as not to be recognized. Both Wildeve and Eustacia find their passions for one another resurfacing.
Wildeve walks her back from the dance, but hides away when they see Clym and Diggory Venn approaching in the distance. Clym's poor eyesight prevents him from noticing that she was initially with escort, but Diggory is suspicious from having seen the other figure.
Venn visits Thomasin to see what she knows about Wildeve’s whereabouts earlier that day. She tells him that Wildeve had gone to a neighboring area to buy a horse. Diggory sarcastically says that he saw Wildeve leading a creature home, then leaves.
Thomasin naturally does not realize his pun, and is surprised when Wildeve arrives with no horse. When she tells him of Diggory's comment, Wildeve realizes he must proceed with caution if he is to resume any relationship with Eustacia.
Chapter 4 – Rough Coercion is Employed
Diggory Venn is motivated to again act on Thomasin’s behalf, believing Wildeve is neglecting her for Eustacia. Wildeve is indeed beginning to stalk around Eustacia's home, and he one day trips over a red stained cord, which indicates Diggory's strategic attempts to keep him away. Wildeve becomes paranoid, and imagines that Mrs. Yeobright and Venn are plotting against him.
One day, Wildeve waits outside Eustacia’s window. He sends a signal in the form of a moth which he coaxes inside. It flies to her candle flame and dies. They have used this signal before, and Eustacia immediately tells Clym that she will take a walk. However, Diggory suddenly knocks on the door to distract them and scare away Wildeve. Another day, Wildeve finds shotgun shells and interprets them as a threat from Diggory. When he is unable to report the threat to the constable, he overcomes his paranoia and redoubles his intent to connect with Eustacia.
Meanwhile, Diggory visits Mrs. Yeobright and tells her of her son's deteriorating eye sight. She initially pretends not to care, but Diggory convinces her to reconcile with Clym. He believes she would discover Wildeve's duplicity for herself in that case.
In her depression, Eustacia tells Clym that it would have been better for everyone if he had never returned to Egdon.
Chapter 5 - The Journey Across the Heath
Mrs. Yeobright decides one day to walk to Clym’s house. It is late August by this time. It is a long walk, but she manages okay despite her age. As she nears his area, she asks a laborer for directions, and the man indicates Clym in the distance, cutting furze. She is shocked to see him engaged in such an activity. She follows him from afar as he returns home, not from secrecy but merely because she cannot keep up. As she stops to rest, she sees him arrive home, and then another man soon approach the cottage.
Chapter 6 – A Conjuncture, and Its Result upon the Pedestrian
Wildeve, the other figure whom Mrs. Yeobright saw, approaches the house intending to chat with both Eustacia and Clym. His new philosophy is to approach them openly, so that Diggory would have no cause to interfere. If the only way he can see Eustacia is around her husband, he is ready for that. He is pleased, however, to see that Clym is asleep on the floor when he arrives. Clym often comes home during lunchtime for a nap.
After he is let in, Wildeve questions Eustacia about her marriage. She insists she loved Clym, but that he was not fulfilling his potential. Through the window, Eustacia sees Mrs. Yeobright approaching. When the older woman knocks, she hides Wildeve in the back and does not answer the door, expecting that Clym will wake and answer it.
However, after she forces Wildeve to exit from the back, she discovers that Clym did not wake, and that Mrs. Yeobright has left.
Naturally, Mrs. Yeobright believes her son is shunning her, since she herself saw him enter the house. On her walk home, she encounters Johnny Nunsuch, and she asks him to carry a message to his mother: he has met a broken-hearted woman who has been rejected by her son.
Chapter 7 – The Tragic Meeting of Two Old Friends
Clym awakes from his sleep, and tells Eustacia of a strange dream in which his mother was crying for help, and he was unable to help her. Inspired by the vision, he decides to visit her. Eustacia tries to distract him from that mission, but he is resolute.
On his walk to her home, Clym finds his mother collapsed on the heath. He carries her to a nearby shed, and calls for help from the locals. They come to her aid, and one of them deduces that she has been bitten by an adder. They try an ancient cure of cooked adder oil to counteract the poison.
Chapter 8 – Eustacia Hear of Good Fortune and Beholds Evil
Eustacia sets out after her husband. On her way, she runs into her grandfather, who tells her that Wildeve’s uncle in Canada has left him eleven thousand pounds. Eustacia is intrigued, and though she may not love money in itself, she does covet the lifestyle it can facilitate. She soon encounters Wildeve, and tells him she is trying to find her husband, and that she regrets having ignored Mrs. Yeobright's knock.
Wildeve accompanies her, and tells her of his plans for the inheritance. He will invest nine thousand pounds, keep one thousand pounds for ready money, and use one thousand pounds for travel. His travel plans are similarly organised and elaborate. He plans to journey to Paris, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Palestine, America, Australia and India. Both Wildeve and Eustacia agree on the beauty of Paris.
As they walk along, they see the drama in the turf-shed. The doctor has arrived. He explains that Mrs. Yeobright is deteriorating quickly: her heart is weak and she is physically exhausted. Mrs. Yeobright dies. Johnny Nunsuch arrives, and tells them the message that Mrs. Yeobright gave him. Naturally, Clym is heartbroken to hear it. Eustacia feels responsible for the terrible situation.
In the fourth book, the tragedy begins to play itself out. Small circumstances - like the misunderstanding about the guineas - conspire with larger problems - like the incompatibility of Clym's and Eustacia's desires - to cause heartbreak for many characters.
Hardy uses pathetic fallacy in his description of the weather. The heat of July parallels the passion of the newlyweds, while autumn's arrival coincides with their cooling of passions. Their decline is not circumstantial, but rather tragically inevitable. They are both passionate and committed to their ideals - unfortunately, those ideals do not coincide. However, the mistake has been made; they are married. Their desire for happiness in earlier books led each of them to blindly assume he or she could change the other, and now they must see their tragedy play out.
There is a sad irony in the conflict between Eustacia and Mrs. Yeobright, in that both ladies want the same thing for Clym. Both believe he is capable of greater pursuits than he can find on the heath, yet they never get the chance to bond over this shared interest. Instead, Mrs. Yeobright is predisposed to dislike her daughter-in-law, whereas Eustacia fallaciously believes this woman is her antagonist in trying to escape from the heath.
Clym’s near blindness is a literal and metaphorical statement. His relentless study has reduced his capacity to be an effective teacher, but his persistence in trying to force his education suggests he is not fit for it. Metaphorically, the blindness reflects his inability to 'see' those around him. His relationship with both Eustacia and his mother are declining. The three ‘antagonistic growths’ he referred to in the previous book are all withering. His decision to cut furze can be seen as purely selfish, since we as readers know the depth of Eustacia's suffering. However, he is so taken with the concept of being a man on the heath that he does not realize how it hurts his wife.
The worst offense is his song, which makes Eustacia realize he has found an entirely different ideal, one which could make him happy on the heath, and not even require him to live in Budmouth. His song is a French lament, and Eustacia is consumed by the irony of this (since he once lived in France but refuses to return), whereas Clym sees only the heath, and feels pure contentment in the simplicity of his task. He acknowledges his change before her, saying "now I am a poor fellow in brown leather," but does not appreciate how deeply she feels this change as well (200).
It is not surprising that Eustacia is drawn again to Wildeve. He has not shown her any new characteristic, but he brings both excitement and promise. Mostly, he is so different from Clym, even before he is awarded his inheritance. When Wildeve visits the house and Clym is asleep in chapter 6, Hardy notes the disparity between them: "The contrast between the sleeper’s appearance and Wildeve’s at this moment was painfully apparent to Eustacia; Wildeve being elegantly dressed in a new summer suit and light hat" (219).
Further, she can engage momentary passions with Wildeve, while she is tied to Clym and must significantly sacrifice for him. When she covers her face to dance, it is symbolic of an exciting life that she thinks will now be impossible with Clym. Just as she chose the Turkish Knight disguise with Clym, Eustacia her asserts her power and control, since she can observe her effect on Wildeve without allowing him such access into her figure. In fact, Wildeve's moth message is a good symbol for their relationship. The moth is fatally drawn to the flame: their meeting is brief, passionate and both are extinguished. This process perfectly foretells the fate of Wildeve and Eustacia, since they could never forge a long-term relationship but are drawn towards each other nevertheless.
Venn continues to work in the shadows to support his beloved Thomasin, but his actions serve to complicate rather than conclude matters. His attempts to dissuade Wildeve from seeing Eustacia serve only to fuel the latter's passion. By convincing Mrs. Yeobright to reconcile with her son, he sets in process a chain of events which will end both the relationship and her life. As noted in earlier section, Hardy notes the existence of nobility in humanity, but does not give it any supreme power.
The most important event yet in the novel is Mrs. Yeobright's death. Her death by adder bite is reminiscent of the death of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, who allegedly committed suicide by allowing a poisonous asp to bite her. Both women had lost the man who meant the most to them: Cleopatra’s lover Mark Antony had committed suicide after a defeat in battle, and Mrs. Yeobright believes her son has abandoned her. The Oedipal conflict is difficult to deny in this section, especially when her final words piece Clym so terribly.