Often thought of as Thomas Hardy's best work, not only for the elaborate structure of the plot, where small and subtle details lead to the character's ruin, but in the themes that range from how human loneliness and sensuality can stop a person from trying to fulfill his dreams; to how, when free from the trap of marriage, one's dreams will not be fulfilled if one is of a lower status; how the educated classes are often more like sophists than intellectuals; how living a libertine life full of integrity and passion will be condemned as scandalous in conservative society; and how religion is nothing but a mistaken sense that the tragedies that wear down an individual are the result of having sinned against a higher being.
The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry. The miller at Cresscombe lent him the small white tilted cart and horse to carry his goods to the city of his destination, about twenty miles off, such a vehicle proving of quite sufficient size for the departing teacher's effects. For the schoolhouse had been partly furnished by the managers, and the only cumbersome article possessed by the master, in addition to the packing–case of books, was a cottage piano that he had bought at an auction during the year in which he thought of learning instrumental music. But the enthusiasm having waned he had never acquired any skill in playing, and the purchased article had been a perpetual trouble to him ever since in moving house. The rector had gone away for the day, being a man who disliked the sight of changes. He did not mean to return till the evening, when the new school–teacher would have arrived and settled in, and everything would be smooth again. The blacksmith, the farm bailiff, and the schoolmaster himself were standing in perplexed attitudes in the parlour before the instrument. The master had remarked that even if he got it into the cart he should not know what to do with it on his arrival at Christminster, the city he was bound for, since he was only going into temporary lodgings just at first.