Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd is a classic novel first published in 1874. It is the story of Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak. The book is set in nineteenth-century England in the fictional county of Wessex.
Bathsheba transcends gender roles. She is a young woman who shows confidence and competence, often to the surprise of the book’s other characters. Upon the death of her uncle, Bathsheba inherits a large farm. She forgoes choosing a male farm manager and instead decides to run the entire operation herself. Though initially met with skepticism, Bathsheba’s proves herself to be strong and capable, and habits lead her to success.
Most of the narrative consists of Bathsheba being wooed by three different men. Oak, who is meant to elicit the most sympathy from the reader, is stoic and is always in control of himself. William Boldwood is a prosperous farm owner who is outwardly a paragon of respectability. Frank Troy is an amoral adventurer who is skilled at manipulating his romantic interests.
As the story progresses, Oak loses the farm that he owns, falls on hard times, and he eventually goes to work for Bathsheba. Though she respects him, she does not love him. He watches the other two men romance her as he exhibits calmness and patience. When she marries the irresponsible and unethical Troy, he watches as the adventurer begins to ruin Bathsheba emotionally and financially.
There is a lot going on in this book. The characters are so well drawn that they are a pleasure to read about. I could devote an entire post to any of the four major characters.
Bathsheba is a great literary creation. She is simultaneous strong and vulnerable. She is portrayed as an intelligent and capable woman who runs into misery by falling in love with the false charmer Troy. She is self-aware and understands that her emotional reactions are causing her self-harm.
Boldwood is another well crafted character. He is a bastion of society. Though he is stiff and serious, he initially acts honorably and displays kindness to others. Despite his outward strength, he falls apart when Bathsheba chooses Troy over himself. Later, when Troy disappears and is assumed dead, he begins to act obsessively and becomes terribly overbearing in his treatment of Bathsheba.
Troy, though mostly petty and wicked, reacts oddly when a girl whom he took advantage of in the past, dies, partially as a result of his actions. Uncharacteristically, he descends into a spiral of regret and self-recrimination.
Though I found Oak to be a little simplistic and too good to be believable, he is interesting to read about. Though he loves Bathsheba, he is rejected by her and must watch as she marries a scoundrel. Yet, he shows remarkable sereneness and strength of character. In the end, his character is integrated into one of the book’s major themes; that long term, realistic love is far superior to quickly developed passionate love.
In addition to the impressive characterizations, there is something special and important about Hardy’s descriptions of natural scenes. The novel is packed with images of nature. Diverse landscapes, plants, animals, weather events and many more natural features and events are described in great detail using grand prose. These descriptions are often related to the plot or particular characters in symbolic ways.
One very distinctive passage takes place when a terrible storm strikes the farm. Troy and the farm workers are passed out drunk while Bathsheba and Oak struggle to protect the newly harvested crops from the deluge. The imagery is described in magnificent prose.
“It sprang from east, west, north, south, and was a perfect dance of death. The forms of skeletons appeared in the air, shaped with blue fire for bones — dancing, leaping, striding, racing around, and mingling altogether in unparalleled con- fusion. With these were intertwined undulating snakes of green, and behind these was a broad mass of lesser light. Simultaneously came from every part of the tumbling sky what may be called a shout; since, though no shout ever came near it, it was more of the nature of a shout than of anything else earthly. “
The fury of the storm seems to represent the tumultuous relationship between Bathsheba and her suitors. It also seems to represent something about human existence in general. The violence of the weather is contrasted to human problems,
“but love, life, everything human, seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe. “
This novel is filled with such passages. The prose is so well written. As these descriptions are often tied to the novel's themes and underlying messages, the book is pulled together in an aesthetically magnificent way.
There is so much that is good about this novel. There are interesting and important themes relating to gender, passionate love verses long term love, urban verses rural attitudes and more. The characters are skillfully crafted. The story is interesting and engaging, to name a few more of the work’s virtues. This book rightfully deserves to be called a classic.