Far from the Madding Crowd
Far from the Madding Crowd
In December 1872, having already published several moderately successful novels, Thomas Hardy was approached by the editor of Cornhill, a respected literary magazine, to write a story to run in serial form. The resulting book, Far from the Madding Crowd, was a popular attraction for the magazine and Hardy's first critical success. It was first published in serial form in Cornhill between January and December 1874, and then published the same year in London in book form. Hardy had already published several novels, but this was the first of the five novels that would assure his place in the annals of literature.
The plot of Far from the Madding Crowd concerns a young woman, Bathsheba Everdene, and the three men in her life: one is a poor sheep farmer who loses his flock in a tragedy and ends up working as an employee on Bathsheba's farm; one is the respectable, boring owner of a neighboring farm who takes Bathsheba's flirtations too seriously; and the third is a dashing army sergeant who treats her like just another of his conquests. In chronicling their hopes, plans, and disappointments, Hardy presents to readers a clear example of Victorian romanticism. At the same time, his understanding of the lives of farmers and ranchers in rural England makes him a forerunner to the realistic tradition in literature.
Wessex, the location for Far from the Madding Crowd, is an imaginary English county that Hardy colored with fine details throughout the course of his writing career. It is similar to Dorset, where Hardy lived most of his life, but its fictitious nature gave the author freedom to describe the landscape at will. Hardy wrote Far from the Madding Crowd in the same Dorset cottage in which he was born and which his grandfather had built in 1800. Though fictional, the residents of Wessex—farmers, land owners, laborers, servants, and the like—are considered true representations of people living at the time the novel was published.
Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840, in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, England, and he died there eighty-eight years later. His major novels, including Far from the Madding Crowd, take place in an intricately imagined English county he called Wessex, which he patterned on Dorset.
The town where Hardy was born, Higher Bockhampton, was poor, but Hardy was born into a line of skilled laborers. His father was a master mason, as was his grandfather, and throughout his childhood it was assumed that Hardy would be a mason also. In 1856 he was apprenticed to an architect and went to live in Dorchester, the county seat, where he was to live for most of his life. After gaining full status as an architect, Hardy took up writing poetry, but was not successful in getting his works published, and so he turned to writing fiction. In all, he published fourteen novels between 1871 and 1895. His first novel, Desperate Remedies, was published in 1871. In 1872 he published Under the Greenwood Tree anonymously, and in 1873 he published A Pair of Blue Eyes. None of these initial works garnered much critical attention from the literary establishment.
Far from the Madding Crowd, published in 1874, is considered the first of Hardy's five important novels. The other four are: The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). While these five novels are considered important works in the canon of British literature, Hardy published numerous other novels, short stories, sketches, travel writings, and poetry that received less attention.
Hardy's novels are known for their frank portrayals of love and sexuality, and as a result he was subject to harsh social criticism in his time. After the publication of Jude the Obscure, he grew tired of being surrounded by controversy, and so he gave up writing fiction and focused on poetry. His distinguished poetry career lasted for more than thirty years, until his death on January 11, 1928. His body was buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, next to the remains of Charles Dickens. Before his interment, Hardy's heart was removed and buried in Dorset.
The first chapter of Far from the Madding Crowd introduces Gabriel Oak, a hardworking farmer. One day, tending his fields, he sees a wagon with a beautiful girl in it. When her driver goes to pick up something dropped on the road, the girl, thinking no one can see her, takes out a small mirror and examines her face. Oak later observes the same young woman and her aunt caring for a newborn calf through a cold night.
Oak finally talks to Bathsheba Everdene, returning a hat that she has lost. She is flirtatious. Oak, smitten, goes to call on her at her aunt's house to ask her to marry him. She refuses, explaining, "I want somebody to tame me; I am too independent; and you would never be able to, I know."
One morning Oak hears that Bathsheba has left town. Not long after, he suffers a tragedy: an inexperienced sheep dog chases his flock through a fence in a hill, and most of them fall over a cliff and die. Oak is forced to sell all he has in order to pay back money he borrowed, and he ends up homeless.
After several months, Oak is traveling, looking for work. He comes across a barn on fire and takes the lead in fighting it. The barn is located on the farm Bathsheba inherited from her uncle. At the suggestion of her workers, Bathsheba offers Oak work as a shepherd, and he accepts. Traveling to the malthouse to find lodging, Oak runs into a pale girl who is later identified as Fanny Robin, and he gives her money.
Fanny Robin goes to a town where the military regiment that had been in Weatherbury has been sent, and summons Frank Troy to come to the window. She asks when he is going to marry her. He tells her soon.
Bathsheba notices William Boldwood, who owns the farm next to hers, in the market, and comments that he looks interesting. Her maid Liddy explains that he is a confirmed bachelor. On Valentine's Day Bathsheba and Liddy decide to write an anonymous valentine, and Bathsheba decides on a whim to send it to Boldwood. The wax seal with which she closes it says "Marry Me."
Oak receives a letter from Fanny Robin, repaying the money he gave her and mentioning that she is going to marry Sergeant Frank Troy. Boldwood, who has been thinking constantly about the anonymous valentine, has Oak identify the writing as Bathsheba's. Soon Boldwood asks Bathsheba to marry him. She explains that the valentine was a joke, but he swears his love and says he will ask her again.
Sergeant Troy waits at All Saints' Church to marry Fanny. She shows up an hour late, saying that she mistakenly went to All Souls' Church. Annoyed, Troy now refuses to marry Fanny.
- An abridged audio edition of Far from the Madding Crowd is available from Blackstone Audiobooks. Released in 1984, it was read by Jill Masters and is available on both cassette and compact disc.
- Another audiocassette version, read by Hugh Rose and Kate Young, was released in 1980 by Century Publishing of Houston, Texas.
- An unabridged audio version, in cassette and compact disc form, was released in 1998 by The Audio Partners. It is read by Stephen Thorne.
- A big-screen blockbuster adaptation of this book was made in 1967, with an all-star cast including Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp, and Peter Finch. It was directed by John Schlesinger. Produced by Warner, it is available on Warner Home Video.
- A more recent film version, done for public television's Masterpiece Theatre series, stars Paloma Baeza as Bathsheba Everdene, Nathaniel Parker as Gabriel Oak, and Jonathan Firth as Frank Troy. Directed by Nicholas Renton, it was released on videocassette by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 1998.
- An unusual adaptation of this novel of lust and passion was the one done by London's SNAP People's Theatre Trust, adjusting the story of Bathsheba Everdene for a children's audience. A videotape of this production was released by Globalstage in 1998. It is recommended for audiences aged 12 and up.
- Readers can find hundreds of online links to articles about this novel and about Hardy himself at the Web site of the Thomas Hardy Association (http://www.yale.edu/hardysoceaders).
Boldwood's love for Bathsheba grows, although she is disinterested. She discusses Boldwood with Oak, who says she should consider marrying Boldwood after the trick she played on him. Because Oak criticizes her behavior, Bathsheba fires him.
With Oak gone, no one feeds the sheep. The sheep break the fence and get into a field of clover, which makes them sick. The only person around who can heal them is Oak. Bathsheba sends him a note begging him to come back, saying, "Do not desert me, Gabriel."
Boldwood asks Bathsheba to accept his proposal when he returns from his trip. That night, walking home, Bathsheba meets Sergeant Troy, who is back on furlough from his regiment. He flirts with her in the dark. A few days later she finds him helping her workers tend her farm. In private, he demonstrates his swordsmanship and then steals a kiss. Oak later warns Bathsheba that Troy seems dishonest.
When Boldwood returns, Bathsheba declares her love for Troy. She leaves for Bath, where Troy has gone on vacation. When Boldwood next sees Troy, he offers him money to marry Fanny. Troy indicates that he and Bathsheba have already been intimate, so Boldwood offers him even more money to marry Bathsheba and make an honest woman of her. Troy takes the money and then announces that they are already married.
Having used Bathsheba's money to buy his way out of the army, Troy establishes himself as the head of the farm. After the harvest, he provides hard liquor to all of the farm hands. Oak, meanwhile, senses a storm rolling in that could ruin the crops. When he goes to the barn, everyone is passed out and no one is available to help him save Bathsheba's harvest except Bathsheba herself. Oak races to cover the stacks while the storm rages. The next day he meets Boldwood, who has allowed his own harvest to be ruined.
Weeks later, Bathsheba and Troy run into Fanny Robin. Troy does not introduce the women to each other, but, seeing Fanny dressed in tatters, gives Fanny all of the money he has and promises her more if she will meet him the next day. Chapter 40 details Fanny's trek by foot through the dead of night to the poor house in Casterbridge.
Bathsheba and Troy fight when he asks her for money, and he leaves. Liddy brings news that Fanny Robin has died, and Bathsheba sends one of the farm hands to bring back her body.
On Fanny's coffin, the people at the poor house have written the contents in chalk. Oak finds the man who was sent to retrieve the coffin at the malthouse. Oak notices the casket says "Fanny Robin and child," and erases the mention of the child, to protect Bathsheba.
Bathsheba, however, becomes suspicious. She goes to where the casket is and opens it with a screwdriver, finding the corpse of an infant child with Fanny's. Troy comes in and sees it too. He declares that Fanny was the love of his life, that Bathsheba means nothing to him. He runs away, and she locks herself in her room. After erecting an expensive tombstone for Fanny, Troy flees town. Swimming at the shore, a currant pulls him out to sea, where a boat picks him up.
Word soon comes that Troy has drowned. Oak becomes the bailiff of Bathsheba's farm and also of Boldwood's. Months later Boldwood learns from Liddy that Bathsheba will not consider marrying again for seven years after Troy's disappearance, and so Boldwood counts the days.
At a fair late in the summer, Troy, who has been traveling with a carnival, notices Bathsheba and disguises himself. Boldwood, taking Bathsheba home from the fair, begs her to promise to marry him after six more years; when she stalls, he gets her to promise to announce her decision by Christmas.
Boldwood throws a festive Christmas Eve party. He makes it clear he expects Bathsheba to agree to marry him in six years and offers her an ornate diamond ring. Troy enters the party and insists that Bathsheba leave with him. Boldwood shoots Troy and tries to shoot himself before the farm hands stop him.
While Boldwood is imprisoned and sentenced to die, facts come out about his mental state. In his house are found packages of women's clothes with the name "Bathsheba Boldwood" on them. In the end, he is not sentenced to death.
At the grave where Bathsheba has had Troy buried with Fanny, she runs into Oak, with whom she has not talked in months. He explains he stayed away because he was afraid people would gossip that he had designs on marrying her himself, and she encourages the idea. The novel ends with the marriage of Oak to Bathsheba.
Cainy is the boy who is appointed assistant shepherd to Gabriel. His mother named him Cain because she was confused about the story of Genesis, and thought it was Abel who killed his brother.
Boldwood is a bachelor, about forty years old, who owns the farm next to the Everdene farm. He takes responsibility for Fanny Robin when her parents die. Bathsheba Everdene first becomes aware of Boldwood when he comes to visit soon after she takes over her uncle's farm. Her maid explains that Boldwood is a confirmed bachelor and shows no interest in women, which spurs Bathsheba to send him an anonymous valentine.
The valentine starts Boldwood thinking about women. He becomes convinced that he is in love with Bathsheba. Because he is used to business interactions and not personal ones, he pressures her to marry him and is confused when she is reluctant. When she marries Troy, Boldwood feels she has been stolen from him and lets his farm go to ruin. After Troy is thought dead, Boldwood interprets the fact that she will not remarry for seven years to mean that at the end of that time, she will marry him. When she says she will give him an answer at Christmas, he prepares a lavish party, assuming she will become his fiancée.
When Boldwood is jailed for killing Troy, the extent of Boldwood's delusions becomes apparent. Locked closets are found in his house, full of dresses, furs, and jewelry, all inscribed to "Bathsheba Boldwood," with a date seven years in advance, when he expects her to marry him. Because he is clearly insane, Boldwood is not hanged for Troy's murder.
Coggan is introduced as a man who often stands witness to weddings and baptisms in the county. When Oak arrives at Weatherbury, he takes a room at Coggan's house. Coggan becomes a confidante who knows the truth about Oak's past relationship with Bathsheba.
Bathsheba is the central figure of the novel. At the beginning of the novel she is around twenty years old and poor, helping to tend her aunt's farm. She is vain. The first time Oak sees her she takes out a mirror and examines her face, unaware that anyone is looking. She flirts with Oak but does not accept his proposal of marriage because she does not believe he can put up with a strong-headed woman like herself.
When an uncle dies and leaves her his farm, Bathsheba takes control. She fires the bailiff for stealing, and instead of hiring another bailiff, she takes on the duty of managing the farm herself. She still has the flirtatious girl in her, though, and on Valentine's Day she sends an anonymous valentine to the stuffy bachelor who lives next door. When he takes this claim of love seriously, she feels guilty and finds herself unable to refuse him outright.
Bathsheba is a conscientious employer. She gives her workers bonuses when work is going well. When news arrives that Fanny Robin, who worked for her uncle, has died, Bathsheba arranges for the body to be brought back to Weatherbury, to be buried in the local cemetery.
When she meets the dashing Sergeant Troy, she falls for his extravagant flattery, falls in love with him, and ends up marrying him. He spends her money, ignores her, and almost ruins her farm. Throughout these difficult times, she relies on Oak, both for help in managing her farm and as a sympathetic ear to listen to her troubles.
Bathsheba becomes a colder, more pragmatic person after Troy leaves. She is hesitant to give Boldwood any hope of marrying her, because she is concerned about the way she hurt his feelings in the past. She focuses on business and tries to forget about men.
In the end, when Boldwood is in jail and Troy is dead, Bathsheba rekindles the same playful, flirtatious relationship with Oak that she had at the beginning of the novel. She recognizes his loyalty through all that has happened and realizes she has loved him all along.
Frey is one of the workers on the Everdene farm. He always signs his name "Henery" and is often called that by the other workers.
George is the sheepdog who helps Gabriel Oak tend his flocks, and he is later brought to Weatherbury to help Oak with Bathsheba's sheep.
Moon is one of the workers on Bathsheba Everdene's farm.
Oak is one of the novel's most important characters. In the beginning, he is a farmer. Though his farm is not a large one, it is secure. When he meets Bathsheba Everdene, he asks her to marry him. Soon his flock of sheep is wiped out in an accident, and he has to sell his farm to pay his bills. When he cannot find work as a bailiff, or foreman, of a farm, he looks for a job as a shepherd. He is hired at the farm Bathsheba has recently inherited.
Hardy presents Oak as a conscientious and intelligent worker, who intuitively understands the problems of grain and livestock. Oak is completely devoted to Bathsheba, watching after her farm so that she will profit from it. Unlike Boldwood, who is never able to get over the idea of Bathsheba's rejecting his offer of marriage, Oak goes for years without mentioning the feelings that he once had for her. He does not forget about his love, but instead channels it into labor on her farm. Oak takes on a brotherly role for Bathsheba in her romantic entanglements with Boldwood and Troy. She goes to him for advice about men, even though they are both aware of their romantic past.
Oak becomes Boldwood's friend. Boldwood recognizes and admires the way Oak is able to control his love for Bathsheba and also admires Oak's skill as a farmer. When Boldwood devotes his time to pursuing Bathsheba, he hires Oak to watch over his farm as well as hers. A less confident man than Oak would have refused to help another man court the woman he loves.
In the end Oak tells Bathsheba he plans to go to California. This decision, like other decisions in his life, is not made for his own benefit, but because he does not want people to gossip about Bathsheba, since they all know he is in love with her. Her decision to marry him in the end stems from her clear understanding of how much he means to her.
Pennyways is the bailiff of the Everdene farm. Soon after Bathsheba takes over the farm, she catches Pennyways sneaking out of the barn with half a bushel of barley, and she fires him. He later turns up at the Greenhill Fair, where he recognizes Troy as one of the performers. His attempt to point out Troy's presence to Bathsheba does not work, and he then becomes Troy's accomplice in Troy's drive to reestablish himself at the farm.
Joseph is a very shy man, and the other farm workers kid him about it. He has a weakness for alcohol. When he is supposed to bring Fanny Robin's body back to the Everdene farm, he stops at the Boar's Head along the way and stays so late drinking that he cannot make it back in time for the funeral.
Fanny is a tragic young woman who is used by the womanizing Sergeant Troy and then abandoned. She ends up malnourished and pregnant. Fanny worked on the Everdene farm for years and leaves a few days after Bathsheba's arrival because Troy's company was relocated. She goes to the new barracks to ask when Troy will marry her. After she is late to the wedding ceremony because she went to the wrong church, Troy refuses to marry her. Troy runs into her after he is married to Bathsheba. Fanny is destitute. Troy wants to help her, but she dies before he can get money to her.
Oak tries to keep secret the fact that Fanny dies unmarried and with a child. When Troy finds out about it, though, he shows that he is truly sad. Instead of his beautiful wealthy wife Bathsheba, he declares that Fanny was his only true love.
The son of "the maltster," who owns the tavern in the village, Jacob is around sixty-five years old.
Liddy is the daughter of William Smallbury and the handmaid of Bathsheba Everdene. She is about the same age as Bathsheba and serves as a confidant from time to time.
Son of Jacob Smallbury, William is about forty years old and is described as having "a cheerful soul in a gloomy body."
Tall has recently, in middle age, married for the first time. He is bossed around by his strong-willed wife, Susan. Hardy describes him as "a young married man, who having no individuality worth mentioning was known as 'Susan Tall's husband.'"
The new wife of Laban Tall is presented as a domineering woman who makes all of the decisions for the couple.
Sergeant Troy is presented as a contradiction. Throughout the novel, his actions show him to be an opportunist and a womanizer. He is first introduced as responding to Fanny Robin, who has walked miles in winter to the town to which his battalion has moved. Fanny asks Troy when he is going to marry her, but Troy says he cannot come out and see her. Then there is laughter inside the barracks, as if he is mocking her. He does agree to marry her, though, but when she shows up late to the wedding he uses it as an excuse to call off the wedding. In courting Bathsheba Everdene, Troy shows himself to be skillful and witty.
In his marriage to Bathsheba, Troy exhibits confidence. He swindles Boldwood out of money Boldwood offers Troy to make Bathsheba an honest woman, taking the money although he and Bathsheba are already married. Troy spends Bathsheba's money on liquor for the farm hands, who are not used to hard liquor, and as a result almost ruins a year's work. He also loses heavily at the horse races.
On the other hand, he is, at heart, a romantic. When he hears of Fanny's death, he is truly grieved, to such an extent that he is willing to lose his comfortable position as Bathsheba's husband. He tells Bathsheba she means nothing to him, that Fanny was his true love. He erects a tombstone to Fanny that says he was the one to put it up, despite the scandal that could ensue. He then runs away, eventually joining a traveling show, in order to forget his one true love.
In the end Troy returns to being a scoundrel. He is dragging Bathsheba out of the Christmas party, saying she should obey him, when he is shot by Boldwood and killed.
Much of the plot of Far from the Madding Crowd depends on unrequited love—love by one person for another that is not mutual in that the other person does not feel love in return. The novel is driven, from the first few chapters, by Gabriel Oak's love for Bathsheba. Once he has lost his farm, he is free to wander anywhere in search of work, but he heads to Weatherbury because it is in the direction that Bathsheba has gone. This move leads to Oak's employment at Bathsheba's farm, where he patiently consoles her in her troubles and supports her in tending the farm, with no sign he will ever have his love returned.
Oak's feelings for Bathsheba parallel Boldwood's feelings for Bathsheba. Given the fact that Bathsheba sends Boldwood a provocative valentine, sealed with the strong message "Marry Me," Boldwood has good reason to believe she might love him. On the other hand, she tries to extinguish any such belief, telling Boldwood repeatedly she will not marry him. Unlike Oak, who is willing to take Bathsheba at her word, Boldwood looks for the slightest sign in what she says that there may be a chance she may change her mind. Since she is not strong or direct in her refusal of him, there is always room for him to believe that she is softening.
Bathsheba herself suffers a similar unrequited love for Sergeant Troy. She feels he is mistreating her once they are married, but she cannot help herself because she loves him so much. He, on the other hand, is not capable of a stable love relationship. When they argue over the fact that he is lying about the trip he plans to take to see Fanny, and Bathsheba regrets how much she used to love him, Troy can only mutter, "I can't help how things fall out … upon my heart, women will be the death of me." When he is thought to have drowned, though, Bathsheba still thinks enough of him to go on waiting, to see if he will come back.
This novel focuses on the way that catastrophe can occur at any time, threatening to change lives. The most obvious example occurs when Oak's flock of sheep is destroyed by an unlikely confluence of circumstances, including an inexperienced sheep dog, a rotted rail, and a chalk pit that happens to have been dug adjacent to his land. In one night, Oak's future as an independent farmer is destroyed, and he ends up begging just to secure the diminished position of a shepherd.
Potential catastrophe occurs throughout the novel, but Oak, having suffered already, uses skill and diligence to avert it. For instance, Bathsheba's flock is almost ruined as swiftly and thoroughly as Oak's flock is, on the day that Bathsheba dismisses Oak from her farm. It is only because Oak returns to his post, after forcing Bathsheba to ask him back, that most of the sheep survive. Then a thunderstorm arrives the day the harvest is complete. The rain could ruin the barley, corn, and wheat, destroying Bathsheba financially, if the grain is not covered. This catastrophe is averted because Oak works through the night in the rain to protect the harvest. Sergeant Troy, who is supposed to be the master of the farm, sleeps off the hard liquor that has rendered him and all of his farm hands useless. With these episodes, Hardy shows that catastrophe can cause ruin, but it can also sometimes be avoided when care is taken.
This novel offers modern readers a clear picture of how important social position was in England in the nineteenth century and of the opportunities that existed to change class, in either direction. In the beginning, Oak and Bathsheba are social equals: he is an independent farmer who rents his land, and she lives on her aunt's farm next door to his, which is presumably similar in value. The only thing that keeps her from accepting his proposal of marriage is the fact that she just does not want to be married yet. After Oak loses his farm and Bathsheba inherits her uncle's farm, there is little question of whether they can marry—their social positions are too different. She is more socially compatible with Boldwood, who owns the farm next to hers and is in a similar social position.
Unlike societies in which the social hierarchy is rigid, the situation in rural nineteenth-century England did offer opportunity to those in the lower positions to move up. With hard work, Oak works his way up to bailiff of both Bathsheba's and Boldwood's farms. Earning more money, he also has the social status that comes from being trusted with such a unique position. Still, at the end of the book he does not think that he has risen socially high enough to marry Bathsheba, as indicated by the fact that he offers to leave the country, rather than give anyone the idea he might think himself worthy of her. He has risen enough socially by this time to have their marriage accepted, however, and the rest of society has nothing but good will for them.
Topics For Further Study
- Research modern methods of raising sheep and make a chart comparing them to the practices described in the novel.
- Find a recording of pastoral flute music, like the music that Gabriel Oak might have played, and present it to your class with an explanation of its history.
- Hardy eventually quit writing novels because of public criticism of the sexuality displayed in his books. Try to imagine how this story would have gone if Fanny Robin had not been carrying Sergeant Troy's baby when she died. Would Troy have been able to stay with Bathsheba after Fanny's death, and if so, where would their relationship have gone? Write a short play featuring their dialog after Fanny's funeral.
- Some readers are surprised to find that people sent valentines to each other in the 1870s. Research the history of Valentine's Day, and present the different customs associated with it throughout the ages.
Realism and Romanticism
Far from the Madding Crowd is considered by some to be a solid example of realism, a literary style that arose in Europe in the last half of the nineteenth century. The early half of the century was dominated by romanticism, which encouraged writers to emphasize their imaginations. Romantic writers, as a rule, focused on individual expression, and thus produced works that often featured elements of the supernatural and almost always showed the world as a projection of the individual's emotions. In response to the excesses of romanticism, which some writers felt took literary works too far from the way that most people actually experience the world, realistic fiction began in the 1840s in works by writers such as Gustav Flaubert and George Eliot. Because romantic writers often presented the world as being changeable by sheer willpower and, therefore, were inclined toward happy endings, realistic writers tended to show the harsher aspects of life. In Far from the Madding Crowd, the realistic world view is represented most clearly in the way Oak's flock of sheep die, suddenly and senselessly. It is also presented in the way that Hardy exposes the social standards of his time by making Fanny Robin not only a jilted woman but also pregnant out of wedlock. On the other hand, there are many romantic elements in the book. The way that the thunderstorm in chapter 37 mirrors the emotional turmoil of Gabriel and Bathsheba is a standard romantic idiom. The book's many strained coincidences constitute romantic device (such as the fact that a boat picks up Troy before he drowns and Troy subsequently encounters Bathsheba at the Greenhill Fair, to name two examples). The book's happy ending, with the longtime acquaintances finally free to admit their mutual love and marry one another, is a sign that, for all its realistic elements, this novel is basically a romantic novel.
The word denoument comes from the French, and literally means "the unraveling" or "the untying." It is used in literature to describe the part of a novel that comes after the climax, when the excitement has peaked and readers gain an understanding of what life will hold in the future for the surviving characters. In this novel, the climax comes at the Christmas party when Boldwood kills Troy. This climax carries on into the next chapter, "After the Shock," in which Bathsheba dresses her husband's body and finally cures herself of his hold on her. The denoument occurs the following March, when Oak and Bathsheba, having had time to accept the shocking developments that removed the main obstacles from their way, find themselves able to playfully admit their love. For readers, it is clear that the shock of Troy's sudden return and just as sudden murder will not negatively affect Bathsheba. The future of the novel's two main characters is just as clear: they will live happily ever after.
Critics often point out that Hardy created Wessex, the imaginary setting of many of his novels and poems, to resemble Dorset, located along the southern coast of England. His use of the word "Wessex" first appears in Far from the Madding Crowd.
There actually was a historical use of the word "Wessex": it was a kingdom in southern England, dating back to the invasion of the Saxons in 494 a.d. Though it underwent changes over the course of centuries, its most permanent configuration approximated that of the modern counties of Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, and Somerset. It was in this place that King Arthur held domain over the Knights of the Roundtable, giving the area an important historical distinction. By 927, though, this kingdom had been absorbed into the greater polity of England.
By the nineteenth century the name "Wessex" had receded far into history. The use of this word for the area serves as a reference to the ancient myths and customs still practiced in rural municipalities across southern England in Hardy's time, but it is also an indicator that Hardy was not writing an exact history of any particular location. Still, the similarities between Dorchester and Wessex are so pronounced that whole books have been written tracing the connections of the fictitious county to specific locations in the Southwest England.
In the late nineteenth century, country life in England was under attack from many sides. For one thing, industrialization was on the rise. In part this was the effect of the Industrial Revolution, which had started in England in the previous century and by Hardy's time had spread across western Europe. Factories, clustered in the cities, offered wages beyond anything workers could hope to gain if they stayed in the farm towns of their parents and ancestors, so many workers moved to urban areas, which led to the overcrowding and pollution that has been recorded so graphically in Charles Dickens's novels about London in the 1830s and 1840s.
In addition, English farms lost a great deal of profitability when the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846. The Corn Laws, which had been in effect in various forms for over 400 years, were controversial throughout the nineteenth century. Supporters said the laws protected English farmers from market fluctuations by assuring them of a high price for what they grew; opponents felt they hampered industry by paying tax money to subsidize farm-owning landowners. When the Corn Laws were repealed, farm wages plummeted. The result was that many people whose families had been farmers for generations, if not centuries, found themselves relocating to urban areas.
To some degree, then, Hardy's stories of Wessex offered displaced farmers an outlet for the nostalgia they felt when they looked back to the land on which their families had worked for generations. Hardy's rustic characters are not necessarily kind or wise, but they always have the characteristics that one would identify with country people: folk wisdom, tradition, and a sense of community, which are all absent from city life. In addition, Hardy is credited with capturing the nuances of workers in the rural south of England better than any other writer.
Far from the Madding Crowd was Hardy's breakthrough novel. He had published three books before it, which generally left critics unimpressed. As Dale Kramer notes in Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy: The Novels, reviewers of Hardy's early works
were struck by the seemingly uncoordinated, coincidence-laden plots, and also by the rural settings where the sense of time was that of an idyll, by fantastic implausibilities mixed with poetic revelation of inner identities, and by the folklore of "Wessex" that resisted the importunities of modern existence.
Kramer later continues,
By the time of Far from the Madding Crowd even critical reviewers realized they were dealing with substantial works calling for judgment not in relation to popular writers of the day, but in relation to recognized masters.
Compare & Contrast
1870s: England begins its shift from a farming economy to an industrial economy, as foreign imported meat and produce drive down farm wages. Over the next few decades, the population shifts from rural to urban settings at an unprecedented rate.
Today: Britain has one of the world's most sophisticated industrial economies. Only about two-fifths of the land is usable for farming, and the country is only about 4 percent forested.
1870s: A woman carrying a child out of wedlock would be shamed into traveling on her own in poverty rather than returning to her own town and facing disgrace before her friends and neighbors.
Today: The social stigma against unmarried women is greatly diminished as the practice has become more common throughout the past three decades.
1870s: It is considered highly unusual for a lone woman like Bathsheba to run a farm by herself. Most women who have come by farms through inheritance rely on bailiffs to tend to day-to-day operations.
Today: A lone woman running a farm would be notable today primarily because a majority of farms are owned and run by corporations.
1870s: A piano in the house is the mark of affluence for a woman living on a farm. Gabriel Oak promises Bathsheba that, if she marries him, she will have one "in a year or two."
Today: Full-sized pianos are again a sign of luxury; electric keyboards, however, can produce similar sound quality for a fraction of the price.
1870s: News is spread by word of mouth, most often at a public gathering place like Warren's Malthouse in the novel. Shepherds rely on natural signs to predict coming changes in the weather.
Today: Even the most remote locations have access to twenty-four-hour-a-day news and weather channels, as well as Internet access for up-to-the-minute information.
Once Hardy's literary importance was established, critics were still divided in their analysis of his work. He faced tremendous pressure from his Victorian audiences for his frank portrayal of sexuality, such as an unmarried woman like Fanny Robin being buried with her infant child, yet still loved by her neighbors and the man who had impregnated her. Hardy stopped writing fiction in 1895, after his novels had been attacked by critics who had called his fiction "vulgar" and "disagreeable." Still, there had been many positive reviews from critics who recognized him as one of England's finest writers. Hardy turned to writing poetry at age fifty-six. Because he was already a major literary figure, it was difficult to dismiss his poetry, though critics tended to pay less heed to it than to his fiction.
Throughout the twentieth century, Hardy's work held its place at the forefront of world literature. Still, the contradictions in his work afford new readers ample room for formulating contrasting opinions. Richard C. Carpenter explains the wide range of feelings readers have had about Hardy's novels this way:
If he is great, he is bound to be problematic, showing new sides to new generations, demanding that we wrestle with him as with an angel and take a few falls before we realize what sort of man he is.
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature. In this essay Kelly argues that questions about Hardy's artistry in the novel are wrongly founded on whether the characters are too flexible to be believed.
Bathsheba Everdene, of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd, has been known to readers over the generations for her fiery beauty. The book details her romantic involvements with the three most sought-after bachelors in her county: Gabriel Oak, William Boldwood, and Sergeant Frank Troy. One reason for the book's enduring popularity is certainly the fact that it has two conclusions. First, Bathsheba ends up as a classic tragic heroine, able to have whatever she wants until her own success thrusts her into misery. After that, the book reverses order, and Bathsheba is presented as a romantic, almost comic heroine, who, despite the suffering that the world inflicts on her, is able to find happiness in the end.
Since the novel's first publication, critics have faulted Hardy for this ambiguity, just as audiences have found it very satisfactory to see a strong-headed and beautiful woman brought low and then redeemed within the same story. Novels can be satisfactory without being artistically honest. The strength of Hardy's plot line as true to life depends on how well he controls the main characters. If they are true to their characterizations, then the novel can ride them through the high points and low points to offer an honest look at the fictional world he presents. If, on the other hand, he allows them to change their basic personalities for his convenience in spinning a crowd-pleasing plot, then Far from the Madding Crowd can be considered just well-written and popular, but not necessarily a work of literature. This distinction, true of most books, requires even closer examination in this one because Hardy pummels his characters with such intense circumstances that it is not always easy to tell if they remain consistent.
Readers first encounter Bathsheba when Oak does. She is seated regally atop a wagon filled with her possessions, attended by a Norcombe commoner, and, when she thinks no one is watching, she sneaks a glance at herself in a mirror. That glance says that she is vain, but what is not made clear is exactly who she thinks her beauty is for. If she is concerned about how she looks to the driver, then it could be said that she values the admiration of everyone, no matter how lowly in status, no matter how unlikely a suitor. It could also be argued, though, that the secret glance in the mirror has more metaphysical implications: Bathsheba is not all that concerned with how her looks impress others, but is even more self-centered than that, and is concerned only with impressing herself. The fact that a mirror necessarily concerns outside appearances seems to indicate that this scene is about the face that she presents to the outside world; however, in her actions further in the book, with the workers at the farm she inherits, Bathsheba shows no desire to attract working men.
Her action is important because it is the first thing that attracts Oak to her, and Oak's judgment in all other things seems pretty good. As Peter J. Casagrande wrote in his essay "A New View of Bathsheba Everdene": Oak shows an "ability to observe the defects of non-human nature (the loss of his flock, the fire, the storm, the bloated sheep)" which allows him the flexibility he needs to make adjustments
to observe, minister to, and finally to marry the faulty Bathsheba. The novel thus associates the imperfect nature of its heroine with defective non-human nature and offers in Oak an example of how to cope with the unregenerateness of things.
In other words, Casagrande assumes that what he elsewhere calls Bathsheba's "aggressive coquetry" is a flaw in her that places her in a category beyond human nature, instead of viewing it as the awareness of "self" that in fact defines human nature. That Oak understands Bathsheba better than she understands herself can hardly be argued, which leads readers to the frustrating conclusion that Bathsheba would be much happier throughout the book if she would only listen to Oak. What can be argued, however, is why, if she grows as a person throughout the book and becomes more human, that makes her a good match for farmer/shepherd Oak at the end.
Oak does in fact have the sort of understanding of nature that one expects from someone who spends his time observing the land, the skies, and animals, but he spends little time in the presence of other people. The novel mentions several times how useless his watch is to him, and how much more reliable his reading is of the alignment of the stars and planets. In this context, the love-at-first-sight that stirs in him when he sees Bathsheba staring at herself does not fit into an easy interpretation. It is not clearly the condescension of a man determined to redeem a woman from the sin of vanity. If Oak is attracted to her precisely because of her interest in herself, not in spite of it, then the novel's message would be that narcissism is as natural to humans as growing wool is to sheep. Bathsheba's interest in her self, then, would not be the flaw that critics tend to associate with her, but a benign part of her nature.
The ways in which Bathsheba interacts with the other men, though, certainly seem to indicate a tragic flaw as, after their involvement with Bathsheba, one ends up dead and the other goes to prison for having murdered him. Here too, though, there is room for seeing Bathsheba either as an instigator or as a victim of her own nature. The greatest sin she appears to perpetrate in the book comes when she attracts farmer Boldwood. It comes on an idle Valentine's Day, when she feels isolated. With nobody to send a card to, she decides to send one to the farmer who once tried to stop at her house for a social call, though she told the servants to send him away because she did not feel presentable enough. Here, too, Bathsheba's motives can be interpreted in different ways, ranging from childlike to cunning. Hardy explains her rationale for sending the valentine as a lark, an act of playfulness, down to her affixing a seal that says, "Marry Me." Hardy does, though, have it follow two incidents, at the sheep wash and at the Corn Market, where Boldwood fails to take any notice of her, raising the question of whether Bathsheba's flirtation is not as innocent as is presented, but is rather intended, subconsciously or not, to punish Boldwood for failing to give her the attention she desires.
"Aside from trifling, though, the effect of Troy's story has little in common with Bathsheba's. While her flirtation with Boldwood seems to be a way of killing time, his is a more pathological diversion from his true self."
Her attention changes Boldwood completely, from a man who is disinterested in women to one who is willing to devote his life to one, from there to the delusional extreme of buying clothes and presents as gifts with which to shower Bathsheba seven years later. This "new" Boldwood is perfectly consistent with the dour loner he is when he enters the book. He is a mystery throughout, and the only difference from beginning to end is that he starts out a respected but aloof member of the community. He is pitied when people realize that Bathsheba has rejected him; and, as he tries to regain respect, his desperation is fueled by his own awareness of how apparent his desperation is. Boldwood's tragedy might be viewed, as it often has been, as his victimization by a vain woman, but his self-professed love for Bathsheba is so impersonal, so removed from the facts of the situation, that it is clear he is bound to have his self-esteem damaged by someone, somewhere.
Bathsheba's humbling marriage to Troy, who turns out to have not only fathered Fanny Robin's child but to care more for Fanny after her death than for his wife, is often referred to as the converse of the Boldwood situation, because Troy courts Bathsheba lightly, with no clear interest in her once he has won her love. Aside from trifling, though, the effect of Troy's story has little in common with Bathsheba's. While her flirtation with Boldwood seems to be a way of killing time, his is a more pathological diversion from his true self. It is clear that his love for Fanny is true, even though he does not realize it while it is in his power to act. He avoids her when she visits his barracks, and he takes the slightest excuse to back out of marriage, and he marries Bathsheba instead, but when Fanny is dead he thinks nothing of throwing away his comfortable lifestyle as a landed gentleman as he releases his heartfelt grief. Bathsheba flirts with Boldwood when she has nothing else to do, nothing to lose; Troy flirts with Bathsheba at the expense of the one true love of his life. This can be seen as a sign that she is a temptress, a distraction, except for the fact that their relationship is initiated by Troy and advanced at every step of the way by him. The only way to presume that Bathsheba is responsible for taking Troy away from Fanny is to see him as somehow not responsible for his own actions—being driven by his social-climbing, woman-chasing nature—while at the same time thinking that Bathsheba should be accountable for hers.
What Do I Read Next?
- Far from the Madding Crowd was the first of Hardy's Wessex novels to draw serious critical attention. While similarities exist throughout all of his novels, readers who like Bathsheba Everdene will probably appreciate Eustacia Vye, the heroine of Hardy's next novel The Return of the Native (1878).
- When Far from the Madding Crowd was first published, it was rumored to be the work of George Eliot (pseudonym for Mary Ann Evans). Eliot's novel Middlemarch, first published in 1872, is considered by many to be her masterpiece.
- Emphasis is often placed on the connection between Hardy's characters and the setting of his novels. One scholarly work that examines the subject closely is Noorul Hasan's Thomas Hardy: The Sociological Imagination (1982). Hasan's work has enough depth to dedicate an entire chapter to Far from the Madding Crowd and point out nuances that a modern reader might not at first appreciate.
- One of the best and most detailed biographies of Thomas Hardy is Martin Seymour-Smith's Hardy (1994), considered by many to be the most authoritative book on the author's life.
After the series of tragedies that mark Bathsheba's life, the novel comes to a happy ending because of Gabriel Oak's patience. Throughout the story, he offers Bathsheba a shoulder to cry on and some sound advice (which she takes sometimes, but often does not). After Boldwood goes mad, Troy returns, and the two of them come to tragic ends, Bathsheba becomes available again. Now somewhat wealthy, Oak is close enough to being her social peer that a marriage would not be unreasonable. And the personal characteristics that may once have made him seem lacking are nothing compared to the competition. If Oak once seemed impetuous in asking Bathsheba to marry her, she has Troy's hotheaded behavior to compare it to. If he seemed too awkward around a woman, he is positively graceful when compared to Boldwood.
In the end, the question of whether this is an honest novel comes back to whether readers can accept the fact that Gabriel Oak waits so long for Bathsheba Everdene. It does strain credulity that he would be such a good sport as to watch the world implode around her and then step up with a new offer of marriage once the dust has settled. If Oak views her as a pretty woman he can love in spite of her vanity, then it would be right to question whether Hardy has painted Oak as too angelic to be true. But there is plenty of evidence in the novel that Oak is more than just a smitten shepherd, that he knows exactly what he is getting with Bathsheba. And there is also enough to this story to believe that Bathsheba may be beautiful, and she may be interested in herself, but that the events that ruin some of the men who encounter her spring from their own characters and not from some sort of spell cast on them by her vanity.
David Kelly, Critical Essay on Far from the Madding Crowd, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2004.
In the following essay, Morrell explores the distinction Hardy draws between romance and reality in Far from the Madding Crowd.
This novel is more typical of Hardy than a casual reading and a simplifying memory might indicate. The end, for example, is emphatically not a romantic happy-ever-after affair. We need not take Joseph Poorgrass's final "it might have been worse" at quite its long-face value; and we can see the title of the final chapter ("A Foggy Night and Morning") as perhaps Hardy's way of touching wood: there is, indeed, a suppressed and sober, but none the less noticeable, elation about the tone of the end; but the fact remains that Gabriel is no Prince Charming for a girl of three-or four-and-twenty. Ahead of Gabriel and Bathsheba is no romance, but a reality that Hardy represents as more valuable, a reality of hard and good work on the two farms:
He accompanied her up the hill, explaining to her the details of his forthcoming tenure of the other farm. They spoke very little of their mutual feelings; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality …
The trend of thought should by this time be familiar enough; but the passage also illustrates Hardy's "hard prosaic"—sometimes awkward—way of thinking and writing, born of a conviction that the truth must be told, even if it cannot always be told attractively.
"Hardy is disparaging romance, the dream and the dreamer. He is suggesting, instead, that one should live—not in accordance with nature—but in accordance with reality."
The distinction Hardy draws between romance and reality does not appear only at the end of the book; it is worked into the scheme of the whole. In contrast to Gabriel Oak, the two other main male characters, Troy and Boldwood, one actively and the other passively, represent aspects of romantic unreality. Boldwood is the dreamer himself, and the unreality is in the way he approaches Bathsheba, seeing in her not a woman of flesh and blood, but a romantic dream. Troy, on the other hand, approaches Bathsheba realistically enough; but he is approached romantically by her: he seems to her a romantic figure, and initially, an escape from a dilemma into which the circumstances of her real everyday life have thrown her. Boldwood, for Bathsheba, has represented a certain social goal: propriety and respectability. For a short time, while he seems inaccessible, these things seem attractive to her; and it is these values that he tries to insist upon: the formal rightness of her keeping her "promise," her duty to reciprocate the love she has aroused in him. There is cruelty in Boldwood's romanticism, in the way he insists that she shall adhere to his idea of her (as there is cruelty in Angel's romanticism, and Knight's and Clym's); but Boldwood suffers more than he makes Bathsheba suffer, and the wildness and unhappiness of his love is conditioned by his dream and his distance from reality: "The great aids to idealization in love were present here: occasional observation of her from a distance, and the absence of social intercourse with her … the pettinesses that enter so largely into all earthy living and doing were disguised by the accident of lover and loved-one not being on visiting terms; and there was hardly awakened a thought in Boldwood that sorry household realities appertained to her …" But Boldwood remains just as blind to realities when he gets to know her. After the disappearance of Troy, he again nourishes his love, but "almost shunned the contemplation of it in earnest, lest facts should reveal the wildness of the dream" It is a "fond madness": and the anticlimax is the discovery (while Boldwood is in prison, awaiting trial) of all the jewellery and clothing labelled "Bathsheba Boldwood," bought for a woman who had never promised to marry him.
Hardy is disparaging romance, the dream and the dreamer. He is suggesting, instead, that one should live—not in accordance with nature—but in accordance with reality. And this point is made clearly by the three choices open to Bathsheba: Oak, Boldwood, and Troy. Boldwood, of course, ceases to attract her as soon as he forces his attentions on her: and there is a gentle irony in the fact that she sees in Troy, who has taken her away from Boldwood, something of what Boldwood has seen in her: a figure of romance, someone from another world. But it is not only Troy's glamour: it is also that "arch-dissembler" Nature that prompts Bathsheba to love Troy. She goes to meet him, hesitates, and then surrenders her heart, in the chapter called "The Hollow amid the Ferns." The scene is one of great natural beauty, of lush growth:
… tall thickets of brake fern, plump and diaphanous from recent rapid growth, and radiant in hues of clear and untainted green.
At eight o'clock this midsummer evening, whilst the bristling ball of gold in the west still swept the tips of the ferns with its long, luxuriant rays, a soft brushing-by of garments might have been heard among them, and Bathsheba appeared in their midst, their soft, feathery arms caressing her up to her shoulders. She paused, turned, went back …
But again she changes her mind, and goes on to the meeting place, a hollow where the fern "grew nearly to the bottom of the slope and then abruptly ceased. The middle within the belt of verdure was floored with a thick flossy carpet of moss and grass intermingled, so yielding that the foot was half-buried within it." Nature is softly inviting and reassuring her. She surrenders to Nature as much as to her lover,—to her own natural womanliness which, Hardy tells us, she normally had too much sense to be quite governed by. The treatment of this theme is more subtle, perhaps, and certainly more extended, in Tess; but it is effective in Far from the Madding Crowd, all the same.
Bathsheba's third possibility is Oak; whose name at least cannot be made to suggest compliance with nature, but rather sturdy resistance, hard use and endurance. The distinction Hardy draws at the beginning of the novel between the intermingling sounds of one vast integrated body of Nature over Norcombe Hill, and the "clearness" and "sequence" of the "notes of Farmer Oak's flute," runs right through the book. Gabriel Oak is not a part of Nature. He may be a countryman, but he is always a human being, fully conscious of his human responsibility, always ready to modify, to deflect, to improve, Nature's workings; always, that is, after his first setback. A "natural" sequence of events destroys his sheep; but he does not see himself as a victim of fate—as Troy would have done, or Henchard ("I am to suffer, I perceive"). He realizes he is ruined, and that, not having insured his sheep, he himself is to blame. And his second thought is that things would be even worse if Bathsheba had married him: "Thank God I am not married: what would she have done in the poverty now coming upon me?" Thereafter he intervenes in the natural sequence of events in as timely a fashion as he can. He prevents the fire from spreading to the ricks and buildings of Bathsheba's farm; he cures the poisoned sheep; he saves Bathsheba's harvest from the storm; and he tries to intervene, but unsuccessfully, before Boldwood's optimistic dreams lead to disaster, and before Bathsheba gives way to her infatuation for Troy: "… But since we don't exactly know what he is, why not behave as if he might be bad, simply for your own safety? Don't trust him, mistress …"—Gabriel's version of Hardy's own advice to take "a full look at the Worst." But Oak's attitude towards Nature is best seen in the account of the storm, because here Nature appears in her two aspects: creator and destroyer. She is prepared, but for Gabriel, to destroy the harvest she has bounteously created; and it is Gabriel's appreciation of the bounty, his sense of its meaning in terms of human life and sustenance, that makes him put forth all this strength to save the bounty from the destruction and to pit himself against the whole scheme of things, the whole trend of circumstance at that time. He fights not only against elemental nature, but against "nature's" hold on the humanity around him: Troy's insidiously easy-going ways ("'Mr Troy says it will not rain, and he cannot stop to talk to you about such fidgets'"), the only too natural sleepiness and inertia of the drunken workfolk in the barn, and his own natural fears when the threat of the lightning becomes too great. The critics who suppose that Hardy shared and advocated the philosophic resignation of some of his rustics should read again the thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh chapters of Far from the Madding Crowd: if ever a man had the excuse of surrendering, of saying "It was to be," Oak has the excuse on the night of the storm. Instead, he fights.
Yet throughout his fight, there remains a sense in which Nature's opposition is "neutral"; nothing is purposely aimed against Oak. The changes mount against him; but they are still chances. And he seeks to keep ahead of them; he gets a lightning conductor improvised. Had there been any malicious purpose, an earlier flash of lightning would have struck him down. It is a fight between a man intelligently directing his efforts and "senseless circumstance." Oak persists; and he wins. He is not quite alone; in the latter part of the night he is helped by Bathsheba. The scene is one of many in the novels that vividly suggest the need of the human pair for each other, the individual's comparative—sometimes complete—helplessness alone.
There is another side to Gabriel's feeling for Nature: he fights her successfully because he understands and can sympathetically interpret the doings not only of his sheep, but also of Nature's smaller creatures—slug, spiders, and toad. He seeks to learn from Nature; for instance, from the sprig of ivy that has grown across the door of the church tower, proving that Troy has not been in the habit of entering here modestly and unobserved (as Bathsheba too readily believes), and that Troy is, therefore, a liar. Nature is one of Gabriel's resources; but he is never controlled by her, nor, in any Wordsworthian sense, does he ever trust her. The essential thing about Gabriel is not that he is in contact with Nature, but that he is in contact with reality. He neither evades it nor resigns himself to it; he makes something out of it.
This point is effectively made by a metaphor embodied in an incident early in the book, just at the turning point of Oak's fortunes, when he has proved he can survive even the worst that life has to offer and when his luck (if such a word can be used) is at last on the mend. He is drinking cider in the Malthouse, and has just endeared himself to the Weatherbury folk by refusing the luxury of a clean cup:
"And here's a mouthful of bread and bacon that mis'ess have sent, shepherd. The cider will go down better with a bit of victuals. Don't ye chaw quite close, shepherd, for I let the bacon fall in the road outside as I was bringing it along, and may be 'tis rather gritty. There, 'tis clane dirt; and we all know what that is, as you say, and you bain't a particular man we see, shepherd."
"True, true—not at all," said the friendly Oak.
"Don't let your teeth quite meet, and you won't feel the sandiness at all. Ah! 'tis wonderful what can be done by contrivance!"
"My own mind exactly, neighbour."
The incident is a precise metaphor of what Oak has been doing in the wider sphere of his life: he has had his share of "unpalatable reality," but by contrivance he has managed to find life's grittiness not so "unpalatable" after all.
Hardy's attitudes and themes in this novel are, indeed, typical; what is not typical is the method: he is presenting his main theme—the value of pessimism as a practical policy ("…You cannot lose at it, you may gain …") through a pessimist, a central character who is successful. He is presenting it, that is, positively, instead of through the failure of a hero who is too optimistic or unrealistic. The total pattern, however, is not so different: there are unrealistic people (as we have seen) who are foils to Oak, just as in the other novels there are realists, like Farfrae, who are foils to the unsuccessful heroes. An advantage of Far from the Madding Crowd as an introduction to Hardy's novels is just that it is positive, and provides a basis for understanding the irony of most of the others.
Despite Meredith's advice that he should avoid the direct and positive method, Hardy has given us, in Gabriel Oak, as positive a model—after one or two initial overconfident slips—as Egbert Mayne. I see this as not without significance: Hardy wished, without doubt, to clarify the values for his readers. The fire in Desperate Remedies that seems to proceed haltingly, and to wait every now and then—but quite in vain—for some intelligent intervention, becomes the fire Oak sees at Weatherbury: it has already reached the stage of accelerated climax; but, even so, a man like Oak who can act promptly and courageously, is able to intervene, and to organize the firefighting, and he is just in time to prevent the spread of the flames to the farm buildings and to other ricks.
But the Weatherbury fire can serve as an illustration of Hardy's development in a more important respect. The point of the incident is not only to show how the courage and intelligence of a superior man can help the ordinary community when by itself that community is helpless; but also to show how that man gets a job. Oak has failed to get work at the hiring fair, and he is in desperate straits; but through the fire, and his ability to swallow his pride even when he discovers that the owner of the farm is Bathsheba, the woman who once rejected him, he gets the employment he needs. Hardy here embodies in action and incident what in Desperate Remedies had to be expressed in an explicit statement. What Edward Springrove reminds Cytherea, "… that the fame of Sir Christopher Wren himself depended upon the accident of a fire in Pudding Lane," is transposed from the key of the young architect to that of the countryman, and presented not in words, but in action. And there are other examples. We have already remarked that Hardy's note about the "figure" that "stands in our van with arm uplifted, to knock us back from any pleasant prospect we indulge in as probable" is paraphrased in Desperate Remedies, Hardy explaining that "a position which it was impossible to reach by any direct attempt was come to by a seeker's swerving from the path." Less than four years later, this does not have to be phrased at all. It becomes the sequence of events at the beginning of Far from the Madding Crowd: Gabriel, indulging in the "pleasant prospect" of success as a sheep-farmer, and even at one point accepting as "probable" his marriage with Bathsheba, is "knocked back." He is ruined. At Casterbridge hiring fair, subsequently, he fails to get a job as bailiff or even as shepherd. But then, "swerving from his path," he gradually contrives to reach all his original objectives, one by one: he becomes a shepherd, a bailiff, the owner of Boldwood's farm, and eventually Bathsheba's husband.
Let us now consider such of Hardy's favourite narrative devices as may be illustrated from Far from the Madding Crowd, beginning with two of the most important: the highly-charged expressionistic incidents that have been called "grotesques," and his contrasts. These ironical contrasts may be partly accounted for by Hardy's modest wish—expressed indeed at this very period of his life—to be considered a good hand at a serial." But this is certainly not the whole truth. Hardy's belief in the eternal possibility of change was something fundamental; and some of the contrasts he suggests are far more elaborate than anything required by the suspenses and sequels of a magazine serial story. In Far from the Madding Crowd it happens that one of the most extraordinary of Hardy's "grotesques" has an important place in one of his series of ironical contrasts; we shall therefore be able to discuss them together. But first a word about the "grotesques," since they have proved to be critical stumbling blocks: Hardy risked the sleepwalking scene in Tess, and the trilobite and cliff rescue in A Pair of Blue Eyes, and other such scenes, because he saw their function as transcending their awkwardness and lack of realism. And they may fulfil their function not despite their awkwardness, but because of it. Read in their full contexts, they set chords vibrating through the whole novel. The sleepwalking scene, with its central incident of Angel carrying Tess precariously along the plank above the flooded waters of the Froom, reminds us of Tess's complete helplessness in Angel's care; and of Tess's responsibility too, since a false move on her part will be fatal; above all, the precariousness is a reminder that the happiness of both is in the balance; Angel's placing of Tess in the coffin powerfully suggests that he is killing his love for her; and, behind the mere fact of the sleepwalking, is the hint that Angel does not know where he is going. It is Tess, indeed, who finally takes control, leading Angel back to safety; this is an indication that the salvation may be in Tess's own hands. Through the very incident—if she tells Angel about it—she may help him to clarify his feelings. The cliff scene in A Pair of Blue Eyes is less complex; but this too might be taken primarily as an indication of the deep need of Elfride and Knight for each other, while subsidiary details suggest the completeness with which Elfride has renounced all thought of marrying Stephen. These are but suggestions; with the most interesting expressionistic scene in Far from the Madding Crowd I will try to give the implications a little more fully: it is the scene where the grotesque gurgoyle spouts water over Fanny's grave and undoes all that Troy's remorseful labour has accomplished.
The first irony is Troy's astonishment. He feels he has turned over a new leaf and made a virtuous show of remorse; but finds that "… Providence, far from helping him into a new course, or showing any wish that he might adopt one, actually jeered his first trembling and critical attempt in that kind …" But Hardy, in the preceding chapter, "Troy's Romanticism," had shown Troy's activities in a different light. After a long and tiring day, in which he had walked to Casterbridge and back, arranged for a headstone to be inscribed and dispatched, and finally toiled at the grave late into the night, planting flowers by the light of a lantern, Troy had taken shelter in the church porch, and fallen asleep. "Troy," Hardy remarks, "had no perception that in the futility of these romantic doings, dictated by remorseful reaction from previous indifference, there was any element of absurdity." Here, then, is another and a greater irony: in the contrast between the immense trouble that Troy takes, to prove his love for Fanny now she is dead, and his neglect of her during her lifetime. Seen in this light, the gurgoyle's mockery is but a picturesque projection, an image, of Hardy's own feelings about Troy. But even if we share Troy's view that Fate cruelly prevents him from adequately displaying his remorse, we certainly cannot suppose it was Fate that had stopped him from marrying Fanny: it was injured pride. And is not this the explanation of his present defeat? His pride is hurt; the approving pat on the back that he expects from Providence has not come. If he had been thinking, not of the hurt to himself, but simply of what could be done to repair the damage, he could have done it; and with a quarter of the effort he had spent toiling by lantern-light the night before. Hardy pushes this point home, as there is no need to remind the reader, by showing Bathsheba doing simply and easily what Troy thinks it is useless to attempt: gathering up the flowers and replanting them, cleaning up the headstone, and arranging for the pipe in the gurgoyle's mouth to be deflected. For Troy such actions are impossible: "He slowly withdrew from the grave. He did not attempt to fill up the hole, replace the flowers, or do anything at all. He simply threw up his cards, and foreswore his game for that time and always.… Shortly afterwards he had gone from the village." He has no intention of returning to Bathsheba's farm; and surely the greatest irony of all is that in his remorse for the past, he is neglecting the present. He regrets having neglected Fanny when she was alive; but, repeating the same pattern, he is neglecting the woman—in every way Fanny's superior—whom he has actually married.
Indeed, as one contemplates the situation, the ironies seem to multiply. There is the fact that Troy, of all people, should not be surprised at what the rain can do: only a few weeks before, the storm he confidently predicted would not happen, did happen, and would have ruined him and Bathsheba but for Oak's courage. Then he had blamed the rain for all the money he had lost at the Budmouth races. And this reminds us that the money he spent on Fanny's grave, like that he lost on the horses, was not even his own; it was Bathsheba's. And again the realization is forced upon us that from the rain and the gurgoyle Troy had suffered no tangible harm; his ego was hurt, his gesture spoilt: nothing else. But the world of Far from the Madding Crowd is, after all, one where more is at stake, sometimes, than the success of a gesture; and beyond the ironies of what Troy had left undone, and still leaves undone, there is the further ironic contrast between the way Troy is immediately and utterly defeated by the mere appearance of disaster and difficulty, and the way Oak has fought against what might have been a real disaster and at the real risk of his life. Many facets of Troy's character are recalled as we ponder over the incident; and in particular his weakness for display: a small point is the splendid impossibility of the lie about his modestly entering the church in such a way as to avoid being seen, and the blindness of Bathsheba in believing him.
The occasional importance of images in Hardy's narrative method is not likely to be overlooked. Discussion of these has proved easy, and sometimes uninformative. When Bathsheba first meets Troy, the gimp on her dress is caught in one of his spurs, and as Troy seeks to disentangle it, the lantern throws their shadows against the trees of the fir plantation so that "each dusky shape" becomes "distorted and mangled till it wasted to nothing." It is easy to see this as a "proleptic image," a hint of the trouble in store for them when their lives become entangled. But why "when"? Why not "if their lives become entangled"? Why should Bathsheba ignore a danger that almost everyone else in Weatherbury sees clearly? There is no need to repeat what I have already stressed: that far more striking images—such as those which predict death and disaster for Gabriel before the storm—indicate not a determined future, but undetermined possible dangers that can be averted.
But there is one image in Far from the Madding Crowd on which it is necessary to comment, since it has escaped the notice of other critics. Gabriel is investigating an unfamiliar light, and finds that it comes from a shed set into the hillside. He peers through a hole in the roof, and finds himself looking down upon a young woman whom he at first does not recognize, seeing her "in a bird's eye view, as Milton's Satan first saw Paradise." There are ways of dealing with things as awkward as this: some critics may say that Hardy does not know what he is doing; that he is writing here without inner conviction; others may ridicule Hardy's attempt to display his book knowledge. But there is only one way of reading this in good faith: to assume that Hardy meant what he said. And Hardy is not parading his own book knowledge: Paradise Lost was one of Gabriel Oak's books, we discover later; and we are following Gabriel's eyes, his impressions, his slight feeling of guilt, as he peers into the hut. There is nothing satanic about Gabriel; and indeed there is something very unsatanic about his name; all the same, he would like to intrude, and does in fact later intrude, upon this girl's life. The function of the image is, indeed, clear: it strikingly raises the question whether the intruder is always evil, or whether he can be—as Gabriel turns out to be, by and large—a good angel.
It is through this image, in fact, that we approach the social theme of the book—in so far as it has one: the strengthening of a rather backward, pleasant, easy-going rural community by two newcomers, two intruders. The Weatherbury folk are too close to nature; ignorant, lazy, rather irresponsible, and superstitious: it is significant that when Bathsheba, against her better judgement and under Liddy's persuasion, consults the "Sortes Sanctorum," a rusty patch on the page indicates how often the Bible has been used before for this purpose. In all kinds of small ways the country people show that they are not adapting themselves for survival under new conditions of life, and weaknesses are creeping in. They need someone like Bathsheba, an unconventional woman, whose parents were townsfolk, to come and take a personal interest in the farm, to sack the dishonest bailiff, and take full responsibility herself. The work-folk are capable enough, but they are useless in an emergency: they get flustered or they are tipsy; and they have none of the new skills and scientific knowledge that enable Gabriel Oak to operate upon the sheep that have poisoned themselves in the young clover. But more than this, they need Oak's new conscientiousness, his firmness, his readiness, his refusal to let personal griefs affect his actions (he is contrasted strikingly in this respect with Boldwood, whose preoccupation with grief—as we learn when Gabriel meets him the morning after the storm—has caused him to neglect his harvest). Neither Oak's new skills nor the qualities of his character were learnt from the Weatherbury community; he brings them—as Bathsheba brings her vitality and unconventionality—from outside. They are strangers in a sense that even Troy is not; Troy slips only too readily into the easy-going country morality. Gabriel and Bathsheba have all the strength of newcomers, outsiders, who revitalize the old stock.
I have mentioned the fact that Bathsheba allows herself to be influenced by the irresponsible and romantic Liddy in the Sortes Sanctorum scene and the sending of the valentine. This does not contradict my argument: it is a lapse on Bathsheba's part, and she pays dearly for it. And every detail of the episode is interesting as revealing that Bathsheba is all the time aware of the more sensible course; for instance she reverses the conditions of the toss because she thinks the book is more likely to fall open: "… Open Boldwood—shut, Teddy. No; it's more likely to fall open: Open, Teddy—shut, Boldwood." It falls shut. And Bathsheba, who knows perfectly well what she wants to do, and what she ought to do, acts instead as she is directed by chance. It is an interesting illustration of the fact that human beings who are capable enough of acting independently of chance, and more intelligently, sometimes choose to put themselves in chance's hands. The relevance of this point to incidents in the other novels (for instance, Elfride's decision that her horse shall choose her direction for her) needs no emphasis; nor need we stress the irony with which Hardy links Bathsheba's foolish and, indeed, disastrous action with the Sortes Sanctorum and tossing of a hymn book, and so, by ironic implication, with the workings of Providence.
So often is Hardy's attitude to change misunderstood, that it is perhaps worth adding that chances, in his books, are not always disastrous ones; and there is an instance in Far from the Madding Crowd of a singularly fortunate chance: Bathsheba happens to pass near Gabriel's hut and to notice that both ventilators are closed. Her chance discovery saves Gabriel's life.
"How did you find me?"
"I heard your dog howling and scratching at the door of the hut when I came to the milking (it was so lucky, Daisy's milking is almost over for the season, and I shall not come here after this week or the next). The dog saw me, and jumped over to me, and laid hold of my skirt. I came across and looked round the hut the very first thing to see if the slides were closed. My uncle has a hut like this one, and I have heard him tell his shepherd not to go to sleep without leaving a slide open …"
But there is more to it than the lucky chance of Daisy's milking not being quite over: the event is nearly a disaster; and the disaster is prevented only because the person happening to come by was—by Wessex standards—remarkably responsible, and intelligently alert to the worst contingencies.
A final point: Hardy was much interested in what one may call the psychology of the "object": the distress and sudden weakness felt by someone—often a woman—when she discovers she is being talked about, and has thus become an object in the eyes of others. Tess's "feminine loss of courage" at Emminster is caused by overhearing Angel's brothers talking about her; Sue cannot ignore the gossip she overhears about herself and Jude; Elfride is horrified to find that Knight is writing an article about her; even Ethelberta is disconcerted at overhearing some gossip about her own future; and, as we might expect, Hardy explicitly theorizes about this human weakness in Desperate Remedies. Bathsheba is vexed that Gabriel has seen her unconventional behaviour on horseback; and she is indignant at his tactlessness in letting her know. None the less, the fact that she knows he has seen her, and is critical of her conduct, makes her a little dependent on him; she finds herself sounding him as to what others are saying about her, and seeking Gabriel's good opinion. Her self-justifications and confidences are not just a narrative device: Hardy is doing more than conveying to us a few facts we should otherwise not know—Bathsheba's doings in Bath, for instance—he is showing her becoming more and more dependent upon Gabriel and Gabriel's approval. At the same time Gabriel himself is becoming more and more the controlling centre of all the activity on the two farms; and from looking to him, Bathsheba gradually finds herself looking up to him.
Romantic Westerners are sometimes a bit surprised that Bathsheba marries Oak; but between the man we meet in the opening pages, pleasant and unassuming but tactless and just a shade too confident, and the Gabriel Oak of the last chapters, there are many subtle differences; and perhaps her choice is not so surprising. In the East, feelings are reversed: surprise is sometimes felt that he could have brought himself to marry her. She had slighted him, as Japanese and Chinese readers point out, and she was not an easily controllable woman. Not many English people react in this way because, I suppose, we share Gabriel's liking for a woman who is exceptional. And also, surely, because we have learnt to understand his great merits; first, he leaves pride and pique to fools like Troy, and second, we feel he can cope even with Bathsheba: there has been nothing so far that he has failed to cope with. We have learnt to accept, as one of the greatest of qualities, Oak's adaptability; and, at the end of the book, we take Hardy's point that it is a special sort of goodness to arrange to go to California, if that seems best, and then to be able, equally easily, to cancel such plans when, at the last moment, the factors in the situation change, and he can marry Bathsheba after all.
Roy Morrell, "Far from the Madding Crowd as an Introduction to Hardy's Novels," in Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy: The Novels, edited by Dale Kramer, with the assistance of Nancy Marck, G. K. Hall, 1990, pp. 123–33.
In the following essay excerpt, Carpenter examines the features—"from the centrally tragic figure to the symbolic landscape to the rustic chorus"—that make Far from the Madding Crowd "a kind of golden mean among the major works."
Hardy's six major novels differ from the minor fiction principally in the increased creative energy and tension he brings to them. The plots are similarly complex but do not dominate the work to the enervation of character; the characters are enmeshed in situations compounded out their own weaknesses and the fell clutch of circumstance but retain their individuality and force; setting takes its proper place as symbolic and metaphoric of the lives of the characters; myth and symbol are integral to the total construction of the novel rather than being merely interesting for their own sake. In addition, the tragic themes which infuse the major novels give them a massiveness not to be found in Hardy's other fiction where he either essays the uncongenial mode of comedy or shilly-shallies between comedy and tragedy. Comedy, to be sure, does appear in the major novels (with the exception of Jude the Obscure); but it is complementary, a commentary on the principal theme rather than a rival. The major novels also have their undeniable weaknesses, usually of the same type as the lesser fiction. Yet it is clear, when one comes to any of the six great novels, that philosophical intrusions, unintegrated descriptions, stock characters, and artificialities cannot hide the work of genius. When Hardy gathers all his forces together to create a total effect, the flaws become insignificant. We know that we are encountering the work of a master who is striking the major chords on a rich and powerful instrument.
"Despite its occasional melodrama, the situations of Far From the Madding Crowd are more believable and more rooted in probabilities than those of any of the novels which preceded it. A good deal of this effect is due to the pervasive and richly developed rural setting.
I Far From the Madding Crowd
The most representative and balanced of the Wessex novels is the fourth one Hardy wrote, following A Pair of Blue Eyes. Far from the MaddingCrowd (1874) combines the typical features of the other major novels without developing any one of them to an extreme: the vividly realized setting of field and farm without the overpowering grim majesty of Egdon Heath, a capricious heroine who does not demonstrate the neurosis of Eustacia Vye or of Sue Bridehead, and the influence of Chance and Time without the dominance they have in Tess of the D'Urbervilles or The Mayor of Casterbridge. Far From the Madding Crowd is not, however, a mere museum of Hardy qualities, but a significant novel in its own right—a kind of golden mean among the major works. Its balance may account for its great popular success in its own time, a success not without disadvantages for Hardy; for, in combination with Under the Greenwood Tree, Far From the Madding Crowd created an audience inclined toward the bucolic and one which was unable to fathom or appreciate his later, grimmer work.
The plot is one quality of this novel which is demonstrably superior to the minor works, for it grows principally out of character and natural situations. Bathsheba Everdene is a beautiful and willful young woman who spurns the earnest suit of Gabriel Oak from sheer caprice. Subsequently, Oak loses his flock of sheep and becomes an itinerant farmworker, while Bathsheba inherits a large farm. (Although this is coincidental, it is thoroughly embedded in the rural scene and does not seem gratuitous.) Oak saves her grain ricks from fire and is hired as her bailiff, his own motive being to look after Bathsheba and be near her; but though he may save her property, he cannot save her heart from disaster. Once again she overlooks the worthy man to become infatuated with the rakish Sergeant Troy and eventually to elope with him, neither of them being aware that Troy's former sweetheart, Fanny Robin, is pregnant and searching for him.
Bathsheba, too, has sown the seeds of later grief in her careless encouragement of Farmer Boldwood, a man who appears too solid and staid to lose his heart but who is actually a highly emotional and sensitive person. Fanny dies in childbirth in the workhouse; and Troy, distracted with remorse, tells Bathsheba that he really loved Fanny and not Bathsheba; then he disappears, to be reported later as drowned. Bathsheba is naturally crushed by all that has happened, but the way is eventually opened for Farmer Boldwood to renew his courtship. After much hesitation, Bathsheba agrees to become Mrs. Boldwood, only to have Troy reappear, quite alive and very sadistic. But he has not reckoned with Boldwood's emotional nature, and he is shot by the distracted farmer. Finally, after much suffering of spirit and body, Bathsheba and Oak, who has remained loyally by her, are quietly married.
Despite its occasional melodrama, the situations of Far From the Madding Crowd are more believable and more rooted in probabilities than those of any of the novels which preceded it. A good deal of this effect is due to the pervasive and richly developed rural setting. From the very outset Hardy creates the essence of the countryside, with Oak moving through the accustomed round of his work as a shepherd while about him a dry, crisp December presents varied aspects of the landscape. He first sees Bathsheba atop a load of furniture arranged accordingly to the immemorial custom of peasants on moving day; he tells time by the stars, while around him on Norcombe Hill the wind touches the grass in "breezes of differing powers—one rubbing the blades heavily, another raking them piercingly, another brushing them like a soft broom." He cares for a new-born lamb and spies a cow shed where Bathsheba and her aunt are also looking after another newborn, a calf. This pastoral atmosphere is maintained throughout the novel, giving it a tone which is part not only of its charm but of its meaning.
The great thunderstorm, for example, provides an occasion to contrast the firmness and competence of Oak with the careless immorality of Troy; and, at the same time, it is a premonitory metaphor of the emotional tempest which will soon come crashing about Bathsheba. Hardy has some of his usual difficulty in "rendering," as Conrad would say, the feeling of the approaching storm; but he manages to convey the foreboding tension and the eerie stillness which are part of it. Gabriel feels sure that it will soon be on them, drenching the grain ricks; and he tries to arouse Troy and the drunken field hands to some action, without success. He feels "a hot breeze, as if breathed from the parted lips of some dragon about to swallow the globe … from the south, while directly opposite in the north rose a grim misshapen body of cloud, in the very teeth of the wind. So unnaturally did it rise that one could fancy it to be lifted by machinery from below." As Gabriel sets to work to cover the grain, Hardy says: "The night had a haggard look, like a sick thing; and there came finally an utter expiration of air from the whole heaven in the form of a slow breeze, which might have been likened to a death." And when the storm comes, it is similarly described, with its "mailed army" of lightning, as it springs like a "serpent," with "the shout of a fiend." Certainly Hardy is using such images with intent, even if intuitive intent, to create an impression of the forces of nature as malevolent and in some mystical way equivalent to the human forces which are gathering headway in the novel.
In contrast to this metaphoric use of setting we might instance one with a different import: the great barn, with its solidity and timelessness, where Gabriel and the men shear the sheep. It is "far nobler in design … than nine-tenths of our modern churches"; and with its "vast porches, lofty enough to admit a waggon laden to its highest point with corn in the sheaf," its stone arches and "striding buttresses," it has stood in this place for four centuries without any change in its purposes. "Today," says Hardy, "the large side doors were thrown open towards the sun to admit a bountiful light to the immediate spot of the shearers' operations, which was the wood threshing floor in the centre, formed of thick oak, black with age and polished by the beating of flails for many generations, till it had grown slippery and as rich in hue as the state-room floors of an Elizabethan mansion." Within this magnificent structure the rhythms of agricultural life have pulsed without change for hundreds of years, forming a bastion against the vicissitudes that overtake individual lives. Although the principal characters in the novel experience violent transformations—Fanny dies of neglect and Bathsheba suffers the pangs of bitter self-understanding; Boldwood is driven by his frustrated love from his secure position as a farmer to neurosis and murder; and Troy is agonized by futile regret and dies for his perverse egotism—the sheep washing and the sheep shearing go on. Against a background of timelessness Hardy poses human mutabilities. Thus through his setting Hardy intensifies and solidifies the themes which are conveyed by the misfortunes of his characters.
The physical setting is not the only means by which Hardy stresses the theme of Time, for the peasantry who make their appearance in this novel as a kind of rustic Greek chorus are also timeless and changeless. Their primary functions are to provide shrewd comment on the principal characters, to anticipate actions yet to occur, and to furnish comic relief; but they also are symbolic. No matter what happens to the principals, the rustics remain the same. Like the Mellstock Quire, to them things have always been the way they are and ought to stay that way.
We make our first extended acquaintance with them at Warren's Malthouse, where are gathered the ancient maltster, his sixty-five-year-old son, and his forty-year-old grandson, who speaks of his own grandchildren. The generations thus string out almost to infinity; this is, of course, standard country humor; but it also underlines the difference between the peasantry and the principals, none of whom is thus tied to his forebears. In addition to the maltster and his progeny are certain traditional types familiar in folk comedy, from Bottom and his crew in A Midsummer Night's Dream to L'il Abner. Henery Fay always insists on the middle e in his name, although it is an obvious mistake; Jan Coggan reminisces in a maudlin manner about the "lovely drunks" he and his companions have had; and Joseph Poorgrass is the archetypal timid soul who once answered an owl's "who-whoo" with "Joseph Poorgrass of Weatherbury, sir." Gabriel Oak, the sturdy and reliable yeoman of the principals, fits in well with this group since he alone among the main characters shares in the peasantry's perdurability. He agrees with the maltster that there's no harm in "clane dirt" and cheerfully eats the bacon which has been dropped in the road, following the old man's advice not to let his teeth quite meet.
Such a scene is mainly for comic relief—and is in fact the most effective kind of comedy in Hardy's work—besides helping to show the type of man Oak is. Beyond this, the rustics also serve the useful office of expositors, informing us about Bathsheba Everdene and her background. We learn that her father was "far from a common man" because he went bankrupt "for heaps of money, hundreds in gold and silver"; what sort of young lady Bathsheba is; and the troubles she has had with Bailiff Pennyways—this information in an early scene being a fair sample of what they provide in their quirky, penetrating countryman's way throughout the novel. They also add much by becoming involved in the action; unlike the chorus figures of the classical drama, they carry news, aid in the search for Bathsheba when she elopes, and transport Fanny's body. They form the substratum of the novel against which the fluctuating lives of the main characters are counterpointed, and without them Far From the Madding Crowd would be an almost meaningless title.
This group of peasants was one of Hardy's outstanding discoveries, one which he was to use to good effect in several future novels, and one which is a considerable advance in sophistication over the peasantry of Under the Greenwood Tree. His other important discovery was the character of Bathsheba Everdene, a logical development from Cytherea Graye who cannot make up her mind about the men she loves, the innocently vain village temptress seen in Fancy Day, and the emotionally motivated and irresponsible Elfride Swancourt. But Bathsheba is a more complex and a stronger character than any of her predecessors, having in addition some of Ethelberta's ambition and strength, and Eustacia's sexuality—a quality notably absent in the earlier heroines. Oak is her first suitor, the prototypal staunch and stable character to be seen in many other Hardy books—John Loveday and Giles Winterborne being the two outstanding examples. Only one thing can shake Oak—neither fire, storm, nor financial disaster—only the fair Bathsheba. In her hands he becomes easily disturbed and emotionally unsure, though never to the point where he loses his essential strength of character. When she first refuses to marry him for the totally feminine reason that he has agreed with her when she says she thinks it would not be practical, he meekly accepts her rejection. But he continues to put himself into her hands, and becomes her employee when she asks him for help in managing her farm. He sticks by her through the disaster of her marriage to Troy, until, following Troy's death, he receives the appropriate reward of long-suffering heroes and becomes her husband.
The root of many of Bathsheba's ills is her vanity, which could not allow her to accept the honesty of Gabriel and which throws her instead into the path of the raffish Troy. But she has sowed a more sinister seed of vanity with her treatment of Farmer Boldwood, the third man in her life. Piqued at his inattention to her, she indulges in the prank of sending him a valentine, little dreaming that the stable appearance of the middle-aged man is only a balance of great extremes, "enormous antagonistic forces—positives and negatives in fine adjustment," which once disturbed, bring him "into extremity at once." As a result of her heedless trick and subsequent unreflecting encouragement, Boldwood becomes hopelessly infatuated; but Bathsheba does not find it possible to love him; instead she allows herself the dubious satisfaction of the glamorous Sergeant Troy's flattery. She reaps the reward of this vanity when Troy shows his true self after their marriage: he squanders her inherited fortune, debauches her farmhands, and finally admits that he never loved her. She comes face to face with the truth when she sees Troy's remorse at the death of Fanny Robin and her bastard child; Troy's subsequent disappearance and reported death only seem to remedy the situation, for her engagement to Boldwood is shattered when Troy reappears to claim her as his lawful wife. Boldwood, finally driven to distraction by this final blow to his hopes, snatches a gun from the wall and shoots Troy, then tries unsuccessfully to commit suicide. Bathsheba's willfulness has reaped its ultimate reward in the death of one man and spiritual destruction of another. Eternal Eve has found the fruit of this tree bitter indeed.
Although Hardy allows us the questionable sop to our feelings of a marriage with Oak as a dénouement, the novel does not really end "happily." The vibrant and proud girl we see at the beginning has been as thoroughly destroyed as Troy and Boldwood. Never again, we are sure, will she burst forth in a fine blaze of fury, her black eyes snapping and her cheek flushed; nor will she blush as furiously with love or at her temerity. In subduing her to a mature and knowledgeable adult, Hardy has subdued our enjoyment of her as a character.
What is at work in this process is an implicit moral judgment, which becomes in later novels a metaphysical judgment as well: rebels against either the common sense of society or the inscrutable nature of the universe have their choice only of destruction or reform, and it is not always easy to decide which is preferable. Beyond this moral judgment, however, is another aspect to Hardy's analysis, one of which he may not have been entirely aware. Bathsheba, like other proud women, desires to be dominated by a sexually aggressive man; and, until that desire has been chastened, she cannot make a wife for Oak, who is essentially a passive lover, no matter how strong and good he is otherwise. On the discursive level Hardy informs us that it is Troy's ability as a flatterer and dissembler that enables him to capture Bathsheba; but on a deeper symbolic level Hardy brings out other characteristics of their interrelationship, in scenes which, in the words of Frederick Karl, "fulfill Hardy's genius, although they may well seem peripheral or incidental to the unsympathetic reader." Through such scenes Hardy manages to probe far beneath the realistic surface both of characters and events.
One of these is the scene in which Bathsheba first encounters Troy, as she is walking at night through a dense grove of firs on her farm. In the thick darkness she is unable to identify the figure who passes her on the path, but suddenly she feels herself caught somehow by her skirt. The stranger turns out to be a soldier whose spur has caught in her dress. He is revealed to her when he opens the shade of her dark lantern. She sees him, "brilliant in brass and scarlet," his appearance being "to the darkness what the sound of a trumpet is to silence." Hardy by this means objectifies Bathsheba's inclination toward the flamboyant. (She herself is dressed in scarlet in the first scene of the book where Oak gazes at her as she appreciatively smiles at herself in a mirror while seated atop the furniture on the wagon; scarlet is a symbolic motif of pride, passion, and death in the novel). Troy finds it difficult to disentangle his spur from the skirt, the rowel having "so wound itself among the gimp cord in those few moments, that separation was likely to be a matter of time." As both of them stoop over the bond that connects them, the rays from the dark lantern on the ground send "over half the plantation gigantic shadows of both man and woman, each dusky shape becoming distorted and mangled upon the tree-trunks until it wasted to nothing."
Obvious symbolism, of course. Hardy is making a Gothic device out of the shadows to forewarn us of what will happen to Troy and Bathsheba. At the same time, but less obviously, the spur—like the sword a traditional symbol of cruel male potency—is entangled inextricably with the soft tissues of the dress, which, as Hardy is fond of pointing out (accurately or not), is to a woman not merely a piece of clothing but an extension of her personality. Hardy is saying symbolically that Bathsheba will be connected with Troy through sex rather than through the romance or respect she could expect from her other lovers, and that she is to be dominated, phallically as D. H. Lawrence would say, by an aggressive male.
This symbolism is even more evident in a later scene, which has been dismissed as merely sensational, but which yields significant meanings when interpreted psychologically. In this episode Troy demonstrates to Bathsheba, in a lush hollow amid the ferns, his preternatural skill with the broadsword, using her as his mock victim. The setting is described with a wealth of feminine imagery that sets an erotic tone for the entire scene, while Bathsheba herself is passionately excited, "literally trembling and panting at this her temerity." The sword itself, even more patently phallic than the spur, gleams "a sort of greeting, like a living thing," while Troy demonstrates the "murderous and bloodthirsty" cuts of which it is capable. Bathsheba obeys Troy's request to stand still without flinching, while he flashes the sword around her in "beams of light … above, around, in front of her," enclosing her "in a firmament of light, and of sharp hisses, resembling a sky-full of meteors close at hand." As his final demonstration, Troy spits a caterpillar which has fallen from the ferns upon the bosom of her dress: "She saw the point glisten towards her bosom, and seemingly enter it," but of course she is unharmed.
Part of the meaning of this bizarre scene is in its characterization—of Bathsheba as a bold girl anxious for thrills and excitement, and of Troy as a devil-may-care adventurer with some Mephistophelian overtones in his scarlet trappings and preternatural mastery of the sword. But, more than this, the scene represents seduction. Bathsheba knows for the first time, through this surrogate experience, the sense of the dominant male force that she really desires beneath her cloak of Victorian respectability. This is the clue to her perverse toying with men who are much better than Troy, and her refusal to take the advice of those who know him well. Hardy says that Bathsheba's goddess was Diana, the chaste huntress; but a curious commentary is that, as Frazer tells us, the King of the Wood, who prowled about the sacred grove of Nemi with a drawn sword, was a priest of Diana as a nature goddess, and that in one of his avatars was united with a priestess representing the goddess. Bathsheba wants at once to queen it over a man and to be dominated by him, a paradox which lies at the heart of Hardy's capricious heroines, as indeed it may lie at the heart of most women.
Bathsheba's problems do not arise alone from ambivalent desire; for, as with other protagonists, she is subjected to the influence of Chance and Time, which destroy the stable patterns of rural life and make breaches for character to exploit. Far From the Madding Crowd is not so dominated by these forces as is, say, Tess of the D'Urbervilles; nevertheless without them it could not take the course it does. Chance has its place in the prank of sending the valentine to Boldwood, because Bathsheba uses the ancient device of divination by Bible-and-key to decide what to do; chance acts in Fanny's mistaking the church where she is to marry Troy so that the wedding does not occur; it is operative in the encounter with Fanny on the road to the workhouse and in Bathsheba's seeing Fanny's hair in the back of Troy's watch; in the rain which washes away the flowers Troy has planted on Fanny's grave; in the current which sweeps Troy out to sea while swimming so that he is reported dead. While these are not the kinds of bizarre coincidences by which Hardy reminds us of the inscrutabilities of existence, they are yet frequent and crucial enough to make us feel that something malign lies at the root of things, ready to provide opportunities whereby weaknesses in character can bring about tragedy.
Inexorable Time does not function in cooperation with character in the novel so much as it is simply evident as a contrast to the mutability of human life. The shearing barn and the rustics, as we have mentioned, are permanent, or give an impression of permanence against which individuals are seen in their tragic finitude. Similarly, Hardy describes in such a way as to stress this finitude some features of the landscape, Norcombe Hill, for example, and such objects as the leering automation that marks the time while Troy awaits Fanny at the church, or the grinning gargoyle which has seemingly waited for four hundred years to pour a relentless torrent of rainwater on the flowers of Fanny's grave. Such images point up the fact that man struggles not only against himself but against the simple fact of change. If he could remain stable, if things were not subject to the hand of Time, then all would be well; but of course he cannot, especially if he has desire and intellect which inevitably lead to instability.
Far From the Madding Crowd is, then, Hardy's first undeniably assured venture into the realm where he was to have his greatest success. In it he developed some of his most characteristic and effective modes, from the centrally tragic figure to the symbolic landscape to the rustic chorus. In it, especially, we see in clear form for the first time the mythic and psychological patterns which he was to employ so effectively as he went on. In later novels he enriched and further developed each of these modes.…
Richard Carpenter, "Fiction: The Major Chord," in Thomas Hardy, Twayne Publishers, 1964, pp. 80–91.
Carpenter, Richard, "Thomas Hardy Revisited," in Thomas Hardy, Twayne's English Author Series, No. 13, Twayne Publishers, 1964, pp. 15–16.
Casagrande, Peter J., "A New View of Bathsheba Everdene," in Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Thomas Hardy, edited by Dale Kramer, Barnes & Noble Books, 1979, pp. 51–53.
Kramer, Dale, "Thomas Hardy, Then to Now," in Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy: The Novels, edited by Dale Kramer, G. K. Hall, 1990, pp. 2–3.
Lock, Charles, "Hardy and the Nature of Fiction" in Thomas Hardy, St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 84–138.
This chapter of Lock's study of Hardy focuses on Hardy's artistic theory, drawn from his fiction and other writings.
Ray, Martin, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy: Allusions and Annotations, Thomas Hardy Association, 2003, CD-ROM.
Hardy's works in general, and this novel in particular, are packed with references to folk songs and other writers. This work catalogs the exact sources for references to Shelley, Wordsworth, Milton, Tennyson, Swinburne, Byron, and Keats, along with Shakespeare and the Bible.
Stewart, J. I. M., Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography, Longman, 1971.
Stewart gives detailed background information for each of the major novels.
Zabel, Morton Dauwen, "Hardy in Defense of His Art: The Aesthetic of Incongruity," in Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Albert J. Guerard, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 24–45; originally published in Craft and Character in Modern Fiction, Viking Press, 1957.
This essay is thorough in its references to Hardy's writings about art and the critics who doubted him.