Hardy: Far From the Madding Crowd

August 30, 2020

Far From the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy
(Modern Library, 2001) [1874]
512 p.

Although she scarcely knew the divinity’s name, Diana was the goddess whom Bathsheba instinctively adored.

Love and marriage may indeed, as the song says, go together like a horse and carriage, but even a horse and carriage might, in a storm, bolt or overturn, with disastrous consequences. So also with love and marriage, and this is the theme of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.

The story centres on Bathsheba Everdene, a young woman both beautiful and propertied, who attracts the romantic interests of three very different men: Gabriel Oake, a rough but honest farmer who has lost his fortune and works on Bathsheba’s farm; Boldwood, a bachelor twenty years Bathsheba’s senior whose dormant passions are fired when he meets her; and Troy, a dashing young soldier who moves into the neighbourhood. The story unfolds as a kind of love quadrangle, with each of the men vying for Bathsheba’s love, each having something to recommend him, rivalries springing up between them, and Bathsheba herself, as the passage cited above suggests, being not quite obviously worth the winning. It’s a very nice set-up, providing ample space for Hardy to explore the complexities of love, jealousy, desire, and all of the many factors that together compose a good husband or wife.

Hardy sets this story, as he was to do again, in the imaginary English county of Wessex. There is a certain magic in the air as we, the readers, see this district taking slow shape under his pen, knowing, perhaps better than he, the other stories that will later unfold there. (I smiled at each reference to the nearby town of Casterbridge.) He paints the landscapes of Wessex with obvious affection for the rural life, so close to nature and so far from the madding crowd.

Not that his view of nature is a benign one. Two of the most arresting passages in the book concern dramatic natural events — one a rainstorm and the other a fire — in which the immense power and destructive potential of natural forces is vividly captured. They are excellent examples of Hardy’s strengths as a writer: muscular, sober, and, in a subdued way, musical.

This before Gabriel’s eyes was a rick of straw, loosely put together, and the flames darted into it with lightning swiftness. It glowed on the windward side, rising and falling in intensity, like the coal of a cigar. Then a superincumbent bundle rolled down, with a whisking noise; flames elongated, and bent themselves about with a quiet roar, but no crackle. Banks of smoke went off horizontally at the back like passing clouds, and behind these burned hidden pyres, illuminating the semi-transparent sheet of smoke to a lustrous yellow uniformity. Individual straws in the foreground were consumed in a creeping movement of ruddy heat, as if they were knots of red worms, and above shone imaginary fiery faces, tongues hanging from lips, glaring eyes, and other impish forms, from which at intervals sparks flew in clusters like birds from a nest.

His penchant for natural descriptions spills over, too, to his descriptions of his characters, and in way that was somewhat uncomfortable for me. A man warming himself at a fire could, in principle, be described as a body absorbing heat, but it would jar. A man has, of course, a physical nature, but our vision is askew if that is all we see. Hardy has a tendency — not exclusively, of course, but often enough that I noticed it — to use this kind of objective, and objectifying, language of his characters. I am having trouble digging up a specific example. Perhaps this gives the flavour:

The peculiar motion involved in turning a wheel has a wonderful tendency to benumb the mind. It is a sort of attenuated variety of Ixion’s punishment, and contributes a dismal chapter to the history of gaols. The brain gets muddled, the head grows heavy, and the body’s centre of gravity seems to settle by degrees in a leaden lump somewhere between the eyebrows and the crown.

This isn’t a great example, admittedly, but that use of “centre of gravity”, a technical term from physics, to describe a drooping head has the kind of effect I’m getting at. This may be Hardy’s way of seeing the world, but it gives his writing a slightly caustic edge that I found in tension with the humanism that fundamentally animates his story.

This objectifying tendency is artistically successful in another sense, though, because it stokes the fatalism that permeates the novel. Hardy often forecasts what is going to happen; we, his readers, then watch it unfold, sure of where it is going but unable to stop it. Here, for instance, is a key passage in which Troy, Bathsheba’s young love interest, attempts to flatter her and she, susceptible to such methods, falters:

“I again say you are a most fascinating woman. There’s nothing remarkable in my saying so, is there? I’m sure the fact is evident enough. Miss Everdene, my opinion may be too forcibly let out to please you, and, for the matter of that, too insignificant to convince you, but surely it is honest, and why can’t it be excused?”

“Because it—it isn’t a correct one,” she femininely murmured.

“Oh, fie—fie! Am I any worse for breaking the third of that Terrible Ten than you for breaking the ninth?”

“Well, it doesn’t seem quite true to me that I am fascinating,” she replied evasively.

“Not so to you: then I say with all respect that, if so, it is owing to your modesty, Miss Everdene. But surely you must have been told by everybody of what everybody notices? And you should take their words for it.”

“They don’t say so exactly.”

“Oh yes, they must!”

“Well, I mean to my face, as you do,” she went on, allowing herself to be further lured into a conversation that intention had rigorously forbidden.

“But you know they think so?”

“No—that is—I certainly have heard Liddy say they do, but—” She paused.

Capitulation — that was the purport of the simple reply, guarded as it was — capitulation, unknown to herself. Never did a fragile tailless sentence convey a more perfect meaning. The careless sergeant smiled within himself, and probably too the devil smiled from a loop-hole in Tophet, for the moment was the turning-point of a career. Her tone and mien signified beyond mistake that the seed which was to lift the foundation had taken root in the chink: the remainder was a mere question of time and natural changes.

(Tophet was a place in ancient Israel where pagans sacrificed children to Moloch and Baal.)

All of these observations, taken together, suggest that Far From the Madding Crowd is a dark novel, and it is, especially in comparison to what we find in novelists like Austen or Dickens or even Thackeray. There are times when it seems to have more in common with a Shakespearean tragedy than anything else. Yet at the last it is not death or destruction that wins the day, but love — that sturdy, clear-eyed love that makes a sure foundation for marriage:

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. This good-fellowship — camaraderie — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.

**

This novel was a great pleasure to read. It was my first of Hardy’s novels, but will not be the last.

4 Responses to “Hardy: Far From the Madding Crowd”

  1. Rob G Says:

    Hardy is one novelist who’s definitely worth reading chronologically, as there is a notable progression in outlook and tone, if not in style. I’ve read all the “major” novels, several of them twice, and would advise reading them in order of publication. I liked them all except Jude the Obscure, which I pretty much hated, and would never read again. His short stories are also very good.

    The one novel of his that I think can be read out of sequence with no concerns is Under the Greenwood Tree, which is a wonderful rustic comic novel. It’s a shame that Hardy didn’t write more in this vein, as he was very good at it.

    The literary critic Donald Davidson has an essay somewhere (you might be able to find it online) in which he examines Hardy’s use of rural balladry for his plots. Davidson argues that this is why coincidence features so strongly in Hardy’s stories, and that’s it’s not the result of weak plotting as a lot of critics have argued.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I do have plans to read his “major” novels in order: this one, then “The Return of the Native”, “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, “Tess”, and “Jude the Obscure”. Right now it’s looking as though it is going to take a while, but that is the plan. I’m curious to know why you disliked “Jude” so strongly, but perhaps it’s better that I find out for myself.

    Is “Under the Greenwood Tree” a Robin Hood story? Or maybe just inspired by the same vein of rusticity.

  3. Rob G Says:

    No connection with Robin Hood as far as I know. It’s set in a “Wessex” village in the 1850’s and concerns a group of church musicians who are resisting being replaced by a newfangled organ. One of the “quire” members has fallen for the village’s new teacher, whom the vicar intends to be the organist, resulting in a lot of humorous cross-purposes.

    Don’t skip “The Woodlanders”, which comes between “Mayor” and “Tess.” It’s not as well known as the others you listed but I think it’s right up there with them. If I remember correctly Hardy considered it his favorite among the novels he’d written.


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