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One of the Great Novels of the English Tradition,
This review is from: Far from the Madding Crowd (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Hardy's title is taken from Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", and may have been meant ironically. Gray was comparing the quiet life of country dwellers with the frenzied crowds of the city:-
"Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray",
yet Hardy is writing of rural characters whose wishes are often far from sober and to whom strife is by no means unknown.
This was Hardy's fourth novel and his first major success. It was also the first in which he used the name "Wessex", previously only used by historians in connection with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of that name, as a description of contemporary south-west England. Most of the action takes place in the village of Weatherbury in the county of South Wessex (for which read Puddletown, Dorset- Hardy's novels are generally set in real towns and villages disguised under fictitious names).
The plot centres upon a device which Hardy used in a number of his novels; two or more men in love with the same woman. (This theme also occurs, for example, in "A Pair of Blue Eyes", "Two on a Tower" and "Tess of the D'Urbervilles"). The heroine, Bathsheba Everdene, has inherited a farm from her uncle, which makes her independently wealthy and therefore a very desirable "catch". Bathsheba is a high-spirited young woman, proud of both her financial independence and her good looks, determined to farm her land herself without relying upon a bailiff, even though her inexperience and impulsiveness make this at times a difficult task.
Bathsheba's three suitors are given sharply contrasting characters. Sergeant Francis Troy is a handsome young soldier in the Dragoon Guards. He has plenty of charm, but is shallow, superficial and as impulsive as Bathsheba herself. His surname is taken from a Dorset village named Troy Town, but also has a symbolic significance in that it evokes the Trojan War which was set in motion by the reckless young seducer Paris. Bathsheba's own name recalls another unhappy love story, that of David and Bathsheba in the Old Testament.
Gabriel Oak is Troy's polar opposite. He works as a shepherd on Bathsheba's farm, but was an independent sheep-farmer before he was ruined financially by a tragic accident. His name also has an obvious symbolic meaning; his surname suggests solidity whereas his Christian name implies that he is a "guardian angel" to Bathsheba whom he loves from a distance. (He saves her from ruin on two occasions). He is steady and patient where Troy is dashing and reckless, and faithful in love where the sergeant is fickle.
The third suitor, William Boldwood, is another farmer. He is good-looking, wealthy and respectable, widely regarded as the most eligible man in the district, but Bathsheba rejects his proposal as she is determined to marry only for love, not for any material advantages the marriage might bring her. In some ways Boldwood and Oak are alike; both continue to love Bathsheba after an initial rejection, and they have more in common with each other than either has with Troy. Boldwood, however, can be seen as representing the "dark side" of Oak, as his disappointed love for the young woman turns into an obsessive jealousy verging on insanity. It is this obsession, combined with Troy's faithlessness, which leads to tragedy.
As one might expect in a novel with a rural setting and in which three of the main characters are farmers, agriculture plays a major part in the plot. Besides the main characters, there are also a crowd of rustic labourers with names like Joseph Poorgrass or Laban Tall, often used to provide comic relief or to comment on the main action. As always with Hardy, there are vivid passages describing the Dorset countryside in its many aspects. Yet this is not mere "beautiful writing" for its own sake. The story unfolds to the rhythm of the changing seasons- not just the seasons in the sense of spring, summer autumn and winter, but the seasons as the countryman would understand them- seedtime and harvest, haymaking, lambing and sheep-shearing, the hiring-fair in February and the grand agricultural fair in August.
At times the landscape seems to enter into the story as a character in its own right, as Hardy uses his descriptions of its changing moods for symbolic purposes, to reflect the changing fortunes of his characters. (He does something similar in many of his other novels, such as "Tess"). Two scenes in particular stand out. The first comes in the chapter "The Hollow amid the Ferns", when Troy seduces Bathsheba after a dazzling display of swordsmanship. (Given the strict codes of Victorian literary propriety, Hardy could not actually describe their physical lovemaking, but the swordplay itself is used to suggest it). This scene takes place outdoors, on a fine evening in early summer, and Hardy's descriptions of the burgeoning vegetation are used to symbolise the young couple's growing feelings of love and sexual desire. The second comes only two months later when Oak and Bathsheba are desperately trying to cover the corn-ricks ahead of a threatening storm. This passage contains some magnificent descriptive writing, used to convey not only the approach of the physical storm but also to suggest that there may be metaphorical storms ahead, threatening to destroy the happiness of Bathsheba and Troy who have recently married.
The novel was written in 1874, but it is clear that the events described take place some years before that date, possibly around 1850 or 1860. Whereas in "Tess", written in the 1890s, Hardy was describing a countryside in the throes of rapid social change and economic depression, the countryside of "Far from the Madding Crowd" is a more tranquil, timeless place. Although some of the protagonists meet with tragedy, the story has a more optimistic ending than many of Hardy's other novels. Whereas later novels such as "Tess" or "The Mayor of Casterbridge" can be seen as tragedies, his equivalent of "Macbeth" or "Hamlet", "Far from the Madding Crowd" is closer in spirit to Shakespeare's late comedies. I was particularly reminded of "The Winter's Tale", another story of passion and drama against a rustic setting which ends serenely. This is undoubtedly one of the great novels of the English tradition.