“Far from the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy

July 28, 2015 at 12:22 am 3 comments

far-from-the-madding-crowdI’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading Far from the Madding Crowd. It’s the story of a young woman named Bathsheba Everdene who takes over her uncle’s farm when he dies. After a terrifying fire and a horrible theft, she dismisses her farm manager and takes it on herself — even though she apparently knows very little about farm management. In the midst of all of this, she attracts the attention of three men: one a wealthy farmer, one a dashing soldier, and one a financially failed sheep farmer whose fortune was lost as a result of the capriciousness of a sheepdog.

Bathsheba is amazing. First, she has no interest in marrying, and says that right up front to a suitor’s face. She has very strong opinions and is not afraid to state them, and she handles the running of her farm with aplomb, promising her workers that she will beat them into the fields as well as outlast them — a promise she fulfills. There is one moment near the middle of the book where she and only one other worker frantically try to cover all of the barley and wheat of the year’s harvest to save it from rain, while all of the other men on the farm are asleep, dead drunk from celebrating.

Bathsheba is also almost perfectly, but realistically, flawed. She sends a valentine on a whim to a man who has been ignoring her, inadvertently causing his obsession with her — the sort of thoughtless gesture I am sure we are all guilty of making at some point. But because she initiated contact, she’s wracked with guilt and a feeling of obligation, and I think we’ve all felt guilty about something we thoughtlessly did that blew up.

Similarly, she falls for a really dashing young man. The kind of guy Lydia Bennett ran away from home for. The kind of guy who, if he were living in the modern day, all of our heroine’s friends would warn her about while admitting that he is probably the most attractive person they know in real life. And you can see why she falls for him — this is a truly delicious bad boy with a mysterious past who woos her and seduces her and is ultimately so wrapped up in the romance of his own life that he spins into a self-destructive vortex. It is amazing and wonderful, melodramatic in the way that only Victorian novelists can be.

And all of the characters are this captivating. Well, mostly. There is sort of a strange cast of characters collectively referred to as “the yokels” by critics, and who serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the novel. I had the sense that these characters were much funnier in the 1870s — the colloquialisms somewhat suffer from the intervening years, and I had a hard time understanding what they were saying, let alone why what they were doing was funny.

But that’s hardly cause to dismiss this work. In fact, it might be another reason to study it in the context of its time. The introduction of my edition points out that Hardy imbues the work with whiffs of fairy tale — the three suitors, the trials of the farm — while still managing to be both romantic and realist at the same time. It’s a delicate balance, and this novel is worth reading simply for the pleasure of watching Hardy pull it off.

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