“Far from the Madding Crowd” is Thomas Hardy’s most satisfying novel. It is on the cusp of the earlier more innocent novels such as “Under the Greenwood Tree” and the black-hearted despair and pessimism of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure”. Consequently, the novel has more balance and depth in terms of plot and character development, and is therefore a more rewarding read.
Set over the course of one year, the book follows the trails and tribulations of Bathsheba Everdene as she pursues or is pursued by a trio of suitors, Gabriel Oak, Francis Troy and William Boldwood. The implications for her suitors are dramatic as is the impact on Fanny Robin the other major character in the novel.
The book begins with Gabriel Oak, the moral centre of the novel, visiting Bathsheba to offer his hand in marriage. Although he is solid, sensible and the definition of good hearted, these are not the things that get a young woman’s pulse racing. Gabriel makes his case in terms of practicalities while ignoring the romance that Bathsheba is so clearly looking for and she rejects his offer. Failing to win her hand he is then struck by Hardy’s favourite character, fate, his sheep farming business literally falling off a cliff sending him back down to the bottom of the pile.
For those unfamiliar with Hardy, fate is always there in the background waiting to casually and in many cases cruelly change the course of his characters lives, and “Far From the Madding Crowd” is no exception. Oak, shortly after losing his love and livelihood, finds himself back in her orbit helping to put out a fire at a farm she has inherited. And so, as they say, the plot thickens.
We then follow Bathsheba as she takes on the responsibility of running the farm, much to the surprise of the locals, who presume she will marry and hand the farm onto to a man to run it properly. As she begins to successfully take on the role of farmer she encounters William Boldwood, the neighbouring landowner who is described as a man of no passionate parts. His lack of interest in her peeks her interest in him.
Finally, Francis Troy, the dashing sergeant, meets Bathsheba late one summer’s evening. It doesn’t take a psychic to see which way her heart will take Bathsheba.
So boy meets girl, girl likes boy but isn’t stirred, she sees another boy who ignores her, she sets out to win him but then doesn’t want the prize she wins, finds another boy who makes her heart fly but will he be worth the effort, especially as he was keen on someone else?
What makes this a truly great novel is that it all feels real, there are no heroes or villains, only real people making mistakes and dealing with the consequences, trying to live their lives as best they can without hurting too many people along the way. And at the centre of all this failed love, unrequited love and passionately blind love is Bathsheba Everdene, Hardy’s greatest creation. Hardy may have had an ambivalent, almost misogynistic attitude to the women in his life, but he knew how to create believable, complex, strong female characters. Although Bathsheba is at times controlled by her emotions, she is never a victim or less than the male characters in the novel.
The book is crammed with emotionally charged set pieces, where the true impact of the choices made by the characters are revealed in all their cold horror; the pain of those not loved is stark and hard to bear. And again fate, whether in the form of a foolish valentine or confusion over the location of a church, is always there to goad or nudge one character out of the light of love and into the shade of rejection and abandonment.
Again, as with all of Hardy’s novels the plot exists within a beautifully described landscape that, through the turning of the seasons, drives the plot forward at a cracking and unyielding pace. Many of the key scenes in the book are played out at important moments in the rural calendar, in fact the novel could not exist without the landscape and the seasons. And like the seasons, the lives of the characters revolve in a cycle of missed moments and misunderstandings the consequences of which cannot be avoided.
Do you think it’s one of Hardy’s greatest works and did you enjoy it as much as I did? Let me know in the comments below.