Book review: ‘Far From the Madding Crowd,’ by Thomas Hardy
February 4, 2016
Reading classics can be a bit like listening to great pieces of music. Often accompanying the experience is a weighty realization that some universal truth has been put forth within the pages for future generations to take up and pass along to their descendants. Folkloric traditions, with the sharing of legends, songs and myths, can fulfill this same mission, which is man's way of connecting the collective human condition across the span of time.
Some authors, Shakespeare, for example, are revered for their artful ability with the written word, while others, such as Orwell, remind us of the complexities of societal dynamics and its pitfalls. Thomas Hardy, beloved author of many novels portraying the stifled passions of pastoral 19th century England, excelled at intertwining the bucolic and wild landscape of the English countryside with the vivacious minds of men and women fettered into conformity by the structure of Victorian conventionalities.
Miss Bathsheba Everdene ranks as one of Hardy's most conflicted and passionate female characters, and with the recent movie release of "Far From the Madding Crowd," now is a perfect time to revisit the book that inspired the film. Though Bathsheba is the main protagonist, one cannot ignore the significant role the rustic backdrop plays, which is really where Hardy's storytelling gifts reside. Hardy painted his settings with a poetry nearly unsurpassed, and the reader is pulled into each evocative scene, where Hardy's characters become much greater because of the tangibility and simplicity of the world in which their often-mundane lives are set.
As even the lowly hills and vales palpitate with life, so, too, do the peasants whose existences are so intertwined with their surroundings, the simple beauty of which drips from every carefully chosen word. "The sky was clear — remarkably clear — and the twinkling of all the stars seemed to be but throbs of one body, timed by a common pulse. To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight … the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement."
Bathsheba comes into some money and finds herself in the unique role as a landholding woman who suddenly finds she has a say in her own affairs. Thus begins her complex journey during which she discovers her own fledgling wings unfurling as she takes flight in an era where men have always ruled.
Though there are plenty of moments filled with humor and thrills, "Far From the Madding Crowd" is, for the most part, a slow burn, the kind of story to be savored with a cup of tea at your side and a cat on your knee. Hardy reveals his characters gradually, almost reluctantly, pulling them closer to an encounter with one another, the inevitability of which is rooted in a simple belief in God's will.
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As in his other novels, there arises a profound moral dilemma for the main character, and Bathsheba's decisions send a ripple out through the tightly connected farming community of Weatherbury, in Wessex, a common backdrop of Hardy's stories. Because the young mistress is confident and outspoken, an anomaly for the era, the traditional Victorian sensibilities of her neighbors are tested, especially as the suitors begin to accumulate at her feet.
The three men who vie for Bathsheba's affections are diverse in nature and character, from the sensible and genuine sheepherder Gabriel Oak and the taciturn and dour Boldwood to the seductive and manipulative soldier, Francis Troy. It is the intertwining of these contrasting suitors that could rival any Greek tragedy, and it quickly becomes clear that Bathsheba opts for lust over love. The rich tapestry begins to unravel as her choice sets into motion a procession of events that challenge the moral backbone of each of the men within her orbit.
Bathsheba's own ethical fiber is in doubt, as Hardy presents her to the reader as a woman who is not free of moral failings; she is vain and shallow, capable of acting heartlessly, and she finds sport in toying with the hearts of men.
As her actions pull her into a world where the consequences accumulate into a toxic stew around her, the similarities of Hardy's writing to that of Charles Dickens becomes apparent. Throughout the book, there is an unmistakable moral arc, as the everyday decisions the individuals make radiate out to impact others. Just as Dickens made prominent the juncture where the rural beauty of England bumped up jarringly against the creeping and destructively greedy aspects of the Industrial Age, Hardy evokes the tensions of the changing world to stress the value in holding on to the rural landscape and the pure heart of man that resides most closely to nature.
"Day was just dawning, and beside its cool air and colors, her heated actions and resolves of the night stood out in lurid contrast." Bathsheba's three suitors fall along a spectrum of principles, and how she chooses decides the trajectory of her life, and being the spirited woman that she is, she lets her lustfulness rule.
"Far From the Madding Crowd" is a reminder that passion and beauty can reside in unexpected and ordinary places, even in the lowliest hearts of men. But, ultimately, nature will not fail, even in the presence of flawed beings such as Bathsheba Everdeen.
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