Take your independence and use it wisely.
Publisher: Various (I read the Penguin Classics movie tie-in edition)
First Published: 1874
Date Reviewed: 10th May 2016
When Gabriel Oak falls for his new neighbour, the pretty, vain, Bathsheba Everdene, he wonders if he might stand a chance. But what he doesn’t know is that Bathsheba is also incredibly strong-willed and independent – she’s not up for marrying. One Valentine’s Day, however, she gets ahead of herself and sends a proposal to Farmer Boldwood, whom she’s not met – she’s incredulous the man hasn’t paid her any attention. Boldwood takes it seriously and pleads his case. There will be a third, too, a soldier. With three men revolving around her choices, Bathsheba’s in a precarious position.
Far From The Madding Crowd is a lengthy book for its amount of plot, that is generally average but sports a stunning latter section. It’s both a product of its time and advanced for it, lending much to discuss. In Bathsheba, Hardy has created a very independent Victorian woman. Whilst she’s hardly the only one we have from the period, the way Hardy goes about presenting her is fairly different; Hardy admires her. And he’s fair to her character, showing where she makes poor choices that hamper her and bring upset to others whilst not suggesting that it’s bad she has the ability to make such a choice.
Bathsheba goes where she wants, when she wants, and in the manner she chooses. Hardy sets up his unconventional character early on – one day, once Bathsheba knows she can no longer be seen from the house, she lays back on the horse she had been riding in the manly fashion, and continues her journey. This, in fact, she does for two reasons – the first so Hardy can show the reader her personality and the second so that Gabriel can spy her personality as his knowledge of her will be required later on.
Bathsheba’s selfishness is frivolous rather than malicious. She just doesn’t think far enough ahead, choosing to do things in the moment. This is best shown in the aforementioned Valentine – her servant says Boldwood was the only man who didn’t look at her, Bathsheba, and Bathsheba is so used to being looked at and admired, that she sends a proposal. Boldwood takes it to extreme levels, and Hardy shows how she utterly failed to think about how Boldwood would feel having received such a proposition.
So Hardy looks at gender and suggests there shouldn’t be such a divide. He has Bathsheba receiving proposals as could be expected of a woman of beauty and money in the period, and he has his male characters making stereotypical comments, but that’s the feeling of it – that he’s doing that for his plot and to maybe appease his readers. There are lessons his characters must learn; it’s a slow progression that starts from the first chapter. It’s in this way that the book still has so much relevance – think before you act, don’t dismiss out-of-hand things you think are silly.
When Bathsheba does choose to marry she throws herself into it, suddenly reversing all her talk of wanting to marry without having a husband, and acting on impulse and instant attraction. She never did have a level head, but the reader can smell problems a mile away, it’s just a question of how bad things will get. Of course Bathsheba would say they won’t be bad, don’t say such a thing, but if love is blind and everyone else can see the problems in their friend’s ‘perfect’ boyfriend, similar is true here in fiction.
The problem with Far From The Madding Crowd is unfortunately down to its era – there’s a lot of filler content. The plot is deathly slow for over half the book, there’s a lot of irrelevant conversation held over alcohol by farmhands who talk in accents that are hard to decipher (it’s a lot like Wuthering Heights in this way), and Hardy absolutely adores description. He adores it so much he spends pages upon pages discussing the night sky, spends a whole chapter on the history of a gargoyle he’s created; he loves to impart advice he places under the guise of narration, but all this does is pull you away from the story at hand. (Though the advice is interesting in itself.)
But if you can get past the sluggishness, the last third is top-notch. The pace is swift, the plotting superb, the action never lets up, and whilst everything that happens here at once wouldn’t happen in real life, it’s a treat to read. It is all rather sudden but by this point it’s something you’ll be happy with, it’s like Hardy’s woken up and remembered he wanted to surprise and shock you. He does. Whilst the themes of the book may be the reason it’s taught in schools, it’s surely this latter section of the whole that’s the reason it’s remained popular.
Far From The Madding Crowd is one bigger part average, one smaller part exceptional. It’s a 2:1 ratio that is worth taking a chance on because the conclusion does succeed in making up for all the drudgery, but it’s definitely best to do your homework before going in so you know what to expect and to have another book on the go so you can take a break when the irrelevant farm talk gets too much.
June 27, 2016, 9:06 pm
We didn’t read anything this good at school…we just got a terribly miserable short story by Hardy. So I was really pleasantly surprised when I read this as an adult. I enjoyed it and fell totally in love with Gabriel Oakes – I’d like one like him please :-P
June 28, 2016, 1:41 am
Oh Lord, I don’t think I can wade through another Hardy book even if it’s got a bunch of exceptionalness in it. We read The Mayor of Casterbridge in senior English, and I felt much the same — there were good things in it, but then so. much. filler. Put me off Hardy for life, I’m afraid!