Pastoral romance is more the stuff of poems than novels. In "Far From The Madding Crowd", the first of his celebrated Wessex novels published in 1874, Thomas Hardy devotes a full-scale narrative to the fancy of a shepherd's devotion to his love, with fitful success.
The shepherd is Gabriel Oak, abandoned by his fickle love object, Bathsheba Everdene, and then by kind Providence when he freakishly loses his flock. His search for work leads him back to Bathsheba, who takes him in to toil on her newly inherited farm but keeps him and another suitor, prosperous farmer William Boldwood, at arm's length. Bathsheba's capricious reserve melts away at the flashing slight of cocky Sargeant Troy.
"Far From The Madding Crowd" as a title fits its pastoral subject matter, the quiet farming village of Weathersbury whose nooks and steeples Hardy fleshes out with poetic grace and detail. But for Bathsheba, the madding crowd is at her front door, three suitors of varying temperament and one desperate "other woman", not to mention a welter of curious, somewhat judgmental rustics.
The problem with "Madding" is Hardy's enveloping descriptions and his flashes of Dickens-like humor doesn't compensate for sluggish plot development and somewhat unengaging characters. In this, I completely agree with Ronald Pompeo in his July 2005 review about Hardy "taking longer than necessary." Eyes flash, bosoms heave, sheep graze, over and over for over 300 pages. You could completely lose the opening part of Oak and Everdene's first meeting and pick up the story in Weathersbury six chapters in with no loss to the narrative.
But for those caught up in other Hardy novels, I would recommend "Madding Crowd". For one thing, after "Tess" and "Mayor of Casterbridge", you deserve a break. "Madding" is about as sunny and merry as Hardy got.
"Madding" is quintessential Hardy still, with people behaving badly while not being bad people in an environment not naturally disposed to their good or ill. Bathsheba is a vain flirt, but her conscience complicates matters with her most intense suitor, Boldwood. Even bounder Troy displays some redeeming qualities. "Half the pleasure of a feeling lies in being able to express it on the spur of the moment, and I let out mine," he asserts. If this was D.H. Lawrence, Troy would be our hero. Hardy instead makes him the bad guy, though not too black a character until the end, where the author's handle on Troy seems weakest.
As Oak regulates himself to the sidelines early on, Bathsheba emerges as "Madding Crowd's" chief character. She makes for an interesting center. Her independence and strength no doubt impresses feminists, while her caprice will be recognized by misogynists or anyone who has found himself the hands of a woman too wrapped up in herself to think how she inflicts pain on others. Yet I found her less blame-worthy than some other characters, particularly Boldwood, clearly in need of Freud or porn as he spirals out of control. Unrequited love hits everyone in "Madding Crowd" sooner or later. Only Oak, solid and dull as his name suggests, seems strong enough to handle his passions coolly.
"He wasn't quite good enough for me," was Bathsheba's early verdict on Oak, and he seems less interesting at the end of the story than at the beginning. But as the pastoral "man of the earth", he manages to sustain likeability and a rooting interest to the end, a dubious subject for a romance from an author not easily confused for a romantic. "Madding Crowd" is not engaging, but it is rewarding, especially if it inspires you to pick up another Hardy somewhere down the line.
Not with any other author, even the inimitable Dickens, have I ever seen the linear progression in maturity and strength of writing as in Thomas Hardy's from his debut through Madding Crowd. This is his first What a Classic rating from my reviews as I read through his bookshelf in chronological order, earned by his powerful and appealing characters and his unflinching approach to moral issues and the flaws in those characters and the Wessex world around them. … more
Far From the Madding Crowd appeared serially in 1874. Its financial success allowed Hardy to give up architecture and devote all of his energy to writing. It is the story of the headstrong Bathsheba Everdene and the men in her life – Sergeant Troy, Farmer Boldwood, and the patient devoted shepherd Gabriel Oak. According to my old (1967) “Oxford Companion to English Literature,” the main theme of Far From the Madding Crowd (and a favorite of Hardy’s) is “the contrast … more
Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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A young man falls victim to his own obsession with an amorous farm girl in this classic novel of fate and unrequited love. Published anonymously and first attributed, erroneously, to George Eliot, this Signet Classic version is set from Hardy's revised final draft-the authoritative Wessex edition of 1912.