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 of a patient and generous devotion with unscrupulous love and with violent passion.” Like some of his other works, Far From the Madding Crowd challenged the sexual and religious conventions of Victorian England. Hardy was condemned as a shocking author in his time, but today he seems almost quaint and is considered a lyrical pastoralist.
Some of the pastoral scenes in Far From the Madding Crowd include milking, beekeeping, harvesting, and the care and tending of sheep including bathing and shearing. In one great veterinary scene, Bathsheba’s sheep get into clover and suffer bloat. Only Gabriel knows how to relieve the bloat and save the sheep by trocharizing their rumens.
Some of the best scenes are those of nature. Hardy’s palpable descriptions of the weather are among my favorite memories of this novel. There is a nice contrast between fire and water. At the beginning of his employment with Bathsheba, Gabriel saves the farm from fire and later he protects the harvest from rain. The clues Mother Nature provides of the impending storm include (Chapter 36) a large wayward toad, a garden slug who comes indoors, and two large black spiders who drop from the ceiling but especially the sheep who “were all grouped in such a way that their tails, without a single exception, were towards that half of the horizon from which the storm threatened.”
Finally, Hardy’s description of the evolution of the love between Gabriel and Bathsheba is an example both of how hard it can be for a contemporary reader to follow something written over 100 years ago as well as a wonderfully accurate description of how love best develops from friendship and understanding rather than merely from simple physical attraction: “Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good fellowship – camaraderie – usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death – that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.”
What did you think of this review?