We meet Gabriel Oak first,the kind of quiet heroic character who might not hold the spotlight but will always be the core of the story. He doesn't demand respect but earns it, and is recognized as a leader by his peers without seeking leadership. A poor shepherd who was attempting to establish his position as an independent farmer but lost his growing capital when his sheep herd was killed, he is left early in the book with just enough money to pay off his creditors and the clothes on his back.
Next we meet Bathsheba Everdene, a strong beautiful woman who catches Oak's eye while tending cattle on her aunt's farm. She rejects his approach because she is of a slightly higher class in the rigidly stratified world of Wessex, a class difference that is exacerbated when she inherits her own farm in a neighboring community and is reunited with the homeless and jobless Oak. In my review of Hardy's previous book A Pair of Blue Eyes I said that Hardy did not seem to like or respect women, but here is a female character that even with her flaws (and they will prove fateful and nearly fatal) is appealing and worthy of respect. Even when she makes mistakes that make you cringe, you still want things to work out for her in the end.
Around this central pair Hardy builds his tale on a small but richly detailed canvas of time and space. Characters make decisions right or wrong and deal with the consequences large and small. He neither punishes his characters for their flaws nor allows them to excuse or disguise them. Just like real life, everyday events make up the most of life but can also have life-changing consequences. Pay attention to Hardy's chapter headings, which offer clues to these juxtapositions of the simple and the significant.
Through it all to the very end, the faithful Oak and the forceful but sometimes faltering Bathsheba find their paths always crossing and sometimes star crossed. Says Hardy, "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." This is the romance and adventure that arises from real life and real people and makes Madding Crowd a classic.
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