#48. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
#47 on the BBC Top 100 Books List of 2012
Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) is Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel and his first major literary success. It originally appeared anonymously as a monthly serial in Cornhill Magazine, where it gained a wide readership. Critical notices were plentiful and mostly positive. Hardy revised the text extensively for the 1895 edition, and made further changes for the 1901 edition.
Far from the Madding Crowd offers in ample measure the details of English rural life that Hardy so relished. Hardy took the title from Thomas Gray’s poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751):
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
“Madding” means “frenzied” here. The title may be ironic: the five main characters – Bathsheba, Troy, Boldwood, Oak, and Fanny Robin – are all passionate beings who find the “vale of life” neither quiet nor cool.
Hardy’s growing taste for tragedy is also evident in the novel: Fanny, Troy, and Boldwood all come to bad ends. Certain incidents, such as Fanny’s pregnancy with an illegitimate child and Boldwood’s sudden lapse into murderous violence, foreshadow events in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where (as in Jude the Obscure) the protagonist is plagued by relentless misfortunes, and dies young at the end. In Madding Crowd, however, the fates still favor the lead character, who escapes two unfortunate entanglements, survives the mistakes of her youth, and finally finds contentment.
The book might also be described as an early piece of feminist literature, since it features an independent woman with the courage to defy convention by running a farm herself. Although Bathsheba’s passionate nature leads her into serious errors of judgment, Hardy endows her with sufficient resilience, intelligence, and good luck to overcome her youthful folly.
Finally, in Far from the Madding Crowd Hardy explores the proper basis for a happy marriage. Bathsheba’s physical attraction to the broadsword-wielding Troy leads to a disastrous marriage that might have ended in financial ruin. A marriage to the strait-laced Boldwood, to whom she is bound only by feelings of guilt and obligation, would have meant emotional suffocation. Gabriel Oak is her colleague, friend, and advocate. He offers her true comradeship and sound farming skills; and, although she initially spurns him, telling him she doesn’t love him, he turns out to be the right man to make her happy.
We watched the 1998 adaption of the novel, and while overall it was a good representation for the most part, I felt that it made me a bit exasperated with Bethsheba, making her seem a little bit less than she was.