“Well, what I mean is that I shouldn't mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband.”
I've come to love and respect Thomas Hardy. There is something so wonderful about his writing that it just draws me in from the first page. Far From the Madding Crowd is no exception. Hardy managed to build yet another story that drew me in and forced me to keep reading into the late hours of the night.
Bathsheba Everdene is a young woman with strong ideas and a sense of purpose about her life (and really, her name is all kinds of awesome). When the story begins, Bathsheba meets the farmer Gabriel Oak. Oak falls in love with her almost immediately and while he lives a humble life, he makes Bathsheba an offer of marriage. After turning him down, she leaves town and Oak suffers from a series of misfortunes (and while I know I shouldn't have, I had to chuckle at the scene with the sheep).
Oak determines to leave in search of work, since he has failed as a farmer on his own land. He journeys to Casterbridge and then to neighboring Weatherbury. It is while on his trip to Weatherbury that he sees a huge fire and pitches in to help. And of course, the land the fire is on belongs to Bathsheba and she is forced to take him in as hired help.
In the time that dear Bathsheba has been away from Oak, she found a home on her uncle's large farm...and then her uncle died so she's in charge! Being a bit of an independent woman, she is determined to run things her way so that she may be successful. But as a woman in charge of a bustling farm with the potential to make a good deal of money, she becomes a bit of a pawn for a couple of men in town. The way that Hardy describes her is simply perfect:
“She was of the stuff of which great men's mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises.”
First, there is Gabriel, who fervently loves her even though she has no desire to really be with him. As a worker on her farm, he is treated as such. It's obvious that Gabriel still loves her. Throughout the novel, there are scenes where Gabriel is observing Bathsheba and her various forms of scandal. He shows a clear sense of devotion to her. I loved that about his character. It seemed that no matter how badly she screwed up, he was still there to offer advice and save her farm.
The second suitor on the scene was another farmer by the name of Boldwood. Unlike Oak, he is a successful farmer and is well-respected within their community. He is also swept away by Bathsheba's charms and her wildness. She plays around with him a bit, and even makes a hasty agreement to get married at some point in the future. Boldwood was so enamored with her that he didn't even see that she made the agreement in haste to get rid of him.
Enter the third suitor, Sergeant Troy. Unlike the other two, Troy is powerful and in command of himself. He's a take charge kind of man who flirts with Bathsheba and tells her lies. She is swept away by his charms, disappears, and returns as a married woman.
“Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance. When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the occasion. She has never had practice in making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.”
It is after her marriage to Troy that things fall apart in what I think it typical Hardy fashion. Bathsheba learns that Troy was not who she thought he was, Troy is called out for being full of it, and the other two men go crazy trying to protect Bathsheba and her assets as she is now the "property" of Troy.
This was simply fascinating to watch unfold. At first, I wasn't a fan of Bathsheba (except for her name because COME ON). I found her to be a haughty kind of a woman who was just trying to branch out on her own for the sake of causing some level of scandal. However, as the novel wore on, I got what Hardy was trying to show me. Rather than being allowed to be the free spirited individual she truly was, the men in her life found ways to squash that. Troy, in particular, seemed to be an option that she found appealing. By marrying him, she was choosing something risky over something sturdy, like Boldwood. It was only after she was married that she realized the position she was in. As a married woman, all her property, etc also belonged to Troy...who wasn't who he said he was.
That just crushed her spirit. And it left the other men, who probably did truly care for her, on the sidelines watching and waiting.
On many levels, I felt for her by the novel's close. To be a woman of passion and spirit in a society that tells you no? It has to be crushing. And to find a way to rebel, only to have it backfire? Even more so. I think this novel captures a lot of that Victorian mentality...and of some people's current mentality...that women can be pawns in marriages-used to gain land, money, etc. I would not have been able to stand it...and I think I would have had a little of her spunk had I been in her situation (or so I tell myself).
So yes, Far From the Madding Crowd was a great read and a good look at some of the social issues of the era. And, it wasn't quite as tragic as Jude the Obscure if that sort of thing throws you off (don't get me wrong, there were some moments that caught my breath, but nothing like that scene). I can't wait to get to my next Hardy!
“And at home by the fire, whenever you look up there I shall be— and whenever I look up, there will be you."