Far from the Madding Crowd

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Thomas Hardy
was born on June 2, 1840. In his writing, he immortalized the site of his birth—Egdon Heath, in Dorset, near Dorchester. Delicate as a child, he was taught at home by his mother before he attended grammar school. At sixteen, Hardy was apprenticed to an architect, and for many years, architecture was his profession; in his spare time, he pursued his first and last literary love, poetry. Finally convinced that he could earn his living as an author, he retired from architecture, married, and devoted himself to writing. An extremely productive novelist, Hardy published an important book every year or two. In 1896, disturbed by the public outcry over the unconventional subjects of his two greatest novels—
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
and
Jude the Obscure
—he announced that he was giving up fiction and afterward produced only poetry. In later years, he received many honors. He died on January 11, 1928, and was buried in Poet’s Corner, in Westminster Abbey. It was as a poet that he wished to be remembered, but today critics regard his novels as his most memorable contribution to English literature for their psychological insight, decisive delineation of character, and profound presentation of tragedy.
 
Suzanne Keen,
Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, is the author of two books on English fiction:
Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction
(2001) and
Victorian Renovations of the Novel: Narrative Annexes and the Boundaries of Representation
(1998). A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for her academic work, she also reviews books for
Commonweal
magazine and serves as vice president of the Thomas Hardy Association.
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INTRODUCTION
In
Far from the Madding Crowd
(1874), Thomas Hardy tells the story of a beautiful young woman, Bathsheba Everdene, and her three love interests. Hardy first introduces Gabriel Oak, a twenty-eight-year-old, as a sturdy and reliable shepherd who is making a bid for financial independence as a farmer. We meet Gabriel outdoors and follow his gaze to a lovely girl perched on a wagon, who looks at herself in a mirror, mistakenly believing that no one can observe her. Though the vanity of Bathsheba sets her up for chastening experiences, this early scene also teaches the reader to pay attention to the direction of the characters’ gazes. Gabriel can’t help looking at the girl, and Bathsheba can’t help looking at herself. Boldwood appears later, in a scene where he alone among the men dealing in the corn market seems oblivious to Bathsheba. A middle-aged, established gentleman farmer with no romantic experience, Boldwood doesn’t even look at the girl who magnetizes all the other men. Once Bathsheba sends him an impulsive valentine, however, his attention grows to an obsession. Finally, Hardy brings on the scene the glamorous Sergeant Frank Troy. Bathsheba and Troy meet accidentally in the dark. This time Bathsheba gazes by lantern light at the handsome man with whose spurs her dress has become entangled. Troy happens to be seriously involved with another woman, and the climax of Bathsheba’s emotional education occurs when she stares into a coffin: the woman and baby inside cannot look back, but their existence proves that Troy has taken advantage of Bathsheba. He has married her for her money after awakening her sexual desire.
Hardy makes the lovely and sexually attractive Bathsheba more than the heroine of a romance plot of love choices. Her sometimes impulsive behavior matters to a wider circle of people than her potential lovers. Early in the story Bathsheba inherits a farm and undertakes the man’s job of running it. She goes so far as to dismiss the bailiff who would ordinarily manage the property. This isn’t just an individual matter; if she fails, her workers will lose their jobs. The people around her assume that the problems will be solved when she marries and her husband takes over. Yet Bathsheba need not marry at all, and she has a good practical reason for avoiding marriage (aside from skittishness when she receives bluntly worded and abrupt proposals). The story takes place in the 1840s, and Hardy’s readers would have understood that Bathsheba’s marriage would mean surrendering control over her property to her husband. The first Married Women’s Property Act had been passed just four years prior to the publication of
Far from the Madding Crowd,
in 1870, after a twenty-year struggle (not until 1882 could wives acquire, hold, and dispose of property as their own). Bathsheba learns this lesson the hard way. Hardy spells out the economic consequences of Bathsheba’s potential choices. She could join her farm to an established property owned by Boldwood. She could act on her fascination with Troy to the detriment of her farm (later he cements his relationship with the workers by getting them all drunk). Or she could choose the man who twice saves her ricks—her heaps of harvested grain and the source of her profits—from destruction. Hardy idealizes Gabriel Oak for his good husbandry, and expects his readers to recognize him as a desirable mate for Bathsheba, though he is less handsome and less smooth-talking than Troy. A union with Oak promises positive consequences for the community of farm labor ers who depend upon landowners’ prosperity.
A later Hardy would take the material of a fickle girl and bring her and her lovers remorselessly to grief in
Jude the Obscure
(1896). He would expand on the fate of an unwed mother in
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
(1891), and he would explore marital incompatibility, adultery, and the tantalizing possibility of divorce in
The Woodlanders
(1887). Even in the sun-drenched pastoral world of
Far from the Madding Crowd,
Hardy injects hints of a grimmer view of love and marriage. He sees them as nearly incompatible. His narrator gives a characteristic opinion in chapter V: “It may have been observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in. Some people look upon marriage as a short cut that way, but it has been known to fail.” The wry suggestion that every so often love (and an important component of love, sexual desire) actually survives the married state receives humorous elaboration in a story that a minor character tells about Bathsheba’s father. Coggan describes him as “one of the ficklest husbands alive,” who has trouble staying attracted to his “lawful wife.” Bathsheba’s father cures his wicked wandering heart by making his wife take off her wedding ring. He calls her by her maiden name as they sit together, and “so ’a would get to fancy she was only his sweetheart, and not married to him at all.” Coggan reports that as soon as Bathsheba’s father could “thor oughly fancy he was doing wrong and committing the seventh, ’a got to like her as well as ever, and they lived on a perfect picture of mutel love.” Keeping desire alive can be work, Hardy suggests, and in
Far from the Madding Crowd
he shows that the economic consequences of marriage can interfere with the sexual fulfillment that is assumed to follow a wedding. This is especially the case when the woman wants the man and the man wants the woman’s money.