Thomas Hardy is a Victorian's Victorian. His tone is about as formal and as wordy as it gets, and it's (for lack of a better, more Victorian word) awesome. Our suggestion for the novice reader of Victorian novels is to love it for what it is.
Because it's not going to be what it ain't, folks. Thomas Hardy is not going to read like Ernest Hemingway or Alice Munro. He's not going to be clear and concise and crystalline. He's going to use formal language and there are going to be people weeping and exclaiming "O!"
So don't just deal with it and roll your eyes; get into it. If the clear writers of the world (like Hemingway) are like Saltine crackers (plain, efficient, crispy), Hardy is a like a freaking cronut (insane, super-decadent, leaves buttery residue all over your fingers).
When you're faced with stuff like this…
"One night, at the end of August, when Bathsheba's experiences as a married woman were still new, and when the weather was yet dry and sultry, a man stood motionless in the stockyard of Weatherbury Upper Farm, looking at the moon and sky. The night had a sinister aspect. A heated breeze from the south slowly fanned the summits of lofty objects, and in the sky dashes of buoyant cloud were sailing in a course at right angles to that of another stratum, neither of them in the direction of the breeze below." (36.1)
… enjoy it for its decadence. Is it wordy? Yes. Is it dated? Yes: it's from the 1870s for Pete's sake. But is it excellent (albeit nutso by today's standards)? Totally.
If someone asks you what kind of book Far from the Madding Crowd is, it's best to tell them that it's a tragicomedy. Now, a tragicomedy usually refers to a play, but it can also be used to describe any work of literature that combines tragic elements and comedic elements. Far from the Madding Crowd contains a whole lot of serious stuff like death and insanity and falling from grace, and more than a couple of lives get ruined along the way. At the end, though, we have a nice marriage between Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene.
Far from the Madding Crowd gives us a great example of the transition that Thomas Hardy was making from comedy to tragedy at this point in his career. It's hard to read about Boldwood's insanity or Fanny Robin's super-tragic end and imagine that Thomas Hardy was ever a writer of comedies, but hey, he was a multi-talented fool.
Far from the Madding Crowd is also hecka pastoral. Little lambs? Check. Beautiful English countryside? Check. Ruggedly handsome shepherds? Check, check, check. This novel makes us want to buy a one-way ticket to the English countryside and spend the rest of our days drinking cider in a hay bale.
If your first response to Far from the Madding Crowd was "WTF is madding?" rest assured. You're not the first person to be confused.
Hardy borrows this phrase from a famous poem by Thomas Grey titled "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." In this context the word "madding" means "frenzied" or "crazed." In other words, Hardy seems to be suggesting that the country is way better than the city because it takes you away from all the hustle and bustle of the crazy city crowds.
Ha! This is totally a sarcastic title. After all, the story's main characters all live in the pleasant countryside and their lives are still filled with drama and anguish. Hardy is suggesting that it's silly to think that life is somehow simpler in the countryside. For Hardy, humans are humans no matter where you go, and there are always just as many problems for country people as there are for city folk.
Then Oak laughed, and Bathsheba smiled, for she never laughed readily now; and their friends turned to go.
"Yes, I suppose that's the size o't," said Joseph Poorgrass with a cheerful sigh as they moved away; "and I wish him joy o'her; though I were once or twice upon saying to-day with holy Hosea in my Scripture manner which is my second nature, 'Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone.' But since 'tis as 'tis, why it might have been worse, and I feel my thanks accordingly." (57.51-52)
Like a lot of comedies, Far from the Madding Crowd ends with a wedding between two lovers who've always belonged together. Hardy puts a sober spin on this kind of ending, though, when he reminds us that Bathsheba likes Gabriel more than loves him.
On top of that, we notice that the narrator is quick to tell us that Bathsheba isn't ready to laugh with joy at what's happened, since her experiences have hardened her to the point that she doesn't feel much pleasure anymore.
Hardy also decided to end the book with a comment from the rural worker, Joseph Poorgrass. Poorgrass always has a tendency to misquote the Bible in this book, and he does so again here. The passage he's trying to quote is Hosea 4:17, which refers to the tribe of Ephraim being idol-worshippers. But poor Poorgrass uses this quote as if it's an appropriate thing to say at a wedding.
This ending is definitely bittersweet, even with Poorgrass clowning around. The happy couple is only sort of happy, and Bathsheba is irreparably scarred.
Far from the Madding Crowd is the first novel that Thomas Hardy set in the fictional area of Wessex, England, but it isn't the last. For the rest of his career, Hardy would build an entire mythology around this fictional part of England, even creating maps of the area to help readers get acquainted.
The main thing you need to know about Wessex and the equally fictitious town of Weatherbury is that Hardy designed these places as a sort of idyllic, rural England that was slowly going extinct with the rise of modern technology and industry. Hardy makes this idealism fairly clear in the ways he describes the setting, like when he writes, "The thin grasses, more or less coating the hill, were touched by the wind in breezes of differing powers, and almost of differing natures—one rubbing the blades heavily, another raking them piercingly, another brushing them like a soft broom" (2.4).
As you can tell, Hardy is a big fan of nature. But he's also quick to point out that living in the countryside doesn't solve all of people's problems. At the end of the day, bad things can happen to you no matter where you live. But Hardy still has a real soft spot for the English countryside. It's not the countryside, after all, that makes these people act so crazy. The countryside is there to highlight how insane-o the characters are, by being beautiful and relatively sane in comparison.
You might think that this Tough-o-Meter rating is too low for a book published in 1874, but the fact is that Hardy's writing is very, very readable. Not only that, but Far from the Madding Crowd is a totally plot-driven book with lots of twists and turns. And not a moldering old fusty plot, but one that has stayed relevant enough to inspire a 2005 graphic novel (and 2010 film) called Tamara Drewe. You know a plot is interesting when it's still being recycled.
Sure, you might need to have a cup (or two) of coffee to keep yourself alert during some of the bar scenes in which characters talk about nothing important, but on the whole, this is a fast-paced, book. And if you have trouble following what's happening, just read the titles of the chapters—they straight up tell you what's happening.
Whenever we read Hardy's narrator, we tend to encounter a lot of proper, formal language. But Hardy creates a really sharp contrast to this formality by also giving us a bunch of dialogue spoken in the 19th century equivalent of Good Ol' Boy lingo.
You can see this contrast clearly in passages where the two styles are plunked down beside one another, like at the end of the book:
"Then Oak laughed, and Bathsheba smiled, for she never laughed readily now; and their friends turned to go.
'Yes, I suppose that's the size o't,' said Joseph Poorgrass with a cheerful sigh as they moved away; 'and I wish him joy o'her […]'" (57.51-52).
In the first line, you can clearly see one style, and in the second, you can see the countrified language of Joseph Poorgrass. This mixture of styles helps us keep track of the class of the characters. In a perfect world, a character's class would have no bearing on what occurred to that character, but Victorian England was not a perfect world. A character's class determined their station in life, their marriage prospects (think of Gabriel Oak and his failed proposal to Bathsheba) and a whole slew of other details.
Gabriel Oak spends quite a bit of time in this book taking care of sheep and lambs. And do you know which other figure tends to do the same? That's right, Jesus. In this case, Hardy uses Gabriel's shepherding of lambs to show that he's a very compassionate, decent man with good Christian values. Just one look at a passage like this can tell us as much:
"Their noise increased to a chorus of baas upon which Oak pulled the milk can from before the fire, and taking a small teapot from the pocket of his smockfrock, filled it with milk, and taught those of the helpless which were not to be restored to their dams how to drink from the spout." (15.85)
On top of that, he also tries to use his compassion as a point of connection with Bathsheba, which he tries to accomplish by giving her a lamb. As he says to Bathsheba's aunt, "I've brought a lamb for Miss Everdene. I thought she might like one to rear: girls do" (4.18).
The funny thing here, though, is that by claiming that girls like to raise lambs, Gabriel also makes himself sound girly because raising lambs is something he does, and enjoys. But make no mistake. Gabriel isn't just some softy. He also gets down to business when he needs to, sometimes in really grisly ways, as we find out in the scene where he uses one dead lamb's skin to make another lamb feel warmer: "Gabriel had skinned the dead lamb, and was tying the skin over the body of the live lamb in the customary manner" (18.15).
In other words, Gabriel is good to the sheep and their lambs, but mostly insofar as these animals are worth money to him and his employer. In this sense, lambs show that Gabriel is really a multi-faceted character: he's compassionate when he needs to be, but also practical when he needs to be.
Contrasting sharply (pun intended) with Gabriel Oak's love of lambs, Frank Troy loves swordplay. Oak loves nurturing tender young beasties, and Frank Troy loves stabbing. Oak takes little baby animals and warms them by the fire and Frank Troy grunts and moves his long phallic metal object through the air.
When Frank Troy displays his swordsmanship to Bathsheba, he's doing the 19th century equivalent of offering Bathsheba two tickets to the gun show, or revving the engine of his motorcycle, or keeping his legs super far apart as he sits down. He's showing off how manly he is. Not only that, he's pretty much pantomiming sex.
We're not being dirty-minded here, and we're not being extra-Freudian by insisting that sometimes a sword is not just a sword. Or rather, we totally are, but we're in good company in our sexy speculation.
Chapter 28, when all of this sword showing-off goes down, is called "The Hollow Amid The Ferns." Ahem. If a sword can be considered really freaking phallic (and it can be) what, gentle reader, do you suppose a "hollow amid the ferns" is supposed to symbolize? Yeah, that's right. It's hecka vaginal.
And what does dashing young Troy do in this "hollow amid the ferns"? He shows off how good he is with his sword by pretending to stab her, again and again. Yeah, dudes. He pretends to stab her. 'Nuff said. And Bathsheba is really impressed, because he does it well: "All was as quick as electricity. "'Oh!'" she cried out in affright, pressing her hand to her side." Have you run me through?—no, you have not! Whatever have you done!'" (28.30)
And the scene ends with a kiss, which means that Troy's weird, hyper-phallic seduction worked wonders. Here's Chapter 28 as imagined in the 1967 film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd. We're pretty sure that the filmmakers analyzed this scene the same way we did, judging by all the heavy breathing and string music.
If you want to trace most of this book's conflict back to a single point, it's the moment when Bathsheba decides to play head-games by sending Farmer Boldwood an anonymous Valentine that asks him to marry her. She assumes that she'll never have to answer for the message, but Boldwood asks around and finds out that the note is in her handwriting. From that point on, he is obsessed with marrying her, even though she doesn't like him. It's a plotline that The Simpsons made good use of in an old episode where Lisa gives Ralph Wiggum a Valentine out of pity, and Ralph becomes obsessed like Boldwood.
When Boldwood makes his proposal, he makes a good point about how unfair it was for Bathsheba to lead him on, saying, "[But] I should not have spoken out had I not been led to hope" (19.17). This, of course, leads Bathsheba to smack her head and say, "I'm an idiot!" Actually, what she says is "The Valentine again! O that Valentine!" (19.18), because this is a Thomas Hardy novel and people start sentences with "O!"
Basically, she knows that it's her fault that Boldwood likes her, and this is the main reason why she has a hard time saying no to him for the rest of the book. In this sense, then, the Valentine tends to symbolize the kinds of problems caused by Bathsheba's little whims as well as the guilt she ends up feeling over what she's done.
Trial by fire and trial by water: that's exactly what Gabriel Oak is willing to go through in his love for Bathsheba Everdene. Now to be fair, he doesn't actually know that he's helping Bathsheba when he saves her farm from fire. But the second time around, he runs out into a lightning storm to protect her harvested crops from rain because he wants what's best for her.
The symbolism of what's happening isn't lost on him either: "Oak suddenly remembered that eight months before this time he has been fighting against fire in the same spot as desperately as he was fighting against water now—and for a futile love of the same woman" (38.3).
The last line here is especially telling, since Bathsheba is already married and Oak knows that he'll never have a chance with her. That's what makes his love so much better than that of the other men in Bathsheba's life, though. Oak is willing to love her even when he can't be with her. Troy and Boldwood, on the other hand, both disappear from her life when things aren't going well.
Like many Victorian novelists, Thomas Hardy is a big fan of the ol' third-person omniscient. This point of view gives you a whole lot of insight into different characters, and because the narrator is an all-knowing figure, the insight we get is seriously comprehensive.
For example, we start the book following Gabriel Oak. Oak, as the God-like narrator tells us, "… was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing […]" (1.2). Not only does this omniscient narrator know everything about Oak's present, he knows everything about Oak's past, too. And because this narrator is a chatty Kathy, we get all this info too. Thanks, narrator.
For most of the novel, the narrator tends to stick with one person's point of view per chapter, which is pretty easy to follow. But in Chapter 52, Hardy decides to give numbered subsections in order to avoid confusing his readers when he switches from one character's perspective to another. This is a pretty cool trick, and useful in letting the reader know a) what's going on with all of our characters and b) hints that the climax is fast approaching. Let's explain b) a little more.
There's a scene in Reservoir Dogs where three men are holding guns at each other. It's unclear for a second whether or not this is going to end with the guns being fired or laid down, but then the camera pans to each of the men's faces in close-up, giving the viewer the signal that this is it; this is the climax. Here's the clip to give you a little more understanding, but be warned: it contains spoilers and lotsa blood.
Thomas Hardy is a pretty big deal, and his literary awesomeness is extra evidence in the way he employs third-person omniscience.
Far from the Madding Crowd isn't exactly funny ha-ha, but there are definitely enough comedic elements in it for us to call it a comedy. At the point at which he wrote Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy was making a transition from writing comedy to writing tragedy.
So even though the book ends up as a comedy, you'll often find it almost tipping into tragedy, then tipping back into comedy at the last second. We'll show you what we mean in the following breakdown:
In the beginning, things aren't looking good for Gabriel Oak. He has lost all of his money in a freak accident involving a flock of sheep and a steep cliff, and the woman he loves (Bathsheba) has turned down his proposal of marriage. Despite the rejection, though, Oak promises Bathsheba that he'll love her until the day he dies. This is a pretty common thing for a lover in a comedy to say, and there's a good chance Oak will make good on this claim.
On top of these problems, comedy also tends to involve a character that needs to undergo some sort of change. In this instance, Gabriel isn't your man. Instead, it's Bathsheba who needs to change, since her pride is what has kept her from marrying a man who she actually really loves. Beyond that, her pride is also what will ultimately make her fortunes turn for the worse when she marries the handsome and superficial Sergeant Troy.
As we mentioned in the last stage, Bathsheba's vanity ultimately leads her to marry Sergeant Troy. First, because he is good looking; second, because he is a smooth talker; and third, because he is constantly flattering her with compliments. Bathsheba doesn't see through his act, though. It's only after they're married that she finds out Troy has gone through this same routine with a woman named Fanny Robin. The difference is that he left Fanny Robin (along with their baby) to die in the street while he got rich by marrying Bathsheba.
Bathsheba's marriage to Troy doesn't just break the heart of Gabriel Oak. It utterly destroys another one of Bathsheba's suitors, the old and respectable Farmer Boldwood. At this point in the book, it's pretty clear that nobody's happy, not even Sergeant Troy, who realizes that he truly loved Fanny and that he'll always regret what he did to her.
As with any good comedy, Far from the Madding Crowd ends with secret identities being revealed and with soul mates finally being united. The path Hardy takes to get to this result, though, is a lot more violent than the one many traditional comedies take. For starters, Sergeant Troy comes back and pulls off a disguise after leading everyone to think he was dead. He is rewarded for his trouble, though, with a deadly shotgun blast to the chest. The man who pulls the trigger is Farmer Boldwood, who goes to jail for the rest of his life.
Now that Boldwood and Troy are out of the way, the path is clear for Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak to finally be together, since Oak has inherited the command of Boldwood's farm and is now rich enough to marry Bathsheba. When they get married at the end of the book, everyone is pretty happy, but not totally joyful. After all, it's taken more than one ruined life to get things to where they are.
We start the novel by meeting Gabriel Oak, a hardworking young man who seems to deserve the best in life. One day, Oak falls in love with a beautiful young woman named Bathsheba. But Bathsheba thinks she's too good for him and rejects him. And if that weren't enough, a freak accident sends Oak to the poorhouse when all of his sheep fall off a cliff. Now, with his pockets empty, Oak has to start looking around for a new job.
Gabriel Oak's job search eventually leads him to the small town of Weatherbury, where he gets work as a shepherd for Bathsheba Everdene, the same woman who rejected his marriage proposal back in the beginning of the book. It turns out, though, that Oak isn't the only man who's interested in Bathsheba. An older, wealthy farmer named Boldwood wants to marry her too. But before he can woo her, she runs off and marries a cocky young army Sergeant named Frank Troy.
The action doesn't stop rising after Bathsheba's marriage. Troy turns out to be a really crummy husband, and Bathsheba almost loses her mind when she finds out that Troy had a child with a former fiancé before marrying her (Bathsheba). Worse yet, Troy admits that he still loves his ex way more than Bathsheba, even though his ex and child are both dead. When he realizes how much he's messed up his life and Bathsheba's, Troy decides to fake his death and disappear from Weatherbury.
After Sergeant Troy disappears, Farmer Boldwood tries to move in on his territory and marry Bathsheba. Just when she might agree, though, Troy reappears because he's gotten tired of living without Bathsheba's money. This time, Boldwood can't handle the news, so he grabs a shotgun and shoots Troy point-blank in the chest, killing him. So now Troy's dead, and it looks like Boldwood is going to be executed.
Not so fast, Mr. Executioner. A last-minute pardon ends up saving Boldwood from being executed for murder. The reason? Because everyone thinks Boldwood is totally insane. Folks are relieved to hear the news, even though Sergeant Troy is still dead and Boldwood will probably rot in jail for the rest of his life.
When Gabriel Oak tells Bathsheba that he plans on moving to America, she begs him to stay, since he's always been such a good friend to her. He agrees to stay if they get married, and that's exactly what they do. It took four hundred pages and a couple of destroyed lives, but Oak and Bathsheba finally found one another. Ain't that sweet?
The first third of this book lays the groundwork for the two most important characters: Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene. We find out in these sections that Oak is a responsible guy whose modesty can sometimes get the best of him. Oak proposes to Bathsheba and she says, "Naww, you're not good enough for me."
Things also go (additionally) horribly wrong for him when all his sheep die and he has to sell off everything he owns to pay his debts. Bathsheba has the opposite fortune: she inherits her uncle's farm and becomes rich.
Oak becomes a reliable servant to Bathsheba, but also a good friend who will tell her the truth even when she doesn't want to hear it. A dude named Farmer Boldwood does his best to marry Bathsheba, but it's pretty clear from the outset that this old, boring dude isn't going to succeed, no matter how pushy he is with his proposals.
Enter Frank Troy, who is a hottie with noble blood running in his veins. Bathsheba is a smitten kitten, and the two crazy kids get hitched. Too bad Troy is a drunk and a scumbag and—oh, yeah—is sending money to his baby mama Fanny Robin.
Things go pretty crazy when Fanny Robin (and her baby) dies, and Bathsheba finds out about Troy's past. Troy tells Bathsheba that he only ever really loved Fanny (which: seriously? You left her to die in the poorhouse, bro), and decides to skip town and fake his death.
With Troy out of the picture, Farmer Boldwood decides to live up to his name and act boldly. He hounds Bathsheba about marrying him until she basically surrenders out of total exhaustion. Boldwood plans on announcing their engagement at a Christmas party he's hosting, but at the last second, Troy comes back to claim his wife. It turns out that he hasn't much liked living without her money.
Boldwood goes ape when Sergeant Troy steals Bathsheba (again), so he takes out a shotgun and shoots Troy. When the doctor shows up, Troy is dead. Boldwood, in the meantime, has turned himself in at a nearby police station. He is originally sentenced to be executed, but is pardoned at the last second because the court has found him insane. He's still going to spend the rest of his life in jail, though.
With Sergeant Troy and Farmer Boldwood both out of the picture, Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba decide to get married. Bathsheba is okay with this marriage because Oak is a) not a sleazeball with a secret baby mama b) not an insane trigger-happy weirdo and c) newly rich. Good deal.