After reading Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge in college, I certainly appreciated Hardy and was grateful to him for truly piquing my interest in the classics. Now, after reading Far from the Madding Crowd, I can absolutely call myself a fan. It is no wonder that Hardy has multiple entries on the infamous “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” master list, including Far From the Madding Crowd. This story revolves around a love-triangle (or love-square, really) between Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful, resourceful young woman who comes into ownership of her Uncle’s farm, another farmer from a neighboring town, Gabriel Oak, who finds himself ruined and goes to work for Bathsheba as a shepherd (after having met and courted her previously, before she became owner of the farm), a dashing young soldier, Sergeant Francis Troy – whom, had the term existed then, would have been known as a “player,” and, finally, Bathsheba’s neighbor-farmer, Mr. William Boldwood, whose mild manner and temperance masks an inner-passion and danger that only Bathsheba can unleash –unwittingly and, ultimately, remorsefully. The three men court Bathsheba in their various ways, and the town goes on around them, filled with the regular gossip, up-and-down seasons, and mild mysteries and adventures.
The two things that first made me fall in love with Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge were its style and its characters. Far from the Madding Crowd is no different. Although the story does not move along at a rapid pace and although the majority of it is rather mild and calm in nature (though there are some surprises and moving moments, for certain!), Hardy has a way of making everyone and everything so very interesting, as if we the reader are a part of the plot, rather than an observer of it. The characters, from major to minor, are original, unique, and distinguishable from one another. The poor desolate Fanny, beautiful but tragically ruined, is a sideline character, but one of utmost importance. The workers, Jan Coggan, Joseph Poorgrass, and Cainy Ball are exactly the type of men you would hope (and assume) to find on a prosperous but familial farm. Liddy Smallbury, Batsheba’s maid, is sweet but mildly devious, and the aptly named Pennways, Batsheba’s former bailiff (accountant) is fittingly slimy. These minor characters move the story along and interplay with the primary characters and themes in a way that is subtly intricate. Most importantly, all of the characters are realistic both in their flaws and in their strengths, which strengthens the genuineness and believability of the story as a whole.
As I mentioned above, one of Hardy’s great strength is his writing, including prose and style. He has the ability to engage his readers in stories which are interesting, but not necessarily enthralling. Although much of the story is about everyday life, with love’s toils interspersed throughout, the book is never boring. Much of this is thanks to the interestingly drawn and loveable (or despicable) characters, but the principal reason for the story’s success is that Hardy is such a fantastic storyteller. His narrative voice is interesting and distinct from the main characters’ tones; they, too, are independent of each other, and the dialogue is wonderful. The descriptions are lovely and lucid, without being overwrought (e.g. Proust, Radcliffe), so they complement the story without overshadowing it.
Simply put, Far from the Madding Crowd is a story about love and life. It is a story about growth and maturity, and how true maturity only comes about through experience. Each of the characters in this story, excluding perhaps Gabriel Oak, have made grave mistakes, and each character must suffer in his or her way for the choices they have made. Some, like Bathsheba, do seem to learn from what they have experienced and grow into better people. Others, like Troy, seem to be so immature and self-absorbed that little growth can be expected from them. And still others, such as Mr. Boldwood, are doomed to suffer from choices instigated by the follies of others. The themes of independence, self-worth, female leadership, and human companionship are explored.
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
“It is safer to accept any chance that offers itself, and extemporize a procedure to fit it, than to get a good plan matured, and wait for a chance of using it.”
“It appears that ordinary men take wives because possession is not possible without marriage, and that ordinary women accept husbands because marriage is not possible without possession.”
“There are accents in the eye which are not on the tongue, and more tales come from pale lips than can enter an ear.”
“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.”
Background on the Title:
“Far from the madding crowd” means, essentially, safe from the crazies. It refers to a quiet and rural place. Hardy took the line from a passage in Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchard, 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.” –Thomas Gray