Far From the Madding Crowd

In the opening scenes of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Gabriel Oak is a prosperous farmer, looking forward to even better things. He has a sense of beauty and a love of learning that perhaps exceed the common run, but he has his feet on the ground: he can care for his sheep and watch his farm with ease and responsibility. He has fallen in love with the beautiful, headstrong, candid Bathsheba Everdene, and he hopes that one day she will agree to be his wife. One terrible night, however, an accident casts him into poverty and ruin. He must forget Bathsheba, and find his way in the world.

This is not the last reversal of fortune for the characters in this book. Those who are low are raised up, and those who are prospering finely are brought low. Bathsheba decides that she will be mistress of her own farm, and does surprisingly well at it — for a while. The impulsive, peremptory Sergeant Troy begins with a conscience and ends without one. The passionate Farmer Boldwood begins as a good farmer and a terrible lover, and ends as the most (unknowingly) romantic figure of all.

This novel is positively littered with classical and Biblical references — my annotated Penguin Classics version came in very handy. I haven’t studied Hardy, so I don’t know much about his style, but it seemed to me that everything was symbolic: the mighty Oak, the flighty and unfruitful Everdene, the overly bold Boldwood. In fact, it reminded me most of all of the parable of the sower, from the three synoptic Gospels — the seed (this time of love, rather than the word of God) falling on the path where the birds will eat it, on soil with stones, on soil with weeds and thorns, and finally on good, rich soil. A farmer’s parable, indeed.

I loved this book. Loved it. It made me laugh (something I never, ever expected from Hardy), it made me think, it made me cry. The writing is absolutely exquisite, in particular the descriptions of skies and fields. I was riveted by the characters, never once losing interest, and I positively gasped out loud as I read towards the shocking conclusion. 

A couple of years ago, I had a bad experience with Thomas Hardy. I admit it: I actually quit reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles only fifty pages from the end, because I was horribly bored and just didn’t care about any of the characters. I didn’t think I liked Hardy. Well, obviously I started with the wrong one. Those of you who suggested this when I asked for a classic — thank you! This gave me hours of pleasure, and now I want more. It wound up being a book that blew my whole day, and there’s nothing I love better.

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4 Responses to Far From the Madding Crowd

  1. adevotedreader says:

    I love this book, so am glad to hear you enjoyed it.

    I think Hardy’s sense of humour is often overlooked and this book is full of it. One example I especially like is his remark at the end of chapter five:
    “George’s son had done his work so throughly that he was considered too good a workman to live, and was, in fact, taken and tragically shot at twelve o’clock that same day- another instance of the untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up largely of compromise.”

    It’s also very romantic- Gabriel’s first proposal is lovely, and the ending always makes me smile. If you want another happy story by Hardy, I’d suggest Under a Greenwood Tree. And I think The Mayor of Casterbridge is his best novel.

  2. Teresa says:

    Hooray! I’m so glad to hear you liked this! (It just didn’t seem quite possible to me that you didn’t like my favorite author at all.) The Woodlanders might be another good one to try. It’s not exacly sunny, but I think the characters are more likable than the characters in Tess. And, yes, Mayor is quite good as well.

  3. Amanda says:

    What a great review! I’ve been wanting to read this since watching a good Masterpiece Theater version of it (and their Tess of D’Uberville is good as well). I have read The Mayor of Casterbridge and thought it was SUCH a great book. I just love when characters change, evolve, go through redemption, or fall. I did read Jude the obscure and while in retrospect, a good book, I didn’t enjoy it too much while reading it. Leave that one to die hard Hardy fans.

  4. Jenny says:

    Devoted reader — I completely agree about the humor. I read this in class while students were taking a test, and was embarrassed when I couldn’t help laughing aloud! I found it wonderfully wry, and never gloppy in tragedy.

    Teresa — No, of course, I couldn’t hate your favorite author. Completely impossible. That’s partly why I tried it again. :) I think I’ll try Mayor of Casterbridge next, or at least put it on my TBR list next.

    Amanda — Do read this one! I’d love to hear your opinion. I agree that the best books are when characters don’t remain static, and they definitely go through a lot (mostly thanks to external circumstances) in this book!

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