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.