Sunday, January 23, 2011

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Probably some one man on average falls in love with each ordinary woman. She can marry him: he is content, and leads a useful life. Such women as you a hundred men always covet--your eyes will bewitch scores on scores into an unavailing fancy for you--you can only marry one of that many. Out of these say twenty will endeavour to drown the supposed bitterness of despised love in drink; twenty more will mope away their lives without a wish or attempt to make a mark in the world, because they have no ambition apart from their attachment to you; twenty more--the susceptible person myself possibly among them--will always be draggling after you, getting where they may just see you, doing desperate things. Men are such constant fools! The rest may try to get over their passion with more or less success. But all these men will be saddened. And not only those ninety-nine men, but the ninety-nine women they might have married are saddened with them. There's my tale. That's why I say that a woman so charming as yourself, Miss Everdene, is hardly a blessing to her race. --Gabriel Oak

One of the strongest impressions one receives when reading Far from the Madding Crowd is awe at Hardy's vast knowledge. The story is crowded with offhand allusions to poetry, the Bible, and to Greek mythology, some of which are absurdly obscure. These vary in subtlety, but none is so plain as the name of the heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. Just as King David, having seen Bathsheba sunbathing from his roof, was overcome with a lust which engenders violence, Bathsheba Everdene cannot help but become the object of obsession.

She has three suitors, and together they form a catalogue of the ways men fall in love with women: The first is Gabriel Oak, a patient and pragmatic shepherd who is refused by Bathsheba at the beginning of the book. The second is Mr. Boldwood, who owns the farm adjacent to Bathsheba's, and his love is more along the obsessive King David line, madly begging her for a promise of marriage and allowing his own farm to go to ruin. The third is a young soldier named Frank Troy, whom Hardy describes thusly:

He spoke fluently and unceasingly. He could in this way be one thing and seem another; for instance, he could speak of love and think of dinner; call on the husband to look at the wife; be eager to pay and intend to owe.

Troy is a scoundrel, engaged to another girl, and his attachment to Bathsheba is short-lived, but she is charmed by him and allows herself to descend into Boldwood-like love-madness on his account.

Meanwhile, Gabriel exhibits an actual devotion to Bathsheba by toiling unceasingly on her farm. He solves every crisis: He cures the sheep when they are sick; he puts out fires; when a drunken Troy refuses to cover the hay-ricks for the coming storm, Gabriel does the work of ten men single-handed. He is a shepherd in the Christian sense, and like his analogues in Count Belisarius and The Good Soldier he performs this imitation of Christ before a backdrop of religious confusion and ignorance. Hardy plays this for laughs:

"How did Cain come by such a name?" asked Bathsheba.

"Oh you see, mem, his pore mother, not being a Scripture-read woman, made a mistake at his christening, thinking 'twas Abel killed Cain, and called en Cain, meaning Abel all the time. The parson put it right, but 'twas too late, for the name cold never be got rid of in the parish. 'Tis very unfortunate for the boy."

But there is a very serious sense that religion provides little of the necessary wisdom of living. Instead, Gabriel's pious devotion is a product of the simplicity of country life, which forms a kind of religion. Hardy notes that the barn on Bathsheba's farm resembles a church with transepts:

One could say about this barn, what could hardly be said of either the church or the castle, akin to it in age and style, that the purpose which had dictated its original erection was the same with that to which it was still applied. Unlike and superior to either of those two typical remnants of mediaevalism, the old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time.

Gabriel's constancy is the constancy of the earth, the constancy of the country farm. He is opposed in this by Troy, who represents the fickleness of the modern city, and who nearly drives the farm to ruin (a ruin presaged by his name, a city synonymous with destruction) by neglect of his duty both as farmer and lover. We want desperately for Bathsheba to return to Gabriel's offer of marriage, though the years pass and he seems unlikely to renew it, resigned to laying down his life in quiet service.

Hardy has a terrific style that thrives on grammatical tension. He will overload you with winding, circuitous sentences and absurdly elevated vocabulary before delivering a short summary statement of incredible power. The effect is like the inflating and popping of a great balloon, or being spun in a funnel until expelled violently from the tip:

Above the dark margin of the earth appeared foreshores and promontories of coppery cloud, bounding a green and pellucid expanse in the western sky. Amaranthine glosses came over them then, and the unresting world wheeled her round to a contrasting prospect eastward, in the shape of indecisive and palpitating stars. She gazed upon their silent throes amid the shades of space, but realized none at all. Her troubled spirit was far away with Troy.

And, because two points make a line, here is another:

Hence Bathsheba lived in a perception that her purposes were broken off. She was not a woman who could hope on without good materials for the process, differing thus from the less far-sighted and energetic, though more petted ones of the sex, with whom hope goes on as a sort of clockwork which the merest food and shelter are sufficient to wind up; and perceiving clearly that her mistake had been a fatal one, she accepted her position, and waited coldly for the end.

How wonderfully this maps Bathsheba's inner thinking: We are taken through the labyrinthine course of one who clings to their own reasoning to find comfort, only to emerge from such pondering into an inevitable and nearly ineffable truth: Bathsheba, having chosen wrongly, is alone.


billy said...

i just skimmed this review because i didn't want to learn too much about the book in case i read, but it seems to me that bathsheba and scarlett o'hara have a lot in common (based on the first 150 pages of gone with the wind, which is regrettably knocking me off my pace, but oh well). have you read gone with the wind?

Brent Waggoner said...

Great review; appreciated the lack of spoilers. This is my wife's favorite novel, and, although I haven't read it yet, I did read Jude the Obscure, which was great but kind of crushingly depressing. Hardy is a really great stylist though, and his plots seem so organic and inevitable.

Christopher said...

Billy: I have not.