Far From The Madding Crowd has everything I have come to expect from a Thomas Hardy novel: farming, dead babies, tragic love affairs that come to a bloody end… Everything on the Thomas Hardy bingo card, really. After Tess of the d’Urbervilles (review here), Under The Greenwood Tree, and a number of short stories, I felt more than adequately prepared for the task. I let myself get sucked into the drama, but the whole time, I was on my guard. After all, the mortality rate is high in Wessex. Bathsheba Everdene had all the makings of a tragic heroine and I was waiting for her to meet her horrible fate. However, not only does she live to tell the tale, but she ends up married to the man we knew was right for her all along.
Was Hardy more optimistic here than in his later years? Or is this not such a happy ending after all?
First, let’s take a quick look at the two things Thomas Hardy seems to love the most: religion and nature. In Far From The Madding Crowd, the countryside is a place where the people are out of touch with their faith: Bathsheba uses her Bible to play a game and characters regularly misquote scripture without really knowing what it means. There is a vague notion of “being a good christian”, but that’s where they all get stuck: at the surface.
The only one who does seem to strike to the core of his own belief is Gabriel Oak, who is everything Thomas Hardy thinks a good man should be. He is honest, but not to the point of being rude. He is polite and proper, but mostly follows his own moral compass. He is religious and prays on a regular basis. He connects to the other workers, but is also clearly superior to them in every way. He does not give in to the temptations of gossip or drink, but warns others against these vices. He is a healthy young man, but not too handsome or charming. He is a hard worker and stays by Bathsheba’s side for years and always does the right thing no matter what and his smile is made of puppies and rainbows and oh my God he is super dreamy you guys (Hardy’s words. Probably).
The ultimate proof that Gabriel is a total dreamboat and the right man for our heroine is that in him, nature and religion come together in perfect harmony. It’s all there in his name: Gabriel Oak. And he is not just a regular farmer who is one with the earth – oh no. He is a shepherd. The second we see him offering Bathsheba a little lamb as a present, we know that he is her salvation, the only one who can protect her from herself. Troy, for his part, digs his own grave the second he tells Bathsheba: “I won’t speak of morals or religion — my own or anybody else’s. Though perhaps I should have been a very good Christian if you pretty women hadn’t made me an idolater.” Well, that’s it, you’re done. Thanks for playing.
So what about Bathsheba herself? When she is first introduced to us, Hardy wastes no time in letting us know that she is vain and impulsive. To drive the point home, he gives her a biblically significant name as well: Bathsheba, a woman who is the object of a lot of lustful gazing and subsequent cause of adultery. Hardy’s Bathsheba finds herself in a love triangle that ends in death and disaster – and she has made some truly bad decisions to get herself into this mess. She flirts with farmer Bolwood on a whim, backpedals furiously when he actually becomes interested in her, and then marries Troy, who basically has “lying liar who lies” written on his forehead.
However, as much as Bathsheba was the spark, it’s the men who start the fire. In the end, they are responsible for the worst of the tragedy, not her. Bathsheba makes mistakes and she is punished for them, but Hardy encourages us to feel for her as the situation spirals out of control. As a writer, he has always had a soft spot for women who are ahead of their time, fallen women, women who are victimised by the Victorian patriarchy. Despite her flaws, we still want Bathsheba to be happy. But is she?
Far From The Madding Crowd ends with Bathsheba marrying Gabriel “Ol’ Reliable” Oak:
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.”
Yes, everyone approves of the match and Bathsheba shares some giddy giggles with Liddy the night before her wedding, but she is a changed woman. She has gone from a spirited and stubborn girl to a woman who “never laughs readily.” Something inside of her has been broken. Still, “it might have been worse” – and knowing Hardy, it very well could have been.