– e-book (Project Gutenberg)
Read from January 4th to 19th 2016
I still remember the Romanian edition of Far from the Madding Crowd in my mother’s library I was sometimes looking at in my teenage years only to put it away again, even after I read and enjoyed other Thomas Hardy’s writings (I had been pretty impressed with Tess d’Urberville if I recall correctly). Why I have avoided this classic despite its beautiful title at a time when I was reading almost whatever came to hand, I don’t know. Even now, had I not accidentally seen the end of the movie version (the Julie Christie one, who makes a very credible Bathsheba), I would have continued to ignore it, and what a pity it would have been.
A pity because this Hardy’s fourth novel is quite charming, with its Victorian themes and motives, like marriage, education, the role of the woman and the moral constraints in the middle-class society, reinterpreted in a new way, not only by emphasizing the role of the chance in the destiny of the individual, but also by studying how the same destiny changes whenever the equilibrium between reason and emotion is broken. From this point of view, the novel reminded me the four kinds of love identified by Stendhal in his essay On Love (which I don’t think the writer was familiar with, at least not at the moment of the book’s creation): passionate, mannered, physical and vanity-love.
Indeed, like a feminine Julien Sorel, Bathsheba is confronted with at least three of these four types of love, and the three beaux who gravitate around her will be rewarded or punished in accordance with their ability to maintain the afore-mentioned equilibrium between reason and emotion. However, unlike Stendhal, who thought the only love worth of this name is the passionate love, Hardy considered rewarding a softer form of the sentiment, not necessarily the “mannered” one, which in Stendhal’s vision was more like a social game, but a “good-fellowship” kind of love, in which the sentiment is tempered, quietened by reason (and no wonder here, since the Victorian era makes the transition from romanticism to realism).
Thus, the title loses its slightly ironic tone resulted from the contrast between the promise of a peaceful evocation of an Edenic life in Hardy’s mythical Wessex and the frenzy events that occur, gaining instead a moral (how Victorian!) meaning: that only maturity can protect from the dangers the blind passion unleashes.
Far from the Madding Crowd could be read in a way as a bildungsroman. Bathsheba’s bildungsroman, for the main character is an intelligent, strong and slightly unconventional girl, ready to make a strong impression in a men’s world, for she decides to manage her farm with her “own head and hands” and she does a very good job with it, being compassionate but firm, exigent but fair. But she has a flaw – vanity, which could easily lead her to her doom, because she makes two major mistakes, one by making fun of a man with no sense of humour and the other by marrying another she knows nothing about. This is why only in the end she is granted the happiness her qualities should have guaranteed, had her younger and more reckless years let her recognize it.
On the other hand, Hardy’s conviction that the man is only partially master of his own destiny is largely illustrated in the novel. The letter that will change both Bathsheba and Boldwood’s destiny, for example, was intended to be sent to a child as a Valentine, but her servant suggested to send it to her neighbour Boldwood, and Bathsheba, piqued by the indifference the gentleman had shown her in church and by the fact people had noticed it, foolishly agrees, with tragic consequences:
The letter must have had an origin and a motive. That the latter was of the smallest magnitude compatible with its existence at all, Boldwood, of course, did not know. (…) It is foreign to a mystified condition of mind to realize of the mystifier that the processes of approving a course suggested by circumstance, and of striking out a course from inner impulse, would look the same in the result. The vast difference between starting a train of events, and directing into a particular groove a series already started, is rarely apparent to the person confounded by the issue.
Bathsheba’s letter will link her fate with Boldwood’s who falls helplessly in love with her and whom she thinks for a moment to marry only because he is the most eligible bachelor in the region – a classic example of passionate love, from his part, and vanity-love, from hers.
All foggy thoughts of marriage with her rich neighbour though are forgotten when, by a series of another coincidences she meets and finally marries Troy, a handsome sergeant, hiding his questionable character under an easy charm that allows him to easily and cold-bloodedly play with the others’ emotions. He conquers Bathsheba without effort, because the physical attraction prevents her to look deeper into his soul:
And Troy’s deformities lay deep down from a woman’s vision, whilst his embellishments were upon the very surface; thus contrasting with homely Oak, whose defects were patent to the blindest, and whose virtues were as metals in a mine.
However, he is too superficial to be consistently bad and, in a moment of remorse either for a former mistress and uneasiness towards his wife, he goes away letting believe he is dead. Unfortunately for him, his decision to return will transform the assumption of death in reality, for Boldwood shots him. Thus both men are destroyed when the balance emotive arm becomes overloaded.
With Boldwood in prison and Troy dead, Gabriel Oak seems to be only a second-best for a heroin who, without real malice but carelessly enough had been the instrument of destruction of the other two. Gabriel, who was the first to ask her to marry him, and who faithfully and with a quiet dignity helped her and advised her and protected her is finally seen by Bathsheba as the right man for her to spend the life with, together with the revelation that love is not necessarily blind passion, but mainly deep understanding:
Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — CAMARADERIE — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.
Thus Gabriel, the only truly superior being of the novel, is rewarded for his qualities in the end, both socially and emotionally, because he has proved his worth in a subtle antithesis with Troy, the glittering husband Bathsheba was blinded with for a while. Now that she reached maturity, the couple regains composure and is ready to distance itself from “the madding crowd” in whose turmoil it had been lost for a while.