Saturday, September 27, 2008

Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

Published in 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd is one of Hardy's earliest novels, and perhaps also one of his most optimistic. I say that with hesitation because much of the novel's content is far from hopeful. Yet, considering the pre-conceived notions I had before studying Hardy's work (others had told me how depressing his works are), I must admit that this novel was less depressing than some of his poetry, and certainly less somber than The Return of the Native (which I will write about in my next post).

The main aspect of this book that I'd like to highlight is the beauty and magical presence of nature. Without re-typing passages from the book (which I'm tempted -- but too tired -- to do), I cannot adequately explain the way that Hardy builds images with words and reproduces the fierce, destructive, yet also peaceful and healing properties of the natural world. The English countryside nearly becomes a separate character as its potent force affects people's lives just as much as human beings.

But indeed, this novel does not focus on nature to the exclusion of humans. Far from it. Simply explained, the story revolves around four main characters: Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful, proud, independent young woman who is mistress of her own farm; Gabriel Oak, a solid, responsible man whose loyalty and love to Bathseba are as steady as his character; Sergeant Troy, whose dashing good looks are tainted by his suspect reputation and morals (but his attractiveness has the potential to blind others to his faults); and Farmer Boldwood, a middle-aged, well-to-do man who is respected among his community yet keeps to himself and has successfully resisted the temptation to fall in love -- until now.

These four distinct personalities converge in Hardy's landscape. Their emotions and behavior change as rapidly and violently as the climate (with the exception of Oak, of course). Scorching sun gives way to relentless rain; vivid skies transform into dense blankets of clouds, rent by furious thunder. Seasons of growth give way to periods of scarcity, of tragedy, of hope, and of harvest. Of bitterness and of love. Death. Betrayal. Murder. But seemingly impregnable grief finally surrenders, and Hardy's conclusion arguably offers some semblance of promising renewal.

Commenting upon Time and Fate and the role that Chance plays in our lives, Hardy portrays a world ruled by the chaotic whims of an uncaring Universe. He also critiques the Victorian ideal of marriage and cynically views romantic relationships -- at least those that begin a blinding whirlwind of passion, as opposed to those with a more slow and steady beginning. Despite these sobering themes, I found myself enchanted with the prose and thoroughly enjoying the story. I can do nothing other than give it a very high recommendation.

Wise Children, by Angela Carter

I've read several books over the past month, and I simply haven't had a chance to write anything about them here. I'm currently in the midst of two other books, and will soon begin yet another. So, before I get completely bogged down, I want to at least leave brief comments on the three books I've read since August. The first, Wise Children, is the subject of this post.

This novel is an artfully designed, first-person narrative that lives up to its categorization as "magical realism." Blurring fact with fiction, truth with illusion, 75-year-old narrator Dora Chance tells the story of her life. From England to California and back to England again, Dora's adventures as a showgirl, along with her twin sister Nora, are enchanting, hilarious, heartbreaking, mystical, and at times dubious. True or not, every detail adds up to a climactic conclusion. Literally.

Dora and Nora are the illegitimate daughters of a famous Shakespearean actor. Craving and not receiving his love for most of their lives, the girls nevertheless idolize their father from afar. Meanwhile, they amass reputations of their own as they dance their way from stage to stage, lover to lover, celebration to misfortune. The narrative possesses a distinct theatricality that is consistent with Dora's vibrant and eccentric personality; she puts on a dazzling show for readers, inviting them to partake in her show's -- her life's -- pleasures and pains.

I was engrossed from the first page until the last. I think you will be, too.