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.


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