It seems to me Thomas Hardy gets very little attention in the U.S. – he is not read in school or included as part of a common culture the way Twain, Dickens, Austen, Dickinson, Salinger, and so on are. And so I passed through many years without reading a single Hardy novel. This tragic error was finally corrected a year or two ago when I finally read Tess of the d’Urbervilles – a powerful, haunting book. Tess kept popping up in my brain until I ultimately decided to read another Hardy and see if they would all stick with me so tenaciously. The choice of book both times came as an accident – that is, I found 50 cent used copies at Goodwill or a library sale and tucked them away for future reading.

This time, the book was Far from the Madding Crowd which, I have since read, is the only of Hardy’s books with a semi-happy ending. Well, lucky me. If I had to deal with another Tess haunting me, the strain might have put me off Hardy for a bit, no matter how great his skill.

The way I think of Hardy is this:

If a teacher asked, “What is a novel?”, Far from the Madding Crowd would be the kid wiggling in his seat hand stuck as high in the air as possible puffing “OOH! ME! ME!” Hardy is truly the master of the traditional novel – he brings all the elements together seamlessly: characters, prose, setting, plot. This conventionality is not a flaw, though nowadays many authors strive to break the mold. Can we really complain of lack of originality with such characters, such prose, with a whole little world so perfectly constructed and a plot paced so that it is gripping but allows space for reflection, time to catch up? But beyond how pleasant the book is to read: Hardy seems to stir up all kinds of thoughts in me. The depiction of women, the consequences of one’s actions, the individual characters, the nature of relationships. These are the issues I wish to touch briefly upon.

I have to admit that as a woman and as a person who has read books written in previous times by men – Hardy struck me immediately as startlingly feminist for his time. It was Tess that first gave me this impression. I know others have read it differently – but the arguments against him sounded out of tune, unable to understand the position and opportunities of women in such a time and place. It is clear throughout the novel that Hardy’s sympathies lie with Tess – even the subtitle makes it abundantly clear. A woman scorned by all who know of her past, a woman certainly looked down upon by society at large in Hardy’s time (probably ours as well) – and he is unabashedly on her side. I think the clearest example of this is when she and Angel tell each other of their pasts – they have committed the same transgression, except that hers was not by choice. Yet he cannot accept it and immediately abandons her. This baring of the double standard strikes me as quite deliberate. Well, after reading Tess, I thought that it might just be an anomaly – or perhaps I was misreading the entire thing. It is hard to get the original intent from a modern perspective. After reading Far from the Madding Crowd, however, I remain quite impressed with Hardy’s treatment of women, so different from other writers of the time and many later writers as well.

Beyond his sympathy for Tess, Hardy’s female characters (at least in the two books I’ve read thus far) seem … well, human. At least as well developed as the male characters – perhaps more so. Tess is certainly the fullest character of her book. Far from the Madding Crowd boasts the complex and intriguing Bathsheba, but the males are not altogether neglected. Troy and Boldwood fill certain roles, but Gabriel Oak gets a bit of a closer look. If he cannot quite compete with Bathsheba, well, it might just be because he is a quieter gentler person by nature, not an underdeveloped character.  Still, Hardy’s woman are at least equal to men as characters – which is more rare than many realize.

Bathsheba’s role as farmer in Far from the Madding Crowd made me nervous – what a good opportunity to show a woman failing when she tries a man’s work. And fail she did – yet her failure was carefully balanced with Boldwood’s failure. Both Bathsheba and Boldwood were enticed into obsessive love that left them neglectful of their responsibilities. Bathsheba at times less so even than Boldwood – thus it was not a female failing at all, but one that can strike any individual, male or female. When she was not made incapable by obsession, she was shown to be very good, despite her sex and her age. And possessing determination enough to battle all those who doubted her. It seems rather carefully balanced – yes, she neglected her farm, but so did a man! For the same reason! Bathsheba is a fascinating character in many ways, especially as a woman, but her general success as a farmer was definitely heartening to read.

Another fascinating aspect of Far from the Madding Crowd is how volatile life is, as Hardy portrays it. The smallest action can have huge consequences. Gabriel leaves his dog out for the night – all his sheep die and he is left penniless, roaming around looking for work. He happens to fall asleep in a wagon headed for Bathsheba’s farm. He happens to notice a fire. Bathsheba sends a silly valentine to a man she barely knows and it ordains her torment, marriage, husband’s death and former suitor’s condemnation – what a valentine. Fanny goes to the wrong church and Troy leaves in fury. Each action is important and life is just so precarious. Things can change in a moment and actions might have consequences way down the line that you’d never expect. It seems very appropriate to Hardy’s world – the rural world dependent upon the whims of nature and fortune. This is not a world that can be regulated, people cannot control what happens. And yet, there’s no hint that a greater force is at work, that there is some sort of heavenly plan or the gods will come and fix anything – it’s more of a sense that well, nature is a bitch but we get along as best we can and salvage all that there is left. Even in this, the Hardy book with the happy ending, it’s a grim world we face.

This is brought home by the ending – the line of the book that haunts me is one of the last, which refers to someone making a joke, at which Gabriel laughed but Bathsheba only smiled – because she seldom laughed anymore. Yes, Bathsheba seems a bit broken in the end – feelingguilty for all that has happened. Will she laugh again? Perhaps. But this line really drives home how horrid it all is. She might have finally found peace, but she’s lost her joy. All because of a girlish prank and a few silly mistakes – mistakes made as a young girl working as a farmer in a man’s world with no sort of guide or friend to help her find her way or understand what love is.

And speaking of love. Far from the Madding crowd offers us plenty of variety here. Let’s deal with what to me seems the most shallow first: Boldwood’s love for Bathsheba and Bathsheba’s love for Troy. These are two different faces of the same monster. Boldwood’s love is a possessive, selfish sort. Bathsheba’s is a needy, desperate sort – but they are both obsessive and with little concern for the wellbeing of the other. With little knowledge or care for the personality of the beloved. Naturally, each ends in tragedy. Then there are Fanny and Troy. Fanny’s love for Troy may be true, but it’s not clear that she sees him for what he is. She may be just young, but she is certainly blind. Troy … well … made out to be the villain, it becomes clear that he did truly love Fanny. A despicable man, certainly – but I believe I discussed in a recent post the power of making the villain human. He was vain, flippant, irresponsible – he manipulated people, especially women and clearly had a temper and could hold a mean grudge – his attention would fly to the brightest object at any given moment – but in the end, he did love Fanny and was miserable with guilt at her death.

And then there’s Gabriel. At first, Gabriel’s love for Bathsheba seems … a matter of convenience. He is getting started as a farmer and along comes this woman. She is a bit unique, he falls in love, she refuses him. Yet his love endures – perhaps he saw more of her in those first chapters than we realized. Perhaps he understood her better than we thought possible through such brief interaction. His love certainly plays out well. He supports anything that will bring her happiness. He tells her the truth instead of trying to flatter. He holds no illusions about her character that might shatter with her actions. He is occasionally disappointed, yes, but it does not change his opinion of her. No, it seems indeed that Gabriel Oak knew just what she was about and fell in love with exactly that. Disappointed in love, he wished for her wellbeing and stayed around to do all he could to ensure it. There might be some doubt about Bathsheba’s love for Gabriel, but certain prior scenes do stand out as a good basis for a lasting relationship – throughout the novel, it becomes clear that Bathsheba values his opinion above anyone else’s and relies on only him in times of need. Definitely could result in a love of the kind Gabriel has for her – based upon the person and not illusion. Something that might endure and mesh with life, work and success rather than against them.

So, these are some of the initial thoughts I had after reading my second Hardy book. I will probably read another somewhat soon – perhaps the Mayor of Casterbridge – but think I might wait awhile. If Far from the Madding Crowd is the happy one, I might need to brace myself for the next.