Before I begin, I need to ask: Why, oh why, has no one ever recommended Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd to me? But where lame English teachers and even bookish friends may have failed me, perhaps Calliope, the muse of poetry and literature, brought it to my attention.
I recently finished The Hunger Games trilogy, whose heroine is Katniss Everdeen, and Tamara Drewe, a modern re-telling in comics of Hardy’s classic. While reviewing Tamara Drewe, I looked up Far from the Madding Crowd, whose heroine is Bathsheba Everdene. The shared last name of the characters seemed too striking to be coincidence, confirmed in this interview with Suzanne Collins at Entertainment Weekly. Collins states Katniss and Bathsheba are very different, but after reading Hardy, I find a great number of similarities.* But this review is about the Hardy book, so back to it. The book begins with Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer who’s achieved some small success.
When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.
His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character.
When he sees the attractive Bathsheba Everdene, he is struck by her vanity, but soon smitten and proposes marriage. (Bathsheba is named after the married Biblical figure King David, a former shepherd, like Gabriel Oak, becomes smitten on sight with.) Miss Everdene politely but firmly rebuffs Gabriel. Their lives diverge; when they meet again, their circumstances are much changed, though Gabriel’s feelings for the indifferent Bathsheba are not. Through careless and capricious acts, she becomes involved with two more men who desire her: neighboring farmer Mr. Boldwood and handsome soldier Frank Troy. Thus she is part of a love quadrangle, not a triangle like the Biblical Bathsheba is. (King David sent her husband, Uriah, to war, passively but effectively removing his competition.)
Far from the Madding Crowd is a sort of ethnological portrait of the area of English countryside that would become known as Wessex, largely due to its centrality in Hardy’s novels. It’s a character development novel of Bathsheba, an intelligent and complicated female character. It’s also a plot-driven story, intermixing tragic and humorous passages (many of the latter at the expense of women and the rustics, however) on its way to a satisfying, yet subtly complicated ending.
I found Far from the Madding Crowd an involving, provocative book and am glad for the serendipity that led me to it. Though the story was easy to follow, I sometimes felt the prose was difficult. Hardy’s writing is lyrical, but his sentences are often complex, including many instances of parallel, contrasting description and analogy, such as this early passage on Farmer Oak:
when his friends and critics were in tantrums, he was considered rather a bad man; when they were pleased, he was rather a good man; when they were neither, he was a man whose moral colour was a kind of pepper-and-salt mixture.
By the end of his life, Thomas Hardy was known more for his poetry, and had given up writing novels. He was so beloved by the readers of England that they were unwilling to grant his wish to be buried in Wessex. Instead, a gruesome compromise was reached. His heart was removed and buried in Wessex with his first wife, while the ashes of his body were interred in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Far from the Madding Crowd was one of his earliest novels, and his first commercial and critical success. Highly recommended, especially for bookish nerds like me who enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy. Also, if you are already a fan of Hardy or this book, I encourage you to seek out the graphic novel Tamara Drewe. The recent movie has received middling reviews, but Posy Simmonds’ novel is a treat.
*Similarities of Katniss to Bathsheba. (The characters of Gabriel and Peeta are similar as well: strong, moral, uncomplicated men who adore a woman who values friendship over erotic love.) Both characters are strong women capable of not only surviving but being powerful in a male-dominated society. Both are loved by multiple men, for whom the women have complicated and conflicting feelings. Both would prefer to avoid marriage. In this passage, Bathsheba is likened to the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana, who is also a model for the arrow-toting, marriage-averse, chaste-minded Katniss:
Although she scarcely knew the divinity’s name, Diana was the godddess whom Bathseba instinctively adored. that she had never, by look, word, or sign, encouraged a man to approach her–that she had felt herself sufficient to herself, and had in the independence of her girlish heart fancied there was a certain degradation in renouncing the simplicityof a maiden existance to become the humbler half of an indifferent matrimonial whole
Near the end of Hardy’s book, Bathsheba collapses and gives way to emotions echoed by Katniss near the end of Collins’ Mockingjay, including the capacity of being cool-headed and capable in moments of crisis, as Katniss is:
Once that she had begun to cry for she hardly knew what, she could not leave off for crowding thoughts she knew too well. She would have given anything in the world to be, as those children were, unconcerned at the meaning of their words, because too innocent to feel the necessity for any such expression. All the impassioned scenes of her brief experience seemed to revive with added emotion at that moment, and those scenes which had been without emotion during enactment had emotion then.
The similarities I found went far beyond the last names of the characters, to their natures, to other characters, and even to the plot. This was a fascinating companion read to the Hunger Games trilogy.