Monday, January 13, 2020

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Source of book: I own this. 

I think I came to Thomas Hardy somewhat backwards. The husband of my longtime violin teacher gave me his extra hardback of Jude the Obscure when I was a teen (along with a bunch of other stuff - including my introduction to Anthony Trollope and P. G. Wodehouse), and I put it on my shelf, hoping to eventually read it. I kind of knew in advance that it was Hardy’s last novel, and was so scandalous for its time that it caused an outcry, which then hurt Hardy’s feelings, causing him to never write another novel, instead focusing on increasingly pessimistic and bitter poetry. At least, that’s how I learned it in high school English Lit class. It wasn’t entirely inaccurate, of course. What was left out was that Hardy had some circumstances in his life which directly influenced the novel. (I summarized them in my post on his final poetry collection, Winter Words.) In any event, Jude the Obscure rather traumatized me with its bitter pessimism and vicious misogyny. The “scandal” of its day, the pointed mocking of the hypocrisy of puritanical religion and classism of higher education actually aged really well. I would say that those parts of the book resonate well in our own day. But the misogyny, driven by the catastrophic breakdown of his marriage, is so nasty that it taints the whole book. The psychological place he was in at the time led him to portray women as inherently untrustworthy, nay, as scheming snakes out to ruin men for their own reasons, and the book thus denies its female characters any humanity worthy of sympathy. As I found out later, Hardy regretted his break with his wife, and rather deified her after her death. So the whole thing is, to say the least, complex. 

After that, I avoided Hardy for years. I did, however, find a paperback copy of Under the Greenwood Tree, and gave it a chance. That book was his second published work (published anonymously), and the first of his “Wessex” novels. I really enjoyed that one, in large part because of its story about village musicians (hey, that’s my sort of thing!) and the “worship wars” - the generational difference between musical styles - which dominated my own church experience for years. 

I mentioned Winter Words, above. I own Hardy’s complete poetry, and decided to start from the back, just to be different. His poetry is enjoyable, I would say, and often more subtle than his novels. 

I decided last year to make an effort to read one of Hardy’s mature Wessex novels. I own the four best known: Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I went with Far From the Madding Crowd mostly because of the use of the word “madding,” which is often misread as “maddening.” Now, for an introvert like myself, crowds can become rather maddening (as in driving one insane), but the word “madding” refers to movement. A “madding crowd” is a large group of people milling around in a swarm, so to speak. Whether that drives you mad, or exhilarates you depends on personality. 

Written in 1874, Far From the Madding Crowd was Hardy’s first true commercial hit, and enabled him to give up his day job (as an architect) and write full time. The title was taken from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a poem 125 years old at that point, but which captured Hardy’s vision of portraying a rural England which was, but which was fading away. 

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way

This idea of the sequestered life, rigid roles and types, is key to understanding the book, in my view. The characters aren’t so much people as they are metaphors, archetypes rather than individuals, expressions of the land and culture in which they live. This is pretty obvious in the minor characters, which are practically purchased in bulk from the bin of minor rural English characters. Although 150 years ago, the characters were far more novel than now, it is impossible not to imagine Hardy shopping at Hackney’s Novel Shop, the delightful invention of my friend Sara. (“Need a simple yet goodhearted farmhand, given to getting ‘double vision’ after a nip in the local pub? You’ve come to the right place. I’ll throw in a rakish soldier and the girl he knocks up for free...”) Even the major characters do not seem to be full human characters so much as they are representations of facets of the rural English character. Don’t get me wrong: there is quite a bit of psychological depth to the three main actors. But even this depth is driven by their type. It is hard to explain this sensation, but if you read the book, I think it is easy enough to feel. 

Whatever the “idyllic” character of the fictional “Wessex” - essentially rural Southwestern England - the plot is anything but that. It is pretty dang sensational and scandalous. If you want to be surprised, I recommend stopping here, reading the book, and then coming back, because spoilers are necessary from this point on. 

I would say that the plot centers on a combination of a love triangle and a “love pyramid” - as far as I know, I coined that term. This is not to be confused with a love quadrilateral, where there are four points which connect to two others, but not to all three. In this case, there is one person (the female) at the pinnacle, with the three men at the base vying for her. With, as might be expected, tragic results. 

First, the pyramid. At the apex is Bathsheba Everdene (um, definitely no metaphorical names in this book, no sir…) She is an attractive young woman who starts off fairly poor, but suddenly inherits a farm from a relative, and becomes the most eligible bachelorette for miles around. Three men desire her. First is Gabriel Oak, the solid, stolid, steadfast, reliable young shepherd, fallen on hard times after a doofus dog ruins his flock. Second is Farmer Boldwood, an older gentleman who has never really related well to women, but who is suddenly smitten with Bathsheba after she plays a spurious joke on him. (She sends him a valentine saying “marry me” despite having no interest in him.) The third is Sergeant Troy, the son of a nobleman who has taken military orders, and who is a rake in every sense of the word. So, sense the theme with these names yet? As go the names, so go the personalities. All three of these desire Bathsheba, but take completely different approaches to this desire. 

Then, we get to the love triangle. Before meeting Bathsheba, Troy has already loved Fanny Robin, a young servant girl who used to work for Bathsheba’s predecessor. Due to a mixup, she fails to go to the right church, and doesn’t end up marrying Troy. This is the heart of the tragedy that dominates the book. 

The triangle is necessary to the plot, but it is really the pyramid which drives the psychological drama. 

I would go so far as to consider Sergeant Troy a more minor character in this sense: while he is a major character as far as importance to the plot, we get very little of his inner life. He comes and goes, but he is a protean force, not a complex human. He loves, or better, lusts, like an animal, and reacts without thinking through the implications. 

In contrast, the motivations and struggles of Bathsheba, Gabriel, and Boldwood are all examined at length, and it is their fates which truly matter. (Anyone who isn’t relieved to some degree when Troy finally meets his quietus is someone I wouldn’t recommend dating.) 

If I were to describe the three archetypes represented here, I would do it as follows. Bathsheba is kind of the facets of the “feminine” rolled into one. She is, on the one hand, competent and strong. On the other, she is (in the irritating Victorian stereotype) vulnerable to emotion, and thus unable to keep to a steady purpose in love. Is she an inspiration or a cautionary tale? That isn’t clear. But Hardy definitely seems to adopt the attitude of the Victorian Male and assume that she will be at her best when taken well in hand by the right sort of man. (An idea which, ironically, is undermined by the way he portrays her before her unfortunate adventures in love…) 

Boldwood, on the other hand, is the unstable masculine. Hardy seems almost oblivious to the way that Boldwood is even more emotional and unstable than Bathsheba - he insists on using feminine ideas of “weakness” to describe her, while explaining his excesses as, well, excesses of passion and spirits. It isn’t that he candy-coats Boldwood’s issues - rather the contrary - it is just that the gendered way in which these are described hasn’t aged all that well. 

Gabriel Oak, in contrast to the others, is a man for all times, perhaps. After the initial catastrophe that overtakes him, and renders him (in his own mind, at least) as an utterly unsuitable suitor for Bathsheba, he takes on the “stiff upper lip, stout fellow” British archetype, and proceeds with his life and his looking out for Bathsheba despite knowing he has no chance. Although almost superhuman in his stoicism (he is an archetype, not a realistic character), he does represent an ideal of goodness. An earthy, everyday, simple goodness. He has his emotional struggles, of course. And he is relatable in many ways. But he never really slips up and becomes a full human with genuine weakness. 

That isn’t really the point, though. Far From the Madding Crowd is neither a novel of manners nor a coming of age story. It’s drama is as much between forces as humans. The protean and the rooted, bold and the patient. And, I might add, the three-fold choice that Bathsheba faces. Does she want the financially and socially obvious choice, that is, Boldwood? Or does she want the dashing and romantic Troy? Or will she eventually go with the gentle friendship of Oak? All three represent compromise in some way, alas. 

In my opinion, Hardy isn’t my favorite Victorian novelist, although this book was indeed good. That place remains Anthony Trollope’s to lose, followed by George Eliot. But reading this book at least helped me understand why he has the reputation he does. This is a compelling book, and his writing is better than I remember in either of the others I read. 

Here are some examples of passages or phrases which stood out to me. 

On the first page, there is a description of Gabriel Oak, the first character we meet. 

On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people of the parish and the drunken section, -- that is, he went to church, but yawned privately by the time the congregation reached the Nicene creed, and thought of what there would be for dinner when he meant to be listening to the sermon. 

This might be a description of Hardy himself, who was never a particularly devoted churchgoer, and became increasingly agnostic as he aged. I love the phrase “Laodicean neutrality” thought. 

I also loved the line after Bathsheba rejects Oak’s clumsy proposal, and leaves the neighborhood. 

It may have been observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in. Some people look upon marriage as a short cut that way, but it has been known to fail.

I know this is a variant on the old joke, but I still like the delightful twist of phrase that Hardy uses. 

Another pithy distillation of an age-old thought comes when Bathsheba contemplates Boldwood’s offer of marriage. She thinks he is disinterested. (Not to be confused with uninterested - although the two are conflated all the time these days.) But Hardy points out that this isn’t the case. 

Yet Farmer Boldwood, whether by nature kind or the reverse to kind, did not exercise kindness here. The rarest offerings of the purest loves are but a self-indulgence, and no generosity at all.

I really had to think about this one for a while, but I think Hardy is right. Sit with that thought a while, and think about those you know who consider themselves the most me on this. 

Without a doubt, the most brilliant scene in the book comes about two thirds of the way through. Bathsheba has (spoiler!) married the dissolute Troy, and he has thrown a party and made most of the town drunk as hell. Oak realizes from his knowledge of nature that a huge storm is coming in, and the harvest is sitting out and vulnerable. He works most of the night by himself before Bathsheba joins him. The two of them work together in the gathering lightning until the storm hits in its fury. I could literally quote several pages here, the writing is so good, and the scene so unforgettable. Here is just a taste:

Heaven opened then, indeed. The flash was almost too novel for its inexpressibly dangerous nature to be at once realized, and they could only comprehend the magnificence of its beauty. It sprang from east, west, north, south, and was a perfect dance of death. The forms of skeletons appeared in the air, shaped with blue fire for bones--dancing, leaping, striding, racing around, and mingling altogether in unparalleled confusion. With these were intertwined undulating snakes of green, and behind these was a broad mass of lesser light. Simultaneously came from every part of the tumbling sky what may be called a shout; since, though no shout ever came near it, it was more of the mature of a shout than of anything else earthly.  

I have been through some wicked electrical storms over the years. I particularly think of one where we watched the lightning roll in at Encino Park when I was a kid. Or the one on the Navajo Reservation. Or that one out at Arches National Park (where I got my best ever lightning photo), or several in the Sierras while hiking or camping. Although the craziest still has to be getting caught in a squall in Grand Staircase Escalante with the kids, where we literally wondered if we needed to lay flat on the ground or risk a strike. Hardy does a great job here in evoking the feeling. 

Hardy also uses meteorological conditions as metaphors for the plot as well. After Fanny dies in childbirth, he uses the term “atmospheric fungi” to describe the building clouds, and then the fog which incites Joseph Poorgrass to get drunk out of his skull at the pub rather than do his duty and return the bodies to the town. 

The final line I want to mention, though, is pretty devastating. Although not nearly as nasty as Hardy would get in Jude, there is already a foreshadowing of his distrust of feminine wiles. After the culminating tragedy of the plot, Oak gives notice that he will leave Bathsheba’s employ, and perhaps seek his fortune in California. She finds herself unexpectedly devastated. Now, fine enough to acknowledge that the two of them love each other, and that she is sad to lose a friend. But this little twist of the knife by Hardy is brutal. 

She was aggrieved and wounded that the possession of hopeless love from Gabriel, which she had grown to regard as her inalienable right for life, should have been withdrawn just at his own pleasure in this way. 

I regard this as a misstep on Hardy’s part. Don’t get me wrong. I know and have known women (and men!) like this, who get their rocks off on knowing that someone hopelessly desires them one way or another. (Either romantically, as a friend, or as a status symbol. See, for example, the mean girls who want everyone jealous of them. Or The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named and his need to be the center of attention at all times.) For that matter, I have had a personal experience of someone who was pissed as hell when my wife and I decided to cut this person out of our lives rather than put up with the abuse any longer. I think [s]he did regard the ability to inflict drama on us to be his/her inalienable right for life. 

But this is an injustice to Bathsheba, who, for whatever weaknesses she has, isn’t a narcissist like that. Rather, it is her own conscience that leads her to commit more to Boldwood than she should, because she feels guilty at having pranked him and given him the wrong impression that she loves him. I think Hardy slips a bit of his distrust of women into this line, and misses that he is contradicting his carefully constructed characterization. It also undermines the final resolution. If Bathsheba is really this manipulative and self-absorbed, she is hardly the soulmate for Oak that Hardy then endeavors to portray her as being. If she is this way, she will make Oak - and anyone else foolish enough to marry her - miserable. But the rest of the portrayal of her personality undercuts this. She is flawed, but she isn’t even close to cruel. A better way to understand her is to realize that she is very young, and thrust into responsibility she was not trained or expected to assume. She was not prepared either for the relentless pursuit by a wealthy older man or for infatuation with a charming rake. It isn’t really that she believes she is entitled to use Oak as she wishes. Rather, she just unthinkingly takes his loyal friendship for granted. She doesn’t really appreciate what she has until it is gone. Which is a rather different thing. 

Far From the Madding Crowd is a compelling book, I will say. It has its flaws, primarily Hardy’s inability to really understand women. I would contrast both Anthony Trollope, who can be both a conservative Victorian and make all his characters, male and female, nuanced and recognizably human; and George Eliot, who, being female herself, sees no need to indulge the Victorian male-driven stereotypes in the first place. 

But Hardy has his strengths too. His observation and description of a time and place are compelling, and his analysis of the tension between the expectations of society and the need to be true to one’s own self and conscience are as timeless as ever. Of the novels of his I have read, I think this one is the best, although the other two have their strengths. I hope to eventually read his other major works, including more of his poetry. 

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