One of the joys of reading Far from the Madding Crowd comes from experiencing its rich and detailed descriptive language. Hardy, as the novel reveals, knew his artists, and many of his scenes read as if they are descriptions of lush tableaus from romantic paintings or, in their play of light and shadow, scenes from a Dutch painting. In contrast, his narration is often more ironic and acerbic and laced with wry humor than his description, more reminiscent of Jane Austen's acute social commentary or an eighteenth-century epigram from Dr. Johnson (who is alluded to in the first chapter) than like a romantic landscape. The description and narration cannot be entirely separated, however, and in chapter 37, the wild, romantic description of a storm mirrors the emotions of the characters.
I will use more quotes than I usually do to make my point. First, examples of narration show Hardy's tendency to be ironic or acerbic. In one epigrammatic (making a witty, universal statement) bit of narration, the narrator says:
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.”
This statement reveals a cynical view of marriage: "a short cut for getting out of love," and one that isn't even guaranteed for that!
Again, narration worthy of Jane Austen shows how Boldwood might be the closest "approach to aristocracy" in this small corner of the world, but that he is nothing to outside world. The outsiders overlook him in their quest for an aristocrat, an ironic situation:
Boldwood was tenant of what was called Little Weatherbury Farm, and his person was the nearest approach to aristocracy that this remoter quarter of the parish could boast of. Genteel strangers, whose god was their town, who might happen to be compelled to linger about this nook for a day, heard the sound of light wheels, and prayed to see good society, to the degree of a solitary lord, or squire at the very least, but it was only Mr. Boldwood going out for the day. They heard the sound of wheels yet once more, and were re-animated to expectancy: it was only Mr. Boldwood coming home again.
Below, there is a wry quality, a bit of irony in this description of the hero Gabriel and an ironic take on how the town understands him:
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. 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. Or, to state his character as it stood in the scale of public opinion, 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.
Again, we see irony in the fact the a dog, called only George's son, has to bear the punishment for the loss of the flock:
George's son had done his work so thoroughly that he was considered too good a workman to live, and was, in fact, taken and tragically shot at twelve o'clock that same day—another instance of the untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise.
And this wry epigram, another bit of narration, could have been written by an eighteenth-century rationalist:
It is rarely that the pleasures of the imagination will compensate for the pain of sleeplessness.
In contrast, Hardy's descriptions tend to the lush and romantic, imitate painting, and conjure up the artists he is thinking of by name from time to time. Here he mentions Poussin:
That matters should continue pleasant Maryann spoke, who, what with her brown complexion, and the working wrapper of rusty linsey, had at present the mellow hue of an old sketch in oils—notably some of Nicholas Poussin's...
In this passage, the opening to the chapter on the Malthouse, the light and shadow conjure a Dutch Old Master. This is not where Hardy inserts his irony:
Warren's Malthouse was enclosed by an old wall inwrapped with ivy, and though not much of the exterior was visible at this hour, the character and purposes of the building were clearly enough shown by its outline upon the sky. From the walls an overhanging thatched roof sloped up to a point in the centre, upon which rose a small wooden lantern, fitted with louvre-boards on all the four sides, and from these openings a mist was dimly perceived to be escaping into the night air. There was no window in front; but a square hole in the door was glazed with a single pane, through which red, comfortable rays now stretched out upon the ivied wall in front. Voices were to be heard inside. ...
The room inside was lighted only by the ruddy glow from the kiln mouth, which shone over the floor with the streaming horizontality of the setting sun, and threw upwards the shadows of all facial irregularities in those assembled around. The stone-flag floor was worn into a path from the doorway to the kiln, and into undulations everywhere. A curved settle of unplaned oak stretched along one side, and in a remote corner was a small bed and bedstead, the owner and frequent occupier of which was the maltster.
In describing the dog, George, Hardy lavishes the same rich descriptive detail as in describing landscape or interiors, likening George to a Turner painting:
Gabriel had two dogs. George, the elder, exhibited an ebony-tipped nose, surrounded by a narrow margin of pink flesh, and a coat marked in random splotches approximating in colour to white and slaty grey; but the grey, after years of sun and rain, had been scorched and washed out of the more prominent locks, leaving them of a reddish-brown, as if the blue component of the grey had faded, like the indigo from the same kind of colour in Turner's pictures.
In chapter 37, description, lushly romantic and as if taken from a landscape painting depicting the sublime, mirrors the interior emotional (and sexually charged) state of the characters:
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 nature of a shout than of anything else earthly. In the meantime one of the grisly forms had alighted upon the point of Gabriel's rod, to run invisibly down it, down the chain, and into the earth. Gabriel was almost blinded, and he could feel Bathsheba's warm arm tremble in his hand—a sensation novel and thrilling enough; but love, life, everything human, seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe.
Hardy's novel, in its back and forth between lush and painterly description and ironic narration, creates a rich and multi-hued tableau, part of what makes him a great writer.