What is the importance of the rustic characters in Far From the Madding Crowd?
Hardy is famed for his portrayal of the nineteenth-century rural England in his fiction. The ordinary inhabitants of the English countryside, the rustics, are a vital component in his work – and never more so than in Far from the Madding Crowd, the novel that first brought him fame as a writer.
One of the important functions of the countryfolk in this novel – Joseph Poorgrass, Jan Coggan, and the like – is to provide commentary on the main action. In this way, they resemble the chorus of ancient Greek drama. Their homely, earthy, old-time wisdom is evident in their conversation. They sagely debate the actions and fate of the main characters, Bathsheba Everdene and her three suitors. They have a realistic, practical attitude about things that the main characters often lack. For instance, their attitude to death is straightforward, as can be seen when Joseph Poorgrass is conveying the body of Fanny Robin to the church. He stops off at the tavern on the way and Jan Coggan persuades him not to hurry away, because:
The poor woman’s dead, and you can’t bring her to life, and you may as well sit down comfortable, and finish another with us. (chapter 42)
Jan Coggan, then, states the situation matter-of-factly, while also displaying sympathy for the deceased.
The rustics also provide some lighthearted moments in the book, as a kind of comic relief from the more serious events surrounding the main characters. Perhaps, though, their single most important function is to provide a sense of solidity and tradition in the story. They are in tune with nature, they move with the seasons, they plough their farms, gather in the harvest, tend their animals, celebrate age-old festivals, uphold ancient customs. It all adds up to a way of life that has persisted for centuries. In this manner the rustics provide a sense of continuity and rootedness.
In reality, of course, there was a prolonged depression in English agriculture around this time, as more and more people flocked to higher-paid work in towns and cities. But there is no real sense of this in this particular novel; the countryside and its inhabitants are seen in a generally positive light.