Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy - Essay

Thomas Hardy


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Far from the Madding Crowd Thomas Hardy

The following is a summary of critical viewpoints on Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. See also Thomas Hardy Literary Criticism, Thomas Hardy Short Story Criticism, and Jude the Obscure Criticism.

Long considered one of England's foremost nineteenth-century novelists, Hardy established his reputation with the publication of Far from the Madding Crowd in 1874. It was the first of his so-called “Wessex novels,” set in a fictitious English county closely resembling Hardy's native Dorsetshire. The novel, whose title was borrowed from Thomas Gray's famous “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” initially appeared in magazine serial form and was the first Hardy work to be widely reviewed. Variations of its rustic characters and settings were to be repeated in several future novels. The novel's protagonist, Bathsheba Everdene, would also presage other strong Hardy heroines.

Plot and Major Characters

Bathsheba Everdene, who has inherited a large farm from her uncle, becomes the center of attention for three men. After a chance meeting with a gentle sheep farmer, Gabriel Oak, Gabriel proposes marriage to Bathsheba, but is refused, as she does not consider him a proper suitor. Gabriel loses most of his herd and becomes a faithful shepherd for Bathsheba. She then meets a neighboring well-to-do farmer, Mr. Boldwood, who impresses Bathsheba. She later capriciously sends him a valentine, which excites Boldwood, and he later proposes marriage. Bathsheba puts him off, but it is assumed that she will succumb. In a subplot, a marriage between Bathsheba's servant, Fanny Robin, and the dashing Sergeant Troy is stopped because of a misunderstanding. Troy turns his attentions to Bathsheba and impresses her with his dazzling sword practice. Troy gains her hand in marriage, leaving Boldwood heartbroken. Meanwhile, the hapless Fanny dies in the workhouse, and her body is brought back to Bathsheba's farm. Bathsheba discovers the corpse of a baby, Troy's child, beside that of Fanny. Troy then disappears, and when his clothes are discovered on a beach, it is presumed that he has drowned. Boldwood reappears on the scene, and Bathsheba agrees to marry him out of a sense of remorse. Troy, however, unexpectedly returns and is killed by the distraught Boldwood, who is later tried and found insane. Bathsheba is at last ready to see the true worth of Gabriel, who has faithfully waited like the Oak of his last name, and the two are married.

Major Themes

A facile interpretation of Far from the Madding Crowd would be that true love triumphs over adversity. Since Hardy's ending, however, has often been criticized as contrived, other dominant themes in the novel should be explored. The “Wessex” setting is almost a theme in itself, with the changeless rhythms of nature and agrarian life set against the vicissitudes which confront the characters. It is noteworthy that the most positively portrayed characters are those closest to the earth, such as Gabriel and the peasants who work the soil. The timelessness of the setting is contrasted with the struggles that the characters face against time and chance. Had Bathsheba not sent the valentine, had Fanny not missed her wedding, for example, the story would have taken an entirely different path. Another important theme is that virtue will ultimately be rewarded. Bathsheba's final acceptance of Gabriel is a form of redemption for her earlier willful behavior. The development of Bathsheba's character reinforces the ideas that vanity is futile and that rebellion will ultimately be put down for the good of the community. While Bathsheba ultimately is portrayed as a reformed character, the reader may find that her old feisty self was truly more interesting.

Critical Reception

Far from the Madding Crowd was the first Hardy novel to receive considerable critical attention. It was widely reviewed in England and also marked an important stage in the growth of Hardy's international reputation; the Paris journal Revue des deux mondes, for example, made it the occasion for a long survey-article on Hardy's work to date. After the appearance (anonymously) of the first installment, the Spectator observed that “If Far from the Madding Crowd is not written by George Eliot, then there is a new light among novelists.” Critics during a number of decades have noted that the early serialization of the novel presupposed certain conventions, which could account for the melodramatic nature of many of the scenes. Study of Hardy's manuscript has shown that he had to make extensive alterations in the portions of the novel referring to Fanny Robin and her illegitimate child. Hardy was widely read and respected at the turn of the twentieth century, but a perception that his work was mostly for a popular audience discouraged serious criticism for several decades. In 1940, a seminal issue of the Southern Review devoted solely to Hardy precipitated a rebirth in Hardy criticism. Early modern critics tended to praise Far from the Madding Crowd's evocation of rural life or its universality of theme. By the 1960s and 1970s, Freudian and feminist criticism predominated. In the 1980s and 1990s, critics used a wide variety of critical approaches to Far from the Madding Crowd. While some reviewers continued to adopt a New Critical stance, most were influenced by deconstructive or New Historical techniques. A few of the themes critics exploited were the forms of love in the novel, its subtexts, Hardy's narrative techniques, the relationship of Far from the Madding Crowd to Hardy's own life experiences, and the novel's treatment of gender and power. Reviews of film and television adaptations of the novel formed a wholly separate genre of criticism.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Desperate Remedies; A Novel (novel) 1871

Under the Greenwood Tree: A Rural Painting of the Dutch School (novel) 1872

A Pair of Blue Eyes: A Novel (novel) 1873

Far from the Madding Crowd (novel) 1874

The Hand of Ethelberta: A Comedy in Chapters (novel) 1876

The Return of the Native (novel) 1878

The Trumpet-Major: A Tale (novel) 1880

A Laodicean: A Novel (novel) 1881

Two on a Tower: A Romance (novel) 1882

The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character (novel) 1886

The Woodlanders (novel) 1887

Wessex Tales: Strange, Lively, and Commonplace (novel) 1888

A Group of Noble Dames (novel) 1891

Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (novel) 1892

Life's Little Ironies: A Set of Tales with Some Colloquial Sketches Entitled “A Few Crusted Characters” (novel) 1894

Jude the Obscure (novel) 1895

The Well-Beloved: A Sketch of a Temperament (novel) 1897

Wessex Poems and Other Verses, with Thirty Illustrations by the Author (novel) 1899

Poems of the Past and the Present (poetry) 1901

The Dynasts, Part First (novel) 1904

The Dynasts, Part Second (novel) 1906

The Dynasts, Part Third (novel) 1908

Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (poetry) 1909

A Changed Man, The Waiting Supper, and Other Tales (short fiction) 1913

Satires of Circumstance: Lyrics and Reveries with Miscellaneous Pieces (short fiction) 1914

Selected Poems (poetry) 1916

Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (poetry) 1917

Collected Poems (poetry) 1919

Late Lyrics and Earlier with Many Other Verses (poetry) 1922

The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall (novel) 1923

Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (poetry) 1925

Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (poetry) 1928

Chosen Poems (poetry) 1929

Thomas Hardy's Personal Writings: Prefaces, Literary Opinions, Reminiscences [edited by Harold Orel] (biography) 1966

The Literary Notes of Thomas Hardy [edited by Lennart A. Björk] (nonfiction) 1974

The Complete Poems [edited by James Gibson] (poetry) 1976

The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy [edited by Richard H. Taylor] (autobiography) 1978

The Variorum Edition of the Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy [edited by Gibson] (poetry) 1979

British Quarterly Review (review date April 1881)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mr. Hardy's Novels.” British Quarterly Review 73 (April 1881): 174-83.

[In the following excerpt from an early review of Hardy's novels, the critic compares Hardy to some of his contemporaries and points out the salient features of his fiction. However, the reviewer states that Far from the Madding Crowd is not one of Hardy's best works.]

When George Eliot died it was not unnatural that men should at once ask themselves if she who had been confessedly the greatest living English novelist had left any successor in the true province of literature. The question, floating in so many minds, was answered promptly and decidedly by one journal, not without...

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William Lyon Phelps (essay date 1909)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Phelps, William Lyon. “The Novels of Thomas Hardy.” North American Review 190 (1909): 502-14.

[In the following excerpt, Phelps notes Hardy's attention to religious architecture, his understanding of pastoral locations and characters in Far from the Madding Crowd and other works, and his juxtaposition of pessimism and humor.]

The father of Thomas Hardy wished his son to enter the church, and this object was the remote goal of his early education. At just what period in the boy's mental development Christianity took on the form of a meaningless fable we shall perhaps never know; but after a time he ceased to have even the faith of a grain of mustard...

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Herbert J. Muller (essay date summer 1940)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Muller, Herbert J. “The Novels of Thomas Hardy Today.” Southern Review 6, no. 1 (summer 1940): 214-24.

[In the following essay, Muller argues that, despite their faults, Hardy's novels survive because of the dignity of their characters and the universality of their appeal.]

In this knowing age, centennials are apt to be rather trying for the spirits of the departed. Critics come not to praise or to bury the artist but to “revalue” him; and in this performance they often treat his work primarily as a cultural symptom, a by-product of an age, an issue of deep unconscious forces—as an incidental illustration of something larger or more serious than the...

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Perry Meisel (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Meisel, Perry. “The Early Novels.” In Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Repressed, pp. 31-67. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972.

[In the following excerpt, Meisel offers a psychological study of three early works, emphasizing the tensions within Hardy which affected their composition.]

Hardy's life as an architect's pupil in Dorchester when he was twenty was “a triple existence unusual for a young man—what he used to call, in looking back, a life twisted of three strands—the professional life, the scholar's life, and the rustic life, combined in the twenty-four hours of one day, as it was with him through these years” (Life, p. 32)....

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Merryn Williams (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Williams, Merryn. “Far from the Madding Crowd.” In Thomas Hardy and Rural England, pp. 130-35. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Williams states that the worth of characters in Far from the Madding Crowd is measured by their level of concern for their farm livelihood and the members of their community.]

Far from the Madding Crowd is a much more substantial novel than its predecessors, and several themes which were only glanced at in Under the Greenwood Tree are now fully sustained. There is still a good deal of indifferent writing, and a tendency towards shallow philosophising, yet this is...

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Tom R. Sullivan (essay date 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sullivan, Tom R. “The Temporal Leitmotif in Far from the Madding Crowd.” Colby Library Quarterly 10 (1974): 296-303.

[In the following essay, Sullivan explores Hardy's notion of “evolutionary meliorism” as it is exhibited in various manifestations of the concept of time in Far from the Madding Crowd.]

Efforts to define Thomas Hardy's philosophical position go on, and on, and on. It has been argued by scholars, and repeated endlessly in seminar and term papers, that he viewed the world as a pessimist, a determinist, or a fatalist. Hardy himself did not want to be considered a philosopher,1 but he did, on a less abstract level then...

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Dale Kramer (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kramer, Dale. “Far from the Madding Crowd: The Non-Tragic Predessor.” In Thomas Hardy: The Forms of Tragedy, pp. 24-47. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975.

[In the following chapter from his study of Hardy and classic tragic forms, Kramer asserts that Far from the Madding Crowd is not a tragedy but does exhibit some of the tragic dichotomies, which would appear in later novels.]

The critical reputation of Far from the Madding Crowd has remained the most stable among Hardy's novels, and for good reason. Few issues tantalize and puzzle its readers. The first installment in Cornhill Magazine showed that it would be a...

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James M. Welsh (review date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Welsh, James M. “Hardy and the Pastoral, Schlesinger and Shepherds: Far from the Madding Crowd.” Literature Film Quarterly 9, no. 2 (1981): 79-84.

[In the following review of John Schlesinger's 1967 film version of Far from the Madding Crowd, Welsh points out the limitations of a compressed form of the novel.]

The director adapting a novel for a mass audience works from one of two possible assumptions: 1) that the viewer probably will not know the original work and therefore needs to be guided carefully through the narrative, or 2) that the viewer probably has read the original work and that key motifs and mutually understood distinctions and...

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Judith Bryant Wittenberg (essay date winter 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wittenberg, Judith Bryant. “Angles of Vision and Questions of Gender in Far from the Madding Crowd.” Centennial Review 30, no. 1 (winter 1986): 25-40.

[In the following essay, Wittenberg explores motifs of vision and sight in Far from the Madding Crowd as they relate to male-female relations.]

One of the more controversial issues in recent Hardy criticism concerns his attitudes toward and fictional treatments of women. For example, in a 1975 article, Katharine Rogers says that, although “Thomas Hardy repeatedly shaped his characters and plots to show his sympathy with women and his awareness of the disadvantages society laid upon them, …...

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Lionel Adey (essay date 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Adey, Lionel. “Styles of Love in Far from the Madding Crowd.” Thomas Hardy Annual 5 (1987): 47-62.

[In the following essay, based on a sociological study, Adey analyzes the kinds of love exhibited in Far from the Madding Crowd, especially as they relate to the character development of Bathsheba.]

At first sight, there appears little need for further study of lovers in Far From the Madding Crowd, and even less of their environment. To cite but a few critics, David Cecil has considered the courtship of Bathsheba, Virginia Hyman her moral development through her varied experience in love, George Wing her suitors, Douglas Brown her relation...

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William Mistichelli (essay date summer 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mistichelli, William. “Androgyny, Survival, and Fulfillment in Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd.” Modern Language Studies 18, no. 3 (summer 1988): 53-64.

[In the following essay, Mistichelli discusses themes of androgyny in Far from the Madding Crowd,, concluding that, in Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba finds a mate who will help her to fulfill her true humanity.]

In Far From The Madding Crowd uncertainty or ambiguity about sexual identities and roles becomes a recurring motif, especially in connection with the heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. Time and again in the novel, one encounters situations where outright confusion or some reversal...

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Robert M. Polhemus (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Polhemus, Robert M. “Pastoral Erotics: Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd (1874).” In Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D. H. Lawrence, pp. 223-50. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

[In the following chapter from his full-length study of eroticism in the works of several novelists, Polhemus examines representations of love and pastoralism in Far from the Madding Crowd, using Claude Lorrain's painting Judgment of Paris as a point of comparison.]

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Psalm 23:1

There's a somebody I'm longing to see

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Linda M. Shires (essay date winter 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shires, Linda M. “Narrative, Gender, and Power in Far from the Madding Crowd.” In Novel: A Forum on Fiction, 24, no. 2 (winter 1991): 162–77.

[In the following essay, Shires deconstructs the signifiers of gender and power in the novel, claiming that previous feminist critics have not sufficiently examined the contradictions and complexities in Hardy's portrayal of a nineteenth-century woman's place.]

“Are you a woman?”

“The woman—for it was a woman—approached.”1


In Chapter 44 of Far from the...

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Cris Yelland (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Yelland, Cris. “Hardy's Allusions and the Problem of ‘Pedantry’.” Australia Journal of Linguistics 4, no. 1 (1995): 17-30.

[In the following essay, Yelland builds on the work of previous critics in a discussion of whether Hardy's use of allusion is “pedantic,” and how Hardy's sense of cultural pluralism relates to Victorian concepts of high culture.]


A good deal of Hardy criticism, from Victorian reviews on, is severe on Hardy's faults of style. Elliott (1984: 13-19) opens with a brief but damning collection of critical hostility stretching from the first review of...

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H. M. Daleski (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Daleski, H. M. “Far from the Madding Crowd: The Only Love.” In Thomas Hardy and Paradoxes of Love, pp. 56-82. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Daleski analyzes the forms of love in Far from the Madding Crowd, placing it in the context of later novels.]


Far from the Madding Crowd, says Howard Babb, is “not in the same class with Hardy's later achievements”; and Irving Howe echoes him in stating it is a novel that “by no stretch of affection could be called major.”1 It seems to me, however, that if Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the...

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Clay Daniel (essay date December 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Daniel, Clay. “Hardy, Milton, and ‘The Storm—the Two Together’.” English Language Notes 37, no. 2 (December 1999): 32-41.

[In the following essay, Daniel discusses allusions to Milton's Paradise Lost in one chapter of Far from the Madding Crowd.]

One of Hardy's most memorable chapters is “The Storm—The Two Together” in Far From the Madding Crowd. An overlooked source for this scene is Milton's epic simile of the weighing scales in Paradise Lost. Hardy often alludes to authors such as Milton “to raise his novels from the level of pastoral romance to the realm of the masterpieces he so admired.”1 In “The...

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Penny Boumelha (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Boumelha, Penny. “The Patriarchy of Class: Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Woodlanders.” In The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, edited by Dale Kramer, pp. 130-44. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Boumelha emphasizes the complex interplay of representations of class and gender in Far from the Madding Crowd and two other Hardy novels.]

Central to all of the novels under discussion here is a story of love, courtship, and marriage. More particularly, for the central female character in each case, this central fable takes the form of an erotic or marital “double...

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Keith Selby (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Selby, Keith. “Hardy, History and Hokum.” In The Classic Novel: From Page to Screen, edited by Robert Giddings and Erica Sheen, pp. 93-113. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Selby examines screen adaptations of Far from the Madding Crowd by John Schlesinger and Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Roman Polanski, finding that the directors take liberties with Hardy's version of history and his interpretation of character.]

It was David Lodge, in an early article on The Return of the Native (1878), who first called Hardy a ‘cinematic’ novelist—by which he meant not that Hardy was influenced by film...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Draper, Ronald P., and Martin S. Ray. “Far from the Madding Crowd.” In An Annotated Critical Bibliography of Thomas Hardy, pp. 62-7. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1989.

A selected, annotated list of criticism on Far from the Madding Crowd.

Gerber, Helmut E., and W. Eugene Davis. Thomas Hardy: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him, edited by Helmut E. Gerber and W. Eugene Davis. DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974, 841 p.

Extensive annotated list of secondary works on the period 1871-1969.

Sherrick, Julie. “Far from the...

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