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Far from the Madding Crowd Thomas Hardy

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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

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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)

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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 influence on opinion, which claimed the falling mantle for Mr. Thomas Hardy. It was a surprise to many who read the words that such a claim should have been made; the English public, greedy for amusement, careless about good, finished, and subtle literary work, is very slow to understand that of stories which have charmed a leisure hour some are destined to pass into complete forgetfulness, having merely served to waste a part of the season, while others become a part of the literature of the country, to be read and re-read, and to place their characters as living beings among the viewless companions of our thoughts.

The power of creating personages which live, and become even more real than many historic phantasms is rarer than we may think. Most people who make pretensions to the study of literature have read not only Shakspere, but Ben Jonson and Dryden, to say nothing of Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, Wycherly, Congreve, Farquhar. Yet while the mere titles, the plot, and many isolated passages remain in the memory, how few there are who could name more than the title-character of any one play, who could be sure that they would not give to one author or to one play the dramatis personœ of another, while they no more confuse Shakspere's plays than they mentally assign the children or the wife of one friend to another, or travel into the Midland Counties to visit one who lives in Devonshire.

Now if we ask ourselves who in English fiction have made their brain children our familiar friends, whom not to know is to be wanting in acquaintance with letters, and with the thought of the past and present, we shall find they are but few, Shakspere, Fielding, Richardson, Miss Burney, perhaps—though her king, princes, and royal household are, for a wonder, more real than her fictitious characters—Sir Walter Scott, Miss Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, and for those who have once become imbued with the spirit of his works, Hardy.

We shall see the difference between any of these and their fellows by taking authors whose works ran side by side—Miss Ferrier with Sir Walter Scott, Mrs. Brunton with Miss Austen. In Miss Ferrier's work Miss Pratt stands out with exceeding vividness, but we believe that many would find it difficult to say in which novel she found her place; and who can recall a single character in Mrs. Brunton's very clever novels, ‘Self Controul’ and ‘Discipline’? In the creation of living persons, not mere lay figures round whom dress, furniture, scenery are to be arranged, we believe that the author we are now to study is the successor of George Eliot. The test is one any reader can apply, and to those who do so we have every confidence that Fancy Day and Dick Dewey, Ethelberta Petherwin, Clym Yeobright and Eustacia Vye, Parson Swancourt, and all the host of minor persons, each with its own distinctive mark, will become to their minds and memories as real and indestructible, say, as Adam Bede or Romola, and even as those drawn by Shakspere's mighty hand, though they lack his perfect art.

Another test is one which is not so sure, since there is not, in spite of Mr. Matthew Arnold, any definite standard of literary excellence. There are those who imagine that Mrs. Henry Wood writes English, and that Ouida knows the value of the words she uses; they are wholly unable to distinguish between the faculty which is amused by an intricate if impossible plot, and that which tries and weighs style, plot, characters, the thought and learning involved in rather than displayed upon the book, against the masterpieces of fiction which the criticism of time has already tested and pronounced genuine. This test is that of literary style, wholly neglected by the majority of our novelists, whose name is Legion. The most part aim at telling their story, and depend on the story only for any value the book may possess. Some who are agreeable narrators, and who give a picture of the time in which we live fairly enough in its superficial aspects, write in a style which we feel to be simply abominable the moment we pause to consider the words in which the story is conveyed. Perhaps no writers of the nonenduring, merely ephemeral, yet pleasant kind, have ever written more or been more widely read than Mr. Trollope and Mrs. Oliphant. We doubt if there is in all their writings one single passage on which any reader has ever dwelt for its own sake, for the thought conveyed in the given sentence, for the music of the words, or for the description of scenery apart from the context. We should be surprised to find that any intelligent person who keeps a book of extracts, no mean test of the beautiful in literature, has ever taken the trouble to copy into it a passage from either of these writers. To hurry through the mere story and see what is done with the puppets is the aim of the reader; none dwell on the page as they dwell on the words of Scott, some of whose prose chapters are little more difficult to learn by heart than is his ordered verse, or on scenes like that at the Rainbow in ‘Silas Marner,’ or Dinah's preaching, or Hetty's dreadful pilgrimage in ‘Adam Bede,’ or as now and then they lingered leisurely over Kingsley in his rich word-painting of a South American forest, or of the blazing solitude of the African desert. A really great novelist has always chapters that are quotable and readable apart from the context, for the pleasure which they give of themselves, just as scenes of a dramatist, or a chapter in the Bible can be read detached: it is in fact a note of true literature. The abdication of Mary Stuart in ‘The Abbot,’ the interview between Jeannie Deans and Queen Caroline in ‘The Heart of Midlothian,’ are types of chapters to be found in the works of all really great writers; but who ever cared to read a solitary chapter of more than two or three persons within our own memory?

But more is wanted than the power of creating characters and a good literary style. The first-rate workman rarely writes with set purpose to draw a moral. It is inconceivable that Shakspere should have called one play ‘Jealousy, or the Moor of Venice,’ or another, ‘God's Revenge against Murther.’ He thinks of a man, Othello or Macbeth, and exhibits his qualities, he does not think of qualities and the consequences of qualities, and invent men and incidents for them. Perhaps the only exception to this among really great writers is Dickens. He, no doubt, set himself in one book to demolish Yorkshire schools, in another to reform sick nursing, and so on, but in so far as he is didactic he is tedious. Smike is a bore, and the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce could scarcely be more wearisome in the Court of Chancery itself than it is in ‘Bleak House.’

Again, a writer must strike some deep human interest which shall be quite independent of the circumstances of the time in which the scene is laid. Garrick probably moved men as much, or more, playing Hamlet or Macbeth in the wig of the period than a modern actor in a costume studiously archæological, in conformity with some feigned but definite period in Denmark's history, or the most recognized Celtic traditions. It is by his intensely human sympathy that Scott triumphs, in spite of the fetters which he imposes on himself by his archæological details; and Romola because she is so true a woman makes us forget the somewhat too elaborate though very clever ‘cram’ with which the story of her life is overladen. In her other works George Eliot has for the most part taken a society which changes little—homely people with homely lives. It has been remarked that a boundless sympathy was her characteristic, but on a somewhat low level. Mr. Hardy, in the same way, but even to a greater extent, takes life where it changes least, and considers it in its most simply human aspects.

It is because there is in another remarkable writer of our day little sympathy with humanity, as such, that we do not mention him as the literary successor of George Eliot. Mr. George Meredith has no feeling of toleration for a fool. He is an accomplished literary artist, limited by this, that the only men and women worth writing about at all are those who speak in epigrams as brilliant as his own writing which describes them. When he introduces a fool and a bore the things he makes them say are often excellent; it is difficult to tell by what stroke of genius it is that the man who says so good things is yet so intolerable. Mr. Meredith is a delightful study to the diligent reader, but he is a study; he is laboured and affected, difficult sometimes as the chorus of a Greek play, always, we fear, caviare to the general, whereas the true novelist should, like the true dramatist, appeal to the many. Men must be amused, and they come to the novel as the relaxation from work. The ‘Lustige Person’ and the Manager in the Prologue to Faust have reason on their side against the high-flown arguments of the poet. The most broadly human is the truest artist after all.

All great writers are autobiographical; at least, have drawn largely from their own experiences; where we do not know that they are so, as in the case of Shakspere, it is probably because we know so little about them. The true artist must use up what has come to him, and the highest originality is the transmutation in the alembic of the brain of the material accumulated by the worker, or by others who have gone before. Originality which is not based in a large degree on personal experience is a making of bricks not only without straw, but with very little clay.

Few men have used their own experiences so much as Mr. Hardy, to whom we definitely turn after this somewhat long exordium, yet few have ever seemed so original to those who are in sympathy with the life which he describes. That he is less known than some far inferior people, arises from the fact that a certain country training, and somewhat of his own wide sympathy with nature, and with the simpler forms of country life, is needed before he is read and understood. In these days of overgrown towns men only take short rushes into country life, and know but little intimately of what they see; yet more than ever, and increasingly is it the case, that the readers of books are in towns and not in the country. We do not pretend to be wholly ignorant of some personal details of the author's life, but are sure that even one who was so would construct without difficulty a theory which would not fail widely when it came to be verified. That Mr. Hardy, like Mr. Barnes the Dorset poet, is sprung of a race of labouring men in a county where the real old families are attached to the soil, and the county aristocracy, except perhaps in Purbeck, are comparatively new comers that he is not ‘too proud to care from whence he came,’ that, on the contrary, he regards his stock as reason for exceeding pride on two grounds—one the dignity of labour, the other that the country workingman is of nearer kin to that nature which he idealizes and personifies, till it has all the characteristics of some great supra-natural human being;—that he is thus anthropomorphic, but not in a theological sense, is apparent on the face of what he writes.

A closer observer might go further, and find autobiographic hints in the account of a young architect's life in A Pair of Blue Eyes, and in A Laodicæan, now publishing in ‘Harper's Magazine;’ yet more in the minute touches whenever a building of any kind occurs in the course of his story; in the relations, apart from those of rivalry in love, existing between the same young architect and his friend Henry Knight; in other family revelations wherein it were impertinent to follow; especially as we must always remember that only the simplest basis of fact is used for the embroidery of fiction. …

Now Mr. Hardy gives us always sufficient indication of dialect to produce the impression he wishes. One who knows the country of which he speaks catches the keynote and has the tune always in his ear; but the outsider is not puzzled by too much dialect and many strange words; the author has the true sense of what is needed for his art, and the strength of reserve. …

And next he is an interpreter of the simpler aspects of nature to many who have no time to commune with her, and learn her secrets at first hand. Year by year masses of our people, and they our chief readers, see less and less of simple quiet country scenes. Brick and mortar swallow up our lives, and when we escape from them, it is to the sea or to the mountains, not to lose ourselves in English woods, or wander over the downs and in the green lanes which exist only here, and date from British days, older still than the great Roman roads still to be traced in the west in unexpected places, green across hill and dale. Only a few days since we spoke to a young clerk who had escaped from London on Sunday into one of the loveliest districts of Surrey, and we asked if he had walked through a certain yew-tree grove, the wonder of the neighbourhood. To one country-bred there was something pathetic in the avowal that he did not know a yew-tree, nor indeed any one tree from another. …

In all his books, without any effort, Mr. Hardy brings in nature as a personality, now aiding, now at war with man, now subdued, now triumphant, but always as living and in relation to human life. There is something of the relic of old paganism in his way of viewing her, as indeed there is so much of it in his own county. And he likes to take us where we see her moods—with the keeper into the heart of the wood; with Gabriel Oak the shepherd, to the wild hill-side and the chalk-pit; with the reddleman across lanes and commons known to but few even of the country folk; to the brow of the cliff beetling over the sea, where ‘it rained upwards instead of down, the strong ascending current of air carried the rain-drops with it in its race up the escarpment.’ He has learned many of the multitudinous languages in which nature speaks, both with tongues and looks, as truly as the king in the ‘Arabian Nights’ had learned the speech of beast and bird. …

What Mr. Hardy does in reference to death he does also in reference to the other ills attendant on life—disease, sorrow, superstition. He could not bear the tragedy, or help us to bear it, unless he showed the strand of comedy interwoven; he is ironical in the deepest sense.

In Far from the Madding Crowd he touched deeper notes, but we do not think the book so great a success as his earlier or his later work. The heroine, who as usual plays fast and loose with her lovers, a young farmeress and heiress in one, is a less womanly woman, with all her coquettish ways, than are his other fantastic creations. The tragedy of Bold's suicide, and of the death of the girl Bathsheba's husband has betrayed, is somewhat too deep for its surroundings. Not that such subjects are unfit for fiction; to assert they were so would be to be unleal to Shakspere and Scott; but in Far from the Madding Crowd the character of the piece, so to speak, is melodramatic rather than tragical, while the incidents, or some of them, require a more harmonious setting. Still there are great merits in the book, the same love of nature, the same subtle analysis of motive, unexpected yet true complications of plot, as in A Pair of Blue Eyes. What is especially new in the work is not of any very deep interest.

In reviewing the whole series of Mr. Hardy's works—not at all too great in quantity to be admirable in quality during a period of ten years—the first general fact that strikes us, assuming him to be an accurate observer, is the unchanging character of the country side and the country folk. The old features of the landscape remain more perhaps in Dorset than in any other county. …

Perhaps nothing is more surprising to those who have only known English country life from such novels as Miss Yonge's than to see the extraordinarily small part played by the clergy in Mr. Hardy's books. In truth, the ordinances of religion summed up in the parson have but scant influence on the life of the English labourer, and of the country folk generally. He is not the all-pervading spiritual presence which the religious spinster of the upper class supposes; he is a gentleman who touches their lives at sundry points, but is to keep within his own limits, and intrude on them no more than they intrude on him. Of dogmatic differences in the Church they are wholly ignorant. We have known a succession of clergymen in the same country parish within five years, varying from the extremist Calvinism, through a phase of High Churchism scarcely to be distinguished from Popery, to a liberalism differing in nothing but name from Unitarianism. All were accepted by the parishioners, the differences of doctrine were never distinguished except so far as they implied differences in practice, or interfered with any of the habits of an unchanging people.

The Church in Wessex has not eradicated superstition (how, indeed, should it do so?), has only affected morals to an unappreciable extent, while even education has waited for the day of School Boards and modern Acts affecting labour. Were it to be objected to Mr. Hardy's books that there is about them here and there a kind of frank paganism, an acceptance, without moral blame, of superstition, no hasty scouting of the possibility of witchcraft, a forgetfulness of the triumphs of civilization; we should reply that these are some of the essential characteristics of the people and the country among which he has lived, that he gives life as he sees it, and not as it ought to be according to the ideas of certain outsiders.

With regard to one side of country life, on which he is as well informed as all others, it may be thought that he deliberately chooses only that which is fair and virtuous and pure for the sake of the picture he wishes to draw, and into the grace of which he will introduce no incongruous feature, that he has left out the most essential elements. This is not so. The English labourer is frank, but he is not coarse, save as Fielding's novels are coarse; that is, he introduces words which do not find their way into drawing-rooms, but he would recoil as from a snake in the grass at the thoughts and suggestions which are in many fashionable novels; his very vices have in them more of clumsiness and horse-play than of deliberate evil. He is purer than his town neighbours: if chastity consist in truth to one woman through life, so that the chaste man might adopt Arthur's words to Guinivere, ‘For I was ever virgin save for thee,’ we assert that the agricultural labourer stands higher than any other class in the community; he is truthful, honest, and trustworthy, and if he exceed in liquor, he certainly in this has no monopoly of vice or of needless indulgence.

If Mr. Hardy has indeed drawn his characters on the whole favourably, in spite of their many shortcomings; if he has drawn true gentlemen in his village carpenter John Smith, the reddleman Diggory Venn, the tranter Dick Dewey, it is because these men and their prototypes are so in fact. ‘Though,’ as Dickens said of the brothers Cheeryble, ‘they eat with their knives and never went to school,’ we never expect to find in any rank or position truer or more high-minded gentlemen than some Dorset labourers we are proud to call friends. But those who associate with them—a difficult matter for whomsoever is not bred among them—must expect that plainness of speech so graphically described in the novels under consideration. …

Our pleasant task is almost done. We think we have said enough to show that here is a novelist who—while he excites little short of wonder and enthusiasm in a certain section of the public, the comparatively few who know him—has not at all taken hold on the great popular mind, sometimes slow to discover when a new genius has arisen in the intellectual sky.

We have only to say more, that while Mr. Hardy is never didactic, never dogmatic, never definitely religious—the novelist who is so imperfectly apprehends the difference between a novel and a sermon, spoiling both—his whole influence is pure, ennobling, and gracious; there is no line from beginning to end of his works we could wish to blot, no book which does not leave the reader heartily amused and raised in moral tone.

That Mr. Hardy has taken his place in the true literature of England is to us beyond question. For his sake and for their own we trust the larger public will recognize the fact, and steep themselves in the fresh healthy air of Dorset, and come into contact with the kindly folk who dwell there, through these pages, and then test their truth, as they can, in summer visits to the wolds, hill-sides, and coasts, which their ‘native’ has described so well.

William Lyon Phelps (essay date 1909)

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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 seed. This absence of religious belief has proved no obstacle to many another candidate for the Christian ministry, as every habitual churchgoer knows; or as any son of Belial may discover for himself by merely reading the prospectus of summer schools of theology. There has, however, always been a certain cold, mathematical precision in Mr. Hardy's way of thought that would have made him as uncomfortable in the pulpit as he would have been in an editor's chair, writing for salary persuasive articles containing the exact opposite of his individual convictions. But, although the beauty of holiness failed to impress his mind, the beauty of the sanctuary was sufficiently obvious to his sense of art. He became an ecclesiastical architect, and for some years his delight was in the courts of the Lord. Instead of composing sermons in ink, he made sermons in stones, restoring to many a decaying edifice the outlines that the original builder had seen in his vision centuries ago. For no one has ever regarded ancient churches with more sympathy and reverence than Mr. Hardy. No man to-day has less respect for God and more devotion to His house.

Mr. Hardy's professional career as an architect extended over a period of about thirteen years, from the day when the seventeen-year-old boy became articled, to about 1870, when he forsook the pencil for the pen. His strict training as an architect has been of enormous service to him in the construction of his novels, for skill in constructive drawing has repeatedly proved its value in literature. Rossetti achieved positive greatness as an artist and as a poet. Stevenson's studies in engineering were not lost time, and Mr. De Morgan affords another good illustration of the same fact. Thackeray was unconsciously learning the art of the novelist while he was making caricatures, and the lesser Thackeray of a later day—George du Maurier—found the transition from one art to the other a natural progression. Hopkinson Smith and Frederick Remington, on a lower but dignified plane, bear witness to the same truth. Indeed, when one studies carefully the beginnings of the work of imaginative writers, one is surprised at the great number who have handled an artist's or a draughtsman's pencil. A prominent and successful playwright of to-day has said that if he were not writing plays he should not dream of writing books; he would be building bridges.

Mr. Hardy's work as an ecclesiastical architect laid the real foundations of his success as a novelist; for it gave him an intimate familiarity with the old monuments and rural life of Wessex, and at the same time that eye for precision of form that is so noticeable in all his books. He has really never ceased to be an architect. Architecture has contributed largely to the matter and to the style of his stories. …

Immediately after the publication of Desperate Remedies, which seemed to teach him, as “Endymion” taught Keats, the highest mysteries of his art, Mr. Hardy entered upon a period of brilliant and splendid production. In three successive years, 1872, 1873 and 1874, he produced three masterpieces—Under the Greenwood Tree, A Pair of Blue Eyes and Far from the Madding Crowd; followed four years later by what is, perhaps, his greatest contribution to literature, The Return of the Native. Even in literary careers that last a long time, there seem to be golden days when the inspiration is unbalked by obstacles.

… Literature deals with a constant human nature, which is the same in Wessex as in Vienna. As the late Mr. Clyde Fitch used to say, it is not the great writers that have great things happen to them; the great things happen to the ordinary people they portray. Mr. Hardy selected a few of the southwestern counties of England as the stage for his prose dramas; to this locality he for the first time, in Far from the Madding Crowd, gave the name Wessex, a name now wholly fictitious, but which his creative imagination has made so real that it is constantly and seriously spoken of as though it were English geography. In these smiling valleys and quiet rural scenes, “while the earth keeps up her terrible composure,” the farmers and milkmaids hold us spellbound as they struggle in awful passion. The author of the drama stands aloof, making no effort to guide his characters from temptation, folly, and disaster, and offering no explanation to the spectators, who are thrilled with pity and fear. But one feels that he loves and hates them as we do, and that he correctly gauges their moral value. The very narrowness of the scene increases the intensity of the play. The rustic cackle of his bourg drowns the murmur of the world.

Mr. Hardy's knowledge of and sympathy with nature is of course obvious to all readers, but it is none the less impressive as we once more open books that we have read many times. There are incidentally few novelists who repay one so richly for repeated perusals. He seems as inexhaustible as nature herself, and he grows stale no faster than the repetition of the seasons. It is perhaps rather curious that a man who finds nature so absolutely inexorable and indifferent to human suffering should love her so well. But every man must love something greater than he, and as Mr. Hardy has no God, he has drawn close to the world of trees, plains, and rivers. His intimacy with nature is almost uncanny. Nature is not merely a background in his stories, it is often an active agent. …

Even before he took up the study of architecture, Mr. Hardy's unconscious training as a novelist began. When he was a small boy, the Dorchester girls found him useful in a way that recalls the services of that reliable child, Samuel Richardson. These village maids, in their various love-affairs, which necessitated a large amount of private correspondence, employed young Hardy as amanuensis. He did not, like his great predecessor, compose their epistles; but he held the pen, and faithfully recorded the inspiration of Love, as it flowed warm from the lips of passionate youth. In this manner, which can be highly recommended to all literary aspirants, and which perhaps has more practical value than the “sedulous ape” method of Stevenson, the almost sexless boy was enabled to look clear-eyed into the very heart of palpitating young womanhood, and to express accurately its most gentle and most stormy emotions; just as the white voice of a choir-child repeats with precision the thrilling notes of religious passion. These early experiences were undoubtedly of the highest value in later years; indeed, as the boy grew a little older, it is probable that the impression deepened. Mr. Hardy is fond of depicting the vague, half-conscious longing of a boy to be near a beautiful woman; every one will remember the contract between Eustacia and her youthful admirer, by which he was to hold her hand for a stipulated number of minutes. Mr. Hardy's women are full of tenderness and full of caprice; and whatever feminine readers may think of them, they are usually irresistible to the masculine mind. It has been said indeed that he is primarily a man's novelist, as Mrs. Ward is perhaps a woman's; he does not represent his women as marvels of intellectual splendor, or in queenly domination over the society in which they move. They are more apt to be the victims of their own affectionate hearts. One female reader, exasperated at this succession of portraits, wrote on the margin of one of Mr. Hardy's novels that she took from a circulating library, “Oh, how I hate Thomas Hardy!” This is an interesting gloss, even if we do not add meanly that it bears witness to the truth of the picture. Elfride, Bathsheba, Eustacia, Lady Constantine, Marty South, and Tess are of varied social rank and wealth; but they are all alike in humble prostration before the man they love. Mr. Hardy takes particular pleasure in representing them as swayed by sudden and constantly changing caprices; one has only to recall the charming Bathsheba Everdene, and her various attitudes toward the three men who admire her—Troy, Boldwood, and Gabriel Oak. Mr. Hardy's heroines change their minds oftener than they change their clothes; but in whatever material or mental presentment, they never lack attraction. And they all resemble their maker in one respect; at heart every one of them is a Pagan. They vary greatly in constancy and in general strength of character; but it is human passion, and not religion, that is the mainspring of their lives. He has never drawn a truly spiritual woman, like Browning's Pompilia.

His best men, from the moral point of view, are closest to the soil. Gabriel Oak, in Far from the Madding Crowd, and Venn, in The Return of the Native, are on the whole his noblest characters. Oak is a shepherd and Venn is a reddleman; their sincerity, charity, and fine sense of honor have never been injured by what is called polite society. And Mr. Hardy, the stingiest author toward his characters, has not entirely withheld reward from these two. Henry Knight and Angel Clare, who have whatever advantages civilization is supposed to give, are certainly not villains; they are men of the loftiest ideals; but if each had been a deliberate, black-hearted villain, he could not have treated the innocent woman who loved him with more ugly cruelty. Compared with Oak and Venn, this precious pair of prigs are seen to have only the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; a righteousness that is of little help in the cruel emergencies of life. Along with them must stand Clym Yeobright, another slave to moral theory, who quite naturally ends his days as an itinerant preacher. The real villains in Mr. Hardy's novels, Sergeant Troy, young Dare, and Alec D'Urberville, seem the least natural and the most machine-made of all his characters.

Mr. Hardy's pessimism is a picturesque and splendid contribution to modern fiction. We should be as grateful for it in this field as we are to Schopenhauer in the domain of metaphysics. I am no pessimist myself, but I had rather read Schopenhauer than all the rest of the philosophers put together, Plato alone excepted. The pessimism of Mr. Hardy resembles that of Schopenhauer in being absolutely thorough and absolutely candid; it makes the world as darkly superb and as terribly interesting as a Greek drama. It is wholly worth while to get this point of view; and if in practical life one does not really believe in it, it is capable of yielding much pleasure. After finishing one of Mr. Hardy's novels, one has all the delight of waking from an impressive but horrible dream, and feeling through the dissolving vision the real friendliness of the good old earth. It is like coming home from an adequate performance of “King Lear,” which we would not have missed for anything. There are so many make-believe pessimists, so many whose pessimism is a sham and a pose, which will not stand for a moment in a real crisis, that we cannot withhold admiration for such pessimism as Mr. Hardy's, which is fundamental and sincere. To him the Christian religion and what we call the grace of God have not the slightest shade of meaning; he is as absolute a Pagan as though he had written four thousand years before Christ. This is something almost refreshing, because it is so entirely different from the hypocrisy and cant, the pretence of pessimism, so familiar to us in the works of modern writers; and so inconsistent with their daily life. Mr. Hardy's pessimism is the one deep-seated conviction of his whole intellectual process. …

Mr. Hardy's pessimism is not in the least personal, nor has it risen from any sorrow or disappointment in his own life. It is both philosophic and temperamental. He cannot see nature in any other way. To venture a guess, I think his pessimism is mainly caused by his deep, manly tenderness for all forms of human and animal life and by an almost abnormal sympathy. His intense love for bird and beast is well known; many a stray cat and hurt dog have found in him a protector and a refuge. He firmly believes that the sport of shooting is wicked, and he has repeatedly joined in practical measures to waken the public conscience on this subject. As a spectator of human history, he sees life as a vast tragedy, with men and women emerging from nothingness, suffering acute physical and mental sorrow and then passing into nothingness again.…

However dark may be his conception of life, Mr. Hardy's sense of humor is unexcelled by his contemporaries in its subtlety of feeling and charm of expression. His rustics, who have long received and deserved the epithet “Shakespearian,” arouse in every reader harmless and wholesome delight. The shadow of the tragedy lifts in these wonderful pages, for Mr. Hardy's laughter reminds one of what Carlyle said of Shakespeare's: it is like sunshine on the deep sea. The childlike sincerity of these shepherd farmers, the candor of their repartee and their appraisal of gentle folk are as irresistible as their patience and equable temper. Every one in the community seems to find his proper mental and moral level. And their infrequent fits of irritation are as pleasant as their more solemn moods. We can all sympathize (I hope) with the despair of Joseph Poorgrass: “I was sitting at home looking for Ephesians and says I to myself, 'Tis nothing but Corinthians and Thessalonians in this danged Testament!”

Herbert J. Muller (essay date summer 1940)

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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 individualized imaginative creation that meant everything to him. The historical perspective is necessary, of course, for his sake as well as ours; it would be unfair even to Shakespeare to read his plays as if they were written by a timeless spirit, not by a popular playwright of Elizabethan England. But this approach may also be unfair to the artist. Critics are usually looking for particular historical tendencies, and their value judgments are loaded accordingly. “To see a ‘century’ in a cathedral or the revolt of the masses in a play,” remarks George Boas, “is believed to be a more valuable experience than to see something else in them.” Hence literary reputations rise and fall with social or political theory—as William Dean Howells has gone up since Granville Hicks discovered that he had some perception of the class struggle. In general, critics tend to abstract a few generic traits and ignore the unique quality of the work as a whole, just as physicists ignore the color, feel, and particularity of things in order to measure and weigh them.

Now, Thomas Hardy is not, it seems to me, in crying need of revaluation—at least as a novelist. Upon rereading his novels I can discover no unsuspected depths or complexities, no reason for considering him more or less significant or pertinent; I discover chiefly the problem of how to avoid merely quoting myself. His virtues and his faults are plain, and for some time have ceased to stir controversy. He has been seen clearly enough against the transition from the Victorian to the modern age, aligned with enough tendencies, adequately labeled, sufficiently “explained.” He is unusually poor material for Marxist or Freudian interpretation, or for subtle analysis in any mode. Although his pessimism might be regarded as a sign of the decay of capitalistic society, or a symptom of psychic maladjustment, such explanations would have to lean heavily on the unconscious in Hardy; at best they would be marginal notes, explaining little or nothing about his greatness as an artist. Yet they are pretty sure to be offered, and then to prejudice or confuse judgment of his art. Hardy is likely, indeed, to suffer considerably from prevailing critical attitudes. His greatness is of an elemental kind to which one cannot easily pay tribute in the precise language—or pseudo-precise jargon—now demanded of critics; his limitations appear more serious because of current preferences in beauty and truth; in general his interests and attitudes now seem so old-fashioned that contemporaries seldom give themselves up to him, seldom have had the sustained intimacy with his work that makes possible a justice beyond the letter of critical law. And so there is, after all, more reason for returning to Hardy than the sentiment of this occasion.

Even for pious purposes, however, it is well to have done at once with his serious faults. Most obvious is his mania for hounding his characters to the grave and for employing the most fantastic means to get them there. Only the disenchanted sophomore can be deeply impressed by Hardy's view of life. Although it was an outcome of the new scientific views, it now seems like a simple variant of supernaturalism. The President of the Immortals, the First Cause, the Great Foresightless, even the It he so proudly invented for The Dynasts—these are but different names for God, arbitrary inventions that find no place in any scientific scheme; his conception of evil as an absolute and ultimate reality, not merely a human judgment with reference to human purposes, is as naïvely anthropomorphic as any religious dogma. And although Hardy properly objected to treating his fiction as a “scientific system of philosophy,” the trouble is that he often wrote as if it were. The scheme of his novels is typically all too rigid and diagrammatic, their argument all too formal and explicit. Hence one protests as much against his last novels, in which the governing ideas are more valid by contemporary standards. By now Hardy perceived that Society as well as It was responsible for human misery and that an inexorable determinism lay behind blind chance; but the discovery of another villain and a more relentless machinery so exasperated his resentment at the conditions of life that his own machinery became more relentless. Jude the Obscure is at once the most and the least convincing of his novels. The serious objection, at any rate, is not to his philosophy per se, the dismal generalizations he illogically induces from the extraordinary actions he invents. It is to his artistry, the inventions themselves.

This objection is deepened, moreover, because of Hardy's simple conception of the duties of a story-teller, which was further simplified by the custom of serial publication that demanded a wallop in every instalment. The “real” purpose of fiction, he once said, is “to give pleasure by gratifying the love of the uncommon in human experience.” Hence the grotesque accidents that seemed to him the natural workings of Providence would also give readers their money's worth. Hence his novels are over-stuffed with incident, especially with mistaken identities, untold secrets, miscarried letters, and all the forced misunderstandings without which there would be “no story”—and which are not at all uncommon to readers of popular fiction. Few important novelists have worked their characters so hard, made them sweat through so many theatrical situations. And again, when Hardy came to introduce a more logical chain of events, he also introduced a new kind of artificial contrivance. In his last novels his characters have to sweat through formal disputation, get their arguments by heart. (Sue Bridehead “exclaims” in a moment of passion: “It is none of the natural tragedies of love that's love's usual tragedy in civilized life, but a tragedy artificially manufactured for people who in a natural state would find relief in parting!”) Harassed as he was both by the demon Plot and the demon gods above, Hardy too seldom maintained entire responsibility to his characters.

These faults are obtrusive enough, and they are the more irritating because they are so externalized, detachable, in a way unnecessary. The primitivism of Lawrence, the superrefinement of James, the neurotic hypersensitiveness of Proust—such qualities may be objectionable in themselves, but they are nevertheless the source of the peculiar power of these novelists. What is most objectionable in Hardy is not so intrinsic and seems almost perverse. Yet it does point to defects in the quality of his mind: some bluntness of perception, coarseness of discrimination, crudeness of response to the possibilities of experience. These limitations also appear as a degree of provincialism. The strangers to his little land of Wessex, the more worldly types like Fitzpiers and Troy and Alec D'Urberville, are often stagey, never have the vitality of the natives. Furthermore they are usually his shabbiest or most vicious characters; he always tried to be fair to them, but like his rustics he distrusted them. And despite his gloominess he tended to exaggerate the humble virtues, romanticize the simple annals of the poor.

One may note other flaws in Hardy's fiction: some stiffness and awkwardness of style, a deal of perfunctory and mechanical journeywork, the usual lapses into mediocrity or downright banality (as in “The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid”). One may even say that he was not altogether at home in the novel; in an earlier age he probably would never have deserted poetry, his first and last love. Nevertheless contemporaries are apt to dwell too much on his limitations. The fault is partly an incomplete analysis, an overstress on certain aspects of Hardy's work and a neglect of the work as a whole. It is especially, however, a disposition to undervalue even the total or final effect of his art. And so I believe that we cannot do him justice merely by a conscientious tribute to his specific virtues, balancing accounts by listing his nature poetry, the rich humor of his Shakespearean rustics, the vivid re-creation of Wessex, etc. We need to reconsider the assumptions that govern our whole response.

“Criticism,” Santayana writes, “surprises the soul in the arms of convention.” Criticism is too often caught there itself. It is caught, more specifically, in the two-sided, sheep-or-goat concept of truth expressed in Aristotle's law of the excluded middle: a thing is either A or not A, a statement is either true or not true. Its proper logic is rather the principle of the included middle: the recognition that generalizations about literature are both true and not true, that qualities and values lie on a scale between A and not-A and can be described accurately only in relative terms. In practice there is both a “good” way and a “bad” way of describing everything. Regionalism, for example, appears to be a relatively simple adaptation to life, a return to the familiar meanings of the family and the home. It may accordingly be stigmatized as an evasion of the problem of assimilating the complex material of modern life, a shirking of responsibility, an “escape”; it may also be applauded as a return to the grass roots of art and life, a recovery of deep natural pieties, a means of stabilizing a confused, giddy generation. These descriptions of motives and values are the poles of a sliding scale. Ideally, then, the critic will command the whole scale as he tries to locate a given writer, remembering that motives are never pure and values never absolute. The natural tendency of critics, however, is to take a stand at one end, as if it were the absolute A of beauty and truth, and then to describe all writers in its terms.

In this way Hardy suffers today: our special interests and attitudes predispose us to the “bad” description of many of his qualities. He confined himself to the little world of Wessex, a world at that already vanishing. Few critics, I imagine, would say that nostalgia was the matrix of his art, accuse him of seeking refuge from the pressing problems of his society. But many are prone to regard his novels as a temptation to nostalgia: to dwell on the quaintness and coziness of his rustic scene, to stress his failure to enter either the drawing room or the industrial arena of modern society, to consider his drama remote or even irrelevant to our problems. Nevertheless his main themes—the elemental passions against the elemental background of nature, the timeless problems of life and death—are still pertinent because they are elemental and timeless. If Wessex is a little world, it is still a world; and the final stress should be upon the vast dimensions he gave it—a kind of spaciousness not to be found, for example, in the whole continent of John Dos Passos. That American pilgrims to the Hardy country are apt to be disappointed by the patch of ground he called Egdon Heath is the clue to his achievement. He invested these few acres with grandeur, he erected on them one of the sublime conceptions of fiction. At his best, in short, he was not confined to Wessex. He realized his ideal conviction, that the tragedy of obscure men far from the stage of momentous events could be endowed with a majesty “truly Sophoclean.”

Still more are we likely to condescend to Hardy's simplicity. We are very fond of subtlety, we are obsessed with complexity; when we return from James, Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf, not to mention Proust or Joyce, Hardy seems woefully obvious and uncomplicated. Although he did a respectable job of psychologizing in Jude the Obscure, his typical characters are compounded of relatively few elements and his issues are relatively naked. Above all, his methods are simple. Where more recent novelists weave back and forth in space and time, he marches in a straight line; where they evoke, intimate, render impressionistically, present character by indirection, carefully consider point of view, he is always the omniscient author, presenting directly and in so many words. He is indeed too omniscient and explicit. His simplicity is in one aspect, again, a lack of fineness of discrimination. Yet it is also the source of his dignity and strength. He did have a firm hold on the basic elements of character, render eloquently the primary passions, dramatize powerfully the major crises; and he did not oversimplify. Great passion may have mysterious sources and intricate ramifications, but it appears as a whole and remains primitive; all the fine consciences have to deal with the same elemental necessities and face the same final issues of mortality. Like the Greeks, at any rate, Hardy was concerned with the primal, the ultimate, the common destiny, and he as freely made large statements about life and death and the gods. To sophisticates and lovers of the three dots, this ancient tradition may seem naïve, crude, a little embarrassing. Nevertheless they have no reason to feel so superior to it—least of all at a time when bombs fall on subtle and simple alike.

Even our judgments of Hardy's plots may be too harsh. In our more advanced fiction, plot has been scrapped with the other simplicities. A well-regulated, unbroken, finished action appears to falsify our complex experience, with its waver and scatter and incessant flux; formal contrivance, the stock-in-trade of the most austere artists in the past, is suspect as mere trickery and trumpery. Hence the contrivance of Hardy, often mechanical or sensational as it is, will be especially offensive to cultivated tastes. But even the magnificent architectural structure of The Return of the Native may now seem too artificial, and his most powerful scenes melodramatic.

The chief source of suspicion, however, remains Hardy's general ideas; and it raises an issue that we need to consider at greater length. “The truest philosophy,” T. S. Eliot declares, “is the best material for the greatest poet.” It sounds like a reasonable principle—until he begins to specify the true philosophy. Doubt grows when from other quarters comes the same doctrine, but with different specifications. Thus Ralph Fox asserted that without Marxism “there is no approach to that essential truth which is the chief concern of the writer”—in one sentence making a clean sweep of the world's acknowledged masterpieces. Everywhere critical discussion now centers about the writer's “ideology,” everywhere he is judged according to its “soundness”—just as professional moralists and simple readers judge him by the plainness and wholesomeness of his moral. This concern is no doubt a tribute to the effectiveness of literature as a social force; but when critics themselves fail to get together on the common garden variety of truths, much less the “essential truth,” the responsible writer must be in a quandary.

Now, an obvious objection to Mr. Eliot's attitude is what D'Avenant called “such saucy familiarity with a true God”; when he laments that Shakespeare stuck fast in an “inferior philosophy,” Santayana answers properly that what Shakespeare stuck fast in was the facts of life. Moreover, Mr. Eliot would not commit himself to the theory implied by his concern for the true philosophy, that the expression of ideas is the primary purpose of art. But the record of fiction is alone sufficient answer to all these manuals of what every great writer must know. Hardy knew that man is the butt of wanton celestial jokers; Balzac knew that religion and monarchy are the eternal twin-principles of the good society; Dostoievsky knew that intellect is a false god and that Soul alone matters; Zola knew that there is no Soul and that an absolute determinism governs human behavior. From such testimony truth would seem to come out nowhere. Yet in our experience with these novelists something valuable comes out everywhere. Plainly, then, the enduring value of their work cannot lie in their soundness as philosophers or sociologists. It must lie in what they have in common; and this, in necessarily general terms, is the vividness and vitality of their concrete representations of life. It is the significance, not of their general ideas, but of their felt response to the immediate data of experience. Like the events in “real life,” the characters and actions they create may be interpreted differently by different observers, but the creations have a life independent of these interpretations.

This is by no means to deny the novelist the luxury of a philosophy. Inevitably he has one and unquestionably he needs one: to order his immediate materials, to focus his creative energy, to enable him to be nourished instead of simply confused or dismayed by the activity of his age. The quality of his thought, furthermore, has much to do with the aesthetic value of his work: a shallow, confused, trivial, sentimental, or distorted view of life will obviously limit his felt response, weaken his command of immediate experience. But these adjectives are to be got by no rule of thumb, no consultation of the critic's own tastes in philosophy. The value of art lies not in the specific ideas and ideals expressed but in the power to suggest and nourish other ideas and ideals. The value of an artist's thought lies not in its essential truth but in the possibilities it permits him of so dealing with experience as to transcend any specific version of essential truth. And the serious objection to his thought arises in so far as it literally cramps his style.

Similarly the most serious objection to the excessive concern with a writer's general ideas is not that it warps the critic's judgment but that it narrows and impoverishes his actual experience in art. So naturally sensitive a critic as Paul Elmer More became simply unable to experience the values in most modern literature; Granville Hicks openly confessed what ideology has done to him: “There is no bourgeois novel that, taken as a whole, satisfies me.” In this way, at any rate, not only Hardy but his contemporary readers are likely to suffer; and in this view one can make out more clearly the values that survive his obsessions.

Aside from his annoying habit of periodically translating the poetry of his imaginative creations into a crabbed, literal prose, dropping the reader into the world of the “village atheist,” Hardy's philosophy was clearly a limitation. It tended to cramp his imagination, blunt his perceptions, mechanize his responses, harden his aesthetic arteries generally. It sapped his fictions of some vitality: his characters are at times slighted or manhandled for the sake of wildly improbable events, the relations between character and plot seem at times mechanical and arbitrary rather than organic and inevitable. Yet his obsessions were not fatal. Hardy survives because his poetry and drama are not confined within the angular frame of his plots and his syllogisms, his imaginative reach and emotional force are not measured by his intellectual convictions. Logically, his philosophy makes all self-assertion futile, leaves no room for self-realization; his characters should be the puppets that in The Dynasts he specifically tells us all men are. Actually, his characters at best have a vigorous life of their own; they have dignity and force, they aspire and assert themselves passionately, their full measure is taken. And his own vigorous creative activity makes nonsense of his philosophy. With all his limitations, Hardy was not one of our frustrate spirits. He was gnarled but whole, flawed but ripe on the bough; few contemporaries have more fully realized their potentialities.

It follows, too, that Hardy's tragedies are not finally so depressing as many readers still believe. Few of his heroes achieve the final reconciliation of Tess, who at the end can say simply, “I am ready”; Michael Henchard and Jude Fawley die in an appalling bitterness of spirit, some episodes culminate in a sheer horror that numbs all pity and awe. The immediate impact of his tragedy is at times, indeed, terrific. But more important are the after-effects of the whole experience. What is explicitly stated in his novels is a gospel of despair: life is only a thing to be put up with, and mute resignation is the only wisdom. What is eloquently represented, however, is not only a deep compassion but a deep faith: a natural reverence for man, an illogical ideal belief that he is superior to the forces that destroy him, above all a conviction that at stricken moments (in the words of Robinson Jeffers) he “can shine terribly against the dark magnificence of things.” Although Hardy's heroes do not have the stature or force of the ancient heroes, they do have this capacity for feeling greatly, and although he had a low opinion of the gods, the poet in him invested them with this dark magnificence. Hence the bitterness passes. There remain the qualities “truly Sophoclean.”

And so, too, with the “universality” of his stories. The past always changes with the present, is never seen or felt exactly as it was lived; and in this ceaseless process nothing is affected more surely than versions of universal, eternal truth. Few readers today will accept Hardy's specific ideas, any more than they will the gods that ordained the fate of Oedipus or the angels that sing Hamlet to his rest. In any event his novels could not have precisely the same meaning for us that they had in the last century or will have in the next. Yet process has its logic and its laws, and in human affairs its underlying uniformities: the primary desires and emotions, the basic patterns and rhythms of experience, the laws that give all behavior continuity and consequence, exact payment from all men in accordance with their capacity for feeling. Of these Hardy has given a vivid and compelling account. His theme of the rise and fall of Michael Henchard is significant for any culture. In art as in science, which alike represent a dynamic, unfinished world, the universal is to be sought not in particular truths but in modes of truth-making.

At the end it is well to return to the obvious. Hardy exists, when countless “sounder” writers are dead. If we have no satisfactory explanation of genius, we have no substitute for it; as Schelling said, it is to art what the ego is to philosophy, “the only supreme and absolute reality.” Hence Hardy survives the most damaging criticism—as he survives this labored apology. His greatest achievements in fiction have a poetic, elemental quality that calls for the lyrical appreciation of simpler days. One could argue, indeed, that we could now do with more of the old specialists in adjective and epithet, who expressed very vague ideas but who might communicate very live emotions. In this hyper-technical, hyper-practical, hyper-critical age one encounters too little whole-hearted enthusiasm and reverence for literature, too much worried introspection and nervous rationalization of its effects, too much suspicion of its “emotive” function or semantic impurity, too much fear of letting oneself go. We have a laudable desire to be precise and never to be taken in. But the precious difference between great art and the good second-rate escapes precise verbal definition; and it is our loss if our admiration of the subtler, finer, more brilliant art of modern novelists should make us fearful of being taken in by the simple but majestic fictions of Thomas Hardy.

Perry Meisel (essay date 1972)

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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). He describes his peculiar situation at the time as the result of the “accident” that he worked in a country town which was just beginning to feel the effects of modern life (“railways and telegraphs and daily London papers”); “yet not living there, but walking in every day from a world of shepherds and ploughmen in a hamlet three miles off, where modern improvements were still regarded as wonders, he saw rustic and borough doings in a juxtaposition peculiarly close” (Life, pp. 31-32).

Hardy's life at this time was an almost literal version of the multiple sensibilities displayed in his early fiction. While the architecture student set about the tasks of church restoration and the like during the working day, the young poet read Greek tragedy in his spare time and reluctantly gave up the study only on the advice of his friend Moule, who urged him to find a means of income in the profession chosen for him. In fact, speculation in the Life suggests that, had Hardy been advised to continue his studies of Greek plays and give up architecture, he might have gone on to the university instead of to London where he sought to further his professional career. Though Hardy's fiction is hardly autobiographical, the flavor of his life as a young man in Dorchester, the admixture of life styles, and the tension between his real situation and his desires read like the novels he was to write.

The early novels—Under the Greenwood Tree, A Pair of Blue Eyes, and Far From the Madding Crowd—span the period from Hardy's last professional connection with architecture in London to his establishment as a successful popular author. Together they represent the initial world of his imagination, with Far From the Madding Crowd, the first of the Wessex novels, symbolizing the crystallization of an independent and complete imaginative universe. The original impulses of the creator of Michael Henchard and Jude Fawley deserve special consideration because the world of these early books forms the fundamental structure of Hardy's entire production in prose. This initial mythology establishes a seminal world in which Jude's fate seems the inevitable outcome of the original pattern. It is as though Hardy's early work defines the distinctively individual aspects of his creations, while the later novels reflect the finally explicit and full-blown statement of the same mind after the experiences of twenty-five years that saw the decline of the Victorian climate.

Hardy the novelist was, above all, a teller of tales. Even after finishing Far From the Madding Crowd, he wrote to Leslie Stephen, his editor at the time:

The truth is that I am willing, and indeed anxious, to give up any points which may be desirable in a story when read as a whole, for the sake of others which shall please those who read it in numbers. Perhaps I may have higher aims some day, and be a great stickler for the proper artistic balance of the completed work, but for the present, circumstances lead me to wish merely to be considered a good hand at a serial.

[Life, p. 100]

Some notes on the writing of fiction recorded in July 1881 indicate the area of his concern in prose:

The writer's problem is, how to strike the balance between the uncommon and the ordinary so as on the one hand to give interest, on the other to give reality.

In working out this problem, human nature must never be made abnormal, which is introducing incredibility. The uncommonness must be in the events, not in the characters; and the writer's art lies in shaping that uncommonness while disguising its unlikelihood, if it be unlikely.

[Life, p. 150]

Hardy's narrative style remained firmly traditional throughout his career as a novelist and points to the central importance of the story itself in all of his fiction. In the early novels, the nature of his imaginative world is clearly reflected in the way character and event are created.

The nature of the existing social and natural order in the idyllic world of Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From The Madding Crowd is one of thoroughgoing community. Hardy “accepts the assumptions of the society that he depicts, and neither apologizes for it nor condescends to it.”1 But, at the same time, this ordered world unknowingly harbors refugees from the future, doubting and disturbing forces that move secretly within the pastoral landscape until, at crucial moments, their alien character is betrayed. A Pair of Blue Eyes, a highly idiosyncratic departure from the Wessex of the other two early books,2 sustains perhaps best of all Hardy's early work the deep and complex array of cross-purposes and disturbed dreams that exist within an apparently consistent world. What he was to write of Jude applies with not a little irony to Hardy himself at this initial period of his career, and to the unknown and complex nature of his early fictional world:

He would accept any employment which might be offered him on the strength of his late employer's recommendation; but he would accept it as a provisional thing only. This was his form of the modern vice of unrest.

Moreover he perceived that at best only copying, patching and imitating went on here; which he fancied to be owing to some temporary and local cause. He did not at that time see that medievalism was as dead as a fern-leaf in a lump of coal; that other developments were shaping in the world around him, in which Gothic architecture and its associations had no place. The deadly animosity of contemporary logic and vision towards so much of what he held in reverence was not yet revealed to him.3

While Hardy was no stylistic or technical innovator in the sense that he exploited perspectives or cognitive processes for new approaches to the novel, his sense of story included the recognition of an array of perceptions within his imaginative world. That world lives only when events become important to the characters. An individual's change of fortune affects not only himself but the community as well, whether the character be a member of the community or an outsider—thus, “the writer's art lies in shaping the uncommonness of events while disguising its unlikelihood,” and the poetry of a given scene lies in the reality of those events for the characters. In order to sustain his fictional world, the artist creates an entire social order in which uncommon events may occur with credibility and in which his characters may breathe. But the nature of the events Hardy creates within his world involves the disturbance of the order sustaining those occurrences: here lies the tension within the imaginative environment, a tension he did not at first recognize. This inevitable conflict in the dialectic of character and event is the result of the kinds of characters with which Hardy peopled his world. Those figures who are part of the natural community in his novels—natives of Wessex for the most part—are essentially fixed or non-developing.

The changeless characters of the Wessex world are of both minor and major order; and they are generally set in juxaposition with one or two characters of a more changeful or modern type. The interplay between the two kind of characters is the focus of the struggle that makes the story. Hardy is almost the only modern novelist who makes serious use of this conflict and at the same time preserves full and equal respect for both sets of characters. …

Nature, itself unchangeable and inscrutable, is the norm, the basis of Wessex life. …

Nearest to nature, and therefore most changeless, are the rustics … who throng Hardy's pages. In the rural comedies, like Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd, they dominate the scene. Only the vicar, in Under the Greenwood Tree, with his newfangled church organ, and perhaps in a slight way Sergeant Troy in the other novel, foreshadow the kind of disturbance set up by the changeful character.4

Davidson's view is extremely useful in defining the nature of the population of Hardy's world; but he is, unfortunately, too cautious in his reading of the early novels. He insists that Hardy wrote in terms of the assumptions of his Wessex world and, thus, against the pattern of his age. But in attempting to unify his theory of the traditional basis of Hardy's fiction, he refuses to entertain the development of the novels seriously and would have difficulty in understanding the more explicit attitudes and conflicts of A Pair of Blue Eyes, as well as of the later Hardy. It seems that the very nature of Hardy's fiction was rooted in an unconsciously perceived set of tensions that find their expression in conceptions like the dissolution of an ordered community in the face of modern disturbance, but which, in the early Wessex works, only gently reveal themselves. …

Although A Pair of Blue Eyes was written directly after Under the Greenwood Tree, it is best to consider Far From the Madding Crowd at this point because it shares the Wessex that has virtually been established in the tale of the Mellstock Quire. A Pair of Blue Eyes, as we have noted, departs from the landscape of Wessex itself and, while thematically it deals with matters almost identical to the other two early works, its curious emphasis is enough to earn it special consideration.

The preface to Far From the Madding Crowd notes “a break of continuity in local history” that occurs in Wessex (or in the corresponding model in the real world—one cannot be sure) shortly after the period of the narrative. The change issues from the supplanting of the class of stationary cottagers in the region by migratory workers, an event which symbolically announces the separation of the native inhabitants from the soil, a rupture in “the indispensable conditions of existence” that were the basis of an entire history and tradition.

Weatherbury embodies the agrarian community. The sheep-shearing scene in Bathsheba's barn defines the traditional world in all its unified aspects. The barn “not only emulated the form of the neighborhood church of the parish, but vied with it in antiquity” (p. 164); in fact,

One could say about this barn, what could hardly be said of either the church or the castle, akin to it in age and style, that the purpose which had dictated its original erection was the same with that to which it was still applied. Unlike and superior to either of those two typical remnants of medievalism, the old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time. Here at least the spirit of the ancient builders was at one with the spirit of the modern beholders. Standing before this abraded pile, the eye regarded its present usage, the mind dwelt upon its past history, with a satisfied sense of functional continuity throughout—a feeling almost of gratitude, and quite of pride, at the permanence of the idea which had heaped it up. The fact, that four centuries had neither proved it to be founded on a mistake, inspired any hatred of its purpose, nor given rise to any reaction that had battered it down, invested this simple grey effort of old minds with a repose, if not a grandeur, which a too curious reflection was apt to disturb in its ecclesiastical and military compeers. For once medievalism and modernism had a common standpoint. The lanceolate windows, the time-eaten arch-stones and chamfers, the orientation of the axis, the misty chestnut work of the rafters, referred to no exploded fortifying or worn-out religious creed. The defence and salvation of the body by daily bread is still a study, a religion, and a desire. …

This picture of to-day in its frame of four hundred years ago did not produce that marked contrast between ancient and modern which is implied by the contrast of date. In comparison with cities, Weatherbury was immutable. The citizen's Then is the rustic's Now. In London, twenty or thirty years ago are old times; in Paris ten years, or five; in Weatherbury three or four score years were included in the mere present, and nothing less than a century set a mark on its face or tone. Five decades hardly modified the cut of a gaiter, the embroidery of a smock-frock, by the breadth of a hair. Ten generations failed to alter the turn of a single phrase. In these Wessex nooks the busy outsider's ancient times are only old; his old times are still new; his present is futurity.

So the barn was natural to the shearers, and the shearers were in harmony with the barn.

[pp. 164-166]

The central characters in the novel perform within and against this Wessex landscape. Gabriel Oak, of course, is the quintessential representative of the community. As he tends his flock in the opening scenes of the book, the harmony between man and nature excudes peace: “The sky was clear—remarkably clear—and the twinkling of all the stars seemed to be but throbs of one body, timed by a common pulse” (p. 9). And while the order of nature is in harmony with man, humanity still retains its uniqueness against the backdrop of the heavens in the form of Oak's flute: “Suddenly an unexpected series of sounds began to be heard in this place up against the sky. They had a clearness which was to be found nowhere in the wind, and a sequence which was to be found nowhere in nature. They were the notes of Farmer Oak's flute” (p. 10). But, in spite of the harmony, the pronouncement might be taken as foreboding. “In making even horizontal and clear inspections we colour and mould according to the wants within us whatever our eyes bring in” (p. 16). The mute tension results from the quiet doubt whether nature is intrinsically ordered, or whether it is man who imposes an order on nature (and thus on himself as well)—an order that becomes an illusion of harmony when his wishes do not supplant his needs.

Even with Oak, the feeling that his inner peace, though sustained throughout the novel despite immense disappointments and troubles, is often precarious is occasioned by his initial responses to Bathsheba and our knowledge that he continues to love her throughout the book: “Having for some time known the want of a satisfactory form to fill an increasing void within him, his position moreover affording the wildest scope for his fancy, he painted her a beauty” (p. 16). The pattern established in Under the Greenwood Tree, the pivotal importance of woman, returns; Oak, like Dick Dewey, never recognizes the wound the community has received through his lover's fall. For Bathsheba, like Fancy Day, succumbs to the external tempter and remains morally infected, even with the apparent reestablishment of peace and order by marriage at the end of the novel.

The poetics of Far From the Madding Crowd follow those of the earlier work; the pattern, of course, continues as well. All the central characters except one are members of the community. Its laws rule that Oak must step aside for Boldwood to court Bathsheba and, as the most thoroughgoing symbol of Weatherbury, Gabriel resigns himself to his fortune not without good will. But the story really begins when the scene is invaded by Sergeant Troy. Ironically, Troy is a native of Weatherbury, while Bathsheba and Oak are not: but the woman-farmer and the shepherd belong to the community as Troy does not. Although Troy's presence alone is disturbing, he seriously influences the world of the novel through his attractiveness to Bathsheba. Again, it is the woman who forms the bridge between the two sensibilities.

Troy and Bathsheba meet for the first time very soon after the symbolic scene in the shearing barn, as if to emphasize the coming drama directly in terms of the plot. Their meeting also follows Boldwood's initial display of interest in Bathsheba. Indeed, the ironies work almost identically to those in Under the Greenwood Tree. Just as the choir sings the hymn “Remember Adam's fall, / O thou Man” at Fancy's window, Hardy half-jokingly prefaces Bathsheba and Boldwood's first real encounter with “Adam had awakened from his deep sleep, and behold! there was Eve” (p. 133). And, since the implications of the allusion to the Fall of Man are as serious here as in the earlier work, the use of the reference is similarly displaced in the sequence of action. Bathsheba meets Boldwood early in the same day when she will encounter Troy, just as Dick and the choir see Fancy early in the same evening when the vicar belatedly greets the carolers.5 It is also noteworthy that Dick sees Fancy for the first time on the day of a communal event, Christmas eve, in the same way that Boldwood meets Bathsheba on a similarly symbolic instance in terms of the community, the marketplace on a Saturday.6

Just before the marketplace encounter, Hardy momentarily illuminates the nature of Bathsheba's behavior as it affects the world of the novel. He also provides a touch of irony in the last words of the paragraph as if to indicate the coming events of the evening and the displaced occurrence of the insight presented:

Material causes and emotional effects are not to be arranged in regular equation. The result from capital employed in the production of any movement of a mental nature is sometimes as tremendous as the cause itself is absurdly minute. When women are in a freakish mood their usual intuition, either from carelessness or inherent defect, seemingly fails to teach them this, and hence it was that Bathsheba was fated to be astonished today.

[p. 133]

The artist hints at the revelation of Bathsheba's character that both she and the world of social relationships will experience later in the novel. At the same time, he reestablishes on an explicit basis the nature of his poetics, as character and event work out their seemingly inevitable dialectic. Indeed, his use of the word fated in this passage suggests that atmosphere of doom and inevitability which almost reaches the stature of a law in the later novels and works on a level close to determinism in this early work. The interrelation of Hardy's poetics and the nature of his fictional world occurs as early as Far From the Madding Crowd; but not until the later works does the relation become glaringly explicit.

Bathsheba, like Fancy Day, occupies a position of responsibility with Boldwood that she does not recognize until too late. Even before Troy's arrival in her life, her inability to control her responses portends the far-ranging consequences suggested as early as the meeting at the marketplace. She is potentially a danger to individual suitors before Troy's intrusion renders her a threat to the community as well. “He was altogether too much for her, and Bathsheba seemed as one, who facing a reviving wind, finds it blow so strongly that it stops the breath” (p. 213). But the underlying nature of her character remains inscrutable, a characteristic, it seems, of Hardy's women in general.

Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance. When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the occasion. She has never had practice in making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.

[p. 214]

In the turmoil of her anxiety for her lover she had agreed to marry him; but the perception that had accompanied her happiest hours on this account was rather that of self-sacrifice than of promotion and honor.

[p. 315]

While Bathsheba's relationship with Boldwood caused her a grim dejection, her response to Troy is frenzied; marriage and the death of Fanny Robin reduce her to near madness.

Bathsheba's marriage to Troy parallels, if not initiates, a noticeable breakdown in the community. The shearing barn, originally a symbol of the integrity of the community, becomes the symbol of its degeneration once Troy is master of the farm. The harvest feast becomes a drunken spectacle by the end of the evening, while Oak, typically, remains the one true preserver of order. Oak thinks at first that only Bathsheba's corn is exposed to the breeding storm: “All the night he had the feeling that the neglect he was labouring to repair was abnormal and isolated—the only instance of the kind within the circuit of the county” (p. 294). But Boldwood, through his own neglect, has also left his produce exposed to the inclement weather. It is as though an infectious lassitude has spread across the entire region, almost directly accountable to Troy's interference. Yet even the suggested decay of the community becomes irrelevant against the background of nature itself, symbolized by the explosion of the storm; “love, life, everything human, seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe” (p. 287). That the importance of an event or a perspective is a function of the perceiver was a point with Hardy from the first. He notes in his diary as early as the end of December 1865: “To insects the twelvemonth has been an epoch, to leaves a life, to tweeting birds a generation, to man a year” (Life, p. 55).

Bathsheba wanders tearfully about the countryside after she has spent the night before Fanny Robin's funeral in the woods. The full effect of the events of the novel finds its expression in her perception of the coexistence of contraries in nature. It is man's puzzled response to a scene recognized in all its fullness for the first time:

There was an opening towards the east, and the glow from the as yet unrisen sun attracted her eyes thither. From her feet, and between the beautiful yellowing ferns with their feathery arms, the ground sloped downwards to a hollow, in which was a species of swamp, dotted with fungi. A morning mist hung over it now—a fulsome yet magnificent silvery veil, full of light from the sun, yet semi-opaque—the hedge behind it being in some measure hidden by its hazy luminousness. Up the sides of this depression grew sheaves of the common rush, and here and there a peculiar species of flag, the blades of which glistened in the emerging sun, like scythes. But the general aspect of the swamp was malignant. From its moist and poisonous coat seemed to be exhaled the essences of evil things in the earth, and in the waters under the earth. The fungi grew in all manner of positions from rotting leaves and tree stumps, some exhibiting to her listless gaze their clammy tops, others their oozing gills. Some were marked with great splotches, red as arterial blood, others were saffron yellow, and others tall and attenuated, with stems like macaroni. Some were leathery and of richest browns. The hollow seemed a nursery of pestilences small and great, in the immediate neighborhood of comfort and health, and Bathsheba arose with a tremor at the thought of having passed the night on the brink of so dismal a place.

[pp. 347-48]

The notes of Oak's flute early in the novel were an indication that man, no matter what the appearances of the moment, himself imposes a believable order upon nature when his community is intact and his social relationships viable. Thus, the recognition that nature is an impersonal entity, separate from man even when he is a member of an ordered community, suggests the underlying possibilities of doubt and the dissolution of order. The quality of man's perception of nature and the state of his community are inseparable. Far From the Madding Crowd moves from Oak's idyllic sheepherding (where the potential for the later view is implicit) and the shearing episode in the barn, where man and nature are in harmony and the social order intact; through the vision of the storm and indifferent, even hostile, nature on the night of the drunken harvest feast in the same barn; to Bathsheba's disgust and bottomless despair at the sight of the swamp. The violation of Fanny's grave by the flow of rainwater through a gargoyle on the roof of the church drives the change in the perception of nature even further—to the point of its absolute antipathy to man. Even though it continues to serve its purpose of draining water, man's functional intentions for the gargoyle have now taken on destructive tendencies. Hardy is explicit: “The persistent torrent from the gargoyle's jaws directed all its vengeance into the grave” (p. 362).

The perception of a hostile nature also provides, for the first time, an insight into the sensational Troy. While his outlines have been strongly drawn throughout the book and his effect on the Wessex community made clear, it is not until the curtain is drawn back across the entire landscape of the novel that any insight into his character is possible. Troy is granted the equivalent to Maybold's ability to control his actions, a glimpse of self-knowledge. He is, in spite of his present role, still a geographical native to Weatherbury and, in a sense, must involuntarily recognize his effect on the world that bore him with a kind of contrition. His own past has handled him roughly; the story of his life, for all its excitement, is the denial of a home.

Almost for the first time in his life Troy, as he stood by this dismantled grave, wished himself another man. It is seldom that a person with much animal spirit does not feel that the fact of his life being his own is the one qualification which singles it out as a more hopeful life than that of others who may actually resemble him in every particular. Troy had felt, in his transient way, hundreds of times, that he could not envy other people their condition, because the possession of that condition would have necessitated a different personality, when he desired no other than his own. He had not minded the peculiarities of his birth, the vicissitudes of his life, the meteor-like uncertainty of all that related to him, because these appertained to the hero of his story, without whom there would have been no story at all for him; and it seemed to be only in the nature of things that matters would right themselves at some proper date and wind up well. This very morning the illusion completed its disappearance, and, as it were, all of a sudden, Troy hated himself. The suddenness was probably more apparent than real. A coral reef which just comes short of the ocean surface is no more to the horizon than if it had never been begun, and the mere finishing stroke is what often appears to create an event which has long been potentially an accomplished thing.

He stood and meditated—a miserable man. Whither should he go? “He that is accursed, let him be accursed still” (Revelation, xxii, 11), was the pitiless anathema written in this spoliated effort of his newborn solicitousness. A man who has spent his primal strength in journeying in one direction has not much spirit left for reversing his course. Troy had, since yesterday, faintly reversed his; but the merest opposition had disheartened him. To turn about would have been hard enough under the greatest providential encouragement; but to find that Providence, far from helping him into a new course, or showing any wish that he might adopt one, actually jeered his first trembling and critical attempt in that kind, was more than nature could bear.

He slowly withdrew from the grave. He did not attempt to fill up the hole, replace the flowers, or do anything at all. He simply threw up his cards and forswore his game for that time and always.

[pp. 364-65]

During the years of uncertainty about her husband's possible death, Bathsheba's life is the embodiment of the tension that now exists within the community. When Troy is finally killed by Boldwood, his disturbing influence is at least eradicated through action in a manner parallel to Maybold's retraction of his marriage offer to Fancy. But, like the situation at the end of Under the Greenwood Tree, the wound has already been inflicted—the effect on the original order is a mental, or moral, one. In spite of Hardy's attempts to gloss over the irreparable rift, in the form of Boldwood's pardon and Bathsheba's marriage to Oak, events have wrought changes in the very fabric of life. Bathsheba and Oak's love is indeed “strong as death” (p. 457); no other simile could describe it properly. It is a real love, nurtured by experience of the hardest kind. …

Knight [in A Pair of Blue Eyes] is the early version of the later Hardy, the catalyst for a still deeper transformation in the world of the mature novels. It seems that precisely this recognition on Hardy's part caused him to retreat from such a disturbing impulse when he wrote his next book. Knight's secret power was his hold on the artist himself. Maimed but indestructible, his mutation is Troy. Still, his dark knowledge underlies the tension and the abiding wounds in the world of Far From the Madding Crowd. Hardy stood by his attempt at suppression on the cliff in his next novel—“Into the shadowy depths of these speculations we will not follow him.” But the impulse could not be resisted, even in the so-called idyll of Weatherbury, and it returns to drive the artist to answer on a still deeper level. It seems that he

must stand with the average against the exception, he must, in his ultimate judgment, represent the interests of humanity, or the community as a whole, and rule out the individual interest.

To do this, however, he must go against himself. His private sympathy is always with the individual against the community: as is the case with the artist.7

The tensions within Far From the Madding Crowd, and even their first whispers in Under the Greenwood Tree, are symptoms of the disturbance; the history of the development of this instinct during Hardy's career as a novelist is the underlying determinant of the course his fiction was to follow. “All the phenomena of the formation of symptoms may be justly described as ‘the return of the repressed.’ Their distinguishing characteristic, however, is the far-reaching distortion to which the returning material has been subjected as compared with the original.”8


  1. Donald Davidson, “The Traditional Basis of Thomas Hardy's Fiction,” in Still Rebels, Still Yankees, p. 58.

  2. While Under the Greenwood Tree is not a Wessex novel proper, its flavor, as well as its geography, places it in that imaginative environment.

  3. Jude the Obscure, pp. 68-69.

  4. Davidson, pp. 58-59. Hardy's critics, with few exceptions, seem to align themselves either with the view that he worked in isolation from the climate of the day, or that he was a perfect representative of it. Davidson's apparent misunderstanding of the nature of the world of the early novels stems from his overlooking Hardy's final view of nature in the two books following Under the Greenwood Tree, a view which casts serious doubts on a nonillusory, natural basis for the ordered Wessex community.

  5. While Boldwood and Dick are not specifically equated here (Oak finally emerges as Dick's parallel), at this point in the story Oak has given way to the farmer, and thus for the moment passes along his role. In terms of the structure of the community and its violation, Boldwood and Oak are interchangeable.

  6. Even here, the parallels are more meaningful than is apparent—the marketplace denotes the functional values of Wessex, which were deemed even more real than the religious values in the shearing scene.

  7. D. H. Lawrence, “Study of Thomas Hardy,” in Selected Literary Criticism, p. 183.

  8. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 23: 127. All citations from Freud are from the Standard Edition and will hereafter be indicated by title and volume number alone. The phrase the return of the repressed first appeared in Freud's published work in 1896 (Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defense, 3: 170).

Merryn Williams (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2416

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 definitely the first of Hardy's major works.

Of all his novels, it is the most optimistic and positive. The tensions, far greater than those in Under the Greenwood Tree, are still contained and harmoniously resolved in the end. It was the novel which the Victorian critics wanted him to write over and over again, and referred back to nostalgically when they were deploring the ‘pessimism’ of Jude [Jude the Obscure] and Tess [Tess of the d’Urbervilles]. But it is not a rustic idyll—although most people thought it was—or a simple romance about three men and a girl. The characters are defined in terms of their work more clearly than in any of the earlier novels: Gabriel and Bathsheba are skilled land-workers or overseers; Boldwood is a respectable gentleman-farmer; Troy is a drifting soldier who could have done much better things with his life. All of them are subordinated to the novel's central preoccupation—the care of the land and flocks, and the maintenance of the community in a condition of health. Individuals are characterised as good or bad directly through their contributions to these ends.

Hardy illustrates what this means in his description of sheep-shearing in the old barn, which has endured for generations because it is necessary for ‘the defence and salvation of the body by daily bread’. He comments:

One could say about this barn, what could hardly be said of either the church or the castle, akin to it in age and style, that the purpose which had dictated its original erection was the same with that to which it was still applied. Unlike and superior to either of these two typical remnants of mediaevalism, the old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time … For once mediaevalism and modernism had a common standpoint.

The barn is ‘timeless’ not in a romantic or mystical sense but because the human needs for food and shelter never change. The workers in the barn are engaged in a ‘timeless’ activity because they are meeting these needs:

In these Wessex nooks the busy outsider's ancient times are only old; his old times are still new; his present is futurity.

The flashy Troy is contrasted with these workers in the most direct language. ‘With him the past was yesterday; the future, tomorrow; never, the day after’. Completely absorbed in the moment he is unaware of all permanent needs and emotions; his activities are ‘exercised on whatever object chance might place in their way’ and his feelings continually change. His energy usually takes the form of casual destructiveness—we see him aiming ‘light cuts at the horse's ear with the end of the lash, as a recreation’—and his profession is destructive too; he is a soldier, After marrying Bathsheba he squanders the money which she needs to keep up the farm and almost ruins her financially. ‘Nothing has prospered in Weatherbury’, a labourer comments, ‘since he came here’. It is only superficially that he is fascinating, in the ‘scarlet and gilded form’ in which Bathsheba sees him. Shorn of his brilliant externals his human quality is poorer and meaner than that of anyone else in the book.

However it is a mistake to see him, with Douglas Brown, as a destructive urban figure invading a peaceful agricultural community. It is not nearly so simple as that. For one thing he is not the only destructive force in the community (Boldwood is in many ways equally negative) and also—as we shall see later—the community badly needs a positive stimulus from the outside. Troy's links are not so much with cities—he has grown up in Casterbridge—as with the army and the aristocracy. He is an earl's illegitimate son, in many ways a preliminary sketch for Alec d'Urberville (his treatment of Fanny is much the same as Alec's of Tess). Moreover, he represents none of the qualities of education and modernisation which Brown associates with urban influence. He does not try to modernise the farm, but neglects it, and he has had a good education which he has thrown away. Hardy is not praising him when he describes how ‘he wasted his gifted lot, and listed a soldier’. As Gabriel says, this ‘shows his course to be down'ard’. He would have admired him far more if he had developed such abilities as he had.

If Troy is not a sophisticated urban invader, neither is Bathsheba just a simple country maiden who succumbs to his wiles. She is a vain girl, rather like Fancy Day, and she resembles her, too, in being better educated and on a higher social rung than the ordinary villagers. Her parents were townsfolk and she is a stranger to Weatherbury, where the people are surprised by her self-reliance. But, unlike Fancy Day, she is bitterly punished for her vanity and thoughtless flirtations. Having trifled with Boldwood's and Gabriel's feelings, she finds herself tied to Troy who is incapable of loving her or indeed anyone else. We have suspected this before, but we do not fully realise it until we are shown what he has done to Fanny, in her agony on the road to the Casterbridge workhouse, which is shunned by everyone except the most destitute poor.

Bathsheba has to suffer both for her cruelty to Fanny, although this was unconscious, and for betraying her own deepest instincts by marrying Troy. She is rejected by him, imagines herself to be rejected by Gabriel, and has to recognise her share of the responsibility for Boldwood's collapse. As a result, she is agonisingly purged of self-centredness:

Taking no further interest in herself as a splendid woman; she acquired the indifferent feelings of an outsider in contemplating her probable fate as a singular wretch.

When she helps Gabriel to replant the flowers on the grave of the dead girl she had seen as a rival, ‘with the superfluous magnanimity of a woman whose narrower instincts have brought down bitterness upon her instead of love’, she has finally learned to be more like him in not thinking first of herself.

Gabriel is exceptional because ‘among the multitude of interests by which he was surrounded, those which affected his personal well-being were not the most absorbing and important in his eyes’. He keeps silent for years about his love for Bathsheba and brushes off references to the subject—‘I must get used to such as that; other men have, and so shall I’. Boldwood ‘who seemed so much deeper and higher and stronger in feeling than Gabriel’ is really his moral inferior because he allows his love to turn into a monomania which blinds him to all responsibilities. In The Mayor of Casterbridge Hardy made a rather similar study, in greater detail, of a man who lets his individual passions, which he refuses to control, drive him outside the community. Boldwood is admirable because of his strength of feeling, but destructive and therefore evil because he has let himself become a fanatic. His infatuation causes him to neglect his farm (a symbolic abandonment of social responsibility) and finally drives him to the most extreme anti-social act, murder. That he is not, like Tess, hanged for it is an indication that Hardy still felt at this time that anti-social forces could be controlled and need not work through to full tragedy. The two destructive forces, Troy and Boldwood, end by annihilating each other and the community's shattered peace is restored.

The differing attitudes of the three men are illustrated strikingly in the symbolic storm scene—in many respects the central scene of the book. Troy has forced the labourers to get dead drunk (or ‘look elsewhere for a winter's work’) although he has been warned that the ricks are in danger. Boldwood allows his own ricks to remain exposed because he is absorbed in his despair over Bathsheba's marriage. It is afterwards said that ‘a condition of mental disease seemed to afford the only explanation’ for this ‘unprecedented neglect’. Gabriel, on the other hand, risks his life, although he has been equally hurt by Bathsheba's rejection, to protect her ricks from the storm. His reasons for doing so are mixed:

Seven hundred and fifty pounds in the divinest form that money can wear—that of necessary food for man and beast: should the risk be run of deteriorating this bulk of corn to less than half its value, because of the instability of a woman? ‘Never, if I can prevent it’, said Gabriel.

But there is also a deeper reason:

It is possible that there was this golden legend under the utilitarian one: ‘I will help to my last effort the woman I have loved so dearly.’

Bathsheba and the corn, the human beings who sustain the land and the food which sustains them, become at least equal in their value in Gabriel's eyes. The product of human labour and the value of unselfish human love are defended at the same time.

Bathsheba is significantly the only person who comes to help Gabriel. Throughout the action, although she treats him badly, she is dependent on his strength and endurance to help her through her personal disasters, just as she swallows her pride to appeal to him when the sheep have to be cured. Their relationship is grounded in the experience of years of shared labour—what Hardy calls ‘similarity of pursuits’—in the care of the crops and animals, the well-being of the farm and those who work on it—which is what, in the end, matters most to them both. For Bathsheba is a much stronger character than Fancy; there are much deeper things in her than the passion for being admired. Her feeling for Gabriel, ‘growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality’ turns out to be ‘the only love which is strong as death—that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam’.

Gabriel can too easily be seen as the romanticised archetypal countryman. His name and occupation are relevant here. He is the traditional Good Shepherd, saving the flock from disease and new-born lambs from the cold. Yet his character, though strong and simple, is not so from any absence of skill or intelligence. He is only able to cure the sheep because he possesses a certain kind of knowledge which nobody else in the neighbourhood has. The labourers unanimously look up to him as ‘a clever man in talents’:

We hear that ye can tell the time as well by the stars as we can by the sun and moon … and that ye can make sun-dials, and print folks' names upon their waggons almost like copper-plate, with beautiful flourishes.

Besides his familiarity with the traditional skills of outdoor life, Gabriel knows how to play the flute and read his small collection of books to some purpose—‘he had acquired more sound information by diligent perusal than many a man of opportunities has done from a furlong of laden shelves’. Like Bathsheba, he is gifted with a much higher degree of talent and energy than the rest of the community, and so is able to rise to a leading position within it. The simple, reductive pattern of an organic village society threatened by an alien intruder is inevitably complicated when we remember that Gabriel and Bathsheba are intruders themselves. Weatherbury is a sluggish place (‘notoriously prone’, says the Preface, to ‘fuddling’) and the people are ‘as hardy, merry, thriving, wicked a set as any in the whole county’. In fact they are remarkedly like the shiftless Durbeyfield family, quite incapable of coping with the emergencies which come up naturally from time to time in any rural community. It is always Gabriel who has to get them out of their difficulties, like the fire, the storm, and the sheep-disease (as well as recalling them to a sense of decency when Joseph leaves Fanny's coffin outside the inn and gets drunk). Gabriel is himself a victim of one of these calamities when his sheep are destroyed. ‘Sunk from his modest elevation as pastoral king’ and left ‘with the clothes he stood up in, and nothing more’ he becomes a victim of the rural labour-market when he has to offer himself for work at the hiring fair. Like Bathsheba he has to pass through ‘an ordeal of wretchedness’ before he can find security. Suffering is as real in old-fashioned Wessex villages as it is in the cities and Christminster; Gabriel's great strength is in his ability to adapt and endure. It is through sheer initiative, mixed with luck, that he reaches his final successful and happy position, because as he says himself he was ‘made for better things’ than a life of mechanical toil.

Thus the rural community is not so much threatened from outside by the growth of urbanism as confronted with a series of internal crises which grow out of man's perpetual struggle with nature. In this struggle, those who are most likely to make a success of their lives are the resourceful and persevering, whose qualities are based on a real love and understanding of nature.

In the end the easy-going Weatherbury community, having expelled the destructive forces which menaced it, is revitalised by the two outsiders, Bathsheba and Gabriel. It is as if their eventual and long-postponed union—unromantic and unexciting, as Hardy stresses—has restored the desirable norm to the village; the norm of maintaining communal labour, looking after the sheep, getting food from the land. It is because both of them fundamentally want to live according to this norm that they possess a real basis for marriage, for they have both developed into mature human beings, who are prepared to grapple seriously with their responsibilities both in work and in love.

Tom R. Sullivan (essay date 1974)

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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 suggested by the isms noted above, generalize about kinds of action which he thought best for men, and his generalizations do not imply the philosophic positions usually attributed to him. He chose to describe his own ‘idiosyncratic mode of regard’ in the following terms: “let me repeat, if way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst: that is to say, by the exploration of reality, and its frank recognition stage by stage along the survey, with an eye to the best consummation possible: briefly, evolutionary meliorism.”2 The process of ‘evolutionary meliorism,’ he said in the same essay, could be achieved by proceeding so that,

pain to all upon it [the world], tongued or dumb, shall be kept down to a minimum by loving-kindness, operating through scientific knowledge, and actuated by the modicum of free will conjecturally possessed by organic life when the mighty necessitating forces—unconscious or other—that have “the balancings of the worlds” happen to be in equilibrium, which may or may not be often.3

Perhaps it has been for good reason that few critics have tried to see Hardy's novels in terms of evolutionary meliorism. The phrase does not have great currency, and since Hardy did not define it precisely, few have found it useful for thematic discussion of the novels. Moreover, the concept of evolutionary meliorism derives from nineteenth century rationalism, and if it describes Hardy's thought, then it would seem as if we must deny his modernity. Unfortunately, those terms used most frequently in thematic discussion of his novels, such as ‘pessimism,’ or ‘determinism,’ or ‘fatalism,’ although they have the virtue of greater currency, and suggest a fashionable twentieth century despair, lack precision in terms of specific Hardy novels. Farfrae, for example, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, adapts his behavior to changing circumstance and is eventually rewarded. Surely that reward would not have been his had his creator held a purely fatalistic, or pessimistic, view of the world. And in that much maligned sixth book of The Return of the Native, that most well-behaved couple, Diggory Venn and Thomasin Yeobright, link happily for ever after—surely not the conclusion an absolute determinist would have provided for the novel, even under pressure from a fatuous reading public. Other works, such as The Hand of Ethelberta, or Under the Greenwood Tree, or Far From the Madding Crowd, fail to conform to the notions of determinism, or fatalism, or pessimism. Thus it might be well to look more closely, despite its drawbacks of definition and currency, at the phrase which Hardy chose to use to describe his thought—evolutionary meliorism.

Nineteenth century science, the science which made current and acceptable the concept of evolution, was dominated by geological and biological discoveries which made man aware of cosmic, as opposed to clock, time. The evolutionary development of the world, man discovered, had been the work, not of a few thousand years, measurable by man's experience, but of aeons. Such a time scheme dwarfed that held previously by most men. A variety of responses to the new time scheme were possible, and its effect upon thought and literature of the nineteenth century was extremely profound. But whatever else the new time scheme taught man, it must have taught him patience. It taught Hardy, at any rate, to expect melioration to take place over an immense span of time, and that one could seldom expect to see the results of one's efforts to amend the world, but that on any ‘commonplace day,’

In some spot undiscerned on sea or land,
                                                                                some impulse rose,
Or some intent upstole
Of that enkindling ardency from whose
                                                                                maturer glows
The world's amendment flows.(4)

One would certainly need patience to live in such a world. Even the very manner in which Hardy chose to describe ‘evolutionary meliorism’ suggests something of the patience necessary for those who hoped for change. Man could, “stage by stage,” if way there be, with a modicum of free will, on rare occasions, work for the improvement of the world. Since present conditions took ages to effect, it seemed presumptuous to assume that man could effect great and sudden change in those conditions through his own puny activities. Occasions for effecting change didn't appear frequently, and when they arrived man needed to act “through scientific knowledge,” not precipitately, on emotional grounds.

Thus the concept of ‘evolutionary meliorism’ implied a behavioral standard for the individual in relation to time. Hardy's concern with behavior in relation to time may be seen thereby to have an abstract justification. Such a concern was embodied in numerous works. Being ‘too late,’ i.e., out of the proper time, seems to be a frequent difficulty for many of his characters in many of his novels. However, the idea is given its clearest, most concrete fictional embodiment in Hardy's use of images associated with time as indices to character in Far From the Madding Crowd.

Above all, in a world in which change for the better may be ages away, man must be patient; he must resign himself to nature's timetable—which science had shown to be terribly slow. To achieve such resignation was to achieve the proper relationship with time. The rustics in Far From the Madding Crowd, who, through occupation and life style, are kept very close to nature, generally maintain, the novel seems to argue, an ideal relationship with time. In the first place, they respect the power of time. As emblems of that power their watches are given almost religious significance; a watch, to the rustic, has the quality of a fetish. Cain Ball, the shepherd's helper who serves under Gabriel Oak, carries with him a “rather large watch, which dangled in front of the young man pendulumwise.”5 Jim Coggan, another rustic, carries “an old pinchbeck repeater which he had inherited from some genius in his family” (p. 241). Paradoxically, however, it is not mere clock time that the rustics respect, but rather time as it is measured by the traditions of their rural life. The building they are associated with, their communal malthouse, has an “Elymas the Sorcerer” pattern upon the door, a pattern Roman in derivation and consequently of great age (p. 59). Inside the malthouse everything is associated with a communal sense of the past. The stone-flag floor has been worn by previous generations until a path shows from the doorway to the kiln; the maltster who operates the place is so old his children are already great-grandfathers. The malthouse habitants revere such great old age. They stop whatever they are doing, when at the malthouse, to pacify the old maltster, who is quick to become irritated when others claim honor for being old, honor which he, understandably, feels to be his proper due. The rustics thus realize their linkage through the ages with the forms which have gone before them. Their sense of time, like that suggested by the ‘evolutionists’ of the nineteenth century, transcends clock time.

Gabriel Oak relates properly with time. Like the rustics, he carries a watch as a fetish; he has, “By way of watch, what may be called a small silver clock; in other words, it was a watch as to shape and intention, and a small clock as to size” (p. 2). It is an heirloom, older than his grandfather, and he is careful with it, so much so that he only uses it on special occasions when he is dressed up. Most of the time Oak tells the time by natural means—a knowledge of the sun and the stars. Later we are not surprised to learn that one of his many skills is his ability to make sun-dials. His function in the plot is as the enduring, long suffering lover. He waits patiently through the time of Bathsheba's courtship by Boldwood, her marriage to Troy, the violence which marks the end of Troy and Boldwood, and finally Bathsheba's mourning period, until, at last, evidently as much because of endurance as anything else, he wins the hand of the lady farmer. The allusions and the incidents suggest Gabriel's abiding respect for the eternities of time. And although they put him in a perspective with a vast dimension, the added depth suggests that his actions and character are in accord with the dimension—as eternal as time rather than transient. They serve to enhance his dignity rather than to make him appear small.

Hardy is very specific about the libertine Troy's attitude towards time. He tells us of it in the following words:

He [Troy] was a man to whom memories were an incumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity … His outlook upon time was as a transient flash of the eye now and then: that projection of consciousness into days gone by and to come, which makes the past a synonym for the pathetic and the future a word for circumspection, was foreign to Troy. With him the past was yesterday: the future, tomorrow; never, the day after.

(p. 190)

But carpe diem, in a world in which change is only wrought by the slow hand of time, is at least impractical, if not sacrilegious. Troy also has a watch, but he treats it without the proper respect. It is his only heirloom from his natural father, but when he sees that Bathsheba does not have a watch he urges her to take his. Thus Troy, that child of impulse—a bastard—gives up his only connection with his father—on an impulse. It is also revelatory of Troy's attitude towards time that he keeps Fanny Robin's hair enclosed in his watch—a sentimental but ineffectual gesture. Moreover, whereas Oak told the time by the sun and the stars when he didn't use his watch, Troy is associated with an unnatural time image other than his watch. It is during his abortive effort to wed Fanny that we see the following paragraph devoted to telling the time:

There was a creaking of machinery behind, and some of the young ones turned their heads. From the interior face of the west wall of the tower projected a little canopy with a quarterjack and small bell beneath it, the automation being driven by the same clock machinery that struck the large bell in the tower. Between the tower and the church was a close screen, the door of which was kept shut during services, hiding this grotesque clockwork from sight. At present, however, the door was open, and the egress of the jack, the blows on the bell, and the mannikin's retreat into the nook again, were visible to many, and audible throughout the church.

(p. 130)

This grotesque machinery, as far removed as possible from the natural means by which Oak tells the time, foreshadows the sinister complications which will be the result of Troy's improper regard for time.

Boldwood's dislocations with natural time are just as severe as Troy's but the imagery used to suggest that dislocation is not as explicit. Boldwood has on his mantle an elaborate timepiece, “surmounted by a spread eagle” (p. 112). Such a timepiece, although not necessarily grotesque, suggests a pretentious kind of artificiality—a concern with time in a shallowly historical sense rather than with the realities of time as sensed by the rustics. For unlike Oak, Boldwood has no sense of communal time, and therefore his actions are often not in accord with the actions of his neighbors, and this, eventually, leads him to disaster. When at the corn exchange, for example, he is the only male who does not seize the occasion to praise Bathsheba with his attention, and this neglect makes her think of him when she finds the terribly fatal valentine. Later, when he is having dinner with Bathsheba and the rustics, he regards her only when the others have turned away. We are told that “when they [the rustics] thanked or praised, he was silent; when they were inattentive he murmured his thanks” (p. 179). At any rate, he acts outside the proper, i.e., communal time scheme, and is therefore not well equipped for success in Hardy's Wessex.

Bathsheba learns the proper respect for time from her experience. The first action we see her undertake in the novel is out of accord with the proper time for it. She is looking in a mirror while sitting on top of a wagonload of household goods in the middle of the road. Hardy wrote of the situation as follows: “The change from the customary spot and necessary occasion of such an act—from the dressing hour in a bedroom to a time of traveling out of doors—lent to the idle deed a novelty it did not intrinsically possess … Woman's prescriptive infirmity had stalked into the sunlight” (p. 5). From this relatively innocent dislocation with time she progresses to more serious difficulties. Once she has risen in the world she becomes quite new fashioned, concerned, like Troy, with the pleasures of the moment yet, like Boldwood, given to pretense, to the aggrandizement of the importance of her moment in time. Either way, she succumbs to a sense of clock time, of historical rather than communal, i.e., natural and evolutionary, time. Her unreflecting attitude without regard for the future makes her, like Troy, obedient to impulse during the early part of her career. That she sends the valentine to Boldwood is ample evidence of her impulsive attitude. Later, when she is becoming established as a farmer, the old maltster interprets her purchase of “great watches, getting on to the size of clocks, to stand upon the chimbley-piece,” as a form of pride (p. 120). However, after her marriage to Troy, she no longer acts impulsively; for example, she refuses until after the most lengthy contemplation to even consider a proposal from Boldwood. Later, her period of mourning for Troy equals the traditional, and therefore, perhaps, communal, length of time—one year, and finally, her marriage to Oak would suggest that she will adopt his true, communal, conception of time.

Nature's way of change was as slow as the process which caused imperceptible transitions on Norcombe Hill. To adapt to nature's way was, Hardy evidently felt, to accept its pace, its measure of time. If man were attuned to that pace, as were the rustics, and Oak, then he could work patiently for moderate change in his condition. The novel thus exemplifies at least one aspect of Hardy's concept of evolutionary meliorism. Perhaps, in order to insure a more complete understanding of other Hardy novels we should forsake the more current, but less exact labels so often used in thematic discussion of his work, and explore instead the relationship between the author's avowed philosophic position and the form of his novels.


  1. Hardy disclaimed the role of the philosopher on various occasions. He argued that a novel is “an impression, not an argument” (The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, New York, 1930; 175). On another occasion Hardy argued that The Dynasts was “based on a tentative theory of things … whether it [the theory] was true or false little affected his object …” (The Dynasts, New York; 1919; viii). Still later, in reply to a 1917 article in the Fortnightly he argued that his works of art should not be treated as “scientific systems of philosophy” but as “seemings” or “impressions” which were “used for artistic purposes because they represent approximately the impressions of the age, and are plausible, till somebody produces better theories of the universe” (The Later Years, 175).

  2. Thomas Hardy, “Apology,” Late Lyrics and Earlier, Wessex Edition, V (London, 1926), ix. Two studies have traced the melioristic aspect of Hardy's thought. J. O. Bailey in “Evolutionary Meliorism in the Poetry of Thomas Hardy,” Studies in Philology, LX (July 1963), 569-587, traces this aspect of Hardy's thought in Hardy's poetry, but argues that the idea did not really develop early enough in Hardy's mind to be of any bearing upon the novels. However, Roy Morrell, in a brief article (“Hardy in the Tropics: Some Implications of Hardy's Attitude Towards Nature,” Review of English Literature, III [January 1962], 7-21) and later, in a book-length study, (Thomas Hardy; The Will and the Way, Kuala Lumpur, 1965) sought to demonstrate how those ideas associated with evolutionary meliorism were also apparent in the novels. Morrell's studies, insofar as they were concerned with evolutionary meliorism, were primarily concerned with demonstrating that the idea did, indeed appear in the novels. What follows, in my study, is an attempt to reveal that idea pattern as fundamental to the structure of one early novel.

  3. Thomas Hardy, “Apology,” Late Lyrics and Earlier, Wessex Edition, V (London, 1926), x.

  4. Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (New York, 1925), 105.

  5. Thomas Hardy. Far From the Madding Crowd (New York, 1918), 250. All my page references are to this edition.

Dale Kramer (essay date 1975)

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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 powerful novel. Published anonymously as a serial, it at first provoked speculation that George Eliot was the author,1 but Hardy's grammatical and syntactic infelicities were soon compared unfavorably with her skill.2 All in all, the immediate critical response was warm, despite qualifications, and the novel has continued to hold a high place among the Wessex novels. It became the standard against which the rest were evaluated, and remained so throughout Hardy's career. That the others were usually thought inferior is more an index to critical predisposition than to the final superiority of Far from the Madding Crowd; but that it could be consistently used for a model indicates that its solid merits were recognized. The novel is still widely praised for its rustic characters, its dramatic scenes, its closely detailed, accurate, and, more importantly, evocative depictions of sheep-raising, and its correlations between man's repetitious but sometimes frenzied activities and the calmly implacable but sometimes ferocious forces of nature.

Far from the Madding Crowd is incidentally but crucially at the heart of this study which emphasizes Hardy's use of a variety of formal methods to express tragedy. Its principal technical feature works against tragic expression, although Hardy indicates an awareness of the possibility of turning the novel into a tragic fiction. Moreover, the technique he employs here—schematism and dichotomy—is congenial to an initial exploration of many themes he later developed. Thus, these aspects of the techniques of Far from the Madding Crowd are pertinent to a full understanding of Hardy's methods and ideas; the greater subtlety of the later novels blurs the edges of a vision of life composed of dynamically contrasting forces which Hardy expresses in Far from the Madding Crowd. The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century interpretation of Hardy's novels as architectural constructions is not inaccurate; but critics and early readers of Hardy failed to observe his efforts to subordinate his instinctive “architectural vision” to humane studies of emotion and thought which through his skill he was able to develop over the years. Thus, although his last novel, Jude the Obscure, is built on the idea of contrasts, as Hardy admitted,3 it possesses greater passion and understanding than Far from the Madding Crowd, in which the contrasts are organizational devices for plot and character presentation and never become dramatic interplays of personality and philosophical viewpoints. We also see in Far from the Madding Crowd the degree to which this architectural patterning is innate to Hardy, in the balance of sentence structures and antithetical contents of his sentences. The architectural filigree is an integral device for communicating Hardy's vision of the world and for indicating the interpretive limits of the novel.

That Far from the Madding Crowd is the most rigidly conceived and schematically executed of Hardy's novels is a critical cliché. The symmetry of the overall plot is nearly perfect, according to James Wright:

At the beginning, we see the shepherd Oak wooing Bathsheba. Shortly after his failure he begins to blend with the landscape in his silent devotion to the heroine. Then Bathsheba more or less promises herself to Boldwood. Just as she is to accept Boldwood's offer of engagement, she becomes infatuated with Sergeant Troy. Boldwood joins Oak in a hopeless patience. Shortly after Bathsheba's marriage to Troy, she begins her descent. She learns that he is a cad, and marriage seems hell to her. After the incident of Fanny Robin's death, Troy vanishes. Boldwood emerges from the background to woo Bathsheba again. Troy returns, and is killed. Boldwood is imprisoned. At last, Bathsheba and Oak are together, as they were at the beginning. We might schematize the action according to the number of wooers surrounding Bathsheba as the novel progresses: 2-3-4-3-2.4

Wright comments that although “the scheme is charmingly neat … it is also satanically false to Hardy” in that it bypasses Hardy's embodiment of his vision in a rich context of knowledge of nature. The scheme may indeed be satanically false in this respect, but its charming neatness is supplemented by being aesthetically true, for this novel contains a number of dichotomizing elements that parallel the sharp outlines of plot as Wright sketches it and that lead us, in this early Hardy novel, straight into the essential quality of his vision and of his “message” concerning human life.

In passages of both description and analysis, in Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy uses contrasting terms and details to convey shades of meaning. Hardy's intention would appear to be the attainment of precision and denotativeness, although the matters dealt with are connotative or evaluative. Instead of giving the effect of a balanced consideration of the issues, Hardy's mannerism creates a sense of rigidity and limits imaginative identification. Isolating the elements in a human quality, or indicating the extremes of a manner, or ascribing general meaning to an individual act—all these practices, which are pronounced aspects of the style of Far from the Madding Crowd, create a schism between the conception Hardy presumably has and its realization or rendering. With equal cause, a reader's reaction to this technique could be to recognize it either as a grotesque turning of human subtleties into mechanical variations or as a writer's effort to overcome the fuzziness of his idea as to what he actually wants to make of his materials. Some examples of Hardy's schematic style in this novel are: when Oak first sees Bathsheba she is thinking about her “face and form”; Oak thinks that “the self-consciousness shown would have been vanity if a little more pronounced, dignity if a little less” (p. 20). [All quotations from the Wessex edition (London: Macmillan, 1912)]. When Bathsheba leaves, the infatuated Oak returns to his work “with an air between that of Tragedy and Comedy” (p. 21). Preparing to propose to Bathsheba, Oak makes “a toilet of a nicely-adjusted kind—of a nature between the carefully neat and carelessly ornate—of a degree between fine-market-day and wet-Sunday selection” (p. 28). After describing the illusion that the clouds, snow, and surfaces outside Troy's barracks resemble a cavern, Hardy notes: “We turn our attention to the left-hand [that is, abstract] characteristics; which were flatness in respect of the river, verticality in respect of the wall behind it, and darkness as to both. These features made up the mass. If anything could be darker than the sky, it was the wall, and if anything could be gloomier than the wall it was the river beneath” (p. 96). Another example of this quality of Hardy's style is his description of Bathsheba's reading the Book of Ruth to learn whom she is to marry: “It was Wisdom in the abstract facing Folly in the concrete” (p. 108). Finally, Boldwood in entering the malthouse bestows upon each man already there “a nod of a quality between friendliness and condescension” (p. 125).

The variety of the quotations makes evident that Hardy employs this technique in nearly every facet of the novel—characterization, plot, philosophizing, setting. The quotations are obviously dichotomous in their division of features of human life into categories. The book abounds with other, less clear instances of schematism. For example, Hardy comments about Oak's early love for the youthful and vivacious Bathsheba, “Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness. Marriage transforms a distraction into a support, the power of which should be, and happily often is, in direct proportion to the degree of imbecility it supplants” (p. 27). Mark Clark is “a genial and pleasant gentleman, whom to meet anywhere in your travels was to know, to know was to drink with, and to drink with was, unfortunately, to pay for” (p. 62). In describing the night when Fanny arrives at Troy's barracks to remind him that he had promised to marry her, Hardy employs a range of potential reactions to the moment: “It was a night when sorrow may come to the brightest without causing any great sense of incongruity: when, with impressible persons, love becomes solicitousness, hope sinks to misgiving, and faith to hope: when the exercise of memory does not stir feelings of regret at opportunities for ambition that have been passed by, and anticipation does not prompt to enterprise” (p. 95). Again, “the whole effect” of a certain sunrise “resembled a sunset as childhood resembles age” (p. 114).

These examples are clearly written, but the same technique is employed with Hardy's strained erudition and gnarled phraseology which have brought groans of exasperation for a full century. An example from the first description of Gabriel will illustrate:

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.

[P. 1]

Even the explanation that follows immediately, “that is, he went to church, but yawned privately by the time the congregation reached the Nicene creed,” is more of a self-ironic comment on the phraseology than it is a clarification of it.


The total effect of Hardy's technique has not gone unnoticed by critics, although it has not been discussed at length.5 Since Hardy's artistry is developmental rather than static, the technique is not used again in such a completely artificial fashion. Although he never became a fine stylist, he improved. As he proceeds to different aspects of his major themes in each novel, the methods he uses to convey the themes are appropriately altered also. His manner is direct in Far from the Madding Crowd, and not unexpectedly we find revelations here of Hardy's 1874 concepts of the themes he later made peculiarly his own, such as his ideas about tragedy, free will, and time.

Clearly, the schematic style has great effect upon the characterizations. Each major character has at least one set of opposing qualities. Oak, conveniently enough for his happiness, has arrived at the age of twenty-eight knowing his intellect and emotions are separated, a state of self-awareness that keeps him from being either an impulsive youth or a prejudiced family man (p. 3), and allowing him to weather utter financial ruin with only a modicum of despair and even to attain a more dignified calm in the process (pp. 41, 44). The description of Gabriel's personal appearance uses contrasting extremes to indicate his ordinariness in Bathsheba's eyes:

Gabriel's features adhered throughout their form so exactly to the middle line between the beauty of St. John and the ugliness of Judas Iscariot, as represented in a window of the church he attended, that not a single lineament could be selected and called worthy either of distinction or notoriety. The red-jacketed and dark-haired maiden seemed to think so too, for she carelessly glanced over him, and told her man to drive on.

[P. 6]

Hardy's penchant for creating character out of opposing qualities occasionally results in a wooden being. Indeed, the first description of Sergeant Troy in chapter 25 presents him as possessing contradictions, modifications, and opposites beyond which he almost never develops. His attitude toward time obliterates the past and stunts the future, leaving him shriveled in the present (p. 190); he seems to have immense capacities for pleasure because he has no moral sense of the threat of experience, but actually he has less than more serious-minded people have (p. 191); his reason and his propensities do not influence each other (p. 191); his vices are spruce rather than ugly (p. 191). Though he is full of energy, “his activities were less of a locomotive than a vegetative nature” (p. 191), by which Hardy seems to mean that Troy is indifferent about the area of his activities—“they were exercised on whatever object chance might place in their way.” Troy even carries on personal relationships in terms of contradictory absolutes: “in dealing with womankind the only alternative to flattery was cursing and swearing. There was no third method. ‘Treat them fairly, and you are a lost man,’ he would say” (p. 193). The initial expectations set up in chapter 25 are fulfilled in the remainder of the novel, when Troy slips abruptly from aimless flattery to honest admiration of Bathsheba (pp. 202-03); when he stops loving her abruptly after marriage (p. 299) and comes again to prefer Fanny (cruelly telling Bathsheba so after Fanny's death [p. 345]); when he is easily discouraged from reforming by the “accidental” action of a waterspout (pp. 364-65); when he goes indifferently for a swim and seizes the existence of a strong current to have it thought he had drowned; and finally when he returns from his wanderings lusting almost as much for Bathsheba's wealth as for her person (pp. 416, 421). Since Troy's character throughout has no subtle features, the reader shifts aimlessly from bemused acquiescence in his audacity to disgust at his rootlessness, but never gives Troy the sympathy that he offers to Boldwood. Troy's failure to attract sympathy can, I think, be attributed to Hardy's method of characterization. Always suspended between alternatives of mood or attitude, Troy never presents himself as being; and because his alternative patterns are not developmental, he never presents himself as becoming. In effect, then, Troy is characterized by a sequence of vignettes held together by his relationships with other characters rather than by any unity within himself.

Boldwood, too, is a stiff figure; but he is more consistent within the context of the novel because the alternatives which divide his energies more closely resemble the dichotomous qualities in other characters, and because they suggest a personality created by experiences more profound and painful than any in Troy's life. Boldwood seems to have a symmetrical existence (p. 112), though it is actually a symmetry composed of “enormous antagonistic forces” presently held in “perfect balance” (p. 137). Suitably, the dichotomous elements in Boldwood's make-up are absolute indifference and self-indulgence: “His equilibrium disturbed, he was in extremity at once. If an emotion possessed him at all, it ruled him; a feeling not mastering him was entirely latent” (p. 137). He says at one point that he prefers his present misery of being in love to his former “ignorant and cold darkness” (p. 231), an indication that for Boldwood a moderate middle position is not possible. A completely serious man, “he had no light and careless touches in his constitution, either for good or for evil” (p. 137). Once having devoted himself to the sender of the valentine even before he knows who had sent it, Boldwood's absorption with Bathsheba and his increasing frenzy during the evolution of the situation—through Bathsheba's rejection of his proposal, her marriage to Troy, her “widowhood,” and her final reluctant agreement to reward his suffering and constancy—are inevitable. The essential unity of Boldwood's nature, his own awareness of the extremities he allows himself to go to (p. 261) counter the disparate and aimless but headlong rush of Troy toward their mutual destruction. Self-control marks the early Boldwood; its decay traces the effects of a contradictory, frustrated impulse upon a distracted extremist personality. Fearing Bathsheba may be lured into loving Troy, he is conscious that he has lost the dignity and firmness of his old self (p. 261); but notwithstanding, he does not hesitate to show himself ethically inferior to Troy. He tries to bribe Troy to marry Fanny, and he readily accepts the idea that Troy has brought Bathsheba to dishonor when he hears her invite him into her house (pp. 263-67). His grief at the loss of Bathsheba makes him indifferent whether or not his grain ricks are protected from rain (p. 294), an abandonment of worldly responsibilities whose culpability is suggested by the firm acceptance of the importance of material realities by Oak. Once the disequilibrium is formed in Boldwood's personality, it can never be dislodged, not even, perhaps, if Bathsheba had ultimately married him. His equilibrium may have been unsettled before the time of the novel, for there are “old floodmarks faintly visible” that reveal his “wild capabilities.” But precisely because the reader has never seen him at “the high tides which caused them” (p. 138), he cannot believe Boldwood has the capacity to reestablish the stolidity and calm of his initial appearance in the novel.

It is, however, in the characterization of Bathsheba that the dichotomy of Hardy's style has full power, and here it is effectively modified by the vital individuality of the character. Despite the masculine agricultural interests that dominate the novel, Bathsheba is the unifying element. She alone develops new facets to her character over the course of the action; Boldwood and Troy may evince what appear to the other characters to be new traits, but the traits are implicit in the author's initial presentation. Oak, it is true, also develops, but very early in the novel (p. 44), and only through authorial pronouncement—his behavior before the loss of his sheep does not indicate he had ever seriously lacked dignity, the “new” characteristic he acquires. Bathsheba, on the other hand, definitely evolves from a flirtatious, light-hearted girl to a self-confident farmer, to a chastened but stubborn wife, to a tormented woman wanting only peace, to a subdued female anxious for the protective strength of a Gabriel Oak.

The terms of dichotomy that distinguish Bathsheba's character are initially similar to those used to characterize Oak—intellect and emotion. On Bathsheba's first appearance, looking at herself (surreptitiously) in a mirror, the terms to describe her might be vanity and a consciousness that vanity is not admirable; on her second appearance, riding a horse astraddle instead of sidesaddle and lying flat on her horse's back to pass under a low branch, the terms might be practicality and awareness of propriety (pp. 4-7, 17-21). At this early stage of the novel, the division in Bathsheba's character bears largely upon her attractiveness for Oak and upon the wisdom of an ambitious sheep farmer marrying a girl whose habits of mind are not yet fixed. But the issues rapidly become more complex and morally significant. Following Boldwood's first proposal, Hardy-as-narrator analyzes Bathsheba's character in an expository section (pp. 148-49). Bathsheba is a woman who appeals to her “understanding” for deliverance from her “whims,” terms that clearly parallel “intellect” and “emotion.” An example of Hardy's dichotomous phraseology is the following:

Bathsheba's was an impulsive nature under a deliberative aspect. An Elizabeth in brain and a Mary Stuart in spirit, she often performed actions of the greatest temerity with a manner of extreme discretion. Many of her thoughts were perfect syllogisms; unluckily they always remained thoughts. Only a few were irrational assumptions; but, unfortunately, they were the ones which most frequently grew into deeds.

[P. 149; my italics]

By indicating that Bathsheba in her uneducated state allows irrationality to dominate her rationality in situations leading to action, Hardy prepares the ground for her to learn a facet of life that constitutes a major theme in his fiction: the necessity to control the impulses which put one in opposition to the forces of the universe. He also prepares us for Bathsheba's great error in her personal relationships. Since she has no “whim” for the “married state in the abstract” and no emotion toward Boldwood, she has no trouble in behaving correctly toward him. Indeed, she nearly allows herself to marry him, an act bereft of passion but buttressed by months of deliberation. But Troy, unlike Boldwood or Oak, does create, or at least awaken, impulses in Bathsheba that reenforce the sense of her unreliability in matters of emotion. Throughout the novel Bathsheba seems torn between the unconscious desire to be sexually mastered and the desire to maintain sexual independence and even to exert sexual authority. Hardy says that “Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance” (p. 214); and even more clearly dichotomous is his remark that Bathsheba “felt her impulses to be pleasanter guides than her discretion” (p. 215; my italics).

Bathsheba's abandonment of self-reliance and discretion repeats the action of her father toward the problem of fidelity to her mother. Her father's “will” had been chaste, but his “heart” had wandered (pp. 69-70), a problem that was solved (humorously) only when Mrs. Everdene was induced to take off her wedding ring and thus prevent her husband from giving “his eyes to unlawfulness entirely,” as Joseph Poorgrass puts in. This indication of a dichotomy that is in Bathsheba's blood, so to speak, emphasizes the depth of her task in reconciling the two aspects of her personality, and suggests further the structural balance achieved in the novel through Oak's mastery over opposing qualities that are similar to those that war within Bathsheba. The suggestion, explicitly, is that Bathsheba requires an external control of her impulses, a control that Oak provides by example and, at the end of the novel, by his marriage to her.

Hardy's analysis of Bathsheba after the sword-exercise display by Troy (a heated scene that is replete with sexual connotations6) explains Bathsheba's discordant qualities at the height of their manifestation. Though she is a “woman of the world,” it is a world of rural verities. “Her love was entire as a child's, and though warm as summer it was fresh as spring. Her culpability lay in her making no attempt to control feeling by subtle and careful inquiry into consequences”; even the “folly” of falling in love as she does is “almost foreign to her intrinsic nature” (pp. 214-15). The complexity of personality which this analysis implies—especially the abandonment that Bathsheba feels toward Troy, and her feeling that impulse is more pleasant than discretion where Troy is concerned—goes far to justify the peculiar rationale with which Bathsheba pursues Troy to Bath: she goes to see him in order to renounce him (and thus save his life from Boldwood's jealous fury) (p. 247). Once there, of course, she is easy prey to his threat to love someone else if she will not marry him. Troy obviously understands Bathsheba's subconscious motives better than she does.

The middle portion of the novel presents a Bathsheba who is between two primary stages of her development. (In the sense of being a personality evolving in definable progression she indicates another aspect of Hardy's schematic style.) As Troy remarks shortly after their marriage, Bathsheba has lost her “pluck and sauciness” (p. 299); as Hardy remarks after Fanny's death and the confrontation with Troy, Bathsheba has lost the “vitality of youth in her without substituting the philosophy of maturer years” (p. 367). She does not remain in this awkward stasis. She becomes more charming to the “middle-aged” Boldwood because “her exuberance of spirit was pruned down; the original phantom of delight had shown herself to be not too bright for human nature's daily food, and she had been able to enter this second poetical phase without losing much of the first in the process” (p. 382), a syntactically complex way of suggesting that Bathsheba if left alone would be able to adjust herself to widowhood. She is not, of course, left alone; and after being forced by Boldwood to come to a decision, she remains hidden behind a mask of inability to feel. Finally, almost totally subdued and dependent on Oak, she enters into a mature recognition of the limitations and blessings of unambitious existence.


The presentation of Bathsheba particularly, then, makes decipherable the purpose of Hardy's schematic style, showing how thoroughly this technique dominates the expression of values in the novel. We begin to see how such a style can benefit a book like Far from the Madding Crowd, which presents Hardy's first full effort to unite the abstract themes that are characteristic of his great novels. In tracing Bathsheba's development from one extreme of the impulse-discretion continuum to the other, Hardy suggests that the ideal state is not one of perfect balance, as for instance, it is implicitly in Jane Austen. Oak, the moral touchstone, keeps his impulse always supremely controlled; he subdues his personal feelings because he senses that the universe is a mighty and potentially destructive force. The peasants, the moral base of the society, generally accept the conditions of their lot, and when they “rebel,” or give way to impulse, as Joseph Poorgrass does in stopping for drinks while bringing Fanny's body home for burial, they are brought up sharply. Hardy's emotional allegiance may be with the strugglers, but his vision of the universe urges upon him the awareness that exertions of ego or desire bring on chastisement and suffering. He who attempts to override universal forces (including those portrayed in social bodies and laws) is made to realize the cost of self-expression and self-indulgence.

The contradiction that is inherent between Hardy's idea of man's correct posture toward nature's overbearing force and his sympathy for those who do not or cannot maintain that posture sets up in Far from the Madding Crowd a pattern of dichotomies that continue to engross Hardy in later novels.

Man in Hardy's works is an alien element within the cosmos. A sentient being, he gains no special attention from the forces that are unconscious and therefore supremely indifferent to his hopes and efforts. The forces of the universe that oppose man do so partly in the form of chance and accident, such as the waterspout that despoils Fanny's grave after Troy has repentantly planted flowers there, partly in the uncontrollable demonstrations of raw might, such as the famous storm that threatens Bathsheba's stored crops and destroys Boldwood's. Those forces diminish the stature of man, revealing his comparative triviality and minuteness. As Gabriel and Bathsheba together watch a particularly spectacular flurry of lightning during the storm on the night of the harvest feast, Gabriel is thrilled by her presence and touch; “but love, life, everything human, seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe” (p. 287). Another scene of nature's danger to man is when Troy is swept out to sea on the current and in the distance sees Budmouth “quietly regarding his efforts” but indifferent to their success or failure (p. 370).

In Far from the Madding Crowd, one feature that sets off man from nature is that man projects his own mood onto natural scenes; the scenes possess in themselves only potentiality of interpretation. The small whirlpools in the river outside Troy's barracks make sounds “which a sad man would have called moans, and a happy man laughter” (p. 97). Bathsheba, frightened by Boldwood's threats against Troy, thinks of ways to warn Troy; she gazes at “indecisive and palpitating stars,” notes “their silent throes amid the shades of peace” (p. 237), and regrets that she has no peace of her own. In man-created scenes, too, there is an artificial mood placed upon objects. As Troy waits amid the tittering old women for Fanny to come to their wedding, a church clock ticks. “One could almost be positive that there was a malicious leer upon the hideous creature's face, and a mischievous delight in its twitchings” (p. 131). Troy accepts the waterspout's destruction of the flowers as a sign that his effort at reform is being ridiculed:

Troy's brow became heavily contracted. He set his teeth closely, and his compressed lips moved as those of one in great pain. This singular accident, by a strange confluence of emotions in him, was felt as the sharpest sting of all. … A man who has spent his primal strength in journeying in one direction has not much spirit left for reversing his course. Troy had, since yesterday, faintly reversed his; but the merest opposition had disheartened him. To turn about would have been hard enough under the greatest providential encouragement; but to find that Providence, far from helping him into a new course, or showing any wish that he might adopt one, actually jeered his first trembling and critical attempt in that kind, was more than nature could bear.

He slowly withdrew from the grave. He did not attempt to fill up the hole, replace the flowers, or do anything at all. He simply threw up his cards and forswore his game for that time and always.

[Pp. 363, 364-65]

The narrator's tone implies that Troy reads mockery into entirely coincidental events—but even the narrator refers to the “vengeance” that the spout directs animistically into Fanny's grave (p. 362).

The complexity of man's relationship with nature is also sharply delineated in the occurrences following Bathsheba's night spent in the thicket after she has fled from Troy. When she first awakens, she is refreshed and rejuvenated by the spontaneity of the chirping birds, the beauty of the sunrise. “Day was just dawning, and beside its cool air and colours her heated actions and resolves of the night stood out in lurid contrast” (p. 347). Another aspect of nature is made apparent to Bathsheba instantly; looking toward the east, “between the beautiful yellowing ferns” she sees a fungi-infested swamp, ugly and malignant, which “exhaled the essences of evil things in the earth” (pp. 347-48). Recognizing the malign aspect that nature can direct toward man, Bathsheba is made fearful “at the thought of having passed the night on the brink of so dismal a place” (p. 348). But seeing the two sides of the same situation does not exhaust the significance of this scene. Immediately after recognizing the evilness of the swamp, and still miserable about Troy and Fanny, Bathsheba is able to be “faintly amused” at a rustic boy's method of learning his psalter (p. 348). And the evil aspects of the swamp are disparaged by the servant girl Liddy, who walks across the swamp in her anxiety to assure herself that her mistress is all right after a night of sleeping in the open (p. 349). By relegating dangerous conditions in nature to a secondary place in day-to-day living, Liddy demonstrates the peasant's right to a stable existence. Liddy's act is a great deal like Oak's construction of a lightning rod during the great storm. Hardy's point is clear in both contexts. Man does have the possibility of free will and effective action in the face of what may seem to be a rancorous universe. Oak's knowing how to circumvent the dangers of lightning, and Liddy's selflessness and peasant's disinterest in challenging nature's authority, save them from destruction. But both could have been destroyed, a fate common to Hardy's later characters whose exercise of free will expresses rebellion against external power rather than acceptance of their own limited human abilities.

Hardy is also concerned with what he often called “the natural,” which in Far from the Madding Crowd he presents through contrasts. What is natural is admirable to Hardy, what is unnatural is undesirable or destructive. Hardy uses the blazing Christmas engagement party Boldwood gives toward the end of the novel to make this point explicitly:

Intended gaieties would insist upon appearing like solemn grandeurs, the organization of the whole effort was carried out coldly by hirelings, and a shadow seemed to move about the rooms, saying that the proceedings were unnatural to the place and the lone man who lived therein, and hence not good.

[P. 412]

Even Boldwood's love for Bathsheba is judged adversely. His devotion does not stabilize his character, because it is based on misconceptions and inner imbalances. There is an ominous imagistic suggestion of Boldwood's inadequacies in a world where natural impulses are admired, in his first appearance as love smitten. After receiving the valentine and learning who had sent it, Boldwood cannot keep his eyes from Bathsheba at the next meeting of the Corn Market. But Bathsheba is not favorably impressed by his attention. “This was a triumph; and had it come naturally, such a triumph would have been the sweeter to her for this piquing delay. But it had been brought about by misdirected ingenuity, and she valued it only as she valued an artificial flower or a wax fruit” (p. 135). The psychological sources of unnaturalness in Boldwood are only hinted at by Hardy through Boldwood's almost delighted acquiescence to a six-year secret engagement to a woman who insists she cannot love him, and through his eager fetishistic accumulation of women's clothing of Bathsheba's size (pp. 442-43). He is not capable of Troy's forthright sexual purposiveness or of Oak's patient suppression of passion by means of physical activity and determined professional achievement.

In contrast to the distortions of Boldwood's personality, supposedly anchored but actually open to the gales, Bathsheba's whims are those of an inherent inconsistency natural in an inexperienced but generally kind girl.7 And Oak's reliance upon tradition gives him a secure natural protection against both external threats to his well-being and internal temptations to his peace of mind—so secure, indeed, that Oak is never significantly tempted or threatened. That he does not become an uninteresting, wooden figure attests to Hardy's wisdom in placing Oak in a subordinate role in the plot while developing contrasts among the characters who surround him and in time provide him with a context in which to manifest his strength.

The idea of natural should not be equated with nature in a limited frame of reference, however. Natural is more than individual predispositions, basic drives, or behavior modeled on animal-like impercipience toward the future. Hardy does not forget that one facet of the externality which affects man's fate is society. That which is natural, then, might well be a special attribute of a society-oriented way of life, so long as that attribute provides a resource against life's incertitudes. This consideration explains a preference expressed by Oak toward two alternatives that superficially may seem equally unacceptable. When Bathsheba confides to him, fifteen months after Troy's disappearance at sea, that Boldwood is urging her to consent to a long engagement and that she thinks she must assent or Boldwood will go out of his mind, Oak evaluates the possible engagement in terms of heat and cold: “If wild heat had to do wi' it, making ye long to overcome the awkwardness about your husband's vanishing, it mid be wrong; but a cold-hearted agreement to oblige a man seems different, somehow” (p. 409). The advocacy of a “cold-hearted agreement to oblige a man” does not obviously typify Oak, nor does it immediately seem consistent with Hardy's usual attitude toward human relationships, while “wild heat” at least refers to an aspect of animal nature in humanity. That Oak prefers coldness to emotion as a guide to the conduct of personal relationships is a consistent manifestation of his principles, however. A cold-hearted agreement in this context becomes, in other contexts, a rational and businesslike approach on how to decide issues. For example, Oak's energetic efforts to protect the wheat and barley ricks during the storm are impelled primarily by materialistic and utilitarian considerations, albeit underlined by the thought that the ricks are the property of “the woman I have loved so dearly.” He precisely calculates the value of the grain and sees the usefulness of grain in a deeper perspective: “Seven hundred and fifty pounds in the divinest form that money can wear—that of necessary food for man and beast: should the risk be run of deteriorating this bulk of corn to less than half its value, because of the instability of a woman?” (p. 279). Later, with the job of covering the ricks partly finished, the danger of lightning becomes more apparent. Again, his reflections are in materialistic terms: “Was his life so valuable to him after all? What were his prospects that he should be so chary of running risk, when important and urgent labour could not be carried on without such risk?” (p. 285). And finally, during the heavy rain he drives in spars randomly, covering “more and more safely from ruin this distracting impersonation of seven hundred pounds”(p. 292). For Oak, concern with agricultural husbandry is materialistic, and although such concern could be dignified by being called an abstract duty, Oak sees it as a matter of finance and produce. Even his love life shows a similar straightforward acceptance of financial necessities. After the collapse of his sheep-raising venture in chapter 5, he accepts as inevitable and natural that Bathsheba should ignore him as a possible object of love. To Oak, and to his society, to lose one's position is to lose something intrinsic in his relations with others. With the other farm workers, who had never had any position, Oak's ill fortune is a matter for commiseration and comment, but not for undue lamentation or affected pity. For Oak, then, and for his society, frank, non-avaricious materialism is natural; and his advocacy to Bathsheba of a cold-hearted engagement with Boldwood allows her a way of life that is compatible with both her personal reluctance and her public responsibleness. None of the heroes of Hardy's later novels is able to piece together a fabric that justifies according to a social standard the individual's self and his responsibilities; this indicates a cause—as well as an effect—of the collapse of the détente between society and the individual in Wessex. Those characters closest to Oak—Winterborne and Melbury in The Woodlanders—are unable to provide a balance between the opposing demands of society and of individualism. Indeed, Melbury's temporary alienation from principle deprives Giles of a context in which his selflessness can be fulfilled.


Far from the Madding Crowd can generically be called tragic only by accepting Boldwood and Troy as protagonists and by defining tragedy in the broadest sense as education through suffering. Given the terms of our discussion, it is not immediately evident why this should be so: most modern theories of tragedy are based on the idea of dichotomy, balance, or dialectic. Nietzsche's description of the conflicting but balanced poles of Dionysian and Apollonian impulses is developed more recently by Richard Sewall and Murray Kreiger, although they prefer the concept of irresolvable tension to that of perfect balance. But at least two factors prevent the novel from being a tragedy. Its moral message of accommodation to universal forces forestalls the asking of ultimate questions; in Kreiger's terms, the “tragic vision” of which Oak is capable is overwhelmed by an “ethical vision” which keeps him in his place, earnestly striving toward humdrum, if healthy, goals. Equally to the point, the pervasiveness of the schematic style helps us to understand why the novel is not tragic. The aesthetic method of Far from the Madding Crowd is simply too stark, too rigidly antithetical, to create reader involvement or complexity of reaction. The assumption of the aesthetic in this novel is that any and all reactions to situations will be between two extremes, or on one of two extremes. Both the alternatives and the preferable choice are clearly indicated, preventing ambiguity and terror raised by unforeseeable alternatives, and in effect obviating suspenseful allegiance to a beleaguered ideal whose ultimate value is in question.

Hardy continued to use the schematic method, but certainly the more direct and unmodified its use the less successful the novel. The Return of the Native, for instance, is permeated with this sense of dichotomy—primarily in the cleavage between the tragic connotations in the chapters “Queen of Night” and “‘My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is’” and the mundane persons of Eustacia and Clym, and in the descriptions of Eustacia and Clym as characters symbolic of world views. The effect of this early mannerism of Hardy is to atomize his characterizations in The Return of the Native well beyond the desiderata of tragedy. This device was consciously used by Hardy, but his style of tragedy was still evolving in The Return of the Native, and his use of dichotomy was only partially successful. Jude the Obscure demonstrates a successful employment of dichotomous structure which can be attributed to the greater complexity of personality discussed above, and to the broadness of the contrasts (see n.3). The dichotomies of Jude the Obscure are not expressed through the rhetoric of the sentence and paragraph as pervasively as they are in Far from the Madding Crowd.

The possibility of tragedy in a context where the individual will counts for very little is a major concern throughout Hardy's career; in Far from the Madding Crowd he initiates his expression of the central feature of tragedy in fiction, intensity of personality realization, coordinating this feature with other basic concepts. While the idea is developed much more subtly later, especially in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Hardy's first approach is in the familiar dichotomous manner: he defines by setting qualities and characters against each other. It is pathetic little Fanny Robin who provides him with the opportunity to theorize, to indicate that tragedy cannot exist without strength in the individual character. As she struggles painfully toward the Casterbridge workhouse, Hardy notes her inability to soliloquize grandly: “Extremity of feeling lessens the individuality of the weak, as it increases that of the strong” (p. 305). The division according to potentiality between tragic and non-tragic persons is restated after Fanny's death, as Hardy directly compares the physical sufferings of Fanny and the psychological sufferings of Bathsheba when Troy kneels at Fanny's coffin to kiss the corpse of the girl he had spitefully refused to marry. “Capacity for intense feeling is proportionate to the general intensity of the nature, and perhaps in all Fanny's sufferings, much greater relatively to her strength, there never was a time when she suffered in an absolute sense what Bathsheba suffered now” (pp. 343-44). Through this simple and perhaps unnecessarily obvious contrast, Hardy outlines what he considers the essential component of tragedy, the intensity of inner experience (rather than the breath of experience). At the outset of his career, then, Hardy does not adhere to the Aristotelian theory of tragedy based on an emphasis on plot and on the worldly position of his protagonist; his fondness for sensational plots cannot prevent us from seeing that his created beings are the basis of his popularity. The marvel is that he created so many individuals capable of intense suffering without repeating himself.8

Accompanying the dichotomous expression of tragic potentiality is the never-resolved dialectic concerning free will and determinism (or effects of circumstance); this dialectic is dealt with strikingly in Far from the Madding Crowd. Never in his career was Hardy able to settle the conflicting claims of philosophical determinism and seeming freedom in choice and act. The Mayor of Casterbridge is in part a brief for free will; The Dynasts presents explicit images of a mechanistic universe; but neither work excludes the opposing concept, and the well-known final passages of The Dynasts imply a meliorist view—which Hardy learned in part from Eduard von Hartmann—that as the universal Will becomes more conscious of its own workings, there will be greater opportunities for effective individual free will. Hardy's analysis of the responsibility for Boldwood's infatuation is one of his most complex grapplings with this conflict. Boldwood is absorbed in guessing at the motive of the sender of the valentine, mistakenly assuming that there must have been a motive. “It is foreign to a mystified condition of mind to realize of the mystifier that the processes of approving a course suggested by circumstance, and of striking out a course from inner impulse, would look the same in the result. The vast difference between starting a train of events, and directing into a particular groove a series already started, is rarely apparent to the person confounded by the issue” (p. 113). Boldwood's ignorance makes him think he is taking the latter course, the more deterministic one, but as the reader knows, Bathsheba did not intend to start a “chain of events.” Hardy makes explicit their acting at cross-purposes: “Boldwood's blindness to the difference between approving of what circumstances suggest, and originating what they do not suggest, was well matched by Bathsheba's insensibility to the possibly great issues of little beginnings” (p. 134). Bathsheba, then, thinks she has the choice of making a consequence-less act, but her future is strongly determined by this act of purposeless free will. (The act is, however, described in such a way as to emphasize the accidental features in the linking of events culminating in the sending of the valentine—especially the fortuitous existence of a seal that prints “Marry Me,” surely not a usual item on farmers' writing desks [see pp. 110-11].) Boldwood, on the other hand, thinks he is affecting a chain of events he did not initiate, but actually he provides the impetus for all that follows. The point of these expository sections in the novel is that what seems to be an act of free will is not; conversely, what seems to have been determined by a force external to the individual is actually initiated by that individual. The implication of the dichotomy is clear: human vision is too limited, its perspective too egoistic, for the absolute truth of the quality of man's freedom to be ever securely known by the individual, and, by extension, by the race of man. The irony of the situation revealed by the valentine incident spills over into the rest of the book, until finally Bathsheba thinks that she is being “coerced by a force [Boldwood] stronger than her own will” (p. 407), not only to promise to enter into a six years' engagement but also to fancy that she ought to promise. Bathsheba's directionlessness act of free will has led her into a situation permitting no honorable alternatives. Fortunately for her own sense of integrity, not to mention her happiness, Boldwood is caught in the chain of events consequent upon his own unintentional act of free will. His murder of Troy frees Bathsheba and, ironically, gives her back a measure of freedom of choice.

Another dichotomous theme applicable to both Hardy's entire body of work and his idea of tragedy is that of time. In Far from the Madding Crowd, time is used to contrast two ways of life, the timeless and permanent life of Weatherbury agriculture, and the exceedingly temporal and transient life of Troy and, as the novel develops, of Boldwood, both of whom are so involved in the frenzy of immediate activity that they cannot adjust to another time pattern. Weatherbury time is developed through the existence of the shearing barn, as old as the village church, but unlike the church still used for the purpose for which it was originally built and still a benefit to mankind (p. 165). The descriptions of recurring rural activities throughout the book also reflect upon the timeless quality of Weatherbury life. And of course the coexistence of five generations of Smallburys demonstrates an indifference to age differentials among peasant stock that is closely allied to their “Oriental indifference to the flight of time.” Opposed to this sense of immanent continuity is Sergeant Troy, to whom “memories were an encumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity,” a man who cared “for what was before his eyes,” who “was vulnerable only in the present. … With him the past was yesterday; the future, to-morrow; never, the day after” (p. 190). Troy wants to have Bathsheba's traditionally furnished farmhouse redecorated, because in the old house he feels “like new wine in an old bottle” (p. 271). Boldwood cannot adjust his psychological time-sense after Troy's disappearance; he cruelly bullies Bathsheba into a lengthy engagement. Further, he betrays his disavowal of tradition when he asks Oak whether there is “any [necktie] knot in fashion” before his Christmas party (p. 414)—an act consistent with his “unnatural” behavior in planning such a party. In a limited respect, the peasants and Troy look at time similarly. The lives of both pass as an instant. The difference, however, is essential and obvious: the “instant” of the peasants' lives is centuries in length; their lives are an instant because they do not distinguish themselves apart from their forefathers and progeny (p. 463); they do not even distinguish historical from artistic events (p. 396). Troy's life is an instant, on the other hand, because its sensations are short in duration, usually failing to survive the immediate event he is participating in. Theoretically, perhaps, either time-sense can be employed in a narrative seeking to express the tragic. Yet clearly for the formulation of Hardy's own tragic sense, the peasants' view of time is paramount. It establishes an aura of permanence—in values, in personality traits, in social customs. It is against this aura that new traditions are evaluated and that protagonists struggle, trying to change or to exploit the “permanent” conditions of life. This struggle on the stage of time is most formative for the tragic plots of The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge, but each of Hardy's novels relies on contrast in time-senses for an important share of its characterizations and effects.


Although Hardy works out some basic concepts of the mode within the story, Far from the Madding Crowd is not a tragedy. In addition to the effect of the schematic style, the novel does not achieve the power of tragedy because—unlike almost all of Hardy's creative expressions that approach tragic power—it possesses a resolution that awards happiness to the hero and heroine. It does so without the irony that makes Fancy Day's marriage to Dick Dewy in Under the Greenwood Tree a delightfully human sustainment of conflicting desires. Oak marries the mistress he has faithfully served for so long; and there is little doubt that Hardy intends the reader to understand Oak is being rewarded for his patience and his resignation, for his subservience to what Hardy later in life called the Immanent Will, and which in 1874 went by the name of circumstance. This denouement makes Far from the Madding Crowd the most positive in outlook of Hardy's novels, and along with its portrayal of a healthy and self-confident society it has become through the denouement a kind of touchstone for the other Wessex novels in the minds of contemporary reviewers and novel readers.

Literary critics generally are skeptical about the plausibility of happy endings in novels, but in Far from the Madding Crowd the ending is implicit in the novel's presuppositions about the relationship between struggle and punishment, acquiescence and contentment. The ending is true to its conditions and context; but there are certain modifying aspects of the denouement that critics have not overlooked. They note the peasants' anticipations of future strife in the marriage of Oak and Bathsheba, and the speed with which “the author disposes … of the rest of the story” after Troy's death.9 Richard Carpenter thinks the ending is “a questionable sop to our feelings,” and suggests that “the novel does not really end ‘happily’” because “the vibrant and proud girl we see at the beginning has been as thoroughly destroyed as Troy and Boldwood.”10 I am not persuaded that these opinions are valid. It is true that the peasants josh Oak on the evening of his marriage because he can say “my wife” without a chill note in his voice, and that Jan Coggan adds, “twirling his eye, … ‘That improvement will come wi' time’” (p. 463). But Bathsheba and Oak have been too thoroughly tested and have come through too successfully for these remarks to carry much foreboding. As Joseph Poorgrass says with a “cheerful sigh” to close the novel, “But since 'tis as 'tis, why, it might have been worse, and I feel my thanks accordingly” (p. 464). Oak receives precisely the kind of happiness he would choose: an unexciting filling of the general “void within him” that had led to his first falling in love with Bathsheba (p. 16).

But the ending of Far from the Madding Crowd does have a false quality about it, an internal belittlement of the sense of the natural shaping of personality through experience that the major part of the novel portrays. This falseness results, I think, from Hardy's reluctance to compromise the suspense of the plot action leading to the climax of Boldwood's frantic and desperate shooting of Troy. In order to create the kind of tension necessary to justify aesthetically Boldwood's violence, the plot lines must be direct and the characterizations straightforward. It must seem as if the resolution of Bathsheba's fate lies of necessity somewhere between the contradictory jurisdictions of Boldwood, the imperious and dogged suitor, and Troy, the imperious and egoistic husband, neither of whom has any compunctions in forcing Bathsheba into sexual or financial situations against her will. Her will, of course, by this time favors peace; she says she no longer has feeling or emotion (p. 418); she wants merely to be left alone by Boldwood and to remain deserted by Troy. To have allowed Oak a position in this Hardyan variant upon the ménage à trois would have destroyed the suspense and the dichotomous style that sustains it, for if Hardy had offered the suggestion that Bathsheba had matured to the point of being able to accept Oak romantically before her husband and Boldwood are removed from the competition, there would have been less tension in the preparation for the violent resolution of Troy's and Boldwood's pursuit of Bathsheba. The reader would have had in his mind a confidence—or at least a distracting suspicion—that Bathsheba would simply turn to Oak at the proper time. The reader may have such a suspicion, nonetheless, but it is not through direct authorial guidance.11

Even with these difficulties of emphasis, it is conceivable that Hardy could have satisfactorily carried off the ultimate union of Oak and Bathsheba had he truly felt the union was inevitable. But the strain in fulfilling reader expectation is indicated by the sudden sinking of the novel's tone through conventional patterns of coyness and flirtatiousness, much as happens in the similar and more notorious situation where Hardy's personal inclination and novelistic convention differed—book 6 of The Return of the Native with its coy courtship of Diggory Venn and Thomasin. Even though Hardy's inclination is evidently to reward Oak with Bathsheba's hand and her rented lands—that is, in Far from the Madding Crowd Hardy's inclination and novelistic convention are the same—his inclination does not inspire his imagination. Oak is prevented by an old oath (p. 36) from proposing to Bathsheba again—presumably the justification for having Bathsheba initiate the courtship leading to their marriage. The best device Hardy can muster to bring Bathsheba to the point of declaring her desire to marry Oak is Oak's statement during the winter that he intends to emigrate to California, an intention he drops immediately upon Bathsheba's expression of regret. He neglects to inform her of his change in plans, and three months pass with no further communication between the two about Oak's supposed departure. Bathsheba becomes more and more eager to have Oak remain in Weatherbury; Oak makes arrangements to take over another farm, again without telling Bathsheba. When Bathsheba makes her “climactic” visit to Oak's house at night to beg him to alter his plans of emigration, then, it is a purposeless errand. She thereupon falls into coquettishness as she had done in the early scenes when she forces Oak to admit his love for her, distorting her novel-long development toward sobriety and chastisement. Her laugh, “It seems exactly as if I had come courting you—how dreadful!” (p. 456), may make explicit Oak's reward for constancy, but it also stresses the comic conception of the reward system that Hardy is employing. Hardy implies that Bathsheba's previous disdain of Oak can be compensated for only by total subservience and by a turnabout of the sexual roles in the courtship which mocks Bathsheba's earlier efforts to usurp masculine prerogatives. This insertion of the comedic into what has been to this point a somber assessment of the difficulties of gaining even that modest measure of happiness which the universe is willing to permit, disrupts the novel for this brief but crucial period during the denouement.

Taken as a whole, however, Far from the Madding Crowd offers a mature view of life. The themes of Hardy's later novels are extensions of their early schematic expression in this novel. The other novels discussed in this study take tragedy for their major mode, as opposed to the subsidiary and undeveloped role that tragedy plays in Far from the Madding Crowd. In The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge Hardy seeks a traditional pattern for tragedy which he can employ in a Wessex setting.


  1. The Spectator, January 3, 1874.

  2. For example, The Observer, January 3, 1875. Henry James, at the beginning of his life-long tepid response to Hardy's work, admitted it was “extremely clever,” but disliked it because it lacked “magic” and “proportion.” Nation (New York), December 24, 1874. These contemporary reviews are reprinted in Thomas Hardy and His Readers, ed. Laurence Lerner and John Holstrom (London: Bodley Head, 1968), pp. 23-38.

  3. Later Years, p. 42: “Of course the book is all contrasts—or was meant to be in its original conception. Alas, what a miserable accomplishment it is, when I compare it with what I meant to make it!—e.g. Sue and her heathen gods set against Jude's reading the Greek testament; Christminster academical, Christminster in the slums; Jude the saint, Jude the sinner; Sue the Pagan, Sue the saint; marriage, no marriage; & c., & c.”

  4. James Wright, Afterword, Far from the Madding Crowd, Signet ed. (New York: New American Library, 1960), p. 378.

  5. Guerard, Thomas Hardy, p. 68.

  6. Richard C. Carpenter, “The Mirror and the Sword: Imagery in Far from the Madding Crowd.NCF 18 (1964): 331-45.

  7. Bathsheba is accused of unnatural behavior by certain characters. Troy thinks there is something “abnormal” in a woman as independent as Bathsheba appealing with “childlike pain and simplicity” to be kissed also, after Troy has kissed the dead Fanny (p. 344); and Pennyways the discharged bailiff thinks her drinking cider through a straw not a “‘nateral way at all’” (p. 417). But these references to “unnaturalness” characterize the perversities of the speakers more than those of Bathsheba.

  8. See Guerard's listing of developmental character traits that affect heroines in successive novels, for example, Marty South and Suke Damson in The Woodlanders being “combined” to form Tess Durbeyfield (Thomas Hardy, pp. 141-42). Still, the configuration is different for each individual.

  9. George Wing, Hardy (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1963), p. 52; Beach, The Technique of Thomas Hardy, pp. 49-50.

  10. Richard C. Carpenter, Thomas Hardy (New York: Twayne, 1964), p. 87.

  11. In fact, Hardy may go too far in the other direction. Some of the awkwardness in the final union of the protagonists would have been lessened if Hardy had not assured his readers, before Troy is killed, that Bathsheba finds it impossible to love Oak, or anyone (pp. 402, 410). It strikes me that Bathsheba is sincere on p. 410, that is, she does not have affection for Oak despite her irritation that he did not declare his own love when she asks his advice concerning Boldwood's proposal.

James M. Welsh (review date 1981)

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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 nuances of character can therefore be telegraphed to the audience without a great deal of preparation and cinematic development. Perhaps the adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd scripted by Frederic Raphael and directed by John Schlesinger in 1967 succeeds when evaluated by the second assumption, but only to a point, for the novel, which is not, I suspect, widely read these days, is greatly compressed and much diluted.

Far from the Madding Crowd may also achieve a degree of popular success under the first assumption because Julie Christie appears to be visually and temperamentally perfect for the role of Bathsheba Everdene, even though much of the contradictory ambiguity of Hardy's character is lost. The character is broadly defined by her pride and vanity, and this Schlesinger seeks to convey by visual means. After her night encounter and entanglement with Sergeant Troy in “the fir plantation,” for example, when the soldier flatters her by remarking on her beauty, Schlesinger cuts immediately to Bathsheba back at home studying the perfection of her face in a mirror. As the shot is held on that mirror image, it suggests vanity as well as girlish infatuation. Miss Christie's acting, moreover, captures the essence of her character's flirtatiousness and recklessness and suggests something of her impetuousness.

No doubt the film succeeds in capturing Bathsheba's superficial beauty and reckless manner. But the novelist is at pains to show that Bathsheba is more than merely a bold coquette; Hardy gives her a complexity of mind that in its own way is equally as interesting as her vivaciousness. The viewer who has read the novel may bring this understanding with him to the film. The viewer who has not read the novel can only be charmed by the considerable charisma of the actress and will be responding as much to personality as to character—to star acting, in other words.

The other single most interesting character in the novel is Gabriel Oak, and though Alan Bates has the authentic look of Hardy's devoted shepherd and protagonist, the Schlesinger treatment whittles Oak down in stature and makes of him a rather wooden piece of background furniture. At the end of the novel, Oak finally wins Bathsheba because of his apparent stoic disinterest in her, for his experience with and observation of her proves that the man who is direct and frank in confessing his romantic interest in her, such a man as Boldwood, who wears his heart on his sleeve, cannot succeed in winning her. Hardy's Oak will therefore admit to his love as well as his obvious enduring devotion only on his own terms, and after his own earlier rejection, he waits wisely for her to come to him. That he apparently shuns her is exactly what finally renews her interest in him. Being unable to reflect this understanding, Alan Bates is not so interesting. He is merely there.

Likewise, Terrence Stamp makes a visually appropriate Sergeant Troy, all dash and brass, but the change in Troy after his marriage in the film is not convincingly motivated, nor is the disintegration of their marriage readily explained. The film version of Troy is laundered, for he does not share all of the faults of his prototype in the novel who is a wastrel and a gambler. Hardy's Troy plays the horses with abandon, and his spendthrift habits put the future prosperity of the farm into question. When he demands of Bathsheba the £20 he secretly intends to give to Fanny Robin, Bathsheba must provide it out of her household expense budget. The situation in the film is far less complicated. Just as Farmer Boldwood is ordinarily all “Business” in the novel—when he attempts to bribe Troy, for example, or when he reminds Bathsheba of her “debt” to him as though it were a business arrangement—Frank Troy is no business at all.

In filming the wedding-harvest festivities that reduce all the farm hands—save Gabriel—to a drunken stupor, Schlesinger reduced the counterpointing characters of Oak and Troy to the symbolic stereotype of the grasshopper and the ant. Though Hardy may have had some of this in mind, the treatment seems extraordinarily reductive in the film, a sop, one suspects, to the popular audience for whom the film was made.

The most astonishing simplification, however, is Schlesinger's treatment of Farmer Boldwood, whose obsessive yearning for Bathsheba, Hardy is very careful to suggest, gradually deranges the man. The film, by contrast, makes him out to be a hopelessly romantic, lovestruck, middle-aged fool. The script does more to rob him of his dignity and strength than does Bathsheba, turning him into a mere cartoon of his prototype. There is no doubt, of course, that Peter Finch looks the part, but here, as elsewhere, the success is a superficial one—Boldwood as inferior timber to solid Oak.

Time is, of course, of the essence in cinema, and Schlesinger's film as it stands runs over two hours and twenty minutes. Hardy takes the time carefully to explain Boldwood's psychological deterioration, his neglect of the farm, his dependence upon Gabriel, first as bailiff, later as partner, finally as go-between. (No mention is made of this business arrangement in the film, and it should be, since Gabriel must achieve material success before Bathsheba can accept him as her social peer—else the final union could not come about.) At novel's end, moreover, Hardy sustains tension over the issue of whether the courts will sentence Boldwood to be executed or whether he will be spared for reasons of insanity. All of this Schlesinger telegraphs by means of a single pull-back zoom, as the camera withdraws from an image of the incarcerated Boldwood—whose very name suggests he is mad in his boldness, and whose attitude in this final shot suggests confinement in a straitjacket.

Schlesinger's telegraphic style succeeds brilliantly in the first fifteen minutes of Far from the Madding Crowd; but even there Gabriel's first encounter with Bathsheba, when she awakens him and presumably saves his life (an incident which humanizes Gabriel, by the way, by making him appear fallible, as well as foreshadowing his later loss of his livestock) is entirely excised. The film begins somewhat later. Gabriel already knows Bathsheba well enough to tender his proposal of marriage to her aunt.

A bit later Schlesinger does excellently well in the way he visualizes Gabriel's sheep being run over the cliff by the inexperienced and overenthusiastic sheepdog. The filming of this disaster involves only one line of dialogue, taken directly from the novel: “Thank God I am not married” (though Hardy goes on to add “what would she have done in the poverty now coming upon me!).

The first fifteen minutes of the film compresses the first 90 pages of the novel. Much material is obviously deleted, while establishing shots are added with the intention of introducing characters, presumably for the benefit of those who do not know the novel. In the novel, for example, Fanny Robin is first seen as a mysterious figure Gabriel passes in the night on his way to Weatherbury. In the film, she is still employed at Bathsheba's farm when Gabriel arrives there. We see her encountering Sergeant Troy on the highway in daylight during the introductory fifteen minutes so that the romantic link between them can be established succinctly and with visual economy. And though dialogue needs to be invented to serve this purpose, there is nothing wrong in that.

Since Bathsheba obviously knows Fanny Robin by sight in the film, however, the encounter with Troy when she reappears at the far end of the novel needs to be reinvented. Instead of the novel's later encounter on the highway as Fanny makes her fateful trek to Casterbridge, the film places her in Bathsheba's barn where she meets Frank, observed, presumably, by Bathsheba from a distant window in the house. The lock of Fanny's hair that Frank Troy carries in the novel (the knowledge of which gives Bathsheba a motive for opening the poor girl's coffin) is not mentioned at all in the film.

Far from the Madding Crowd is a novel of character and environment, and the opening shot of the film, with the camera drifting down out of the heavens and revealing the countryside, is highly effective, as is the physical setting for Sergeant Troy's sword demonstration, which becomes in the film a patently symbolic rape of Bathsheba. Schlesinger's cinematographer, Nicolas Roeg, was later to evoke a remarkable affinity between man and teeming Nature in his film Walkabout. One doubts that any cameraman would be better suited to undertake the filming of Hardy's “Wessex.” Unfortunately, Roeg does not consistently meet the challenge of capturing the awesomeness of Nature evoked by Hardy's novel. The scene where Oak almost single-handedly rescues Bathsheba's harvested crops from the ravages of a storm comes near the mark, but Schlesinger does not provide the same proportionate time to showing the power of the storm that Hardy gives to describing it. The force and the fury are short-circuited.

One very effective touch in the film is the use of music. At a dinner scene early in the story, for example, Bathsheba sings a ballad just as Boldwood arrives and is invited to join the group, displacing Oak at the head of the table. Her lyrics—“Long time I have been waiting for the coming of my dear”—fuel Boldwood's expectations and prompt him to propose marriage. (“If I show to him my boldness,” the song goes on, suggesting her reluctance to be bold, “he'll never love me again.”)

Another effective component of Schlesinger's film is the way in which it pictures the pastoral setting, “far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,” in the words of Thomas Gray's “Elegy.” The pastoral mood and setting of Hardy's novel is far too complex to be addressed in any detail here, but these are central components of the narrative that need to be captured by the film. In an important essay found in the collection Survivals of Pastoral, Edward L. Ruhe makes a number of proposals concerning the pastoral tradition and its “displacements.” He stipulates the modern pastoral as a literature of innocence, of simplicty, and, as would seem to be the case in Hardy's novel, of nostalgia.1 Discussing the “most significant minima” of the pastoral, he writes:

All is temperate. The shepherds are not so much free as carefree. They enjoy, as “a gift of the natural world,” a system of exemptions from the hardships incident to life where civilization is concentrated, particularly in cities and courts; and these hardships merge with the burdens of maturity experienced in any social order. Shepherds first enjoy freedom from the physical and moral squalor of crowded societies—from grime, noise, congestion, and confusion on one hand, and from intrigue and anxieties centering in money and status on the other.

It is that freedom that sets Gabriel Oak apart from such men as Farmer Boldwood (a captive of “money and status”) and Frank Troy (caught up in intrigue and plagued with anxiety and guilt) throughout most of the novel. Oak is also in harmony with Nature, as Troy is not. That is why Nature conspires against Troy's attempt to pay a natural tribute to his dead “natural” wife in Chapter 46 (“The Gurgoyle: Its Doings”), compressed to three fleeting shots in Schlesinger's film. Oak is a Stoic in the novel, whose strength of character eclipses the obsessions and anxieties of the other men in Bathsheba's life. Troy is brought into the novel to test Oak's Stoicism, and Boldwood's weakness is a measure of Oak's strength. The film effectively visualizes the pastoral life, but it fails to internalize Oak's pastoral virtues. It does not provide the wherewithal for the viewer to understand the character and what he represents.

Gabriel Oak seems to be a paradigm of a man in harmony with his world, one who is able to rise above “the madding crowd's ignoble strife.” Troy seems to represent a veiled criticism of the aristocracy's profligate habits, and, if so, his reckless treatment of Fanny Robin may carry more significance than is first apparent. Boldwood certainly represents the material striving of the Middle Class; his personal quest for Bathsheba reflects the habits of his class, a man of the new industrial age striving for goals that are beyond his reach. These implications from the novel are not effectively translated into the film.

Schlesinger's rendering of Hardy's novel is an enjoyable film, but it is, one fears, primarily intended to work as superficial entertainment that is, as they say, true to the spirit of the novel. The script succeeds in carrying most of the humiliation motif intact from the novel—the humiliation of Oak and Boldwood at Bathsheba's hands, Boldwood's humiliation by Troy that erodes his dignity and begins the process of his disintegration, Troy's humiliation caused by Fanny's confusion about which church is the assigned meeting place, and, finally, Bathsheba's humiliation when Frank Troy rejects her. The film in fact includes most of the story's dynamics; and though it may at times seem superficial and weak on points of character motivation, it provides an interesting basis for the discussion of what may be possible and tolerable in the process of adapting a “classic” novel to the screen.


  1. Edward L. Ruhe, “Pastoral Paradigms and Displacements, with some Proposals,” in Survivals of Pastoral, ed. Richard F. Hardin, Humanistic Studies 52 (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1979), p. 117. See also p. 133.

Judith Bryant Wittenberg (essay date winter 1986)

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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, … if we look beyond Hardy's conscious intentions to such things as repeated themes, incidental comments, and subtle differences in the presentation of analogous male and female characters, we find evidence that he could not altogether overcome the sexual stereotypes of his culture.”1 Despite the fact that critics are unlikely to reach any consensus on this topic in the near future, it remains a fruitful one. Readerly awareness of Hardy's ambivalence on this particular subject provides a useful avenue to understanding the sort of larger dialectic that gives his best fiction much of its tension and power. This essay will examine one aspect of Hardy's method—his preoccupation with sight-centered matters and their relationship to his depiction of women and their problems in Far from the Madding Crowd—and the way in which it embodies a dialogue having both philosophical and psychoanalytic implications that places Hardy's work in a larger context.


Perception and its role in both intellectual and emotional development has been important to thinkers other than aesthetic theoreticians such as E. H. Gombrich and Rudolph Arnheim.2 Several English philosophers, most notably John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume, all of whose works Hardy was familiar with, had, by the end of the eighteenth century, elaborated upon the compelling problems of epistemological definition in a Cartesian universe and collectively posited a world in which the seeing “eye” was the point of origin for the knowing “I.” Later psychoanalytic theorists, some of whose work Hardy anticipates in intriguing ways,3 such as Freud, regarded the drive to see as fundamental to the instinct for knowledge and as basic to the process of awakening desire for the love-object during later sexual development.4 Thus the eye becomes throughout life, particularly for males, one of the important erotogenic zones.5 Seeing can also, of course, lead to trauma and thence to neurosis or perversion.6

While much of Hardy's fiction is informed by post-Lockean and psychoanalytic theories of seeing, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), his fourth published novel and the first great work of his career, represents a culmination of his treatment of the various visual preoccupations that are evident in all the work of his early period. Persistently and complexly present in the text are several thematic and technical elements arising from Hardy's concepts of the individual eye as the inlet of sense knowledge and as a sexual force, of the way in which one's sense of self is essentially created in perceptual moments, and of the collective eye as the locus of moral judgment; moreover, Hardy relates such issues in intriguing ways to questions of gender and control. Though these elements are clearly subordinated to the story, they underlie both its basic assumptions and its presentation.

The early pages of the novel serve in this respect as a paradigm both of the entire work and of all Hardy's fiction of this period, compressing an extraordinary number of sight-centered components into our introduction to Gabriel Oak and Oak's meeting with Bathsheba Everdene and linking them to crucial aspects of male and female roles. They constitute a rich exemplification of Hardy's conception of the complex role which vision plays in life and in the fiction-making process. Several physical points of station (i.e., the distance of the spectator from the nearest point of the “picture” he sees), each with significant implications, are juxtaposed in these opening pages, the first of them, that of the narrator, being the most important to this and all of Hardy's fiction. The spectatorial narrator begins by offering a Halsian portrait of a ruddy, smiling Oak that obviously applies to the general as well as the specific instance, going on, in a confident, somewhat amused tone, to describe Oak's behavior, character, and religious views, contrasting the limited “mental picture formed by his neighbours” with the things available to the notice of “thoughtful persons” (p. 2), among whom the narrator obviously belongs.7

Oak's point of view is the second one offered and the second in importance. Hardy shifts us to him, “glancing over the hedge” in a typical voyeuristic moment of the benign variety. He sees Bathsheba preening on her wagon and judges her as vain, remaining himself seemingly unaroused, but the more libidinal moments of peeping which immediately follow are portended by the cat who “affectionately survey[s] the small birds around.” Women are often identified with birds in Hardy's fiction (as in much earlier writing in English), and the cat's gaze, though idle, is unquestionably predatory, like the male gaze.

Although there is no overt sexual component in Oak's second instance of peeping at Bathsheba, its basic nature is implied by the narrator's comment that “he saw her in a bird's eye view, as Milton's Satan first saw Paradise” (p. 14). The invocation of one of the most sexually destructive voyeurs in English literature suggests what sort of unconscious motives underlie Oak's voyeuristic impulses. Although when he next peeps through the loophole of his hut at Bathsheba behaving in a strikingly unconventional manner on her horse, he is described as merely amused and astonished, he has obviously been aroused, for shortly afterward he looks at her “proportions,” Hardy's euphemism for her figure, “with a long consciousness of pleasure” (p. 19). Hardy's narrator comments on the sexuality involved—“Rays of male vision seem to have a tickling effect upon virgin faces in rural districts”—while Oak himself seems to become aware of the violating penetration of his gaze, guiltily withdrawing his eyes from Bathsheba “as suddenly as if he had been caught in a theft” (pp. 20-21).

In a moment with similar implications, Farmer Boldwood's sexual awakening from long years of celibacy is revealed in a phrase about his using his gaze in a penetrating way: “[He] had never before inspected a woman with the very centre and force of his glance” (p. 134). Here, as in the depiction of Aeneas Manston's forceful eye in Desperate Remedies, Hardy is quite explicit in his treatment of the eye as a substitute sexual organ and of seeing as not only a prologue to but also a displaced form of sexual possession of the female. That Hardy was far more candid in his treatment of sexual matters than his Victorian contemporaries has long been acknowledged; by examining Hardy's recurrent depiction of the male gaze, we can see that that candor was of an extraordinary range.

How deeply disconcerting Oak's gaze is to Bathsheba is made clear by her response. She blushes deeply, her blush signifying embarrassment and possibly some unwitting form of tumescence, and she later refuses to look at him, apparently feeling “that Gabriel's espial had made her an indecorous woman.” Her sense of vulnerability manifestly has a social as well as a sexual component, for, as Hardy's narrator points out, “as without law there is no sin, without eyes there is no indecorum” (p. 21). Here, as throughout the novel, we are shown how the awareness of being seen by some form of the collective eye, the location of moral-social judgments, engenders anxiety and prompts action that ranges from efforts at self-control to rash alterations of plans. So Sergeant Troy's fury at being publicly kept waiting at the altar by Fanny Robin leads him to cancel their wedding and, in effect, to destroy her life.

Though Troy's anger at being seen in a humiliating moment precipitates the central tragedy of the novel, it is usually Bathsheba who, like many of Hardy's heroines, evinces the sensitivity to being seen, and subsequently to being judged, that is a direct consequence of the sense of vulnerability. During her first appearance in the cornmarket, she is appalled by her awareness of “eyes everywhere!” (p. 104). Then in one of her early intimate conversations with Boldwood (it occurs, perhaps significantly, shortly after he loses his ocular “virginity” and turns his gaze upon her), she becomes “afraid they will notice us” (p. 146). In a similar moment of intimacy with Troy, she says to him anxiously, “My workfolk see me following you about the field and are wondering. O, this is dreadful!” (p. 203). Later, her increased isolation and status as an object on which the collective eye is focused is symbolized by her moment alone in the circus tent when “many eyes were turned upon her.” She “make[s] the best of it” (p. 393), however, in a manner that signifies her growing maturity and portends her protectiveness of another person exposed to the social gaze, when she removes her husband's corpse from Boldwood's parlor, unwilling to leave it “neglected for folks to stare at” (p. 439). Thus throughout the novel characters implicitly face the judgments of the community as they explicitly confront its eyes, for “they see” is, as always in the fictive Hardyan world, an inevitable prologue to “they say.”


There is, of course, along with a felt sense of social and sexual vulnerability, an element of paranoia in this hypersensitivity to being seen. Hardy may have been anticipating (and articulating) some of the linkages between paranoia and the constitution of the ego made by Jacques Lacan decades later, when his formulation of the theory of the stade du miroir grew out of his early studies of paranoia, and by Jean-Paul Sartre, who pointed out that “the Other is not only the one whom I see but the one who sees me.”8 Certainly there are some suggestive mirror scenes in Far from the Madding Crowd that seem, if not pre-Lacanian, at least evocative of his concept of the self awakening to consciousness in awareness of the alienated non-self, the mirrored Other. When Oak first sees Bathsheba in the opening pages of the novel, she is gazing into a looking-glass, where she “survey[s] herself attentively” (p. 4), smiling and then blushing. “Seeing her reflection blush, [she] blushed the more” (p. 5). Oak adjudges her action as motivated by simple vanity arising from narcissism of a sort that also made George Eliot's vain heroines gaze into mirrors, as in Adam Bede; but Hardy's narrator reminds us that Oak's assessment may be inadequate, for it is based on “conjecture,” and, in fact, “nobody knows” why she smiled (p. 5).

What is also important is that Bathsheba comes into being, as it were, in that mirrored moment, comes alive for herself, for Oak, the narrator, and for us. The most vivid female character of Hardy's early fiction springs into existence in the instant she gazes at herself in a looking-glass. In like fashion, one of Hardy's most memorable male characters, William Boldwood, discovers himself, so to speak, as he looks into a mirror. Bathsheba begins the awakening process by sending him the valentine with a red seal that appears “as a blot of blood on the retina of his eye,” portending its ultimate passional and murderous effect (p. 112). Boldwood places it in the frame of a mirror, and in looking at it again also really looks at himself, perhaps for the first time. His “nervous excitability” is disclosed to Boldwood in the form of his “reflected features” (p. 114), and though this excitability will finally have ruinous effects on himself and others, it signifies the inception of his efforts to participate emotionally in the life around him. Boldwood's physical awareness of himself in the glass mirrors his momentous awareness of another person. In both instances, Hardy strikingly presents central characters beginning the complex interaction of self and world that is signalled by the interaction of self and reflected self. Hardy's mirrors are more than symbols of simple vanity; they are tools for intensifying characters' awareness of themselves and heralding the intense way in which they will “live” for us.

Thus in these brief opening scenes, Hardy manages technically and thematically to posit a series of points of station, each subordinate—and psychologically related—to the previous one as he moves from the narrator to Oak to Bathsheba, simultaneously presenting in complex fashion his essential concept of the eye as it functions in the epistemological, sexual, and socio-moral processes. The pages which follow variously reiterate these techniques and concepts in a series of highly visual scenes of great power as we watch the pastoral melodrama being enacted. These characters may in some sense be archetypal figures out of ballad or the French pastourelle, but aspects of both their psyches and their situations derive from Hardy's own ongoing preoccupations and from his efforts to explore the problems inevitably faced by individuals who might find themselves at variance with dominant forces in nineteenth-century English society.

The way in which Bathsheba is introduced, admired, and controlled by the male point of view is entirely relevant to her characterization in the largest sense. Her complex struggles with the various male “looks” she confronts are mirrored by her difficulties with the patriarchal society. Her story depicts both the possibilities open to, and the limitations imposed upon, a spirited woman who tries to affirm her individuality in a society unready to accept unconventional behavior, particularly on the part of a woman. From the very outset, Bathsheba reveals her ambivalence about becoming, like most women, a visual and sexual possession; she wishes to live by her own rules and to take charge of her life. She early asserts that she has no sweetheart because “I hate to be thought men's property in that way” and that she is interested in “being a bride at a wedding [only] if I could be one without having a husband” (pp. 32, 33). She possesses articulateness, almost always an emblem of superiority in Hardy's fiction, glibly teasing and criticizing Oak in their early encounters, and she is, says Hardy's narrator, a “novelty among women—one who finished a thought before beginning the sentence which was to convey it” (p. 23).

Not only is she intellectually in charge, she is physically assertive, as in the scenes in which she runs after Oak to clear up a misunderstanding and in which she rescues him from near death, dashing milk on his face, holding him in her lap, and unbuttoning his collar in a tableau that intriguingly suggests both a pietà and a seduction scene with Bathsheba as the sexual aggressor. Oak ironically seems far more “female” than she in these early scenes, passively falling asleep like Tess Durbeyfield at crucial moments, struggling with the language he cannot use effectively, and then appearing as a visual “object” at the Casterbridge hiring fair; the role reversal is striking.

Bathsheba soon progresses from emotional and intellectual control to economic control when her uncle leaves her his farm in recognition of her capabilities. The “unpractised girl” develops into a “supervising and cool woman” (p. 56). When we see her framed in her bedroom window in a visual moment typical of Hardy's heroines, the scene has a crucial difference, for she is there giving orders to her male employees. When she makes the speech announcing her decision to be her own bailiff, thus augmenting her already considerable responsibility, she performs with great confidence, vowing to “do my best” and to “astonish you all” (p. 93). Women farmers were not unknown in Hardy's day—there were quite a few in the Dorset area, most of them widows—but they were certainly uncommon in fiction; strong, unmarried females running their own farming operations would not appear in works by major writers until the creation of Willa Cather's Alexandra Bergson and Ellen Glasgow's Dorinda Oakley in the early twentieth century.

Both Bathsheba's competence and her desire to succeed are impressive, but she soon encounters a series of difficulties that reveal the dangers for a woman of being alone, being different, and being a cynosure. The first of these is criticism from the denizens of the malthouse who serve as a rustic chorus. They call her “proud as a lucifer,” a “very vain feymell” (p. 48), denigrate her as a “tomboy” and a “headstrong maid” and doubt that “she can carr' on alone” (pp. 76, 118). Much of this is petty or jealous, and Oak often attempts to defend her, but even he irrationally blames Bathsheba for the threat posed to the year's crops by the harvest supper debacle, attributing it to “the instability of a woman” (p. 279). Even when the rustics are not being overtly critical, they subtly deprecate with their praise, as when they call her “a handsome body” (p. 70). Despite her strengths, Bathsheba cannot escape the reductive situation of being a “sight,” a physical object to the male eyes around her.

Though Bathsheba is more fortunate than many of Hardy's heroines in having confidantes and being an integral member of a closely knit community, she often feels “friendless” and “unprotected” (pp. 226, 233), with “nobody in the world to fight my battles for me” (p. 235). She also, in spite of her desire for independence, feels some pressure to accept a worthwhile offer of marriage, because “in every point of view, ranging from politic to passionate, it was desirable that she, a lonely girl, should marry” (p. 148). About a decade before Hardy began work on Far from the Madding Crowd, an article in the National Review had lamented the “redundancy” of the single women in England, “who, in place of completing, sweetening, and embellishing the existence of others, are compelled to lead an independent and incomplete existence of their own.” The writer called women of strength and intelligence “abnormal” and suggested that no woman should hold a responsible job because “the cerebral organisation of the female is far more delicate than that of man.”9

Certainly Bathsheba's behavior in much of the novel suggests that she is open to arguments such as these, for she seriously entertains proposals from three men who are not of her caliber in some respects, and ends up marrying two of them. While marriage may improve her social status, the first one imperils her economic well-being, because Troy begins to squander her money on betting, after using some of it to purchase his discharge from the military. There is some evidence that Hardy intended this portion of the novel to be set after 1870, because that year saw the passage of the Married Women's Protective Act, which no longer made the acquisition of a woman's property by her husband a foregone conclusion; Troy says, “I have [no money] but what my wife gives me” (p. 300). Nevertheless, Bathsheba apparently feels powerless to prevent her husband's improvident use of her modest wealth.


While various degrees of community hostility to her independent life and her sensitivity to the social pressure to marry affect Bathsheba to some degree, direct coercion by men who are representative members of the patriarchal society have the most powerful influence on her. Boldwood, with his burning eyes and coercive speeches, is a man of some substance and community standing, so the pressure she receives from him is simultaneously sexual, linguistic, and socio-economic. Sergeant Troy, whose power over Bathsheba seems almost exclusively sexual and rhetorical, is also in certain respects an emblem of the English patriarchy, for his father was a nobleman, his step-father a physician, and he himself is a non-commissioned military officer.

Bathsheba's extreme ambivalence toward what these suitors represent is revealed by her varying responses, many of them originating in her reactions to being seen, like those in her early encounter with Oak mentioned above. Although she has moments of feeling burdened by her femaleness, she also expresses a desire to be “tamed” and a fear of being too “mannish” that make her receptive to visual-sexual advances. Thus she initially seeks to elicit Boldwood's invasive gaze, finding it “depressing that the most dignified and valuable man in the parish should withhold his eyes” (p. 110) and feeling triumphant once his eyes are “following her everywhere” (p. 135); however, she later finds his stares—and him—too intense and is repelled. In her first encounter with Troy, as his emblematic spurs become entangled with the fragile stuff of her gown in a symbolic moment, she feels assailed by his gaze, which is “too strong to be received point-blank with her own” (p. 185). Yet because the strength of Troy's ardent eyes is reinforced by his prowess at rhetoric and sword-play, Bathsheba's defenses are rapidly breached; Troy's linguistic and physical adroitness, coupled with his sexual aggressiveness, make him an almost irresistible emblem of male power.

In the famous sword scene, with its highly charged sexual elements on which critics have commented,10 Troy deftly wields his phallic and dangerous weapon, controlling it with his keen eyes; in the process he reduces Bathsheba to a mass of sexually quivering femininity and captures a fitting trophy, a lock of her hair. Aside from the sword, however, there are other visual and auditory elements of the scene with sexual associations whose presence would, even in the absence of the sword, portend the process taking place. The sun, that recurrent symbol of masculine power often visible in Hardy's fiction at traumatic moments, is here a “bristling ball of gold” with “long, luxuriant rays” sweeping the feathery ferns that in turn caress Bathsheba (p. 208). In this scene, the sun's bristling signifies its potency, as it did earlier in the novel, where its reflection in the sheepmen's shears is “strong enough to blind a weak-eyed man” (p. 165), and as it appeared in Hardy's personal memorandum of 1873 about the “brazen sun, bristling with a thousand spines, which struck into & tormented my eyes.”11 The sun makes of Troy's sword “a living thing.” Bathsheba's arrival has been heralded by her “rustling” amid the ferns, just as her first meeting with Troy was signalled by a “rustle of footsteps” (p. 183); rustling was obviously for Hardy a sexually evocative sound, associated in the Life with Julia Martin's silken dresses and often a factor in scenes in his fiction with emotional and erotic overtones.

The confluence of strong sun, redness, and the sound of rustling in the opening paragraphs of the chapter depicting the sword exercise all portend what is to come, even before Troy unsheathes his weapon. In the scene which follows, the point of station is Bathsheba's, as she watches and experiences her “ravishing” by Troy's impressive strength and dexterity. Significantly, his eye is connected to and necessary for his control of the sword; she can see it “always keenly measuring her breadth and outline” (p. 211). The uniting of eye and sword in a dazzling display of masculine power creates in Bathsheba a response that seems virtually orgasmic. She is “enclosed in a firmament of light, and of sharp hisses,” aroused and overwhelmed, after which “she felt like one who has sinned a great sin” (pp. 211-213). Interestingly, Hardy's narrator intervenes at the most intense moment in the scene, generalizing and explaining and thus asserting himself both as a physical presence and as one capable of having the “last word,” revealing in the process that he is another of the male forces inhibiting Bathsheba's freedom.

Yet the novel is balanced, and Hardy depicts two other characters whose difficulties parallel or illuminate Bathsheba's—one male, the other female. Boldwood is the male, at the outset much like her in his self-sufficiency and independence, subsequently succumbing with great rapidity, as did she, to the suggestive presence of a sprightly and attractive member of the opposite sex. Both are punished quite severely for their sudden sexual responsiveness; Bathsheba is consigned to will-lessness and bitter disillusionment, Boldwood to mounting frustration that culminates in murderous anger.

Fanny Robin is the female character whose situation both parallels and contrasts with that of Bathsheba. When the novel was first published, reviewers suggested that Hardy had drawn his material from Adam Bede; if so, he divided Hetty Sorrel into two characters, both seduced and in some sense abandoned by the dashing soldier, eliminating the Dinah Morris figure. What is also interesting is that Fanny, a servant impregnated by the man she hopes to marry, faces a plight in which Hardy's mother and grandmother found themselves. Yet they married, while Fanny becomes the archetypal fallen woman of Victorian melodrama and visual art, a wandering outcast pictured most often in the dark and snow, like Eppie's mother in Silas Marner or the women in paintings such as Frederick Walker's The Lost Path, Richard Redgrave's The Outcast, and the last panel of Augustus Egg's Past and Present. As so often in Hardy's novels, he uses visuals as indices of a psychological condition; in Fanny's case, her vulnerability is indicated by the depiction of her seen from a distance as “small,” a “spot” on the landscape (p. 97).

Appropriately, since both Fanny and Bathsheba are victims of the predatory Troy, Hardy suggests similarities between the two. In moments when Bathsheba confronts romantic predicaments, she is described as a “robin” (pp. 30, 218), and both women are shown in moments of desperation “unfemininely” running after a man in order to clear up a misunderstanding. At the same time, significant differences between the two reveal that, as the narrator points out, “their fates might be supposed to stand in some respects as contrasts to each other” (p. 337). While Fanny is weakened by having no socio-economic power and little self-confidence, Bathsheba has a good deal of both; Fanny often seems hyper-feminine in her helplessness, while Bathsheba frequently stands her ground “manfully.” Hardy tacitly underscores the contrasts between the two by showing them in alternating scenes. Bathsheba's confident speech to her workers is followed by the chapter depicting Fanny in the snow outside the barracks, even as the chapter describing Fanny's agonizing trip into Casterbridge is bracketed by two scenes of Bathsheba with her husband, both times in emblems of prosperity, her gig and her house. The women may be “sisters” in their susceptibility to male sexual power, but Bathsheba has other qualities that make survival possible. Some of these could be called masculine, so Hardy may be implying something about the merits of an androgynous model, because he also kills off, by the end of the novel, the highly feminine Fanny and the hyper-masculine Troy, concluding the work with the union of a strong woman and a man who has displayed a number of traits that might be described as “feminine.”

At one point Bathsheba expresses her admiration for the goddess Diana, and even in times of great difficulty she exhibits strength and resolution that could identify her with that mythological figure, as in the moments when she staunchly helps Oak in his battle to save the hayricks from the thunderstorm and when she advises Liddy about coping with marriage, “stand your ground, and be cut to pieces” (p. 351). Yet she is more than a female warrior, for she has significant moral strengths, showing remorse for her capricious treatment of Boldwood, revealing a sense of responsibility, on more than one occasion, for the hapless Fanny, and evincing compassion even for the husband who mistreated and then abandoned her. Here, as elsewhere in the novel, the changing nature of her interior situation is indicated in visual ways. She bravely confronts the “worrying perceptions” engendered by her traumatic discoveries of the lock of blond hair in Troy's watch and the corpse of Fanny's baby and reveals a protective and forgiving decency when she cradles Troy's body to rescue it from the stares of onlookers. By the end of the novel, she has grown in moral stature and been rewarded, not only with what promises to be a serene and comradely marriage but also with tributes from those crochety male voices, the rustics and the narrator. The former praise her bravery and honesty and the latter, in a memorable backhanded compliment, calls her “the stuff of which great men's mothers are made” (p. 436).


If Bathsheba passes from an early phase marked by stubborn independence to a second one where she exhibits, as the narrator says, “too much womanliness to use her understanding to the best advantage” (p. 214), falling into a state of listless dependency, she emerges finally as an individual capable of meshing both sorts of impulses. Her arrival at this final stage is signalled by her visit to Oak, a courageous and rather aggressive act, during which she coyly cajoles him into acknowledging his feelings for her, even as she has fully acknowledged to herself her emotional dependency on him; she thus evinces a harmonious blend of the masculine and the feminine. Oak, too, arrives at a point where he effectively meshes disparate tendencies. Early in the work he had seemed both to be somewhat “feminine” and to reveal qualities that would later prove problematic for Jude Fawley—a wish to improve his lot in life, a sympathetic concern for animals, and a moment of contemplating suicide by water; Oak's vulnerability is evinced by moments of being, like most of Hardy's women and like Jude, a visual “object” exposed to the investigative and occasionally dismissive stares of others. Yet he has strengths not shown by Jude—persistence and perceptiveness among them—and he also assumes an increasingly “masculine” socio-economic role, when his evident competence is rewarded by jobs as bailiff for Bathsheba and as the manager of Boldwood's property. At the same time, he never loses the tenderness that makes him so responsive to the plights of others and we come to view some of his passivity as an almost aggressive tenacity.

Thus the marriage of Oak and Bathsheba seems highly appropriate as an outgrowth of their separate arrivals at a point where the masculine and feminine in each of them are nicely integrated, for it represents the merging of those balanced individuals in a larger whole. Each has undergone, at differing times, the experiences of being both helpless and in control, of being both seen and seer, object and subject. Their angles of vision, so suggestively presented in the opening pages of the novel, have not only been juxtaposed but have attained a harmonious equilibrium. Hardy celebrates their union with the narrator's disquisition in the penultimate chapter, on the merits of camaraderie between men and women which “is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely” (p. 456). It is a moment, to be sure, calculated to remind us that if the consummate “eye” in the novel is that of the narrator, the dominant “I” is also, but the attainment of an equilibrated state between the male and female protagonists is singular in a Hardy novel.


  1. Katharine Rogers, “Women in Thomas Hardy,” Centennial Review, 19 (1975), 249-58.

  2. In E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (New York: Bollingen, 1965), and Rudolph Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954).

  3. See Rosemary Sumner, Thomas Hardy: Psychological Novelist (New York: St. Martin's, 1981).

  4. The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953), VII, p. 156.

  5. See, for example, Sandor Ferenczi, “On Eye Symbolism,” in First Contributions to Psychoanalysis, trans. Ernest Jones (London: Hogarth, 1952), pp. 270-276.

  6. See Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New York: Norton, 1945), pp. 71-2, 92, 345-9; Otto Fenichel, “The Scoptophilic Instinct and Identification,” Collected Papers, First Series (New York: Norton, 1953); David W. Allen, The Fear of Looking (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1974).

  7. All page references are to the Wessex Edition (London: Macmillan, 1912-31). The spectatorial quality of Hardy's narrator has been commented on by, for example, J. Hillis Miller, Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970), pp. xii, 7; and David Lodge, “Thomas Hardy and Cinematographic Form,” Novel, 7 (1974), 250.

  8. Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977, pp. 1-7; Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1966), p. 310.

  9. W. R. Greg, “Why Are Women Redundant?” National Review, 14 (April 1862), 434-60.

  10. See Richard Carpenter, “The Mirror and the Sword: Imagery in Far from the Madding Crowd,Nineteenth Century Fiction, 18 (1964), 331-45.

  11. The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy, ed. Richard H. Taylor (London: Macmillan, 1978), p. 14.

Lionel Adey (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6215

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 to the natural environment, Merryn Williams that of Gabriel Oak in contrast to Sergeant Troy's alienation from nature, and, most recently, Peter Casagrande Bathsheba's reformation through her communion with both Gabriel and the environment. To my knowledge, none has considered the modes or styles in which those and other characters express love and how far these may result from or determine their attitude to the land and its dependents, nor the tragic import in the Wessex novels of incompatibility in this sense between human beings, as distinct from that between the human psyche and the cosmos.1

The following study was inspired not, as may be supposed, by C. S. Lewis's Four Loves, but by an article by a sociologist, John Alan Lee, called ‘The Styles of Loving’, and his book, Colours of Love.2 Before enquiring into North American modes of loving, Lee amassed a collection of pronouncements on love by authors from Plato to Lewis.3 To project his conclusions back on to a century-old novel might otherwise invite derision. Few of Hardy's readers would deny that his lovers often exemplify traditional modes of courtship, and none better than those in Far From the Madding Crowd. What love-lore Hardy may have read would furnish material for another essay. My aim in this is to show how each major character's style of loving bears on that character's relations with the Wessex community and environment. But first, the styles need to be defined.

Differing somewhat from Lewis, Lee finds three primary modes, eros, ludus and storgē, with two secondary, which he calls mania and pragma. He defines eros as ‘an immediate, powerful attraction to the physical appearance of the beloved’,4 yet concedes that this often corresponds to the lover's mental image of ideal beauty. In his description of ludus, any reader of Chaucer, Ovid or many another poet, will recognize the ‘game and play’ of love. The game, as Lee remarks, might consist either of seduction or flirtation. Neither the most cynical players (or hunters or anglers), who care not what passions they arouse, nor the most chivalrous find it easy to douse the fire of love gradually, as Ovid recommends. In amor ludens, says the Roman poet, the lover should enjoy ‘a pleasant pastime’.5 As Lee explains, the ‘ludic lover’ refuses ‘to become dependent on any beloved, or to allow any beloved to become overly attached’. In this case, does he love at all? To this Lee replies that ‘a significant group of respondents’ in his survey reported acting in this way but considered themselves lovers, while ludus has been ‘socially acceptable at times in the past’ (as in the Provençal and perhaps the Elizabethan literary cultures).6

Lewis finds in eros the elements of physical desire, which he calls ‘Venus’, and of play in the sense of sometimes comic ritual. The idolatrous love that Lewis terms ‘romance’ is categorized by Lee as mania, after the Greek term theia mania (‘madness from the gods’). Its keynotes of agitation, sleeplessness and obsessive images of the beloved, familiar to all readers of Chaucer, are listed in countless notebooks of students as those of ‘courtly love’. To illustrate Lee's account of mania as a secondary mode derived from eros and ludus, Chaucer's Troilus loves at first sight, plays the game of seduction under direction from Pandarus, then cries exultantly ‘Now be ye kaught’ upon enticing her to his pretended sick-bed.7 Entrapment, histrionics and a third element, territorial intrusion, together with traditional praise of the lady's beauty and the salesman's fiction of the Other Client, make up the game that Troy plays with Bathsheba. Like other moralists, and even perhaps Hardy, Lewis would refuse to admit ludus as a form of love.

At some length, and with evident approval, Lewis describes ‘Affection’, the comradely or filial love that Lee (after him) calls storgē. This ‘love without fever, tumult and folly’, as Proudhon has it, usually comes about not through choice but through sharing work, home or leisure-time activities, often in the countryside.8 Whether Gabriel Oak's first proposal to Bathsheba is a form of pragma, or deliberate selection amounting in Lee's view to a derivative of storgē and ludus, or whether it is really motivated by eros, is a matter for discussion. In his subsequent loyalty, Oak undoubtedly blends storgē and agapē, the selfless benignity that St Paul defines as the essence of Christian love, and Lewis as the element required to raise eros, friendship and affection to their highest powers. This Lee regards as a compound of storgē and eros. This highly debatable judgment may shed light on Gabriel's conduct in love.


To begin with the style most evident in this novel, Bathsheba and Troy play characteristically different games. Before the action begins, Troy, whose name connotes both warfare and seductions, has played the soldier-lover of balladry who leaves the village maiden in distress. As the laughter of his comrades echoes from the barrack-room window, our hearts sink for his victim. If, by agreeing to marry Fanny, he seems to transcend his stereotype, it takes but the accident of Fanny's late arrival, and the titters of bystanders, to drown the still very small voice of social conscience.

‘But after all,’ she expostulated in a trembling voice, ‘the mistake was not such a terrible thing. Now, dear Frank, when shall it be.’

‘Ah, when? God knows!’ he said with a light irony, and turning from her rapidly walked away.

(p. 148)9

His flippant tone and rapid walk, like his unwilling marriage proposal, remind us of the ludic lover's difficulty in breaking off the game. His embarrassment renders him a more credible suitor for Bathsheba than is Boldwood yet, ironically, a more fitting agent of her enlightenment.

Bathsheba plays upon Gabriel Oak the Victorian woman's game of flirtation, as distinct from that of entrapment played by Arabella and urged upon Tess by Mrs Durbeyfield. She remarks that a marriage ‘would be very nice in one sense’, for ‘People would talk about me and think I'd won my battle, and I should feel triumphant,’ but a husband, she objects, ‘would be always there.’

‘Of course he would—I, that is’, rejoins Oak, a lover of a very different stamp.

This draws the immortal response, ‘I shouldn't mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband’, and the decision that ‘since a woman can't show off in that way by herself, I shan't marry—at least yet’ (p. 67).

The vanity Oak has already perceived exposes Bathsheba to capture by Troy, the only suitor to praise her beauty. Before thinking of her as a prospective wife, Troy begins playing the game of seduction, using what I understand to be the classic technique. By adroitly failing to free her dress from his spur he keeps her close to him, while by praising her beauty he assuages an age-old hunger not suspected, let alone appeased, by Boldwood or Oak.

He then moves literally into her territory to help with the haymaking, then both amuses and obligates her somehow to respond by gallantly taking her place at the bee-hive. Although his aura of romance, so advantageous in Bathsheba's prosaic world of farmers, bailiffs and shepherds, cannot entirely be ascribed to his skill, he thus loses no time in exploiting the happy accident of being picked out by, as it were, son el lumière in scarlet tunic and glittering brasses. His clumsily invented tale to convert his proffered gift of a watch into a family heirloom is the kind of false step likely to be taken by one more accustomed to seducing village girls than courting ladies of his own descent.10 Even here his unperceived good fortune in having his past embroidered by a maid-servant probably saves him from being dismissed as an arrant liar. Finally, he draws her literally away from her own territory and metaphorically into his by skilfully arousing a desire to see his sword-play. By making the still-trembling girl realize that, although she can manage her own farm and hold her own in the masculine game of buying and selling upon the Corn Exchange, she has depended for her life upon his swordsmanship, he gains a psychological upper hand more valuable in the game of love than was Gabriel's skill in saving her sheep. Her dependence and his own mastery he stresses with adroit inventiveness: ‘… you have been within half an inch of being pared alive two hundred and ninety-five times’ (p. 218). No wonder she cannot avoid his kiss.

An uncharacteristic woodenness in dialogue and a clumsy authorial intrusion combine to muffle the impact and blur the meaning of an earlier conversation in which Troy has established a bridgehead by playing upon Bathsheba's vanity. It begins promisingly with Bathsheba, ‘in a restless state between distress at hearing him and a penchant to hear more’ being assured that she is ‘a most fascinating woman’. The rhetorical contrivance ‘surely you must have been told by everybody of what everybody notices’ and the banal self-betrayal ‘No—that is—I have certainly heard Liddy say they do but—’ (p. 203) ruin the peripateion even before the novelist, breaking the rule ‘Show, not tell’, adds:

Capitulation—that was the purport of the simple reply, guarded as it was—capitulation, unknown to herself. Never did a fragile tailless sentence convey a more perfect meaning. The careless sergeant smiled from a loop-hole in Tophet, for the moment was the turning-point of a career.

Hardy's comment assures us that Troy will never amount to more than a circus performer or stage-villain. By the time Hardy created Alec d'Urberville, the game and play of sexual pursuit had acquired for him a tragic portent beyond the earlier novel's dimension of melodrama.

In which style, we naturally ask, does Bathsheba love Troy? The indications appear confusing. His glittering figure and instancy of pursuit would disconcert the least responsive woman. Her inability to resist his compliments, and the amusement at his ludicrous appearance in her own bee-keeping clothes that breaks down her ‘palisade of cold manners’ (p. 211) would suggest eros. Her storming at the tearful Liddy, her abrupt departure to Bath, above all this shrewd business woman's falling for that age-old ploy, the Other Client, far more strongly indicate mania. So does her jealousy on discovering the earlier love-affair between Troy and Fanny, and indeed the very rapidity of her post-marital disillusionment. While Hardy tells us too little to indicate whether, as Lee reports of manic lovers, she had an unhappy childhood, he introduces her as having lost, or left, her parents to live with and somewhat impatiently assist her aunt.

Naturally, we recoil from placing Bathsheba in the same category as Boldwood, whose mode of love is the obvious example of mania. Lee insists, however, that the manic lover, who ‘is feeling lonely and insecure falls—or more accurately jumps—into love’ with one the observer would judge ‘an illogical choice’, a ‘total stranger’ from a different milieu and ‘not immediately attractive to the lover’. Clearly at most, though not all points, this description fits both Boldwood and Bathsheba. These ‘yearning, obsessed, often unhappy’ figures, typify ‘frustrated eros’ in their ‘urgency of feeling’. They ‘behave in many ways similar to ludus’ by attempting to ‘manipulate the lover, to play it cool’ but ‘try to be non-committal, only to panic and surrender in ignominious defeat’.11 While allowing that the manic lover can recover balance by moving towards eros or ludus, Lee fails to indicate the logical converse, that a skilled player can manipulate an erotic or ludic partner into just such tearful irrationality as Cainy Ball observes in Bathsheba when she plights her troth to Troy at Bath. Indeed, the novelist himself speaks, immediately after the sword-play and first kiss, of an ‘element of folly … almost foreign to her intrinsic nature’ which, introduced ‘as a lymph on the dark of Eros … eventually permeated and coloured her whole constitution’ (p. 219). On this evidence, we can expect lovers to move between the three points of game, attraction and obsession, or ludus, eros and mania.

This supposition explains Troy's later behaviour if not Boldwood's. Even after winning Bathsheba's hand, Troy cannot resist playing the heartless trick of accepting the frenzied Boldwood's bribe and then immediately showing the newspaper announcement of his marriage. Ironically, shock and guilt at Fanny's preventable death drive him toward mania, a guiltladen, inevitably fruitless obsession that puts in jeopardy what remains of his wife's affection. Because he has never faced the consequences of his seduction, nothing but Fanny's death will bring them home to him. Fittingly, this circus highwayman meets his doom when playing his last trick on Boldwood and Bathsheba.

Though a very paradigm of the manic lover, Boldwood at first fails to come alive because the electrical metaphor presenting his stillness as ‘the perfect balance of enormous antagonistic forces—positives and negatives in fine adjustment’ (p. 153), amounts to the substitution of a theorem for an observation. When in The Return of the Native Hardy remarks of Clym Yeobright ‘Beware the fury of a patient man’, we recognize an observation from the repository of common experience; when he remarks of Boldwood, ‘His equilibrium disturbed, he was in extremity at once’ (p. 153), we pause for thought as upon hearing an abstract or metaphysical notion.12 Admittedly, between the sending and the arrival of the valentine, the novelist has taken care to exhibit Boldwood in settings appropriate to a life of suspended animation: in snowy pastures, before ice-covered windows, or in a byre that was his ‘almonry’ or ‘cloister’; has reinforced that impression by comparing Boldwood's house to a monastery; and yet further strengthened it by his brilliant simile for the effect of seeing Bathsheba, the lighting of ‘a great tower’ (p. 154). Nevertheless, before telling us of Boldwood's humourless disposition, Hardy has already undercut the impression of one who takes everything at face value by allowing Boldwood to dissect Troy's character and expose the illusions in Fanny's love-letter with a shrewdness out of keeping with his own folly over a spoof valentine.13 Oak derives his view of Troy from Boldwood's account.

The very quality that provoked Bathsheba into playing that joke upon Boldwood was his indifference to her beauty, amid all the appreciative glances from other farmers and merchants. Notwithstanding Lee's stipulation that in life the beloved is ‘not immediately attractive’ to the manic lover, narrative plausibility requires a stronger stimulant than the valentine. Troilus and even the inhibited David Copperfield had the physical presence of the beloved. In Angel Clare's case not only the beauty of the new milkmaid but his own propensity for idealizing abstraction, so evident in his comment on her as a ‘virginal daughter of Nature’, dispose us to accept his falling in love. Oak has the double impetus of having seen Bathsheba in provocative situations and had his life saved by her. Boldwood's instant passion prompted by a message in unrecognized handwriting provokes a disbelief not all readers willingly suspend.

The character's isolation and lack of background intensify Hardy's difficulty. To a forty-year-old husband he could attribute stirrings of discontent; to one already established as living through the imagination and the written word more than direct contract he could ascribe images stirred into life by the message. Though among the earliest proofs of his genius, the architectural and electrical images of this chapter do not suffice to validate this sudden passion on the part of a character he has conjured up ex nihilo.14

The senders of that fateful valentine act from disparate motives. Her vanity provoked by Boldwood's indifference, Bathsheba allows the playful child in her to override her maturing judgment, the id to snatch the reins from the ego. Liddy, however, has been provoked by the collective failure of the Wessex girls in that deliberate pursuit Lee terms pragma, a compound of storgē and ludus. Liddy comically describes the game of securing an eligible husband played in nineteenth-century novels from Pride and Prejudice to The Way of All Flesh (or more solemnly in our computer-dating services). In one instance she also comes near to depicting mania.

Never was such a hopeless man for a woman! He's been courted by sixes and sevens—all the girls, gentle and simple, for miles around have tried him. Jane Perkins worked at him for two months like a slave, and the two Miss Taylors spent a year upon him, and he cost Farmer Ives's daughter nights of tears and twenty pounds' worth of new clothes; but Lord—the money might as well have been thrown out of the window.

(p. 109)

This brings us to the question ‘Did Gabriel offer Bathsheba pragma or storgē unalloyed?’ At first, he proposes in a style pragmatic enough to have served Trollope's Mr Cheeseacre:15

I have a nice snug little farm … a man has advanced me money to begin with, but … it will soon be paid off, and though I'm only an everyday sort of man I have got on a little since I was a boy.

(p. 65)

His very awkwardness, however, seems to rule out any notion of playing a game, while views of her posturing in her red coat before her hand-mirror and riding astride her aunt's horse have already prompted the awareness that ripens into love following his deliverance from asphyxiation. So far his love appears a compound of eros and gratitude, which his peasant-farming background and inexperience of women dispose him to present as pragma. In Hardy's original opening, Oak was already her shepherd, a fact that underlines their class-difference and makes her rescue more plausible.16 His lack of manifest passion and promise to be the kind of husband the immature girl dreads, one ‘always there’, suggest storgē. Like any pragmatic suitor from rural India to the rural England of an older day than his, upon losing his sheep he gives up his faint hope of marrying her. Yet his later rebuke of her for marrying a man she did not love ‘honest and true’ implies a belief not so much in eros as in storgē deepened by agapē, a compound implicit in his surname and Christian name. His very steadfastness in watching over her interests from the moment he enters her service, together with his original attraction to her, seems to confirm Lee's account of agapē as a mixture of eros and storgē, a blend of self-denying and comradely affection, as undemonstrative as it is unchangeable.


In Hardy's novels, storgic lovers serve and manage land animals, and take their place at market, church and inn with a regularity broken only by the greater cycle of birth, love, ageing and death. Manic lovers, driven by their delusions, find themselves always out of phase or bored with a life governed by sun, crops or liturgical calendar. Ludic love, as many a folksong implies, pertains to the transient or unstable, to soldiers, rakes or hucksters. To succeed, the flirt or seducer must exploit the fact of being outside the victim's range of experience, a novelty that generates excitement and illusion.

In different senses ludus both belongs and is foreign to rural society. In the ‘sequestrated vale’ of Wessex, the sport of love is played most frantically during an agricultural depression, when by way of escape from poverty and casual employment the farm-labourers and lasses of Trantridge reel out of the dance into all-covering darkness. As played by the solitary intruder, ludus invariably disrupts a harmony that has obtained between the pursued and the environment. As competition for a glamorous or high-born suitor, or dangling of a maidenhead to secure a husband with a trade, ludus pertains to Hardy's later novels. Of necessity the gamester randomly destroys social or inner harmony, the essence of ludus residing in its unpredictability, its lack of logic.

Despite its real-life origin in Hardy's favourite uncle, the character of Troy poses difficulties never quite resolved. He could plausibly be presented as wishing to marry Bathsheba for her wealth, but even Gabriel seems to fear him solely as a seducer. To her defence of him as an ‘educated man, and quite worthy of any woman’ Gabriel rejoins:

‘His being higher in learning and birth than the ruck o'soldiers is anything but a proof of his worth. It shows his course to be down'ard’

and adds ‘I believe him to have no conscience at all.’ That Gabriel sees not pragma but ludus becomes clear from his comment that ‘what is mirth to the neighbours is ruin to the woman’ (p. 222). We recall at once the laughter from Troy's comrades as Fanny stood beneath the barrack-room window. The further argument that Gabriel never misjudges other characters might be held invalid as a self-confirming assertion, but the novelist has already introduced Troy as one who may speak brilliantly because spontaneously but who falls ‘below the commonplace in action, from inability to guide incipient effort’, whose incessant activities, ‘never being based upon any original choice … were exercised on whatever object chance might place in their way’ (p. 198). In just this random manner does he meet and become attracted to Bathsheba.

Yet Troy acts with much consistency, as well as shrewdness, to win her. Again, he joins the army upon impulse, yet accepts its discipline well enough to rise to sergeant's rank and becomes a master swordsman. As a native of Wessex, familiar with occupations such as hay-making and bee-keeping, he surely knew too well the incessant grind of the farmer's life to prefer it even to barrack-square drill. Does he not know it too well to view it as the game or hobby of gentleman-farming he evidently has in mind when he proposes re-modelling the house? A post-Freudian novelist might convincingly attribute the debauching of the labourers at the harvest-supper to a male urge to destroy Bathsheba's authority over them. Hardy leaves us unsure whether Troy bullies the men into drinking brandy and endangers the crop upon sheer impulse, or as lord of misrule for the day when the effort of gathering corn has ended, or as his wife's enemy, a kind of Loki bent on destroying her Midgard. Later, Troy the manipulator turns unconvincingly into Troy the bereaved lover. The most consistent account we can give is to say that Troy the swashbuckling haunter of race-tracks and circus-rings loves and leaves Fanny, then so chafes at the restraints of husbandry that he almost destroys the livelihood of Bathsheba and her dependents. What he does on the farm, he does to amuse himself or impress its owner.

Does the personality of Fanny Robin suffice to account for Troy's posthumous devotion? If her condition accounts for her desperate pursuit following her mistake in awaiting him at the church dedicated to souls in purgatory, her preceding self-deception clearly indicates manic love. Only her gift of a lock of hair is consistent with eros, pure and simple. With the rural community, Fanny maintains fitful contact, being glimpsed, like the Scholar Gipsy, in by-ways and back-lanes by night. She never cuts herself off from shame or sense of loss, as does Tess. It is the novelist who in a contrived incident associates her with the parish-dog. Since neither the generous Boldwood, the compassionate Bathsheba nor the tolerant rustics can blame her, nor does she seem to know, let alone be jealous of her supplanter, Fanny remains too insubstantial to lend conviction to Troy's excessive grief and retrospective love, his conversion from ludic to manic lover.

In that case, can that devotion represent a romantic self-projection like the grief of a Novalis or James Thomson? Surely Hardy's very insistence upon Troy's superficiality and following of every whim, forbids such a diagnosis.17 It also perhaps invalidates the return to the farm-house to reclaim Bathsheba. In this the novelist gives priority to considerations of plotting rather than characterization. Significantly, in earlier serial-numbers he has interwoven Troy's jilting of Fanny and Bathsheba's practical joke upon Boldwood. Now he again causes Troy and Boldwood to cross paths.

It is precisely because of this primacy of plot that we think of Far From the Madding Crowd, for all the depths of Oak and Bathsheba, as tragi-comic melodrama rather than tragedy or high comedy. Had Boldwood known Bathsheba before the arrival of the valentine, so that her image provoked desire, we could credit a love so obsessive as to rob him of all concern for the gathered crop that represents his livelihood. Since Boldwood himself comes to us unknown, it does not suffice to plead that this instant passion causes him to live ‘outside his defences for the first time … with a fearful sense of exposure … the usual experience of strong natures when they love’ (p. 154). It is true that an obsession tends to rob work and environment of their meaning and that as a gentleman farmer first observed in his residence, not his fields, Boldwood does not evince Gabriel Oak's kinship with land and animals. Nor, as an established gentleman-farmer apparently living within his means, can Boldwood be presumed so dependent as the novice Bathsheba upon a single crop. His dependence is required, nevertheless, to give point to his neglect to cover his ricks, in contrast to the feverish activity of Oak and Bathsheba during the storm.

Turning now to these central characters, both the pragmatic mode of Oak's initial proposal and the storgic or comradely affection that evidently obtains between him and Bathsheba after the second imply affinity with the earth. From his first smile that spread wrinkles like the rising sun, from his workaday clothes spreading like the tree from which he derives his name, from our first hearing his flute—a Victorian shepherd's pipe—and from experiencing with him the roll of the earth at night, we infer his intimacy with the Wessex soil of which he appears almost an outcrop. All three beneficent acts, his quenching of the fire while yet unbeknown, his healing of the sheep at Bathsheba's entreaty, and his covering with her of the ricks, entail service to the farm as well as its owner, calling as much for skill and experience as for alacrity or devotion. Upon deeming himself to have lost her, he determines to leave Wessex too; upon regaining her, he takes control of both his and her farm, so ensuring the future well-being not only of his wife but of the land and all its dependents.

Bathsheba's mode of loving and commitment to the land cannot so readily be linked, for both her playing of male role and the novel's overt moral theme complicate the issue. Oak's diagnosis of ‘Vanity’, confirmed by her yielding to the flatteries of Troy, suggest eros as her style. From the moment that, clad in crimson jacket tinted to a ‘scarlet glow’ by the sun, she gazes into a mirror, we recognize an archetype employed in erotic poems of two millennia. Her complaints about the tedium of preparing animal-food deepen our sense of her incongruity with rural life and work. Once she takes over the farm, her shrewd and decisive management invite respect yet also, from Victorians at least, a comment on her pride. That Gabriel's small library includes a copy of Paradise Lost prepares us to accept his interventions both as mentor and as rescuer when by unwarranted self-discipline in dismissing him she has endangered her sheep. By the time she hears the choir rehearsing ‘Lead, kindly Light’ and applies to her own history the line ‘Pride ruled my will: remember not past years’ she has finally committed herself to fulfilling her responsibilities to the farm and its dependents.18 Gabriel arriving at that moment to take his place in the choir, her greeting presumably drowns the words ‘those angel faces smile’ that precede the next line quoted, ‘Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile’ (p. 413), so obscuring the link between her repentance and its fortunate outcome, her reconciliation with Gabriel.

Before that reconciliation, Oak's decision to emigrate results in their last and briefest estrangement, a necessary condition of her last act in the male role, when she visits him to invite his second proposal. Implicitly, Hardy associates the theme of pride humbled with the heroine's acknowledgment of dependence upon the hero. He uses the farm as a medium for her to learn that need, to repent and mature. At the sheep-washing pool, with its religious overtones, she confesses her wrongdoing to Boldwood; when her sheep fall sick she acknowledges her dependence upon the shepherd; in the pestilential swamp she decides not to flee her responsibilities but, in her husband's apt metaphor, to ‘stand [her] ground and be cut to pieces’. A moment before using this expression to Liddy, Bathsheba makes a remark that appears to undermine the thesis of pride humbled. ‘It is only women with no pride in them that leave their husbands’ (p. 332). Clearly she alludes not to vanity but to self-respect which, as Owen Barfield has pointed out, first acquired its favourable meaning in so late a text as Wordsworth's Prelude.19 As a Victorian, Hardy values not only self-respect but also the strengthening of character that comes about through Bathsheba's exercising masculine authority over the farm-hands and throwing herself into the contest of buying and selling at the Corn Exchange. If vanity impels her to take up the male role, if she nearly brings disaster upon all through her dismissal of Oak, she exercises good judgment in ridding herself of a dishonest bailiff, and in tending the mortally-wounded Troy shows herself to have ‘the stuff of which great men's mothers are made’ (p. 403). Though she can never acquire Gabriel's skill, she had acquired the strength of character and judgment of men to become an exemplary farmer's-wife and mother.

How can we relate Bathsheba's growth-through-humiliation to her style of loving? Admittedly, Hardy intended first and foremost to write a moral tale with a happy ending brought about by maturation and that ‘change of life;’ which to Johnson was ‘the completion and sum of repentance’.20 By appropriate coincidence, we first see Gabriel wearing a coat like Dr Johnson's, and a timepiece inherited from his grandfather, that together give an air of timelessness consonant with his old-world Anglican morality.

To concede that Hardy did not yet portray man's life on earth as discord without resolution would not explain the absence of élan, the air of defeat in Bathsheba's final proposal. Compared with that of Hareton and the younger Catherine, the love of Gabriel and Bathsheba assures us that the farm will prosper but lacks the sense of fulfilment, of paradise restored, that makes the end of Wuthering Heights so memorable. If Bathsheba's flirtations with Oak and Boldwood constituted her form of ludus, and her passion for Troy her form of mania, her mature love represents an acceptance of storgē as the only mode available. Not merely the prosaic appearance and phlegmatic disposition of her second husband, but the entire movement of the plot—from self-delusion to realism—rule out any attempt to depict her love for him as eros, that private world of meeting eyes and hands that Lockwood observes upon revisiting the Heights. Having lived to regret her grande passion, Bathsheba must accept the security, sound management and good heart her partner has to offer, or else leave Weatherbury, so relinquishing both her responsibility to its people and a position wherein she can employ her talents. Her various modes of loving, no less than the crises she has weathered, have made Bathsheba a heroine more substantial, as well as more engaging, than that of Hardy's next major novel, The Return of the Native.

Certainly Bathsheba does right to choose companionate love wherein is no ecstasy, but she also jettisons a part of herself that, had Troy proved a fitting husband, would have given her life an élan it will never know again. In the ‘minor-key, twilight serenity’21 that concludes Far From the Madding Crowd lie the seeds of Hardy's future tragedies, so largely concerned with incongruities between the style of loving desired and that which is available.22


  1. Lord David Cecil, Hardy the Novelist (London: Constable, 1943); Virginia R. Hyman, Ethical Perspective in the Novels of Thomas Hardy (Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1975); George Wing, Hardy (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1963); Douglas Brown, Thomas Hardy (London: Longmans, Green, 1954); Merryn Williams, Thomas Hardy and Rural England (London: Macmillan, 1972) pp. 116-17, 131-5; Peter J. Casagrande, ‘A New View of Bathsheba Everdene’, in Dale Kramer (ed.), Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1979) pp. 50-73.

  2. John Alan Lee, ‘The Styles of Loving’, Psychology Today, viii, 5 (Oct. 1974) 43-50, and Colours of Love (Toronto: New Press, 1973); C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1960, reprint by Collins, 1977).

  3. Lee, collected hundreds of statements about the nature of love, sorted them into six categories, distributed sixty of the most ‘distinctive and varied’ to ‘professional friends in sociology, psychology, literature and philosophy’, using their comments to choose thirty as the basis for a survey by interview (Colours, p. 13). Statements summarized pp. 232-3, and quoted throughout the book. Research procedure detailed in Appendices.

  4. Lee, Colours, pp. 33-4.

  5. Lee's phrase (Colours, p. 58), based on The Techniques of Love and Remedies for Love, trans. P. Turner (London: Panther, 1958).

  6. Cited in Lee ‘Styles’, p. 58. In Colours, p. 79, Lee insists, ‘The storgic lover never consciously selects a partner’, hence I describe Oak's first proposal as an (assumed) example of pragma.

  7. Troilus and Criseyde, iii, 1207, cf. Lee, Colours, pp. 94-7.

  8. Cited in Lee, ‘Styles’, p. 48; see also Colours, ch. 6, passim, and on agapē, p. 140: ‘I have yet to interview any respondent involved in even a relatively short-term … love relationship which I could classify without qualification as … agapē. I have encountered brief agapic episodes in continuing love relationships.’

  9. This and subsequent pagination refers to Macmillan edition (London, 1974).

  10. Robert Gittings, in Young Thomas Hardy (London: Heinemann, 1975) p. 10, gives the original as John Brereton Sharpe, farm-manager to the Marquis of Salisbury, the ‘favourite uncle’ of Hardy, who believed him to have served in the Lancers. Boldwood's account of Troy as conceived through a ‘secret attachment’ between a French governess and Lord Severn and born ‘soon after’ her marriage to a ‘poor doctor’ (p. 143), confirmed by Liddy: ‘a doctor's son by name … and … an earl's son by nature’ (p. 196), clearly warrants the term ‘upper-class’ for Troy's descent, in Norman Page, Thomas Hardy (London: Routledge, 1977) p. 39.

  11. Lee, ‘Styles’, p. 49, cf. Colours, p. 97: ‘The partner is often a total stranger, of a different social background, race or nationality, and not immediately attractive to the lover.’ Casagrande says ‘We are told little about Bathsheba's childhood, but what we are told makes it clear that it was unhappy’, inferring this from her father's adultery and ‘unprotected childhood’ (ch. 31), but admits that ‘We cannot be certain’ (op. cit., pp. 61-2).

  12. Hardy, Return of the Native (London: Macmillan, 1974) pp. 333.

  13. ‘I am going to be married to … Sergeant Troy … a man of great respectability and high honour-indeed, a nobleman by blood’, on which Boldwood expresses doubt after recounting Troy's history, ‘whether Fanny will surprise us in the way she mentions … a silly girl’ (p. 143).

  14. For more favourable views of Boldwood's characterisation see O. E. Madden, ‘William Boldwood’, Thomas Hardy Society Review, i, 6 (1980) 193-6; and Frank R. Giordano, Jr., ‘Farmer Boldwood: Hardy's Portrait of a Suicidal Mind’, English Literature in Transition, xxi (1978) 244-53.

  15. Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? (1864-5) vol. i, ch. xx.

  16. Robert C. Schweik, ‘A Draft First Chapter of Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, English Studies, liii (1972) 344-9. On Gabriel's original status and rise in revision see Simon Gatrell, ‘Hardy the Creator: Far From the Madding Crowd’, in Critical Approaches, pp. 74-98, esp. pp. 83-4.

  17. This suggestion by Professor Summerfield has merit if Troy be regarded as a narcissist, thus projecting a self-image. This seems inconsistent with his sexual extraversion, though quite applicable to Thomson, whose attachment to the dead Matilda seems modelled on that to Mathilde by ‘Novalis’ (Friedrich von Hardenberg), whose pseudonym Thomson anagrammatized in his own (‘Bysshe Vanolis’).

  18. ‘Lead, kindly Light’ became a popular hymn only upon being set to J. B. Dykes' tune ‘Lux Benigna’ in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), but was doubtless familiar before then to Hardy as a young High Churchman. If he thought the omitted line applicable to Bathsheba's feelings about Gabriel, he may have expected his readers to supply it. Whether it would have been so familiar by 1873 to West-country rustics as to Hardy's readers may be doubted. See also Casagrande, op. cit., pp. 65-6.

  19. A. Owen Barfield, History in English Words (3rd ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967) p. 199.

  20. Samuel Johnson, Works, ed. W. J. Bate and A. B. Strauss (New Haven: Yale University), iv, p. 225.

  21. Cecil, op. cit., p. 30.

  22. I am grateful to Professors Nelson Smith and Henry Summerfield for valuable suggestions after kindly reading an earlier draft of this essay.

William Mistichelli (essay date summer 1988)

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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 of expectations about Bathsheba's sex produces significant revelations about her character and introduces important turns in her life. When she first comes to meet her workers as owner of the Weatherbury farm, she is referred to as Sir by Joseph Poorgrass (Far From The Madding Crowd 113; ch. 10). Another of her workers elsewhere separates her from the rest of her sex by noting with a mixture of surprise and respect that she doesn't tell women's lies (Madding Crowd 393; ch. 53). She is assumed to be a male thief or possibly a gypsy (“a woman was out of the question”) when at night she takes a horse from her stables to meet Frank Troy at Bath (Madding Crowd 239; ch. 32). On her first encounter with Troy, as they bump in the dark, he asks if she is a woman, though she has already spoken (Madding Crowd 192; ch. 24).

Yet despite these misapprehensions about her sex and the inability of others to match her behavior with her sexual identity, she is extraordinarily attractive to men and deeply fond of “women's things.” She is sought as a wife by three different suitors. She knits (Madding Crowd 187; ch. 23), loves flowers (346; ch.46), and indulges in revealing female fancies and anxieties when she considers possible marriage to Boldwood (163; ch. 20) and Oak (66f.; ch. 4). The implications are strong everywhere in the novel that the responses Bathsheba provokes in others and the way she approaches life are in no way connected with a deficiency in her or an unattractive abnormality. Troy's reference to her as “mate” (192; ch. 24) makes this point in a subtle yet succinct way, though at the time he speaks it, he is ignorant of her identity. As a term commonly used for sailors and spouses, it draws together a wide range of possibilities about behavior, values, and attitudes that range from the love of daring and adventure to the need for stability and home life. Just as Bathsheba is called both “mate” and “Sir,” so too is she alluded to as Amazonian (229, 30; ch. 30) and Eve-like (149; ch. 17). The pattern of references offers a profusion of meanings that discloses something in her that transcends rigidly conceptualized sexual boundaries. She is possessed, one might say, of a double sex, which is essential to her attractiveness to others and vital to her as a human agent.

Bathsheba's experience of her sexuality, though exceptional for its intensity and diversity, is not unique in the novel. The androgyny that is essential to her touches other characters, as well, in important ways. Fanny Robin courts Frank Troy's favors by throwing snow balls at his window (119f.; ch. 11). On their wedding day, Troy waits in vain at the church for Fanny to appear and leaves in anger because he believes he has been abandoned at the altar (ch. 16). Boldwood is mesmerized and made love-sick over a Valentine's day card from Bathsheba (ch. 14). Troy puts on her clothes to assist her in hiving (211; ch. 27). Oak is compared to a mother as he advises her about marriage (282; ch. 37). And it is Oak, the narrator makes it a point of saying, who blushes in Bathsheba's presence, not she in his (55; ch. 3).

The relevance of sexual mixing and reversal is at the center of the novel's action and theme. Androgyny in its various manifestations colors the conflicts which arise among the major characters and contributes significantly to their resolution. The transference of sexual traits—the adoption by women of attitudes or roles commonly held to be exclusively male, or vice-versa—in one sense promises a greater share of creative power and self-determination. At the same time, because these choices run counter to that which is socially condoned, they pose a serious threat to those who engage in them. Bathsheba's career, like that of all Hardy's major figures, is largely a matter of luck. Her story, and the story of others in the novel, are also, however, parables of survival and extinction. Androgyny informs the lives of these characters as a test of their adaptability and resilience. It indicates the degree to which they share in nature's power to renew itself against the forces of deterioration and death.

From the outset, Bathsheba is portrayed as an enigma who possesses an enormous capacity to attract. In a number of early scenes, she is described as Gabriel Oak observes her either from a distance or without her knowledge of his being there. Oak's responses on these occasions combine fascination and surprise. At the same time, they are shaped by traditional values and practical considerations. They become instrumental in this way as a means of introducing Bathsheba's behavior and character to the reader. When Oak first sees her, she is gazing in a mirror. He passes this off as simple vanity (44; ch. 1). From the narrator's following words, however, we gather that Oak's assessment is not to be taken as final:

She [Bathsheba] simply observed herself as a fair product of Nature in the feminine kind, her thoughts seeming to glide into far-off though likely dramas in which men would play a part—vistas of probable triumphs—the smiles being of a phase suggesting that hearts were imagined as lost and won.


Following this presentation of Bathsheba's reflections, we are offered a disclaimer. What has been said of her, we are told, is “conjecture” (44). Any claim to certainty concerning what lies at the heart of Bathsheba's musing would be “rash” (44). The narrator's decision to enlarge on Oak's reactions and then qualify his own account of things dissipates the notion that any single assessment which presumes accuracy, such as Oak's, can be taken as satisfactory.

The issue is significant, since Oak sees Bathsheba as a creature dominated by her sex, which means in his case, a stereotypical view that she is almost certainly indulging her vanity, since she is a woman. But Oak doesn't know her well enough at this time to make responsible judgments about her character. The language of the narrator and his reluctance to support Oak offer us another Bathsheba who is complex, hence more difficult to grasp than Oak presumes. Her preoccupation in the passage with fantasy in the form of love dramas carries with it a serious connection to real life.1 One recalls that the plot of the novel renders her thoughts in some ways prophetic. There is also present humor and irony, it seems, as she smiles at “hearts … lost and won.” Her appreciation of herself as a “fair product” of the “feminine kind” appears somewhat detached for a young woman presumably interested in reviewing her power to attract the opposite sex. There may be vanity in it, but there is also something more substantial which draws from real confidence in her womanhood. The narrator speaks of how she “observed herself,” as though she were an object of scrutiny rather than infatuation. Concepts such as “fair product,” “Nature,” and “feminine kind” are both general and abstract, therefore out of place in the daydreams of a vain adolescent.

By choosing such language to represent Bathsheba's inner world, the narrator gives us a chance to glance at a side of her that is out of Oak's reach. When we are told that the dramas she invents for herself are “far-off” yet “likely” and concern “triumphs” that are “probable,” the picture we receive is of someone whose sense of things brings together imagination and insight. There is measurement and calculation in the connection she makes between her beauty and that of other women, between the possession of beauty and its consequences. Her look at the future forgoes neither logic nor the pressure of common experience. There is perceptiveness in her ruminations. They represent how accurately she intuits her place as woman in the natural order of things. At the same time, they show her uncanny ability of considering that womanhood as though she were outside of it.

Bathsheba at the mirror gives us a depiction of complexity that is elsewhere repeated and enlarged. In each case, it is her sexuality that provides the focus of interest. In one scene, while her identity is concealed from Oak by the cloak she is wearing, he imaginatively transforms the figure he sees into his image of an ideal woman. In Oak's fantasy, she becomes a reflection of his wishes, or, as the narrator puts it, she is viewed “according to the wants within” him (52; ch. 2). When eventually Bathsheba turns and reveals herself to him, she produces the following effect:

The girl now dropped the cloak, and forth tumbled ropes of black hair over a red jacket. Oak knew her [Bathsheba] instantly as the heroine of the yellow wagon, myrtles, and looking glass: prosily, as the woman who owed him twopence.


The moment is striking in so much as it introduces factors that become a trademark of Bathsheba's capacity to overthrow presuppositions, especially those of men, about her person. The response she draws from Oak includes a strong undercurrent of ambivalence. As he is jolted out of his daydream, the real woman who appears is far different from the one he had imagined. Not only has he seen her before, but he has given her money. Despite her violating his ideal, Bathsheba makes an impression on him that is stronger and more complex than his own invented woman. Bathsheba inspires his sexual interest, and, at the same time, elicits thoughts that refer to other aspects of life. Oak thinks of her “prosily” as someone who owes him money. He could likely think of a man in such a way. Oak's financial concerns here can be understood better if one compares them to another instance when he gives money to a woman—Fanny Robin. In her case, he never thinks of it as a debt. She remains in his thoughts only a woman in need. His reaction to her borrowing is conventional in that it reflects the attitude that his duty as a man is to protect her from want. With respect to Bathsheba, however, other thoughts prevail. In some deep and pervasive way, she emerges in his eyes as someone who is liable to the demands of justice among equals. While economics is partly responsible for the difference in Oak's responses to Bathsheba and Fanny, there is something more instinctual at work, as well. He cannot, as he does with Fanny, place Bathsheba comfortably into a category that he might reserve for women in general.

In the scene where Oak observes Bathsheba on horseback (ch. 3), the earlier implications of her effects on him are made more explicit and are more thoroughly delineated. As Oak watches from a distance, he is both amused and astonished by her horsemanship. She surprises him by riding like a man positioned “in a manner demanded by the saddle” (54) and dazzles him with her skill. So quick are her movements on the horse, in fact, that “Gabriel's eyes had scarcely been able to follow her”—another example that his view of her cannot stand on its own, but needs to be supplemented and adjusted. Bathsheba herself seems uneasy about her prowess. She looks around to assure herself that no one is watching. Despite her preference for secrecy, however, her departure from convention cannot be characterized simply as an idle form of entertainment or mischief.

While it is true that there is present in what she does a strong element of play, the variety of positions she assumes as she rides—she is able to lie backward on the horse with her head over its tail—have practical value. They afford the freedom of movement to solve logistical problems that would otherwise impede her progress. Since she must pass through the low hanging boughs of trees on her way to Tewnell Mill, her flat position on the horse facilitates her passage. Once these obstacles are behind her, she rides straight up on the horse (like a man), which permits the greatest speed. As she draws close to home on her return from the mill, she sits in the saddle in the way considered to be “proper” for a “lady.” Bathsheba's riding suggests the sexual positions associated with both men and women—mounting for the one, lying back for the other—at the same time that she maintains a public image that relies on conventional notions of propriety.

Oak is spellbound by all of this and unable to explain it to himself. His “conceptions” of Bathsheba remain “hazy” (54; ch. 3). The reader is struck, too, by something puzzling in her actions. While her ability to play both man and woman on the horse allows her more maneuverability, it also seems dangerous. Why does she not ride on her stomach, for example, with her head over the horse's shoulder, instead of on her back with her head to the rear? Such a position would enable her to hold onto the horse's neck for safety. And why try to conceal what she is doing if its sole purpose is to realize practical ends? Bathsheba's ride suggests that something deeper and more complex is at work than to do something in the most efficient way.

One can say that her ride is analogous to her situation in life. Often she is required to adapt to her changing circumstances without the support of traditional guides or directives. She demonstrates her sensitivity to this predicament when Boldwood asks her if she likes him or respects him. His purpose in drawing her out is to get her to declare her feelings for him. She replies, “I don't know—at least I cannot tell you. It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs” (376; ch. 51). Her position here recalls that of another Hardy heroine, Ethelberta Chickerel, who is left to devise her own methods of making her way in the world. In a scene with her sister, she offers the following advice: “But don't you go believing in sayings, Picotee: They are all made by men, for their own advantages. Women who use public proverbs as a guide through events are those who have not ingenuity enough to make private ones as each event occurs” (The Hand of Ethelberta 158; ch. 20).

Bathsheba's answer to Boldwood implies that there is a chasm between the spiritual lives of men and women and that she cannot, in effect, make herself known to him because she does not possess a self that would be clearly recognizable to him or a medium of communication that could express it. In many respects, her identity is isolated. She must create what she is out of a confusing mass of possibilities. In order to do so, she must defy what is accepted or conventional and resolve to shape her experience into new configurations. In her riding, she does not imitate exclusively the style of either man or woman or do what would be most secure. In the soliloquy of gestures that she performs, she may confuse Oak, who regards her from the perspective of the values and expectations of their social environment. But the language of her body enables her to draw close to the well-springs of her nature. In this respect, she provides a model in the novel for how modification increases an organism's capacity for survival. She stands apart in this from the other characters, who suffer because they cannot successfully adapt to change.

One such character is Fanny Robin, a woman like Bathsheba who defies the conventions of her sex. She actively pursues Frank Troy. She is sexually intimate with him outside of marriage. Unlike Bathsheba, however, she dies tragically defeated of her purposes. Pregnant with Troy's child but abandoned by him, she represents the likely fate of women who are careless of their place. Her pregnancy, it seems, like that of Elfride Swancourt in A Pair of Blue Eyes, signifies her vulnerability to the lot assigned to women by nature and society. It is her curse to be trapped by her intimacy with Troy, while he remains free from its consequences. Her behavior and the outcome of her life urge comparisons with Bathsheba, if only to point up telling differences. Certainly external circumstances and luck play important parts in their careers. Fanny does not have, as does Bathsheba, an uncle who leaves her a farm. In other words, she never gains the financial independence that would protect her from poverty and disgrace. But there are other factors at work, as well, which uncover pertinent aspects of their experience which go beyond the realm of economics. In the scene where Fanny courts Troy by throwing snowballs at his window, the narrator remarks, “The throw was the idea of a man conjoined with the execution of a woman” (120; ch. 11). The man-woman combination here indicates a discrepancy or defect—a split in Fanny which works against her chances to accomplish her ends. Because she cannot perform a man's business as she would like, she is thwarted in performing a woman's business, also. Fanny cannot bring the two sexes in her together in an efficacious way.

Compared to Bathsheba's managing of her double sex, Fanny's appears brittle and limited. Her break with the traditions of courtship has something desperate about it. Though she takes the initiative with Troy, she acts out of fear of losing him. What sometimes looks like assertiveness in her is in reality the compulsion to be married. She tips her hand in a letter to Oak, which she writes in order to thank him for money he had given her on a previous meeting and to explain why she feels the need to pay him back. A portion of it reads as follows:

… I also return the money I owe you, which you will excuse my not keeping as a gift. All has ended well, and I am happy to say I am going to be married to the young man who has courted me for some time—Sergeant Troy, of the 11th Dragoon Guards, now quartered in this town. He would, I know, object to my having received anything except a loan, being a man of great respectability and high honour—indeed a nobleman by blood.

(143; ch. 15)

Despite the fact that Troy was not a party to the incident, Fanny places his feelings, as she sees them, above her own and Oak's. She cannot view the exchange of money as simply a matter between herself and the man who was generous enough to give it. Her deference to Troy's feelings is further compounded by her awe of his person and station in life. Her sense of who he is and what he does adds up in her mind to the authority that compels her to pay back the gift, though she feels the need to be excused for doing so. The blindness she discloses in these matters is emphasized by her assurance that “all has ended well,” which is the opposite of the truth. She is about to lose Troy, as well as her happiness and, subsequently, her life. These losses are directly attributable to her mistaken notions of what will bring her fulfillment. By allowing her passive “woman's side” to dominate, she places herself under the direction of someone who can ruin her.

Bathsheba's advantages over Fanny are those which allow her to escape the confines of a role determined for women by external force or pressure. Her success can be examined, as well, alongside the failures of two of the major male characters of the novel, William Boldwood and Frank Troy, who, like Fanny, are trapped by sexual identities that are crippling. Boldwood conducts his courtship of Bathsheba on the premise that she is a treasure to be prized, dear to him, but without an independent self that separates her from his dreams and desires. In pursuing her, he presumes that it is his business to create and control the factors which will produce their happiness. In truth, however, his love would suffocate Bathsheba, since it would reduce her to inertia. He assures her that she “… shall never have so much as to look out of doors at haymaking time, or to think of the weather in the harvest” (161; ch. 19). She would, he goes on to say, “… be worried by no household affairs, and live quite at ease.”

Though Boldwood's feelings are heartfelt, they show how much he is dominated by presuppositions about his role in courtship and marriage and too little about what Bathsheba would need and want. Much of what he says to her fails to take this into account. His actual proposal is a case in point:

But you will just think—in kindness and condescension think—if you cannot bear with me as a husband! I fear I am too old for you, but believe me I will take more care of you than would many a man of your own age.


Boldwood's sense of their difference in age, it is true, can be cited as the cause of his self-depreciation. In addition to the “deep-natured man” who speaks “simply” (161), however, there is also one who is driven by “self-indulgence” (163; ch. 20). Boldwood's proposal thinly disguises the aggression that controls his pursuit of a mate. It is not of primary importance that his speech is shaped by the fear of unworthiness, but rather how it is. His words presume that his intentions alone are salient matters in his plea, and that these are beyond reproach. Significantly, he concentrates on age gaps, when more serious differences are present, such as those of temperament, outlook, and values. It is habitual with Boldwood in his desire to possess Bathsheba to overlook such matters, as well as the issue of whether there is any real likelihood that they could be happy together.

The degree of Boldwood's self-centeredness can explain in part why the Valentine's note Bathsheba sends him disrupts his life: “Since the receipt of the missive in the morning, Boldwood had felt the symmetry of his existence to be slowly getting distorted in the direction of an ideal passion” (132; ch. 14). He becomes fixed on the words Marry Me as one in a trance or hypnotic spell. The following passage describes his condition in greater detail:

The solemn and reserved yeoman closed the letter, and stuck it in the frame of the glass. In doing so, he caught sight of his reflected features, wan in expression, and insubstantial in form. He saw how clearly compressed was his mouth, and that his eyes were widespread and vacant.

(133, 134)

The prospect of marriage does not fill Boldwood with joy, but produces, instead, the call to act out a ritual of courtship which victimizes him. He appears in the above description almost vampirish in demeanor. In following the call to mate, he forgoes any chance for real life, such as by allowing Bathsheba's gesture to soften him with its playfulness.

The treatment of the relationship between Boldwood and Bathsheba uncovers significant aspects of the themes of survival and adaptation as they develop in the course of the novel and as they relate to sexual roles and identities. Boldwood is locked into sexual attitudes and preconceptions that make him an inappropriate mate for Bathsheba. She is, for him, generic woman to be made into generic wife. Since Bathsheba brings to Weatherbury an energy which both invigorates the life of the community and reshapes it, Boldwood's failure to measure up to her carries larger implications than a failed romance. There is reflected in it the passage of one set of values which are petrified and the emergence of another engendered by the instincts and drives of the heroine. Boldwood represents stasis and death. His symptoms are those of an organism that has grown narrow in its capacity to adapt to circumstances and, therefore, has become vulnerable to extinction. His end, imprisoned in a madhouse, is emblematic of his condition as a human agent. He exists trapped and thwarted by the mores of the society he is born into, which betray him at a crucial juncture of his life.

Bathsheba's response to Boldwood reveals significant aspects of her psychology. One can see in it a struggle with her own diversity. After her marriage to Troy and his subsequent disappearance from Weatherbury, she considers a marriage with Boldwood out of duty and a sense of justice for having lured him with her Valentine's note into a serious courtship (378f.; ch. 51). At this point, she is in danger of putting into practice values which would destroy her. In her idea of marrying to prevent Boldwood from going insane, she relegates herself to the traditional condition of woman as man's servant, as well as his idol and object of desire. Surrendering to that pressure, she would relinquish her chance to escape the conditions of the female in the grips of sexual selection. The issue of her struggle, then, is whether she will be broken by force or strike out on new ground.

Bathsheba's danger with Boldwood issues from misguided notions about woman's place. Her marriage to Troy uncovers problems which arise out of more primitive aspects of her sexuality. Troy pleases her eye. A strong animal magnetism dominates her acceptance of him. There is something universally female and biological in the way she surrenders to him once she is captivated by his looks, especially his bright uniform colors and flashy surface. It is a temptation quite different from those that beset her with Boldwood. But Troy, like Boldwood, is a thwarted male, though of a different kind. He attempts to conceal his inadequacies with external brilliance. The role of soldier, together with his social class, enable him to hide the fact that he lives most comfortably as a parasite. One recalls the way in which Bathsheba meets him. He catches his spur in her dress, and she has difficulty extricating him. Before she sees him (the whole scene takes place in the dark), she makes an unwilling host.

Troy marries Bathsheba, not to share love and responsibility, but to have someone who will maintain him. His appetite for play, which manifests itself in his gambling, his exhibition of swordsmanship, and his efforts at acting and boxing, shows him to be incapable of establishing independent roots or doing fruitful labor. Bathsheba, with her beauty, wealth, and energy offer him a way out. Still, though there is much to be gained for him in the relationship, it is ultimately ruinous. His undoing is directly connected to his need to draw sustenance from Bathsheba: he is killed by Boldwood after he returns to her for the purpose of restoring himself in her home. Boldwood's murder of him seems a fitting conclusion to both their careers. It dramatizes their failures to extricate themselves from reliance on the woman they would use to compensate for their emptiness. They are doomed, it seems, to play out their relationship in a one-dimensional way, as sexual rivals, and nothing more.

Bathsheba's fascination with Troy represents a clear danger to her person and the community to which she is responsible as the owner of a farm. Troy can drain her, not only of affection and energy, but of money, as well—of all, in fact, that sets her apart as an independent human agent. The degree to which her attraction for him reduces her to the condition of a parasite's host is demonstrated by her inability to fight off her compulsion to support him. She confesses unhappily that she is in his power (302; ch. 41) and that she belongs to him (351; ch. 48). Her willingness to surrender herself by providing for him (289; ch. 39) and submitting as a “weaker vessel” (234; ch. 31) overcomes her conscious disapproval of her behavior and his. The course of her experience with Troy reveals the dark side of sex. As is elsewhere the case with Hardy, mating produces too readily conditions of a symbiotic kind, but where the effect is hostile to the partners, not supportive. In Bathsheba's response to both Boldwood and Troy, the danger exists that she will lose the highly complex balance of her sexual characteristics and capitulate to one side or the other. Boldwood would ask that she give up her capacity for useful public labor; Troy would require that she support him as a dependent. Both men would rob her of her fullness to accommodate their more limited natures.

There is a moment in the novel where Troy attacks the evils of sexual attraction and sexual selection. It occurs when he speaks of Bathsheba's beauty as a trap. “Such a woman as you,” he says to her, “a hundred men always covet—your eyes bewitch scores on scores into an unavailing fancy for you—you can marry only one of that many. Out of those say twenty will endeavor to drown the bitterness of despised love in drink; twenty more will mope away their lives without a wish or attempt to make a mark in the world, because they have no ambition apart from their attachment to you; twenty more … will be always draggling after you, getting where they may just see you, doing desperate things. … But all of these men will be saddened. And … the ninety-nine women they might have married are saddened with them.” (204; ch. 26)

Though the power of Troy's speech depends in part on exaggeration and his motives for speaking are suspect, there is a ring to his observations, as Webster notes, (110; ch. 4) that is true to much of Hardy's work. Nevertheless, Troy's reasoning is spurious. As he would have it, the splendor of Bathsheba's looks creates misery in those who would pine over them; therefore, the blame must somehow be hers, not theirs. Another viewpoint might be that such beauty requires strength in those who would admire it, like Oak, without the need to own it. It would require more from men than Troy can see or give.

Irving Howe, in his discussion of Far From The Madding Crowd, speaks of the great distance that exists in Hardy's fiction “… between the rhythms of the earth and the beat of human affairs” (17; ch. 1). Bathsheba signals a significant modification in nature that neither Troy nor Boldwood can perceive. Their attempts to appropriate her for themselves are examples of human intentions violating larger purposes that are more pervasive and go deeper than any character's understanding of them. Hardy often finds tragic significance in such violations, as with Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge, or pathos, as with Felix Jethway in A Pair of Blue Eyes. The love triangle in FFMC, which includes Bathsheba, Troy, and Boldwood, ends with the death of one and the madness of another. But the movement of the novel points to the ultimate fulfillment of the heroine with her marriage to the proper mate.

The numerous influences that threaten Bathsheba's happiness uncover the implications of her struggle. In responding to men who cannot satisfactorily share her gifts, she is always at work to force connections between herself and them which are false to all concerned. She becomes an object of ridicule to herself and others, as well as a threat to her own well-being. Perhaps a story told about her father best illustrates in what ways she is misled. According to Mr. Coggan, who tells the story (97, 98; ch. 8), Mr. Everdene at one time lost his passion for his wife. In order to restore it, he requires her to remove her wedding ring and takes to fancying that they are not married. He imagines that in his sexual advances he is “doing wrong” by “committing the seventh.” His success in reinvigorating his marriage depends on a creativeness that is out of line with society's rules and values. Still, in inventing for himself the role of moral outlaw, he preserves in his own life one of nature's most powerful drives and one of society's most cherished institutions. Bathsheba, like her father, is blessed with the vitality to enliven the world she touches. For this reason, the danger of her having these powers dried up carry a significance that goes beyond her individual circumstances. The traits that she inherits from her father (it is significant that they come from the male progenitor) grow deeper in her and become more finely developed. What is best in her emerges at the harvest celebration when she joins Oak to protect the ricks against the coming storm, while Troy lies drunk in the barn with the other workers (ch. 37). She assumes what would generally be considered her husband's role and shows her respect for determination of purpose, hard work, and skill. While assisting Oak, she finds the means of revealing her true self. She expresses her capacity for friendship, honesty, and a sense of freedom and equality. It is at this time that she tells Oak of her trip to Bath in pursuit of Troy and her desperate marriage to him, while she denounces the woman's weaknesses, the “jealousy” and “distraction” (282; ch. 37) that drove her to do it. The scene is crucial in the way it brings Bathsheba's deepest nature to the surface. She comes to know herself through work, responsible leadership, and companionship, not through her infatuation with Troy or her attempt with Boldwood to live by woman's duty.

When Bathsheba fires Baily Pennyways for stealing (“never such a tomboy as she is”), she does so with a certainty of purpose that shows masterful conviction in her ability to command, though she is new in her position as owner of the Weatherbury farm—and a woman (103; ch. 8). Her final gesture at Fanny's tomb when she plants flowers around it “… with that sympathetic manipulation of roots and leaves which is so conspicuous in a woman's gardening …” (346; ch. 46) demonstrates how far her compassion surpasses her narrower feelings of sexual jealousy for a rival.

In Bathsheba's relations with Oak, she finds another who in some measure matches her variety and scope. She sees in him both brother and lover (304; ch. 41). When he defends Boldwood's marriage proposal to her against Troy's, he acts more like a parent than one who would have her for his own. On one such occasion, he is compared to a mother by the narrator (282; ch. 38). There are also references to him as sun (41; ch. 1) and moon (54; ch. 3), so that like Bathsheba, he takes on an identity that is androgynous. According to conventional Victorian standards, the appropriate husband for Bathsheba would be the man who could protect her from her woman's weaknesses by giving her security and the wisdom of his maturity. Perhaps these are the values that Oak promotes when he defends Boldwood's marriage offer. However, in terms of the novel, Boldwood is not the right man for Bathsheba—Oak is. And Oak is eminently incapable of protecting her from her sexuality or her choices. He can only watch as she moves in her own way to her moment of self-discovery. He can claim neither economic nor social preeminence over her. Significantly, too, he is close to being her own age. But he possesses qualities that make him more fitting as Bathsheba's husband than money or position. Perhaps by one of those twists of irony so characteristic of Hardy, one finds in these departures from Victorian standards of courtship and marriage something more enduring and timeless in its roots. One recalls the episode in Homer's Iliad where Andromache addresses Hektor as he prepares for battle. In that speech (Iliad VI.429, 30) she refers to him as father, mother, brother, and young husband. In Bathsheba's case, marriage with Oak promises that same fullness and scope.

It is interesting to note that the marriage of Bathsheba and Oak comes about on the occasion where she initiates the idea, not he. In their union there is present the triumph of the wedding principle not only in the sense that the partners who belong together are finally joined. There is also suggested that in such a joining, roles and identities are intermingled and exchanged. What results is a love that bypasses the condition of predator and prey, parasite and host, or master and servant. Male and female come together to promote the fulfillment of their humanity—not merely to insure the survival of their species.


  1. Penelope Vigar expresses this idea especially well: “Through the author's imagination the natural world is made almost the equivalent of Bathsheba's mental world, the expression of her own perception and emotional reactions” (104; ch. 4)

Works Cited

Hardy, Thomas. Far From The Madding Crowd. The New Wessex Edition. London: Macmillan, 1974.

Hardy, Thomas. The Hand of Ethelberta. The New Wessex Edition. London: Macmillan, 1975.

Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Howe, Irving. Thomas Hardy. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967.

Vigar, Penelope. The Novels of Thomas Hardy: Illusion and Reality. The University of London: The Athlone Press, 1974.

Webster, Harvey Curtis. On A Darkling Plane. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1947.

Robert M. Polhemus (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14510

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
I hope that he
Turns out to be
Someone to watch over me.
I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood;
I know I could
Always be good
To one who'll watch over me.

Ira Gershwin1

The Cyprian Queen, my children, is not only the Cyprian; there are many other names she bears. She is Death; she is imperishable force; she is raving madness; she is untempered longing; she is lamentation. Nothing that works or is quiet, nothing that drives to violence, but as she wills. Her impress sinks into the mould of all things whose life is in their breath. Who must not yield to this goddess? She enters into every fish that swims; she is in every four-footed breed upon the land; among the birds everywhere is the beating of her wings; in beasts, in mortal men, and in the gods above. … There is no design of mortal or of god that is not cut short by love.



Claude Lorrain's Judgment of Paris (c. 1645-46),3 like Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, shows a tenuous balance of forces and a living, but menaced faith in a still harmonious world. Both represent the choosing of love as the essence of human life, but each conveys the disruption and terror that may lurk in that choice. The tension of the picture lies in the contrast between the equanimity of natural rightness of being in Claude's wide pastoral vision and the potential strife and devastation that the figures of the myth presage. On one side, the long view with enduring, stretching fertile space and the implied consciousness to perceive it gratefully; on the other, an individualizing narrative vision featuring the inaugural discord of amorous folly and tragedy. But in both painting and novel an overall serenity about life and love prevails. The sheer largeness of nature—its depths and rhythms—swallows and in perspective diminishes even the direst human experience.

Nothing could make clearer Hardy's feeling for nature and his own pastoral relationship to his subject matter than his reminiscence of how he wrote the book: “So Hardy went on writing Far from the Madding Crowd—sometimes indoors, sometimes out—when he would occasionally find himself without a scrap of paper at the very moment that he felt volumes. In such circumstances he would use large dead leaves, white chips left by the wood-cutters, or pieces of stone or slate that came to hand.”4 Apocryphal or not, the story makes him seem like a character in his own fiction inscribing the novel as a labor of love to, in, about, and on nature.

Pastoral love and imagery, the basis for faith in Hardy's novel, have deep roots in human culture. Somehow the pastoral vocation and heritage lend themselves to metaphorical evocation of the most profound feelings that men and women have had about love, labor, religion, and being in the world. These run from the sublime—Christ as the “good shepherd”—to the ridiculous—the comedian as sheep lover. In Woody Allen's movie Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (but Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), a psychiatrist falls madly in love with a sheep. The episode offers a farcical example of erotic desire blowing away distinctions between pastoral concern and libido. The joke depends on the absurdity of bestial love in an up-to-date urban milieu and more subtly on the graphic force of the film medium to mock the stale pastoral imagery that resides in our discourse. Beneath the incongruity, though, lies the complex comedy of the relationship between the object of vocation and erotic drive—not to mention the sheer zaniness of personal desire.

The real joke may be that the linguistic analogy between sheep and humankind, especially the persistent comparison of women to sheep and lambs, really has something to do with sex and power; and people, queasy about their animality, try to laugh off the subject. Notice the endurance of “crude” sexual jokes about sheep, from the parody of the Nativity in The Second Shepherd's Play, to obscene “sheepherder” stories and to the ultimate in modern sexism: Why did God make women? Because sheep can't type. There may be something uncivilized and vaguely revolting in the merging of pastoral love and carnal desire, but the place of sheep in narrative and figurative language, gamy subject that it is, lets us infer a good deal about our culture, imagination, and work.

The pastoral conceit is that life is like sheep and shepherds in their setting. Hardy tries to realize in Far from the Madding Crowd what is living in the tradition of pastoral and to use it to fuse erotics, economics, and religious meaning for his world.5 “Shepherd Oak,” says a perceptive critic, “appears as the high priest of both love and work.”6 Hardy sets love and humanity in the long historical perspective of pastoral space, time, and vocation.


I want to juxtapose the following items and consider how they bear on the new pastoralism of Far from the Madding Crowd:

  • 1. In Hardy's later days he recalled one of his first memories: As a child, “crossing the ewelease …, he went on hands and knees and pretended to eat grass in order to see what the sheep would do. Presently he looked up and found them gathered around in a close ring, gazing at him with astonished faces.”7

  • 2. When Strife, at a wedding, tosses among the gods the golden apple bearing the words “to the fairest,” and Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite squabble for it, Zeus, via Hermes, sends them off to the Mount Ida countryside for the herdsman Paris to decide the issue. In early versions of the story, they are clothed when Paris judges them; in later versions, they disrobe in order to show their full beauty.8 In Claude's painting, Hera, disputing the shepherd judge, stands fully garbed—even seeming to carry a billowing pack on her back—at the center of the group; the other goddesses and Eros, as well as Paris, are nude except for wisps of drapery.

  • 3. In the King James Bible, the allegorizing headnote to chapter 1 of the Song of Solomon begins, “The church's love unto Christ,” and glosses verses 7 and 8: “7 and [she] prayeth to be directed to his flock. 8 Christ directeth her to the shepherds' tents.” These verses proper read: “(7) Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon; for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions? (8) If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherds' tents.”

  • 4. In Hardy's novel, Gabriel Oak shears a ewe while the owner whom he loves, Bathsheba Everdene, looks on: “The clean, sleek creature arose from its fleece—how perfectly like Aphrodite rising from the foam should have been seen to be realized—looking startled and shy at the loss of its garment, which lay on the floor in one soft cloud.”9 (Say “Bathsheba” aloud and you can hear both the bleat and the name of the pastoral animal.)

The first item suggests that Hardy, besides being a quirky child, might have had a unique curiosity about the pastoral process. That this comic incident stuck in his mind for eighty years or so, testifies to its importance. It suggests such messages as these: “I am like a sheep”; “Sheep react like people”; “I can astonish them”; “Sheep are my audience”; and “Human consciousness may be a freak of nature.” Implicitly it also proclaims, “Watch this creature; he has a pastoral imagination.”

The Judgment of Paris legend, which makes a shepherd the arbiter of divine beauty and precipitator of the fall of dynasties, brings out the prominence of herding in early history and the resultant traces of pastoral memory that have shaped how we think and live.10 The choice of love over dominant political power, military prowess, and superhuman wisdom asserts the full force of erotic desire. Why is Paris a herdsman? It may well be that somewhere in the origin of this myth lies the practice of sacrifice and the substitution of animal for human victims (e.g., the substitution of a ram for Isaac in Genesis). The shepherd is not only a key man in the economy on which culture was built, he is also a key figure in the custom of religious ritual. Different deities try to gain the allegiance of the pastor. This tie between Aphrodite and Paris the keeper of flocks joins the erotic to the pastoral.

An especially puzzling feature is the disrobing part of the story, which Claude's painting features. No doubt the force of love first sparks with looking, but from where does the idea come that the shepherd has the power and privilege of having the goddesses appear naked before him? If we conjoin the image of deities unclothed with Hardy's simile of Bathsheba's newly shorn ewe as Aphrodite rising out of the foam, we might find a clue. Some esoteric, dark connection may exist between the sheep's bounty to the shepherd and the undressed goddesses' bounteous offerings to Paris. If the male is to choose a woman and love as the most tempting of prizes, then femininity, no matter how powerful, must uncover. Is it too farfetched to suppose some link exists between the shearing of sheep and the uncovering of divine beauty? What is sure is that from earliest times the spirit of divinity and religion, like the spirit of generation, has been felt to infuse the pastoral vocation.

The Scripture and its prefatory gloss from the Song of Solomon show this mutuality. The commentary epitomizes the drive of Judeo-Christian monotheism to incorporate and sublimate love and sexual desire. It tries to moralize and spiritualize volatile erotic passion. The Bible shows the continuing but evolving metaphorical identity between human life and the pastoral enterprise. No line from the novel seems more provocative by modern lights than Bathsheba's statement, “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs” (LI, 270). Essential to pastoral thinking is the idea of caring love and the image of all people, male or female, as potential members of the flock; but built into the traditions of language and thought are the identification of women with sheep and the potential role of men as shepherds. An ancient analogy persists right down to the Gershwins' “Someone to Watch over Me,” between the pastoral condition and gender roles in love life; but notice certain slippages between the Scripture I cite and its commentary. In the Song of Solomon the voice of the woman sounds out boldly. Unrestrainedly in love, she is close to—part of—the work of men; love, lover, and beloved are not abstract, but personal and immediate. Love is a wholehearted faith, unmediated by the “church” of the gloss. An unorthodox admirer of the Bible, Hardy was eager to convey the relevance of scriptural life and language that the clerisy could obscure by bracketing them off from the people and appropriating their interpretation. He was trying to recover lost ground in Far from the Madding Crowd.

Set my fourth item, the newly shorn sheep and the birth of Aphrodite, next to the first, and you can see how natural it is that Hardy should have composed that simile and yet how wonderful a revelation it is. No other novelist before him knew both sheepshearing and Aphrodite so well or would have seen and felt the one in the other. What the figure in context and the novel as a whole suggest is the knowledge that the goddess of love may be reborn fresh and beautiful—or terrible as death—in anyone's experience. A man and a woman may be laboring together at some mundane task when suddenly their common vocation turns into a vocation of love. Venus, a living deity reborn millions of times a day, lurks everywhere, ready to possess, ready for epiphany.


Hardy's pastoral is both very old and very new. Steeped in Ecclesiastes—“to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose”—as well as in George Eliot (when it came out anonymously, the Spectator guessed that she wrote it, and Hardy's autobiography shows how that rankled him11), Far from the Madding Crowd offers a vision and a love that show people both their continuity with the earth and the past, and a hope for the future. Like Eliot in her novels, Hardy assumes the pastoral role of Ecclesiastes: “wise, he still taught the people knowledge … even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads … which are given from one shepherd.” (When very young—vanity of vanities!—he had tried to turn Ecclesiastes into Spenserian stanzas.) What is new—new to the Victorian reading public at least—is the place of common experience and a modern sense of vocation as a basis for flowering love between men and women. Near the book's end, Hardy describes in a passage of great significance the possibility of erotic faith in a new—or renewed—pastoralism:

He accompanied her up the hill, explaining to her the details of his forthcoming tenure of the other farm. They spoke very little of their mutual feelings; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship—camaraderie—usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death—that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.

[LVI, 303-4]

Hardy, in this muted climax to the love story of Oak and Bathsheba, with its “mass of hard prosaic reality” and the flooding waters of the last sentence, must somehow have had the end of The Mill on the Floss in mind. The rich, problematic paragraph says that both idealized, romantic love and sexual love are transient—“evanescent.” Shared work, friendship, common physical relationship to the abiding reality of the world can help to bind a couple with love till death. This attachment to one another and to the earth means that they participate creatively in what endures and revives. Hardy, here, chooses to evoke the most erotic part of the Bible, with its religious connotations (“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it,” Song of Solomon 8:7), in his new pastoral love. He wants to bring together sexual love and vocation in its old and new sense (holy calling and significant work). He does not say that “romance” and sex, which I infer as part of the meaning of the phrase “love between the sexes,” are not necessary or, for joy or woe, sure to happen. Steam, after all, has moved the world's population. At its best, love is a compound. The passage has both an idyllic and an after-the-Fall flavor. It recognizes the need to accept flaws and the damage of experience, and it allows for historical as well as personal change. One of the lessons that modern life, with the widespread employment of women as well as men, keeps repeating is that shared labor sooner or later breeds love.

The most arresting words are “strong as death.” Love is not “stronger than death,” but, at its best, it has the inevitability and impact of death. It gives the couple a share in the eternal, ongoing processes of life and death, for the consequences of labor and love are endless. If we put that prose from the end together with an excerpt from the beginning of the novel, we get at Hardy's vision of love's potential in the novel. In the early passage, Hardy assumes the pastoral function and even the cadences and periods of the George Eliot narrator, and yet he achieves his own sweeping, but finely sensed perspective: “The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilized mankind, who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars” (II, 12).

Human life for Hardy often has the futility of a shepherd trying to herd stars, but this astronomical view has potential comfort: to integrate the self into the majestic universe and consciously feel a part of it would be a way to be “strong as death.” The pastoral love that Hardy is trying to imagine would include and blend erotic love, care for another person, and the self's intimate involvement with, and feeling for, the natural cosmos and its regenerative force. His project is to awaken and uncover a few of “the mass of civilized mankind” to consciousness of their cosmic ride, to humanity's preoccupation with erotic desire, and to restorative, faithful love.


Let us look again at Claude's Judgment and compare it to Hardy's novel. A fateful decision for humanity is being made in a quiet, shadowed corner of a twilight world. Central to the painting, as Oak is central to the novel, and dominating it, along with the sky opening out to the vast spaces on the right, is a large, handsome tree. Reaching up almost to the top, looming over the figures competing for preeminence below, it is apparently rooted in the Idalian rock—like Oak and his romance, “growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality.” The foliage of the tree occupies a much greater area than the group in the middle distance, and it holds focus. Its somber color, its large ovallike shape, and its position roughly at the heart of the canvas suggest that whatever the vicissitudes of fortune, history, and even religion, life revolves about mysterious, unpossessable nature.

Paris and the goddesses look small. If you casually focus on them, your eye is liable to be taken up into the dark shape of the tree or, following the source of light on the figures, out into expansive, beautifully lit reaches of the river, lands, far-off bodies of water, mountains, late-day sky, golden boughs, and the deep horizons beyond the clouds. Something Bathsheba says in the novel gets at Claude's effect perfectly: “I'll try to think … if I can think out of doors; my mind spreads away so” (IV, 27). The tree spreads, the sky spreads, and they convey a greater importance and sense of permanence in this vision than the grouped figures. Behind Paris, who sits on a rock in front of a cavern, rises a firm, rugged cliff topped with tree growth and golden-leaved branches; above Aphrodite and Eros a waterfall pours down the mountainside; Pallas sits on a green bank; just above Hera's head and her imperious finger pointing upward, a narrow tree thrusts straight up into the sky, the dimension of its long slender trunk faintly mocking the gesture of the goddess by making it look so petty. And just in back of her lies the darkest part of the large tree's shadow. The animals of the herd, on which human sustenance depends, sprawl in the foreground and down the slope, blending into the landscape. The herdsman who must choose, and the deities of power, wisdom, and love and pleasure, are all contained by the existential conditions of flora, fauna, rocks, soil, mountains, water, air, weather, sun, and darkness. The imperative upon humanity is not to rule this immense landscape, the notion of which Claude's vision makes ridiculous, but to fit in, to understand it, and to harmonize consciousness and human nature to its rhythms and reality. The effect of Claude's space is very much like Hardy's ride through the stars: it undercuts pride.

The representation of the shepherd hero and the deities, though their traditional stature dwindles in the pastoral setting, has important implications. Handsome Paris, here the lone shepherd, cut off from Troy and kin, looks vulnerable to love. Hera, the embodiment of worldly power, stands centrally in the group. Admonishing Paris, her finger-pointing image conflicts with all her surroundings as well as with the other figures. Her fine raiment, like her proud peacock—whose useless gaudiness contrasts completely with the muted colors of the herd animals—seems out of place. Her unwillingness to undress, the portrayed clash of wills with the shepherd, and the power, wealth, and ambition symbolized by both her pose and clothes all mark her as the foe of pastoral life. By contrast, little pride at all shows forth in Aphrodite, Athena, or Eros. Pallas, busy with her sandal, her spear looking much like a shepherd's staff, her discarded robe matching almost exactly Paris's country garb, has the casual, undaunting form of a pastoral citizen. As for the unpretentious love goddess, intently watching Hera, she does not seem more beautiful or erotic than her rivals. Her son Cupid looks rather like a rustic's thin child—graphic evidence that love is fragile. The whole group, except for regal Juno, has undergone a pastoralization process. Majesty and divinity would seem to lie not in the separate figures, but in the rich landscape, and the fusion of consciousness and the subject of love into it. Claude's composition and Far from the Madding Crowd imply the same thing: Take the long view.

The picture, like the novel, displays spaciousness almost to infinity. It features a vision of uncovering, an opening up and out so that everything may be seen and known. This is a world without walls where, as in Hardy, the trappings of interiority and compartmentalized culture do not obscure the ecological sight lines. The high, wheeling birds lift the mind to what Hardy calls, describing Oak's vision of Bathsheba, “a bird's-eye view, as Milton's Satan first saw Paradise” (II, 16). “E. M. Forster remarked that Hardy conceived his novels from a great height, but his females are drawn from very close up.”12 That kind of panoramic sweep, close-in focus, and intimation of relationship between the immediate and the distant—the flowing vista along with the telling detail of a particular life—make Claude “one of the unseen presences” in Far from the Madding Crowd.13

But Claude's painting, like Hardy's novel, has a more sinister side. The very peacefulness of the scene shows how close nemesis may be, how helpless people are when the gods single them out. The divine visit to the serene countryside renders the arbitrariness of fate. For Paris tending his flock, for Boldwood managing his farm, hard times and frightful chance happeneth and nothing can save them. Even Oak, the good shepherd, at the whim of fate loses his herd over a cliff.

The logic of Claude's choice of subject makes obvious one more thing: the decision of Paris for love means that the fact and nature of love are just as consequential and determining in human life as the tangible, visibly represented environment of the painting. The uncontrollable force of love, like an unseen wind, is part of the nature that fills that space and makes the picture. And power, armed wisdom, voluptuous desire—all the goddesses, all their jealousies, all that they represent—all the forces and matter of the universe, all human nature will be involved in the course of love. Of the five main characters in Far from the Madding Crowd, all of whom fall in love, two die horribly, one ends up in prison, and all suffer. Within the pastoral world of these two works, erotic desire means destruction and death as well as restoration.


Hardy—the Peeping Tom of novelists—has the libidinous curiosity of the voyeur. He combines visual intimacy and detail with far-reaching perspective, like a hawk that can see a mouse a mile away. He wants to visualize the fatal moments in life, show the spatial arrangements and details that compose critical moments in destiny. There is more, though: a fascination with exposing the other, with invading privacy and imaging scenes that have an aura of taboo about them. The voyeur turns his gaze on, not away from, the vulnerability and the secrets of others.

In discussing Villette, I said that the voyeuristic imagination, closely tied to artistic impulse, not only appropriates vicariously its desire, it also projects its obsessions onto what it sees. With Hardy no boundary exists between the erotic and the nonerotic. Judging by this novel, any reader can see that the outcome of Victorian repression is not the removal of sex from discourse, but a pressure that infuses eroticism into everything. We read a description of the countryside and suddenly we are seeing a woman's body; a sheep is shorn, and Hardy makes us think of a sexual deflowering. The erotic effect is rather like that of Sergeant Troy's phallic “blade,” “which seemed everywhere at once and yet nowhere especially” (XXVIII, 144). Venereal force and desire infuse and suffuse the novel's descriptions of nature and the subsurfaces of its text. Its ruling deity is the Sophoclean Cyprian.

Not for nothing did Hardy name his heroine Bathsheba and begin his novel with Gabriel Oak, like King David, looking down upon her from a “point of espial” (I, 10). One of the fathers of the cinematic consciousness, Hardy composes like a master of focus. He reveals casually both his own aesthetic passion and his erotic feeling for life when he remarks that Oak's “delight” in visualizing Bathsheba “effaced for the time his perception of the great difference between seeing and possessing” (VIII, 59). The distinction is telling. Hardy, like his hero, is possessed by what he sees—by love possessed; and the narrative explores what it might mean both to possess, and to be possessed by, love. But until the triumph of pastoral love in the end, those who possess love cannot see, and those who see do not possess love.

Love proverbially first begins with sight, and the author's voyeuristic point of view works to generate pastoral love. Drenched in the spirit of Ecclesiastes, the book opens by comparing Gabriel's smiling eyes and face to the rising sun (which “also riseth”); and Oak the shepherd, whose first action is to spy leisurely on Bathsheba looking at herself in a mirror, pronounces the final word of the first chapter, “Vanity” (I, 11). Likening Oak to the sun, giving him the name of a sturdy tree, Hardy means to create a man close to nature—to minimize the gap between what people think of as “nature” on the one hand and “human nature” on the other. He imagines Gabriel watching Bathsheba and guessing her mind as she smiles to herself: “She simply observed herself as a fair product of Nature in the feminine kind, her thoughts seeming to glide into far-off though likely dramas in which men would play a part—vistas of probable triumphs—the smiles being of a phase suggesting that hearts were imagined as lost and won” (I, 10). When she haggles about a road toll, Gabriel shows himself and pays it for her. Life in the novel begins with a vision of desire, a relationship between man and woman, thoughts of love, and an act of charity inspired by beauty and erotic longing.

Hardy establishes the pastoral milieu and continues to describe the force of Venus. Soon Oak's eye sweeps to the stars and then back to earth, peeking again through a roof down into an interior upon Bathsheba assisting at the birth of a calf. The shepherd, like his creator, gazing into space and feeling depths of space in himself, uses his eye to find his desire: “Having … known the want of a satisfactory form to fill an increasing void within him, … he painted her a beauty” (II, 17).

In the next chapter, Oak again spies on Bathsheba, now riding a horse. As she passes under some branches, she drops “backwards flat upon the pony's back, her head over its tail, her feet against its shoulders, and her eyes to the sky” (III, 18). (An iconographic axiom for Victorian fiction: if a woman appears on or near a horse, or talks of horses, look for sex and assessment of her sexual nature.) Bathsheba on her back, feet spread, with knees up and the horse between her legs—that's a suggestive position, to say the least; Gabriel is “amused” and “astonished” (III, 18). By the end of the chapter, having been saved by Bathsheba from suffocation in his hut, his head rests in that very “lap” that straddled the horse, and he finds himself totally in love. Voyeurism and vulnerability, both forms of intimacy, work like love potions.

I dwell on the early scenes of Oak's spying to stress that the pastor is a watcher and that this version of pastoral love is highly sensual. Oak prizes and respects Bathsheba's sexuality. Hardy's imagination, like that of Dickens, insists on the interflow of erotic emotion between a desired being and her (his) surroundings. Instead of purging sexuality from the text, Hardy stands Victorian literary decorum on its head and makes the primacy of erotic life—its drives, its desires, its varied, sometimes sublimated forms—absorb and sexualize the physical details, descriptions, incidents, and even the dialogue of the book. He uses the pastoral in much the same way as Freud would use the dream: as an acceptable, rhetorically distancing means to put before a sexually repressed and repressive audience the erotic forces that shape it.

When Bathsheba comes each day to milk a cow, Hardy conveys through Gabriel what it is like to fall in love: “By making inquiries he found that the girl's name was Bathsheba Everdene, and that the cow would go dry in about seven days. He dreaded the eighth day” (IV, 24). Those deceptively simple words—think how deftly they characterize—indicate how erotic desire is integrated with the world in Oak's character and Hardy's vision. They express a fresh mode of perception in fiction: romantic, but matter-of-fact, full of candor and peasant shrewdness, aware of how the ridiculous turns into love. Steeped in the conditions of rural life, Hardy brings out in an image or phrase personal drama and the enduring patterns of humanity trying to find both love and a living in nature.

“Love,” says the narrator, “is a possible strength in an actual weakness” (IV, 24). Substitute “devotion to God” or “duty” for “love” and you can see how the principle of erotic faith ties in with religious faith or faith in labor. Hardy would lose his erotic faith as he had his Christian faith (again and again he would later imagine love as a probable disaster in an actual weakness!), but in this novel it holds—just barely. It depends on Oak's steadiness and commitment to “the secret fusion of himself in Bathsheba” (V, 30), which I read as an expression of the religious mystery of erotic love.


The crucial wooing scene between Oak and Bathsheba (IV) has embarrassed some readers with its emotional nakedness. What has been called the “stylized,” disturbing quality of the chapter14 comes from Hardy's effort to have the man and the woman speak exactly as they might think and feel, something that rarely happens in life or fiction. Using the pastoral tradition, he tries to break through the wall of manners in courtship and, through the guilelessness of his characters, get at the irresistible, sometimes demeaning power of love and its uncertainties. The interview has the flavor of old ballads or of biblical stories that omit analysis and sharply truncate time in order to emphasize characteristic patterns, cycles, desires, and symbols of life. Candor, as the scene shows, often has great charm and force, but it can also disturb, making an audience face things it might wish to avoid.

Dressed up in his Sunday best, his hair slicked down, the pastoral lover lays bare his feelings when he calls on Bathsheba and finds her aunt instead: “I've brought a lamb for Miss Everdene. I thought she might like one to rear; girls do. … In short, I was going to ask her if she'd like to be married. … D'ye know if she's got any other young man hanging about her at all?” When the aunt, playing the game, tells him yes, Gabriel says, “I'm only an every-day sort of man, and my only chance was in being the first comer” (IV, 26). He leaves, but Bathsheba comes running after him in a sweat to say, “I haven't a sweetheart at all—and I never had one, and I thought that, as times go with women, it was such a pity to send you away thinking that I had several” (IV, 26-27). “I hate,” she adds, “to be thought men's property in that way.”

Behind the naiveté, Hardy is pushing his readers to focus on traditional courting practices that modern individualism tends to obscure: a man will try to smooth himself for a woman. The young woman is a totem lamb, the object of concern and sometimes of barter. Hers is the favor to grant, for which she is beseeched. She must wait, and that is hard, but when she is desired, she has great power over the male. A man's sense that he must compete for a woman's favor throbs fearfully in his early life, and he thinks about his attractiveness when compared with other men. The “times”—that is, for all intents and purposes here in the nineteenth century, all human history—are such that a woman cannot afford to take lightly a lover or an offer. The need to preserve choice and keep options open, plus the sheer love of being loved, may lead her to great exertion and coqueterie.

Notice that this scene takes place outside with no relatives around—man and woman isolated in nature—and also that none of the five principal figures, all swept up in love, have any close living relatives. Hardy's new pastoral imagines characters far from the madding crowd of family as well as urban society. What he later says of Boldwood holds for Oak: “No mother existed to absorb his devotion, no sister for his tenderness, no idle ties for sense. He became surcharged with the compound, which was genuine lover's love” (XVIII, 97). No mixture of incest taboo, incest desire, or direct Oedipal conflict mediates the erotic drama in the novel.15 Oak presses:

“Come … think a minute or two. I'll wait a while, Miss Everdene. Will you marry me? Do, Bathsheba. I love you far more than common! … I can make you happy. … You shall have a piano in a year or two … and … one of those little ten-pound gigs for market—and nice flowers, and birds—cocks and hens I mean, because they be useful,” continued Gabriel. …

“I should like it very much. …”

“And when the wedding was over, we'd have it put in the newspaper list of marriages.”

“Dearly I should like that!”

“And the babies in the births—every man jack of 'em! And at home by the fire, whenever you look up, there I shall be—and whenever I look up, there will be you.”

“Wait, wait, and don't be improper!”

Her countenance fell, and she was silent awhile. He regarded the red berries between them over and over again, to such an extent that holly seemed in his after life to be a cypher signifying a proposal of marriage. …

“No; 'tis no use,” she said. “I don't want to marry you.”


“I've tried hard. … But a husband—. … Why, he'd always be there, as you say; whenever I looked up, there he'd be. … I shouldn't mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. …”

“Why won't you have me?” he appealed. …

“Because I don't love you. …”

“But I love you—and, as for myself, I am content to be liked.”

“O Mr. Oak—that's very fine! You'd get to despise me.”

“Never,” said Mr. Oak so earnestly that he seemed to be coming, by the force of his words, straight through the bush and into her arms. “I shall do one thing in this life—one thing certain—that is, love you, and long for you, and keep wanting you till I die.”

“… It wouldn't do, Mr. Oak. I want somebody to tame me; I am too independent; and you would never be able to, I know. … I am better educated than you—and I don't love you a bit.”

“… Very well,” said Oak firmly, with the bearing of one who was going to give his days and nights to Ecclesiastes for ever. “Then I'll ask you no more.”

[IV, 27-30]

This minimalist art dissolves pretenses that surround courting men and women. It liberates: “I'm only an every-day sort of man,” “I am content to be liked,” “I am better educated than you,” “I don't love you.” These common feelings and ideas that women and men often try to hide come across here as straight facts of life. In Hardy there is sometimes a lifting of moral responsibility that accounts for moments of subversive, odd buoyancy—even in his gloomiest work: You cannot help it that you do not love some deserving person, that you have flaws, that your moral code does not jibe with reality, that you are a creature of desire and chance, that love and virtue may diverge. Life is hard enough without pretending that you want only what is good or that you are not hopelessly in love with some frustrating being who is bound to cause you grief.

The suddenness of Oak's proposal, the brevity of their acquaintance, his intensity, and Bathsheba's candid wonder about whether to take up the offer and then her refusal all point up how arbitrary love and marriage are. Shear away the superfluities of wooing, and you see that people, like Oak or Bathsheba, by love possessed or trying dimly to see their own good, make the fatal decisions of their love lives from quick impressions and moody impulses. Behind its pastoral rhetoric, the scene is very sophisticated about the ways of love and of men and women. If love rules the world, it is as likely as not to be unrequited love. Characters in Hardy may decide to take love, give themselves, or marry out of calculation, but they cannot decide to be in love. People may want flamboyance rather than kind devotion in love. With any couple, there is liable to be an imbalance of desire, and the beloved wields shattering power. The one who loves less may win—in the short run.

On the other side, erotic desire can give shape and purpose to a whole life. As novels keep saying, lovers may be more interested in their own fidelity and the defining force of their devotion than in the character of those they love. Oak speaks the popular Victorian erotic creed: “I shall do one thing in this life … love you … keep wanting you till I die.” Usually time proves this common sentiment false; the test of Oak's faith, then, becomes the test of erotic faith in the novel.

What do Oak and Bathsheba really want? The man seems to desire the woman's person, and she seems to desire status; but it's not that simple. When we look at how he woos her, we see that he equates the woman with the amenities of civilization: music, beauty, luxury, and, most important, regeneration. And naturally he assumes that what he wants, she would want. He is the pastor, and she, in all her beauty, is still for him a lamb. He has the craving of the good shepherd: “I will take care of you well, nourish your being, protect and love your essence, and in return I want and hope to use you for my purposes.” He does not say, “I will love you, but if that does not please you, I will respect your freedom and let you go from my desire”; he wants her to know, “I will keep wanting you till I die.” Pastoral love is especially unremitting and ultimately possessive.16

Hardy's succinct probe of desire goes deep. Oak thinks Bathsheba wants a richer life, the bourgeois dream; she does, but not nearly as much as he. She does not yet want to be settled as much as she wants passion: she wants, as strong people sometimes do, to fight a love struggle and have her independent will crossed (“I want somebody to tame me; I am too independent”). That is the key to her fall for Troy. Though Hardy and Austen would seem as different as outdoors and indoors, both imagine worlds that drive a bright, lively woman to flirt rebelliously, kicking against the social pricks. Bathsheba, when she takes up Oak's words and confesses how much she detests the idea of seeing a husband always there, like a jailer, is never more winning.

We keep seeing that the erotic dream and method of novelists are to bring together those who talk straight to each other, like Heathcliff and Cathy. Gabriel's candor is what allows Bathsheba to be honest with him and to learn her own mind. How educational it is to be rudely frank to someone who loves you. She can say anything to him; they can say anything to each other; and that experience—and memory—of being able to talk freely without penalty to a potential lover, even though things at first do not work out, can, over time, work like a slow love philter.

A quicker aphrodisiac is doubt. From start to finish, what excites Bathsheba is a love that might fly. Though she runs after Oak, once she is sure of him she feels no passion for him at all. Sexual desire may be natural, but its arousal often depends on jeopardy, novelty, and the thrill of breaking taboos. Hardy's parable about Bathsheba's father not only helps define the nature of her erotic character, it expresses perfectly the tension—tension thick in the proposal scene—and the far-reaching conflict between sex and moralized love, sex and marriage, sex and the demands of civilization.

“… Miss Everdene's father—was one of the ficklest husbands alive. … ‘Coggan,’ he said, ‘I could never wish for a handsomer woman than I've got, but feeling she's ticketed as my lawful wife, I can't help my wicked heart wandering, do what I will.’ But at last I believe he cured it by making her take off her wedding-ring and calling her by her maiden name as they sat together … and so ‘a would get to fancy she was only his sweetheart, and not married to him at all. And as soon as he could thoroughly fancy he was doing wrong and committing the seventh [“Thou shalt not commit adultery”], ‘a got to like her as well as ever, and they lived on a perfect picture of mutel love.”

[VIII, 52]

That may be a desperate remedy, but all who marry ought to know about it.

Devotees of pastoral love, like Hardy and Oak, must take into account the reality that humanity is a wandering flock. Victorian and modern civilization's almost impossibly difficult project is to make love and desire, erotics and marriage, contiguous, harmonious, and whole. Hardy focuses upon that great problem in his pastoral. The tone and meaning of the wooing scene as overture come through in Gabriel's reference to Ecclesiastes and its wise pastor, who promises a time for everything under the sun, including love.


All life in Hardy's art is imbued with eroticism, and the displacement of sexuality into landscape is one of its main features. As, say, Sundays and holidays are set aside from normal days, human sexuality has been abstracted, set apart, made special and “other” from “regular” life. In Hardy, the body's sexual life manifests itself and takes place in a metaphorical setting. Ironically, Hardy adapts this method to try to make eroticism integral in the life of his novel. But displacement, the solution to his artistic problem of how to express the importance of sex in a medium that represses it, shows up as a highly significant problem in itself.

His vision both counteracts repression and is itself a symptom of sexual alienation. Hardy makes perception inseparable from erotics, but because he must show the fullness of sexual being in outward nature, rather than through the inner or bodily self, the rhetoric of his novel inevitably coaxes people to look for the erotic beyond themselves, somewhere else. The trouble with displacement is that it can frustrate people erotically by locating sex everywhere, but nowhere specially. Hardy's method of sexual representation, that is, symbolic voyeurism, is part of the message. It tends to make sex metaphorical and life vicarious. Real life lies beyond the self. Hardy's imagination touches on the advent of a mass, voyeuristic, consumerist culture. His general vision carries implications that the regenerative forces of life do not lie in the person but in the fertile continuity of ongoing nature. The hope of this art is that individuals will see themselves as part of the natural continuum of being. Its drawback is that the self can seem devalued—vacuumed. Drained away from specific individuals, erotic sympathy and reverence might flow towards the macrocosm that holds the potent force and the images of sexual energy. The danger for the good shepherd, i.e., the pastoral lover, artist, or caring reader, is that personal life and being will become both idealized and fetishized in the object of desire. Pastoral love, voyeurism, and the phenomenon of the novel have much in common.

Hardy's much-praised renderings of the countryside, the famous sword-practice episode and its complement, the storm-thatching scene, show how his pastoral voyeurism works. The scene from high summer, after Bathsheba has met Troy, famously fuses human sexuality into the landscape.

The hill opposite … extended … into an uncultivated tract of land, dotted at this season with tall thickets of brake fern, plump and diaphanous from recent rapid growth. … At eight o'clock this midsummer evening, whilst the bristling ball of gold in the west still swept the tips of the ferns with its long, luxuriant rays, a soft brushing-by of garments might have been heard among them, and Bathsheba appeared in their midst, their soft, feathery arms caressing her up to her shoulders. … She reached the verge of a pit in the middle of the ferns. … The pit was a saucer-shaped concave. … The middle within the belt of verdure was floored with a thick flossy carpet of moss and grass intermingled, so yielding that the foot was half-buried within it.

[XXVIII, 142-43]

Hardy is describing a midsummer night's dream where Bathsheba erotically opens to Troy.

In autumn, we see the exact same place, after Troy has married and betrayed her. She spends the night amid the ferns, and in the morning she sees seasonal changes:

[T]he ground sloped downwards to a hollow, in which was a species of swamp, dotted with fungi. … From its moist and poisonous coat seemed to be exhaled the essences of evil things. … The fungi grew in all manner of positions from rotting leaves and tree stumps, some exhibiting to her listless gaze their clammy tops, others their oozing gills. Some were marked with great splotches, red as arterial blood, others were saffron yellow, and others tall and attenuated, with stems like macaroni. Some were leathery and of richest browns. The hollow seemed a nursery of pestilences small and great.

[XLIV, 232-33]

The fall landscape renders the sexual fall and the shame of Bathsheba. And in hindsight, we can see that the effects of the revolving year on the land reflect exactly Bathsheba's changing erotic condition. Hardy's seasonal visions of nature serve to objectify her libido and the emotional rhythms of her sexual life.

Why beat around the bush, to adopt his mode? His sensibility seems at times to turn nature into pornography. The uncanny precision of these descriptions—such passages in the novel could be multiplied again and again—shows his own libido fully engaged. It is as if Wessex itself were a great woman and the surface of the earth were her flesh. This kind of sensual prose vision reminds me again of David looking at Bathsheba, or of the elders looking at Susannah. Hardy has the same caressing eye, the same voyeuristic desire to possess the erotic in the act of exposure. The absorbing vision of this novel sometimes makes it clear how nature in the nineteenth century—and other times as well—could and did become a grand erotic fetish.

The sword-practice scene in “The Hollow amid the Ferns” (XXVIII), one of the most celebrated sexual passages in respectable Victorian fiction, epitomizes and vindicates Hardy's double-entendre method. In the setting and context of Bathsheba's inner sexual flowering and the outward fecundity of her surroundings, it remains vivid:

“Now,” said Troy, producing the sword, which, as he raised it into the sunlight, gleamed a sort of greeting, like a living thing. … “The thrusts are these: one, two, three, four. … Now I'll be more interesting, and let you see some loose play … quicker than lightning, and as promiscuously”. …

He flourished the sword …, and the next thing of which she was conscious was that the point and blade of the sword were darting with a gleam towards her left side, just above her hip; then of their reappearance on her right side … having apparently passed through her body. … All was as quick as electricity.

“Oh! … Have you run me through?—no, you have not! Whatever have you done!” …

In an instant the atmosphere was transformed to Bathsheba's eyes. Beams of light caught from the low sun's rays, above, around, in front of her, well-nigh shut out earth and heaven—all emitted in the marvellous evolutions of Troy's reflecting blade. … These circling gleams were accompanied by a keen rush that was almost a whistling—also springing from all sides of her at once. In short, she was enclosed in a firmament of light, and of sharp hisses, resembling a sky-full of meteors close at hand. …

That minute's interval had brought the blood beating into her face, set her stinging as if aflame to the very hollows of her feet, and enlarged emotion to a compass which quite swamped thought. It had brought upon her a stroke resulting, as did that of Moses in Horeb, in a liquid stream—here a stream of tears. She felt like one who has sinned a great sin.

[XXVIII, 143-46]

Bathsheba, ravished in this way by Troy, falls in love for the first time. She is already loved by two devoted men, Oak and Boldwood, but now she feels an ecstasy that Hardy describes as the surge of orgasm. Troy, a soldier, menaces her with his sword. The kinship of sex to violence, to danger, to sublimated cruelty, to mastery and surrender of will, to flaunting physical show, and escape from ordinary life jumps off the page. It simply will not do to moralize smoothly on this chapter, as many have done, and deplore Bathsheba's reaction to Troy as “self-destructive,”17 misguided, or tragic. To do so misses the point, slighting and cheapening the soul-shaking power of the erotic.

If the new pastoral love is to have any value and win any credence, it must allow for and include the force and even the joy of sexuality that traditional morality calls “error” or “sin.” According to Hardy, we live in an old world where a David's erotic desire causes him to take a Bathsheba wrongfully and a Bathsheba's erotic drive causes her to take a Troy thoughtlessly. Libidinous love is the way of this world, and life does not just end for these figures when they follow their erotic drives into suffering. Straying sheep test faith and pastoral love, and everyone is a straying sheep.


The sword-flash scene is the one every reader of the novel remembers, but just as important—in fact, conjoined to it, like the panel of a diptych—is the storm scene with Oak and Bathsheba together working to save the harvest (XXXVII). Hardy imagines in this climactic passage a love that brings together devotion to a beloved's well-being, concern for the common good, mutual purpose, shared work, affection, and potent sexuality—in short, love's old dream of combining moral responsibility and the stunning force of the erotic.

Far from the Madding Crowd does not deny the ecstasy of being carried away by first love, nor the sweeping thrill of the fern-pit experience, but it works to integrate eroticism into a larger perspective. Hardy, getting at the ubiquity of the sexual imagination and his own habits of mind and art, says, “[M]an, even to himself, is a palimpsest, having an ostensible writing, and another beneath the lines” (XXXVI, 189). The context for that remark and the storm that follows is this: after the harvest and wedding celebration, which ends with Troy, newly married to Bathsheba, getting himself and all the farmhands helplessly drunk, Oak, alert, feels a ruinous storm approaching and, calculating exactly the monetary damage it will do to the unprotected grain, decides to try to save the crop. Hardy, referring to “man” as a text of hidden meanings, then writes, “It is possible that there was this golden legend under the utilitarian one: ‘I will help to my last effort the woman I have loved so dearly’” (XXXVI, 189). The spirit of courtly love filters downward into society, blending with practical economics and the eroticization of nature to generate a new pastoral.

The novel portrays Oak, “the faithful man” (XXXVI, 190), acting out his love for—and with—Bathsheba in circumstances that contrast with Troy in the hollow and that put the narrative in a new light. Instead of a sword, Gabriel's instrument, that he keeps sticking in the “stack” to thatch, is “his ricking-rod, or poniard, as it was indifferently called—a long iron lance, … polished by handling” (XXXVII, 192). Hardy flaunts his symbolism. Bathsheba and “the stack” become one: “Oak looked up. … Bathsheba was sitting almost on the apex of the stack, her feet gathered up beneath her” (XXXVII, 195). Instead of ferns, we have Bathsheba's sheaves of grain. Instead of glinting summer sunlight and movement like electricity, we get real electricity in a dramatic lightning storm. Instead of “loose play,” we have work; instead of feminine passivity, we have the mistress laboring with the man. Instead of the seducer, we have the unrequited lover risking his life for a woman. Instead of nature as backdrop for human sexuality, we have a vision of nature's full potency, sexual force, and engulfing qualities—its power to bind a man and a woman together in a closeness that mocks the looseness of infatuation and even the relative impotence of the social marriage contract. Instead of a virgin closed to the good shepherd but ready to unclose to the scarlet soldier, we have a woman who, without being conscious of it, is beginning now to open herself to the pastoral lover.

As the lightning gets closer and the man uses his rod to thatch, the woman joins him, and they work alone in harmony in the storm, he for her future good. Instead of Bathsheba's enclosure in the “firmament” of light from Troy's phallic sword, we have Bathsheba and Oak enclosed in this primal scene of cosmic sex:

[T]here came a burst of light.

“Hold on!” said Gabriel, taking the sheaf from her shoulder, and grasping her arm again. 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. … 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. …

Bathsheba said nothing; but he could distinctly hear her rhythmical pants, and the recurrent rustle of the sheaf beside her in response to her frightened pulsations.

[XXXVII, 193-94]

That sexual displacement is also erotic sublimation on a superhuman scale. Sources as diverse as popular mythology, the Bhagavad-Gita, Vico, James Joyce, and Jerome Kern as sung and danced by Fred Astaire in Top Hat,18 locate the beginning of all eroticism and fertility in the Promethean spark of lightning, the generative heavenly act. In Hardy's storm, it is as if the arrows of blind Eros were made into Zeus's thunderbolts. Oak and Bathsheba share a time of primitive intimacy—a time, the imagery shows, of intense sexuality. What these two are made to see, feel, and share of lightning here, they are made to know in their lives of love's fiery beauty, its ominous potential for annihilation, its randomness, and the amazingly varied, fateful reactions it calls forth. Hardy represents them finding that love is not merely personal, though it is seen and experienced personally. It is set in and against the power of the impersonal—that is the meaning of Oak's experiencing the thrill of Bathsheba's touch just at the moment when nature is dwarfing to insignificance individual human emotions and concerns. This moment exposes a deep conflict in Hardy and in modern feelings about love generally.19 One person's erotic passion may seem—and, in fact, be—trivial and ineluctably doomed when set against the universe's furious energy or even against the full range of human life; but without that spark of love there is no worth or meaning in life—no perception, even, according to this text, of the universe. Human love, according to Hardy, is what makes the novelist and characters see what they see. Imagining a new pastoral love, epitomized by Oak and his actions in this scene, is an attempt to reconcile the contradiction between flashing nature as both source and destroyer of love and life. The storm episode constitutes the experience and vision on which he bases his summary words about the pastoral love “strong as death” and the final union of Oak and Bathsheba. The rest of the novel elaborates the metaphorical implications of this scene.

Bathsheba's thoughts of Gabriel after the death of Fanny Robin mark the progress of her growing love.

She suddenly felt a longing to speak to some one stronger than herself, and so get strength. … What a way Oak had, she thought, of enduring things. … [A]mong the multitude of interests by which he was surrounded, those which affected his personal well being were not the most absorbing and important in his eyes. Oak meditatively looked upon the horizon of circumstances without any special regard to his own standpoint in the midst. That was how she would wish to be.

[XLIII, 226]

No doubt that was also how Hardy himself wished to be, and, as a writer, sometimes saw himself. His own vision and desire obviously mingle here with Bathsheba's reflection. The passage claims for Oak and his pastoral outlook sweeping powers of perception unlimited by the ego's focus. Behind the modesty that she ascribes to the shepherd lies an unselfconscious pride that can make dazzling assumptions—assumptions on which the whole practice of the nineteenth-century novel may rest: first, that he can know and enter helpfully into the interests and circumstances of others; and, second, that he is so strong, competent, and farseeing that he can transcend normal self-interest. Hardy's imagination fused the identities of pastor, lover, and novelist, but so in effect did most distinguished Victorian fiction.

The wellspring of Oak's pastoralism is erotic, not ethical or conventionally religious, and that is what keeps him, the faithful shepherd, from being a sentimental or self-righteous figure. Hardy calls him, in all that he does, “the love-led man” (XXI, 112). The reward for his commitment would seem to come, after all, in the loving regard of the woman he is strong enough to love unrequitedly. Erotic desire may help stimulate a pastoral love that in turn may finally stimulate erotic desire in the other. That is the hope of this perilous world. Hardy imagines that someone could love another better than oneself, and do so effectively; erotic feeling, not God, first inspires Oak. This matters: the basis of pastoral love in Far from the Madding Crowd is not maternal or paternal feeling, not infantile memory, not God, not supernatural awe, not utilitarian drive or material necessity, but sexual attraction—erotic desire.

Oak is a symbolic act of faith in the novel, an ideal pastoral lover rooted in his love for the other. His rod is “grounded,” unlike Troy's sword or Boldwood's gun. He can make us see the crudeness of reductive, totalizing notions of a phallocentric sexuality, a phallocentric society, the phallus. All phallic symbols, all phallic acts, are not the same. Gabriel wields the lance to save the lives of the bloated sheep, he plays the flute for pleasure, and he plies his rod to preserve the grain. Whatever tool or instrument he touches, he uses to serve and enrich the woman's life and space and to bring human consciousness into harmony with natural force. Odd irony that the most notoriously pessimistic of nineteenth-century English novelists should have imagined the successful good shepherd of Aphrodite.


Love is the fate, test, god, and desire of the four other figures besides Oak who make the plot. They are what John Bayley, playing on the relationship between writing and emotional life, calls “characters of love.”20

Bathsheba: A heroine with staying power, she is both the “new” woman and the old, both conventional female “life force” and uncategorizable individual.21 Like her biblical namesake she becomes a fatal object of desire. She plays the roles of a Ruth, an Esther, and a Queen of Sheba, but she also moves and acts with restless modern subjectivity. Hardy wants to see her as a typical female partaking of a common, timeless femininity; but, knowing life as he does, he also imagines something new in history. The narrator describes her near the end: “She was of the stuff of which great men's mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises” (LIV, 291). That hints at her richness, shows how she has developed since Oak first wooed her, but it underscores the tensions in her characterization and indirectly points up the way she eludes even thoughtful generalization. The male author's urge to classify the female by biological function and delimit roles for even the most vital of women can nettle feminist nerves. But Hardy's sexist tic of saying, in effect, “just like a woman,” or fitting Bathsheba, from time to time, into a male-defined mold of female nature, ought not to obscure her complexity and consequence as a fictional figure. Inheriting and running a large farm, knowing and accepting three very different men as mates, she works and loves as most Victorians would expect only a man could. A problematic figure, she is not yet a pastor herself, like Oak. But she shows, as she participates in Hardy's new pastoralism, that the social and novelistic imagination is moving towards the conception of woman as an active pastoral figure.

Range of emotion and action, fluidity of libido, and frankness characterize Bathsheba. She has what Hardy calls “general intensity of … nature” and a proportionate “capacity for intense feeling” (XLIII, 230). Look at what she does: boldly commands the men of the farm; laughs at Gabriel, but holds his love; plays girlishly with her maid Liddy and sends Boldwood the fatal valentine; meets Troy alone in the hollow; elopes; braves the lightning with Oak; opens the coffin of Fanny and her baby; lays flowers about the dead girl's head; abases herself horribly with a husband whom she loves but despises; works with Oak to decorate her rival's grave; goes to the circus; agrees to marry Boldwood out of guilt for having led him on; tries bravely to staunch the wound of her dying husband; virtually proposes to another man (Oak) when she's hardly out of mourning; loves chastity, sex, work, music, her own beauty, stoicism, and agriculture; acts with contradictory cruelty and kindness; loves and resents male strength; ends up having chosen all of her suitors.

Hardy tries to express painful truths through her that most people would like to deny. Near the end, for instance, she says to Oak with an awful matter-of-factness: “I have thought so much more of you since I fancied you did not want even to see me again” (LVI, 303). After all they have gone through, this sympathetic being nevertheless tells him in effect: To arouse my desire and win me, don't be nice; be mean. Threaten me with loss. Cupid is an imp of the perverse. Hardy, through Bathsheba's amorous response to indifference and the threat of loss, is getting at something deep about the feminine push for independence. A buried resentment wells up in her—and in other high-spirited nineteenth-century heroines, like Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Natasha Rostov, and Meredith's Clara Middleton—against being fixed as an object of desire by a conventionally good man, rather than acting herself as a desiring entity. To be put on a pedestal, to be idolized, means becoming inert, losing selfhood, as does having to admire what is conventionally respectable. To follow desire, no matter how ill-chosen, is to begin to assume full individuality.

Hardy, through Bathsheba, is candid about the abasement of love. When Troy proves a bad husband, she scorns him in her heart; but then she opens the coffin of his dead lover Fanny and sees her with the stillborn child. At Troy's return, Bathsheba's revulsion for him fades in a moment. She knows, as he kisses the dead woman, how absolute his betrayal has been, but all her feelings coalesce. Grabbing him she screams, “from the deepest deep of her heart—‘Don't—don't kiss them. O, Frank, I can't bear it—I can't! I love you better than she did: kiss me too, Frank—kiss me! You will, Frank, kiss me too!’” (XLIII, 230).

Not much has been said about this scene. It may be shocking and melodramatic, but only someone who has never felt a hint of the power of love to debase—never felt the impulse to hang on at all costs, never seen the execution of the abandoned self in the cold eyes of a beloved—could miss the emotional force of this passage. Many want to forget the abjection that can come with erotic desire. Surely, however, there is something soothing in the resilience of Hardy's own creative imagination when he makes this figure cry out the truth of the agonizing vulnerability of being in love—“Loving is a misery for women always. I shall never forgive God for making me a woman” (XXX, 154)—but then goes on to describe the delight and promise with which she marries Oak.

Let us return to Bathsheba's remark, when Boldwood badgers her about what exactly she feels for him: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Hardy, in representing this woman, is trying to realize that insight. Bathsheba avoids fixity, she points to and sometimes embodies a protean way of being that resists the structure of definition. When Troy refuses her that kiss, she rushes away into the autumnal fern hollow turned as rank as festering eroticism. Hardy, through Bathsheba, is figuring in the text an intuition that resists abstraction and may lend itself to charges of sentimentalization and “pathetic fallacy.” This creative perception works as art but tends to fade when we try to describe it in the categorizing language made chiefly by men.

But let me try: Bathsheba is not a symbol of nature or natural existence, but neither is she separable from nature. Hardy not only makes clear that her being and libido inhabit the fern hollow, he cannot imagine, in this book, that the fern hollow exists in any conceivable form without her. Her being, the pervasiveness of erotic desire for and by her, and the pastoral love she provokes, merge into the sheep, into the hiving bees, the landscape, the lightning, and most of the rest of what we see: her character and what is visible are not separably meaningful. The terse sentence that best epitomizes her essence opens the penultimate chapter in which, after all the calamities, she woos Oak: “Bathsheba revived with the spring” (LVI, 297). That does not simply say that she, being a natural creature, is influenced by the seasonal buoyancy. Hardy's insight is comparable to Botticelli's in the Primavera: we are wrong, we betray our real experience and perceptions of life and art, if we cannot see that the beautiful image of the woman and the reviving spring are ineluctably fused, that what we mean and understand by “spring” does not exist without that desirable configuration. It is the flow of Bathsheba's being into the world and the eye that arouses pastoral feeling for life and causes the voice of the dove to be heard in the land.

Troy: The seducer, the huckster of desire and instant gratification, the Paris of Wessex—he matters also. Lying to women, he flatters them, tells them what they want to hear, persuades them to trust and uncover. The novel makes him a Don Juan and shows in him the democratization of that mythic figure. Hardy does not moralize much on him, but in the squalid consequences of Troy's sexual victimizing he makes clear, better than most moralists, why the threat of Don Juan haunted the Western imagination and why people, though they might feel some envy and admiration for him, were so sincerely ready to damn and hate him.

A bastard born of erotic desire, the progeny of a lord and a maid—noblesse oblige and servitude—Troy seeks to replicate explosive moments of erotic euphoria. Unable to defer satisfaction, he acts out of impulse, makes sudden, splashy gestures, and embodies a nasty version of the romantic temper, which has always been conjoined with the thrill and menace of sexual attraction. He personifies at moments pure sexuality, without past or future, that loose phallic cannon on the ship of civilization. All time is now for him, and such people, though exciting, are dangerous: “He was a man to whom memories were an incumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity. Simply feeling, considering, and caring for what was before his eyes, he was vulnerable only in the present” (XXV, 130). Hardy goes on to say that Troy can be considered lucky, since recall often works like a disease, and absolute faith, the only comfortable form of looking ahead, is practically impossible for a contemporary human being.

As Bathsheba's first love, he has a feeling for what will touch and move her. In his early scenes with her, we get the gaiety—as we do not elsewhere—in the flirting ways of men and maids. He brings erotic desire into her ken; Troy knows what people like. The trouble is, what they like may not be good for them. Master of swordplay, he is not really a soldier, but a showman and a salesman. In terms of the plot, he helps make possible the flourishing of Oak's love; pastoralism needs erotic flash. But pastoral love, to endure, must keep the inevitable fall of Troy in perspective.

Boldwood: Love comes to him like syphilis to the South Sea islanders. More than a figure of aberrant psychology, he manifests important tendencies in erotic history. A devotee to a terrible internalized love deity, he appears as a familiar enough creature of the Victorian age: a love-struck man whose regard turns a woman into an object—not a sex object but a religious icon on whom he projects all meaning and value.

The valentine Bathsheba sends out of mischief and chance hits him like the heart attack it is and turns him into a scary romantic-obsessive. Over forty, and never having been in love, he becomes abject and compulsive. At first, his condition resembles Oak's and, later, Bathsheba's: “[H]e was now,” says Hardy, in memorable words about what being in love feels like, “living outside his defences for the first time, and with a fearful sense of exposure” (XVIII, 96-97). But Boldwood, unlike Oak, cannot really see or know the other, the woman Bathsheba. He is like Pip, who, fixated, fetishizes Estella; except that Boldwood is middle-aged and inflexible. Symbolically, his fate is told in the vision of him staring at Bathsheba's valentine: “Here the bachelor's gaze was continually fastening itself, till the large red seal became as a blot of blood on the retina of his eye; and as he ate and drank he still read in fancy the words thereon …—‘MARRY ME’” (XIV, 80). In his solipsistic fixation, the blot on his retina stays permanently, and when he gazes at the card, “The vision of the woman writing, as a supplement to the words written, had no individuality” (XIV, 81). Bathsheba is a romantic injunction and fantasy inscribed in his mind, not an independent woman. And when, with this new shaft of love in him, he walks out to look at the morning, he sees “over the snowy down … the only half of the sun yet visible … like a red and flameless fire shining over a white hearthstone” (XIV, 81). The bloody-looking valentine expands to become his heart, his world, and the whole spectacle of his life.

How fitting that Boldwood turns out to be an actual fetishist, with a locked-away horde of ladies' dresses, jewelry, and the like, “brought home by stealth,” neatly packaged and marked “Bathsheba Boldwood” (LV, 294). He has made a fetish of her, calling her life. He wants to own her and cherish her as a wonderful possession—a self-possession; and proof that she is an object shows through in his indifference to the fact that she does not at all love him. Love can be—often is—a fetishism of one's self, one's emotions, one's desire. Fetishism develops when the thing or configuration that symbolizes and is associated with one's love itself becomes the object of erotic desire and emotion. Feelings change; it is easy to lose the symbolic flow. My love may be like a red, red rose, but then I may stop seeing or loving the woman or man and keep loving and feeling the erotic power of the rose. Or I may love the name of the rose and the narrative of love.

The fetishist, however, lacks dignity; he acts out the theme of erotic abasement. Hardy psychologizes Boldwood and makes him more introspective than any of the other characters. His mind, finally “crazed with care and love” (LV, 295), resembles the locked closet with the collection of articles that symbolize Bathsheba, but that she never sees. Boldwood loses pastoral feeling and true vocation; he can see only what is inside his head, the image of his longing. One of love's men in the dark, deranged and locked away from the light by solipsistic eroticism, he is ruled by a blind love god sprung from his own head, engendered by caprice. Imagine him alone, surreptitiously fondling and arranging the clothes, the bracelets, the golden things he has bought for Bathsheba. That is love as idolatry, a common blasphemy of the desperate idealist against life.

Fanny Robin: She is the victim of Troy's sexual sword, one for whom the Cyprian's name is Death. Her presence reminds us of why, until recently, a society could not for long sentimentalize eroticism or treat it frivolously. Like Eliot's Hetty Sorrel and Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, she embodies the doom that has always threatened to sap and spoil erotic faith: unwanted pregnancy.

In all of Hardy, no fate is harsher than Fanny's, no passage bleaker than her trek on the Casterbridge highway (XL). Late in her pregnancy, starving and cold, she struggles pitifully to get to the poorhouse, where she thinks Troy may meet her. Her trip is like something out of Samuel Beckett, only without the jokes: at first barely able to propel herself on homemade crutches, then not at all, she finally gets there, mostly dead, by hanging on to a huge homeless dog. Her quest of love turns her into an agonized, dumb animal; she and her baby die wretchedly.

How can Hardy maintain a hopeful equanimity or any sort of faith when his novel includes such a character and such a fate? We come back again—as we do so often in matters of faith—to the idea of sacrifice. In the religious imagination, figures often die so that others may learn and flourish in spirit (e.g., in the love religion, Lucy Ashton, Cathy Earnshaw, Heathcliff, Paul Emanuel, Miss Havisham, Maggie Tulliver). When Bathsheba confronts the corpses of Fanny and her baby, she is at first bitter: “The one feat alone—that of dying—by which a mean condition could be resolved into a grand one, Fanny had achieved” (XLIII, 228). But that transformation from “mean” to “grand” is not limited to the self. As Bathsheba changes and warms, those words on the victim's death take on a redemptive, even religious, meaning. The sacrifice of Fanny helps move the narrative and Bathsheba out of erotic chaos towards a new kind of love.

Hardy, looking for a living creed in the world, imagines one more important “character” that makes his pastoral come alive: the chorus of country folk. If all flesh is grass, that at least means that flesh will always be. These people exist collectively in vocational relationship to nature and to each other; they constitute a kind of human landscape, a continuous entity that is the mortal equivalent of nature's revolving, returning year. In essence, they personify “good nature” and its communal voice, distilling erotic wisdom in a vivid comic poetry of the flock. Again and again we get language such as this by a servant bewailing her single state: “what between the poor men I won't have, and the rich men who won't have me, I stand as a pelican in the wilderness” (IX, 63).


Orthodox religion counts for little in the novel, except as a tradition that induces ritual habits and as Scripture, which serves as a body of common knowledge and a source of analogous that brings continuity to people's daily experience. The novel's pastoral love seems to antedate and outlast the Christian model of pastoralism, which appears here as a historical variety of something larger. Before the priest, there was the love-dazed shepherd; before the congregation, the flock. The great barn, which he describes famously in chapter XXII as the temple of the sheepshearing and the religion of “daily bread,” is more holy than the church and, in its form, older.

Consider the sentence, “The defence and salvation of the body by daily bread is still a study, a religion, and a desire” (XXII, 114). Though the novel stresses and honors the vocation of gaining the sustenance to support life, “daily bread” is neither the subject nor the savior in the book. If we say the defence and salvation of the body by love is still a study, a religion, and a desire, we describe the pastoral activity and faith of Oak and the point of view of “Hardy,” and we characterize Far from the Madding Crowd generally.

Claude's Judgment of Paris can again help in reading the narrative and seeing its meaning. Look, if you can find it, at Paris's golden apple and what the painting does to it. That idol of fetishistic beauty, sexual yearning, and inert mammonism—so prominent in Bronzino's view of corrupted love—is lost in the expanse and flow of nature, diminished almost to nothing by the tree and its connotations. Hardy chooses to end his novel with these words of Joseph Poorgrass, on leaving the newly wedded Bathsheba and Oak: “I wish him joy o' her; though I were once or twice upon saying to-day with holy Hosea, in my scripture manner …, ‘Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone.’ [4:17] But since 'tis as 'tis, why, it might have been worse, and I feel my thanks accordingly” (LVII, 308).22 That is puzzling until we go to Hosea and its final chapter. There idolatry ends and growth returns in a way that exactly parallels the novel. From “Ephraim is joined to idols” the prophet moves to this: “His branches shall spread. … They that dwell under his shadow shall return; they shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine: the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon. Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols? … I am like a green fir tree. From me is thy fruit found.” Oak, who embodies and shades amorous desire and pastoral love in this landmark vision of erotic faith, rises like the tree in Claude Lorrain, like the tree in Hosea.


  1. George and Ira Gershwin, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” from the musical Oh, Kay!, 1926.

  2. Sophocles, fragment trans. F. W. Cornford in Gore Vidal's The Judgment of Paris (New York, 1952), p. 361; see The Fragments of Sophocles, Fragment 941, ed. Alfred C. Pearson (Cambridge, 1917).

  3. For comments on the rediscovery of this painting, see John Walker, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, new and revised edition (New York, 1984), p. 310. See also the citations on Claude above in chap. 6, n. 5, especially Röthlisberger.

  4. Florence Emily Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy (New York, 1962), p. 96. All the Life, except the account of the last few years, was really written by Thomas Hardy himself.

  5. For authoritative discussion of pastoral modes, various definitions of the pastoral, bibliographical information on the pastoral, and broad perspective on the subject of the pastoral in literature, see Michael Squires, The Pastoral Novel: Studies in George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence (Charlottesville, Va., 1974); W. W. Greg, Pastoral Poetry and Pastoral Drama (1906, reprinted New York, 1959); William Empson, Some Versions of the Pastoral (1935, reprinted Norfolk, Conn., 1960); Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, The Green Cabinet: Theocritus and the European Pastoral Lyric (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969); Harold E. Toliver, Pastoral Forms and Attitudes (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1971); Frank Kermode, ed., English Pastoral Poetry: From the Beginnings to Marvell (London, 1952); Renato Poggioli, “The Oaten Flute,” Harvard Library Bulletin 11 (1957): 147-84.

  6. See Susan Beegel, “Bathsheba's Lovers: Male Sexuality in Far from the Madding Crowd,” in Sexuality and Victorian Literature, p. 121.

  7. F. E. Hardy, p. 444.

  8. See T. C. W. Stinton, Euripides and the Judgement of Paris (London, 1965), for a full account of the story and development of the judgment of Paris motif in the classical world. See also Karoly Kerényi, The Heroes of the Greeks (London, 1959), trans. H. J. Rose, p. 316, who confirms that the disrobing was a part of later versions of the legend.

  9. Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Criticism, ed. Robert C. Schweik (New York, 1986), Norton Critical Edition, chap. 22, pp. 115-16. All subsequent citations, by chapter and page, are to this edition.

  10. For the prominence of herdsmen in early cultures and in myths and folk tales involving love and love's deities, see Stinton, pp. 51-63, especially p. 60.

  11. F. E. Hardy, p. 98.

  12. Rosalind Miles quotes E. M. Forster, “The Women of Wessex,” in The Novels of Thomas Hardy, ed. Anne Smith (Plymouth and London, 1979), p. 31.

  13. Joan Grundy, Hardy and the Sister Arts (London, 1979), p. 53: “Claude might be described, it seems to me, as one of the unseen presences of this novel.” She speaks of Claude generally. I happily came upon this reference after I had decided to compare his Judgment of Paris with Far from the Madding Crowd.

  14. Squires, p. 37.

  15. One great Oedipal, incestuous complex does storm through this novel, and indeed through most of Hardy's writing: the relationship between himself and Nature and Fate, upon whom he projects the roles and attributes of Mother and Father.

  16. D. H. Lawrence, whose gamekeeper, Lady Chatterley's lover, owes much to Gabriel, wickedly and—it must be said—unfairly compares Oak to “a dog that watches the bone and bides the time” (Selected Literary Criticism, ed. Anthony Beal [New York, 1956], p. 170).

  17. Beegel, p. 113.

  18. Rosalind Miles writes that Hardy “was always in love,” but it never made him happy (p. 23).

  19. My discussion of the storm, the sexuality in the episode, and the meaning of this and other passages has been informed by Susan Beegel's discussion, especially pp. 121-23.

  20. John Bayley, The Characters of Love (New York, 1960).

  21. See Penny Boumelha, Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form (Totowa, N.J., 1982), for a balanced, insightful feminist reading of Hardy's sexual ideology as it emerges in his fictional treatment of women. Boumelha implies that Bathsheba has always been more popular with men than women, and that is probably true. She shows the contradictions in Hardy's characterization of Bathsheba, which reveal, she says, “antagonism” (p. 32) as well as sympathy. I find her a more complex figure than does Boumelha or Rosalind Miles (“Women of Wessex”), and I do not see a shrinking of potential in her; instead, stressing the vocational love passage and the relationship with Oak, I read the genuine possibility for growth. Bathsheba, in context, is not a typical Hardy heroine and ought not to be lumped together with later Hardy women.

  22. See the note by Robert C. Schweik that the Poorgrass quotation from Hosea is “comically irrelevant” (Far from the Madding Crowd, LVII, 308, n. 5). Obviously I disagree.

Linda M. Shires (essay date winter 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8657

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 Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdene, Mrs. Troy, runs away and hides in a fern brake. In a sudden act of revolt, born of humiliation at the hands of her husband, who has just confided his unsurpassed love for the dead Fanny Robin, Bathsheba seeks escape from a domain of male victimization. Running without direction in the darkness, she happens by chance on a thicket that seems familiar and drops down into a deep slumber. This seemingly protected spot, so like the tree-hung enclosure where Tess d'Urberville loses her virginity, appears far more congenial than it is in actuality. Bathsheba, stripped of a role and a right she thought was hers, wishes to slip back into a void of pre-gendered nothingness. The possibility of death, which she seriously entertains, signifies peace from gender struggle and specifically what she perceives as male domination. On a deeper level, however, Bathsheba here enacts a crisis of gender.2

Her disappearance into this wet hollow is fully emblematic of a return to the womb. Indeed, because it is extremely damp, she even loses her voice, the most authoritative, acculturated aspect of herself. Losing her power over language, the strong farmer is reduced to a lost infant. It is as if Hardy, who has revealed Bathsheba, in the early part of the text, to be a colorfully coy temptress and has later shown her as a willful woman in a male profession, forces her to start over again.

On the level of story, this pivotal scene not only continues to define the heroine, but actually rebirths her. Relying on condensation as if a dream, it also operates as a triple gender scenario: it is a fantasy of gender annulment, a scene of gender mixing, and a drama of sexual choice. In this sense, Chapter 44, to which I will return, encapsulates the deepest concerns of the novel.

From its publication, Far from the Madding Crowd generated, like other novels by Hardy, a paper trail on gender, sex, and power. But more than others, it encouraged comment and confusion about gender—both that of its author and that of its hero and heroine, Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene. When Far from the Madding Crowd appeared anonymously in the Cornhill Magazine, the Spectator review of January 3, 1874 insisted that Thomas Hardy's serial must have been written by a woman, none other than the George Eliot of Adam Bede. Such a mistake fascinates by its utter rightness and wrongness. For the reviewer accurately picks up the gender blurring of the text, but attributes it to a woman with a man's name who has written a patriarchal pastoral. In so doing, he mistakes the situation of the novel's authoring for the very topic of the narrative. Hardy, however, has taken immense pains to write a non-patriarchal pastoral, so seduced is he by his own love for the unaggressive feminine, which he does not limit to one sex.

Hardy was reported to have been both flattered and distressed by the authorial gender confusion.3 He must have been equally frustrated, however, by the critical reception of his heroine. To Henry James she was “inconsequential, wilful” and “mettlesome,” unable to be understood or liked.4 The reviewer of the Observer was even more critical, citing her lack of modesty and expressing sorrow that “Gabriel Oak was not sufficiently manly to refuse to have anything more to say to such an incorrigible hussy.”5 Both of these glib reactions unfruitfully align biology, stereotyped gender roles, and power. Both fail to regard the signifying activity of this text, which totally destabilizes gender and power.

Feminist critics have not paid sufficient attention to Far From the Madding Crowd, but when they have written on it, they have often just reversed the male Victorian reviewers' opinions. The two most recent assessments, while allowing for female sexuality as resistance in a male-dominated world, read the text as predominantly a male discourse intent on taming the heroine.6 They have no problem in fixing the gender of the author, nor do they need to create any distance between a strong-willed woman like Bathsheba and themselves. And they do not find Oak lacking in manliness; indeed they read him as a patriarch who would control Bathsheba from the start, and who does in the end. They present Bathsheba, finally, as passive, entangled in a sexual ideology which positions the woman only in terms of her being desired and not in terms of her desiring, and thus as trapped by the regard of her suitors.7 In such an interpretation, the woman farmer, so resistant to becoming man's property, is gazed at obsessively by Oak, taken in by the sexual aggressor Troy, humiliated first by him and then by the persistence of Farmer Boldwood, broken, and married off to Oak in a final gesture of Hardyesque taming.8

Such feminist criticism, eloquent and important though it may be on the issue of woman's oppression, runs the risk of reverse sexism. As Michèle Barrett has argued: “An analysis of gender ideology in which women are always innocent, always passive victims of patriarchal power, is patently not satisfactory.”9 This is a particularly grievous error in the case of Hardy's work, not because he is a woman-worshipper, itself suspect, but because his texts award and deny power of differing kinds to both sexes unpredictably. His commitment to documenting the vagaries of existence mandates that, in spite of the sexual ideologies of his day, he does not believe in a dialectical theory of power where one sex oppresses the other, but rather in power as shifting, as attained and lost by multiple negotiations which cross gender, age, and class in a world he perceives as inconsistent, illogical, and “made up so largely of compromise” (74). His point of view is part of, but not a mere reflection of, a complicated conflict over gender and power being waged at the site of late-Victorian female subjectivity.

Gender and power are not permanently aligned in Far from the Madding Crowd. In order to offer a more complex reading of the text than prior feminist work, this essay, drawing on a theoretical perspective of narratology, informed by psychoanalysis and semiotics, will expose some of the ruptures and excesses which continually destabilize power and gender. I am specifically concerned with the representation of gender and how it alters in the text before sexual difference is re-established through the fixing of closure.10 I have chosen not to discuss class or other marks of difference in this essay because while my methodology could be adapted for such analysis, space does not permit an adequate working out of the class-gender axis. Class thus remains the necessary term for an even more persuasive argument.

While prior feminist readings align power with the male and victimization with the female, and thus the cultural construction of gender with biology, I will argue for Hardy's representations of gender as subtle, mobile, and heterogenous. I will first explore the representation of masculinity through analysis of the seemingly male-engendered events of gazing at the female and of wielding weapons. Finally, two critical events of gender crisis and choice will serve as examples for my analysis of femininity. Feminists must attend more closely not only to those social meanings kept in place by alignments of gender and power at the start and the close of a text, but also to those which circulate disruptively. Such a strategy can splinter the monolith of patriarchy and make room for female power.


Because any narrative organizes signifying activity and places signifying units in that field, elements of narrative such as story, character, temporal order, and others function as signs in the same way that a word or image does. Thus a given narrative, like Far from the Madding Crowd can be broken down and segmented in order to identify the most stressful points of emphasis and strain which are organized by structure and stabilized by closure. Furthermore, while the narrative system appears to determine a given text's meaning by containing the play of narrativity within a closed form, a narrative structure can never guarantee or exhaust meaning.11

An “ideal” narrative, according to Tzvetan Todorov, begins with a stable situation: here, for instance, steady bachelor Oak, sheep-owner, observes and hopes to marry the young Bathsheba. There results a state of disequilibrium, which in this text has much to do with gender, sexuality, and social power: Bathsheba refuses him; Oak loses his ability to provide for a wife; Bathsheba inherits her uncle's farm; she falls in love with and marries Troy; Boldwood falls in love with her, etc. By the action of a force directed in the opposite direction, the equilibrium is re-established: Bathsheba recognizes that she does not want to lose Oak, now her farm manager, a landowner himself, and a friend, so she visits him, indicating her interest sufficiently enough that he proposes again and they marry.12

A story recounts this type of transformation in two ways. It syntagmatically places events in a sequence to organize signifying relations of addition and combination. For example, Bathsheba sends a Valentine to Boldwood, he falls in love, he gazes on her at the market. But events are also structured paradigmatically so that one event replaces another, organizing relations of substitution and selection based on location, character, or event type, as when a herd of sheep, Fanny Robin, and Sergeant Troy all die. For purposes of analysis, then, a story can be segmented into events, and events can be distinguished from each other (and so identified as signifiers) according to the way in which the story sets them in a structure of syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations.

As is obvious from the examples, the paradigmatic structure of a story stresses the importance of closure as a means of containing the movement that the syntagmatic structure produces, halting the linear unfolding with a closure which discloses. Thus, while Far from the Madding Crowd propels its story forward through postponement (organizing a field of commutable and plural meanings through misunderstandings, chance connections, and so forth, which all delay closure), it also structures events paradigmatically to reach that point of closure where all story movement ceases: Gabriel and Bathsheba finally marry.

Narratology can thus aid in answering questions which earlier feminist critics have not worked out: what is the nature of Oak's masculinity and power? How have they been negotiated in the text? And how does the construction of masculinity in the text provide a context for interpretation of the closure? Finally, how are we to assess Bathsheba at the end of the text—is she really just stifled and recuperated by Oak?

Oak's story is that of the loss and regaining of power and masculinity. With his initial failure at sheepherding, he loses all stakes in a better life and must start over, humbling himself, as it turns out, before Bathsheba. He becomes, in fact, a servant to the woman farmer, who with “remarkable coolness” (115) and “imperiousness” (173) commands and demands, treating him little better than Troy will treat her.

But in addition, Oak's story is that of gender blurring. The text posits male gender identity in economic, emotional, linguistic, legal, and moral terms. But there are no gender essences for men or women. Each sex is traited with qualities opposite those by which culture would define them. Oak's traits of passivity, modesty, and trusting patience belong to the gender role that Victorians attributed to the female, a role most explicitly defined (as the opposite of Bathsheba) by the chorus of locals, and best exemplified in Fanny Robin. Oak, like Tess, falls asleep at critical moments; he does not, like Henchard, attempt to repress the feminine in himself.13 Rather, he attempts to repress male desire.

One can argue, in fact, that for Oak to regain power and re-establish his “proper” gender role, the masculinities of Troy and Boldwood must do each other in. Oak can become empowered only through his relation to them (his difference from them) and theirs to each other. He does not become empowered merely by sexual opposition through his relation to Bathsheba or merely by comparability to other men who traffic in women, but also by difference from other men. The central issue here is whether or not Oak regains his masculinity at the close through the defeat of Bathsheba, through her losing her pride or her independence.

The typical pattern of generic closure for the realist novel, which is also a domestic romance, a patriarchally controlled heterosexual marriage, does not tell the whole story, though many critics read the text through its closure, while still allowing it is a problematic ending. This ending validates friendship—the motive which terminates the syntagm—as the only fitting rationale for marriage. It also fixes gender and power so that Bathsheba is recuperated into the domestic sphere as wife to the new master who is cheered with cannon shot for his success by a chorus of male friends and subordinates. To realign power with the male, the closure puts in jeopardy both female power outside the domestic sphere and male passivity. Yet closure must be interpreted in light of what has come before—what this closure means, then, depends on what Gabriel and Bathsheba and power have also come to mean. Textual movement around the stake of masculinity and power can be clearly seen by examining the apparently fixed gender value of certain “middle” paradigmatic events, male gazing and the wielding of weapons.

Critics have noted Hardy's persistent fascination with the play of gazes, whether narcissistic into mirrors, or scopophilic objectification and fetishization. Far from the Madding Crowd provides a perfect example of this fascination, and many readers have commented on the repetition of gazing.14 Gazing is most prominent in this novel when the male looks at the female, as in the inauguration of the story when Gabriel watches Bathsheba who is preening in a mirror. This accident piques his curiosity enough to prompt subsequent spying on her. And the first event of male gazing is further reinforced in the text by the pleading looks of Boldwood, who “had never before inspected a woman with the very centre and force of his glance” (150). His looks take the measure of Bathsheba carefully and, at first, secretly. Furthermore, Troy's “gaze” is described as initially “too strong to be received point-blank with her own” (193). She does, however, fairly soon afterward, allow the glint of his sword blade to sow and reap around her body—shaping her as if she were a cutout.

Yet it is insufficient to dwell on the paradigmatic comparability of these looks, collapsing them into a monolithic patriarchal male gaze. All events of gazing might seem to signify the same thing: possession of the female as object. Yet because a paradigmatic event is part of a sequence which necessarily changes its value, each event of male gazing signifies somewhat differently.

The alignment of gazing with male power is disrupted doubly in Far from the Madding Crowd: both by significant differences among the looks and by exposure of the female as gazer. Oak, to be sure, idealizes Bathsheba and even casts her as a divinity, a version of Venus, Ashtoreth, as well as a fleshly country girl. At the start of the book, he stereotypes her and prides himself that he can win her. Initially he is the male investigator who gazes at woman as enigma. Yet the value of his gazing does shift significantly as the story unfolds.

Troy's gazing is more sexually aggressive than Oak's, but it is by no means one-sided. Although we think of him as the supreme tempter with his extraordinary sword-play, he confides that he would not have married Bathsheba unless she were an Aphrodite who, in fact, seduced him. His perception of Bathsheba as an active gazer herself is perhaps best substantiated by the fact that she gets entrapped by his spur and dazzled by his brilliant brass and scarlet during her nightly “look” around the homestead, when “watching is best done invisibly” (191), and by her later race through the night after him.

Moreover, Troy even plays the spectacle for Bathsheba, not merely with his dazzling swordplay, but through masquerade when he assumes her identity. Donning her bee-hiver's outfit, Captain Troy flirts with being feminized, the object of her gaze, but he also removes cultural armor from her. “He looked such an extraordinary object in this guise that, flurried as she was, she could not avoid laughing outright. It was the removal of yet another stake from the palisade of cold manners which had kept him off” (211). In this drama of sexual likeness and re-established difference, Troy seduces Bathsheba into intimacy with him and into a further recognition of her seductive powers. This patriarchal gaze is matched. On both sides, however, the romance of projected desire soon fades, only to be replaced by negative views.

Of the three men, Boldwood, wishing to possess Bathsheba from first to last, gazes most perniciously and unrelentingly. His looks follow her wherever she goes and his looks, Hardy implies, go everywhere. Boldwood even demands that she wear a ring for six years in secret courtship as a promise that she will wed him in the end (397-399). His “ideal passion” (132) distorts his life as much as it distorts hers, and in a way finally more dangerous than Troy's fickle and wandering gaze. Once Boldwood looks directly at her, this “hotbed of tropic intensity” is struck for life.13 He is a man always “hit mortally, or he was missed” (153). Therefore, his love must remain in the mode of idolatry, but as worship of what? For with Boldwood we see the immense cost of the sadistic quality of the male gaze when it turns into masochism and he becomes his own victim. (See Freud for a persuasive deconstruction of the binary.) It is not Bathsheba that Boldwood worships—she is not, finally, the object of his patriarchal male gaze. Rather, Boldwood worships his own ability to look, his own sexual urge, and his own imagined objectification. It is no accident, I think, that Boldwood places the Valentine from Bathsheba in the corner of his looking glass, and then a day later jumps out of bed and catches sight of himself there, “insubstantial in form” (133) during a fit of “nervous excitability” (134). Only being seen by Bathsheba will restore his form. It is also no accident that upon his waking, the whole natural scene is described in terms of “flameless fire,” blurred whiteness, and polished marble, with grass encased in icicles bristling through snow like “curved shapes of old Venetian glass” (134). Boldwood becomes the very glass of his gaze. If he can not become an acknowledged sexual object, death appears most welcome. Yet it is the discipline of imprisonment that will finally objectify Boldwood. When imprisoned and watched for the rest of his life, he is punished for more than the murder of Troy. He is also punished for what the murder signifies; Boldwood is condemned in this text for looking too much, for desiring too much.

Oak is more persistent in his gazing than Troy, but, unlike Boldwood, Gabriel does not idealize or objectify Bathsheba when she has once rejected him. Nor is he, like Boldwood, fascinated with his own ability to possess. He modifies his gaze to accommodate changing circumstances, resolving not to be governed by an uncontrollable male desire. Through the unfolding of the text, Oak alters his view of Bathsheba quite considerably, without losing his desire for her. Like Troy, he is initially stunned by her physical attractiveness and, like Boldwood, he is captivated emotionally. Yet during the course of the novel, he criticizes her for her own exhibitionism and narcissism; at the same time, he is curbing his own looking. Specifically, he confronts her with her brutal handling of Boldwood—the careless seduction, the broken promises, and her lack of self-control, all of which aid another in ruining himself. Some critics have argued that Oak retreats from desire through moralism, a point of view certainly substantiated by the hierarchy of discourses in the text and by his position as the main filter of events. Yet there is a larger point to be made. Oak criticizes Bathsheba for her own patriarchal toying with another as if he were a mere object, a criticism of her which she comes to share: “I've been a rake” (380). Thus, Oak is not retreating from desire into moralism, but is attempting a re-definition of desire, both his own and Bathsheba's.

Power relations inscribed in this realist novel by the event of gazing, then, are not as stable as the regime itself. Further discriminations can be drawn from the examples above. The conjunction of manliness and lack of power occurs through narrative event at the site of each male character discussed, but to a different degree and with a different value. The man with the most relentless gaze, Boldwood, is the least powerful as the events of the story progress. The text posits that for him lack of power and manliness are in contradiction. His very masculinity, in other words, is at stake in his power struggle over the body/image of Bathsheba. With his first loss of her to Troy, his response is self-denial: “I had better go … and hide” (236); with his second loss of her to Troy, his response is to kill that more powerful male, annulling entirely the possibility of future comparisons, except those of remorseful memory. It is clear that Boldwood signifies a desperate, bullying, and self-consuming masculinity that the text needs to eliminate.

Lack of power and manliness are also in contradiction for Troy, although he is flexible enough to play briefly with powerlessness, even as he is divided enough to harbor sentimental and self-indulgent grief over the dead Fanny. When he dresses up in Bathsheba's clothes, becoming her object while he also resembles the female as object, he is quick to re-establish male/female difference. His flirtation with the unheroic lasts only momentarily: “‘Would you be good enough to untie me and let me out? I am nearly stifled inside this silk cage’” (212), and leads directly to a re-assertion of male military power on the same evening with the sword exercise before a static Bathsheba. The next time Troy dresses up it will not be in female garb but as a “male performer” (364). Although the later scenes emphasize the new conjunction of acting with masculinity (Troy is Professor of Gymnastics, Pugilism, Sword Exercise, Roughriding etc.), the syntagm also demonstrates that when Troy is “not himself” and Bathsheba is present, he feels as stifled as if he were dressing up as a lady. Indeed, his cross-dressing and acting suggest that masculinity is a kind of garb, but a necessary prop to support the requirements of Troy's subjectivity.

Lack of power and manliness can be combined, however, without contradiction at the character site of Gabriel Oak. If annulment of identity is necessary for Boldwood and the re-assertion of sexual difference is necessary for Troy, gender mixing is possible for Oak. One of the most important scenes in the text illustrates this gender mixing in light of Oak's curbing of his sexual interest in Bathsheba.

This scene forms part of another paradigmatic pattern of events: the male use of phallic weapons. Busy with sheepshearing, Oak notices Boldwood's sudden and commanding appearance on the hillside. Bathsheba blushes, rides off, and returns in her new, stylish, myrtle-green riding habit. Oak is stunned. “Oak's eyes could not forsake them; and in endeavoring to continue his shearing at the same time that he watched Boldwood's manner, he snipped the sheep in the groin” (180). Other feminists have interpreted this scene by connecting it to earlier and later scenes where men bear phallic weapons: Troy's sword, Boldwood's gun.14 They interpret Oak's cut as directed against Bathsheba, whom the ewe represents (about to be branded with her sign BE). And the words of the text here do support such a reading. It is implied that Oak is getting back at his mistress. Bathsheba, Oak tells us, knew that she was the cause of the wounding, “because she had wounded the ewe's shearer in a still more vital part” (180).

Yet there is another paradigmatic connection which should be made, which alters the meaning of this event: the earlier wounding of sheep. An early chapter called “Bathsheba's Departure—A Pastoral Tragedy” features Oak as primarily responsible through negligence for the wounding, and subsequent death, of his sheep just after Bathsheba has left the neighborhood. The narrator describes Oak's response to the dead carcasses:

Oak was an intensely humane man … a shadow in his life had always been that his flock ended in mutton—that a day came and found every shepherd an arrant traitor to his defenseless sheep. His first feeling now was one of pity for the untimely fate of these gentle ewes and their unborn lambs.


This passage describes a shepherd in the pastoral world touched by a natural tragedy. Although he has been stung by the intensity of sexual passion at this point in the text, and although it has turned his world topsy-turvy, this scene shows us the Oak who has puts thoughts of Bathsheba aside as he confronts his failed labor. Oak the caretaker, who winces if he hurts a ewe, tenderly identifies with the animals. The sheep are an extension of himself—his object of care, his livelihood, his companions.15 Although he has been affected by Bathsheba's beauty enough to propose marriage, Oak mourns the loss of his sheep more than the loss of her. This concern for his labor and for the animals he tends is not erased by subsequent events. Indeed, it is reinforced by his dexterous surgery on Bathsheba's flock with an “instrument of salvation,” a “trochar, with a lance” (174).

By the time Oak sees Boldwood approach Bathsheba, he has learned to control his sexual desire for her and has repeatedly schooled himself with “the abiding sense of his inferiority to both herself and Boldwood” (180). Only “manly resolve” (180) has enabled him to realize he has “no lover's interest in her” (181), helping him to conceal feelings which can not be entirely banished. Resolutions, in other words, vulnerable constructions though they may be, are being made and usually kept. On the occasion of sheepshearing, Oak slips with the knife. Sexuality and jealousy have mastered him momentarily. The “routine” with which he stops the flow of blood, however, speaks to the routine with which he stops his own desire. Becoming phallic when he views what he perceives as a budding love relationship, he quickly returns to the role of healer. If the ewe is an emblem for Bathsheba, then, it is as much an emblem of his own femininity, his softness, which he must wound sadistically, in a symbolic act of self-castration, to avoid being more deeply wounded. Hurting the ewe distracts him from the world of love, just as mourning the loss of sheep earlier supplanted Bathsheba's departure in importance.

The scene of sheepshearing locates gender with Oak, but sexual difference with the sighting of Bathsheba and Boldwood. Just as the ewe is feminine, representing Bathsheba, it is also able to signify the vulnerability of Oak. By extension, in a double cut of himself, Oak wounds not only male desire but also his female sentiment. Yet his manliness and power, though revealed to be vulnerable, are not left in doubt. Nor are they reasserted through an extreme display of masculinity.16

Fixed gender roles which oppress women harshly, especially when allied with class inferiority, as in the case of Fanny Robin, are important in this text. But a connection of power with the male sex and victimization with the female sex oversimplifies the struggle of gender and power. A passive and an active sexuality, which are themselves complicated by a sadism becoming masochism and a masochism becoming sexual repression, as well as a scopophilia which can turn into exhibitionism, vie with each other across the slash of sexual difference (m/f) until they are themselves tied up in the knot/closure of marriage.17


If Hardy deals with masculinity and power through representations of gender aligned with the acts performed by three men, thus dividing up the possible varieties and shifts of male power, he locates the issue femininity and power largely with the acts of one female character: Bathsheba. It would be disingenuous for any critic to ignore the importance of Fanny Robin in a discussion such as this one, for she claims, in one sense, more power than any woman in the text. She is worshipped, wept over, and even paid tribute to by Bathsheba herself. Yet she is most interesting for contrast.

This section of the essay will argue that through the representation of Bathsheba in two critical scenes which jeopardize and fix her sexual identity, Hardy poses the question of “What is woman?” His answer to this question is an unconventional organization of gender and power. These events, particularly, mark discursive struggle over the cultural construction of femininity: Bathsheba's viewing of Fanny's corpse and her subsequent flight to the fern brake.

When Fanny Robin is known to be dead, Bathsheba performs the traditional courtesies extended to a servant of the family: she sends for the body with a wagon bestrewn with flowers and she has the coffin brought into her house. Yet, she also senses that there is something extraordinary about this servant. “Bathsheba had grounds for conjecturing a connection between her own history and the dimly suspected tragedy of Fanny's end” (321). When Liddy quickly repeats a rumor that Fanny has born a child who is also lying in the coffin, Bathsheba decides she must learn more. At first she walks to Oak's cottage for help, but turns back, resolving to discover the truth by herself. It is significant that she does turn back because the scene becomes a startlingly powerful confrontation of a woman with femininity. At first, having pried open the lid of the coffin and having seen Fanny and her child, Bathsheba does not register femininity, but the trace of masculine betrayal: “conclusive proof of her husband's conduct” (323).

Continuing to view the corpses, Bathsheba confronts the female as Other who has come between herself and her husband. It is shocking to face her blonde-haired, white-faced rival. On one hand, she wishes to obtain equal power by dying. Yet, on the other hand, she wishes for the power to hurl recriminations at a Fanny still alive. Recoiling almost immediately from death wishes and anger, Bathsheba prays for Fanny instead, placing flowers around her hair. In so doing, she symbolically embraces her likeness, as if intuiting here what she later acknowledges in another act of placing flowers: that she and Fanny are victims of Troy.

With the entrance of Troy himself, the private agony of Bathsheba is set into a larger sexual drama. For Troy organizes the scene in terms of kinds of womanliness by first kissing Fanny and then boldly stating: “This woman is more to me, dead as she is, than ever you were, or are, or can be” (327). Shutting out Bathsheba entirely, he addresses Fanny as his true wife. In other words, though both women hold the position of “wife,” Troy claims Fanny is more his wife, more womanly than Bathsheba. He exposes fully the gap which exists for him between the ideal (now dead) and the real (still alive) of femininity. In addition, though the point is not made directly by Troy, Fanny is the truer wife because she has produced his child, because she is a mother, while Bathsheba is not.

If this scene, through Troy's intervention, posits womanliness as beauty, innocence, and fertility, it also posits such femaleness as dead. Throughout the text, Troy's actions with Fanny are judged harshly, as is his treatment of Bathsheba here. More crucially, Hardy is not supporting the ideology of womanliness as child-producing, an important aspect of the ideology of the angel in the house. He kills the mother here as he destroys her or her children elsewhere in his novels. Likewise, this scene calls into question the ideology of the woman as child-figure. During the conversation with Troy, Bathsheba cries out against severance of the union with him. She exclaims as a child might: “Kiss me too, Frank—kiss me!” (326) in a manner described as “abnormal and startling” in its “childlike pain and simplicity from a woman of Bathsheba's calibre and independence” (326). This representation of woman as mother or as child is not the “ideal” against which women are to be measured in this text.

Bathsheba's complicated encounter with Fanny's corpse first stages a scene of female castration, which marks the female as lack, both through Fanny's theft of Bathsheba's power and then through its negation by Troy. (In addition, Fanny's own power is awarded to her by Troy only when she is dead). Conversely, the male is awarded knowledge of “true” femininity; he is empowered by having had the body and devotion of one woman and the love and jealousy of another. And he is further marked as having the phallus by having fathered a child (though the fact that the child is dead too, and ungendered by the narrative, is a significant Hardy qualification, which reinforces his prior and subsequent treatment of Troy's masculinity).

It is highly significant that Bathsheba runs away. Seeing the representation that Troy would attach to Fanny and herself, Bathsheba no longer recognizes the woman she is. The scene of the corpse, through Troy's intervention, becomes one of a misrecognition of femininity. “If she's—that,—what—am I?” cries Bathsheba with despair and indignation (327). Not seeing her femaleness in his view of her femaleness, she does not know who she is. Yet she will find out.

Hardy thus questions in Far from the Madding Crowd not only conventional constructions of masculinity, but also conventional constructions of femininity. In running to the fern brake, Bathsheba enters first an imaginary world and is then, just as in the last scene, re-interpellated into the symbolic order, but differently. If the first scene threatens to negate her power entirely, this scene restores it and inaugurates a different organization of gender and power. It emphasizes not what a man sees and how his view can cancel out woman's view of herself, but what she sees herself. Just as the episode of sheepshearing works to realign masculinity and power, Bathsheba's running to the fern brake demonstrates that womanliness and power can be combined at a character site and not be in contradiction.

The scene first organizes sexuality in terms of gender blurring. Having thought of “nothing better to do with her palpitating self” (328) for the night, the self-divided Bathsheba wakes up, voiceless but refreshed. With the morning light, the fern brake is misty and blurred, as if gender itself were mixed in a “hazy luminousness” (329). The landscape is inscribed with sexual signs both masculine, such as spiky ferns and tall fungi, and feminine, such as the dawn and the pool. Bathsheba's own body is represented as a landscape of gender, but not one marked by sexual difference. Red and yellow leaves (recalling Troy's scarlet and brass uniform (193), but also her own “crimson” jacket and “bright” face (44)) entwine in her luxuriant dark hair and rest in her lap. Initially the signs are mixed together in this scene annulling difference, and nothing is awarded any particular value.

Yet, what had seemed to be a womblike haven, where she could commune with herself alone, is invaded not only by the sounds of birds, but also by the voice of a ploughboy and a team of her own horses. Masculinity intrudes, as in the corpse scene, here with the male voice and a reminder of her social position as farmer. Clearly, the boy at work with her team is a metonymy of her power and is meant to represent her masculine position in the community. In being paired with birds, however, this power is also valued as utterly natural.

As Bathsheba investigates, though, she finds the place “malignant” (329). Signs of sexuality begin to be sorted out; sexual difference is symbolically established by attaching values to this natural scene, which recalls earlier scenes. What she first took to be a hollow, is in actuality a swamp, a “nursery of pestilences small and great” (329). Up the sides of the depression leading to the swamp, rushes and blades of flag glisten like “scythes,” recalling the same hollow where Troy earlier in the season had wielded his mesmerizing blade of seduction. At the bottom of the swamp ooze red and yellow fungi. Hearing sounds of another boy, Bathsheba becomes increasingly nervous. This time it is a schoolboy, one of “the dunce class apparently” (330), reciting the collect from a psalter. The intrusion is dismissed by the narrator as a trifle, as an amusement for Bathsheba. It does, however, seem significant that this boy is juxtaposed to the earlier one. Both go about their business. But the second is a dunce with a silly method, one of endless repetition of the words “Give us.” Unlike the first boy, this one seems quite powerless—unable to master his task at hand. We may read in this example some comment on Bathsheba's own failure at educating herself in another domain, love, and possibly a comment on both the technique and the content of her earlier method, Give me.

Regardless of how we interpret the contrasting boys, it is crucial that Bathsheba's recognition of her farm boy, and the descriptions of the landscape, masculinize this spot in different ways: labor, sexuality, religion and education. For at this important moment of decision in the text—whether to return home or not—Bathsheba is envisioning both what she wanted to be in her assumption of a man's role, what she has been, and what she might be. She views as malignant and death-dealing a sexual fecundity she associates with Troy and herself. From the start until now, she has been too much the woman wielding power to subdue and humiliate; yet she has also been too much the powerless repeater who runs the risk of being metaphorically castrated.

But the scene does not enact just a confrontation with masculinity. Like the previous one, its major importance lies in Bathsheba's confrontation with femininity. In a critical moment, she is refeminized by encountering the one person with whom she has discussed whether or not she is too “mannish” (230), her maidservant Liddy. After the second boy passes by, a “form” appears “on the other side” (330) of the swamp, half-hidden still by the mist. This form of uncertain gender approaches Bathsheba as if it were a phantom. “The woman—for it was a woman—approached with her face askance” (330). Bathsheba's delayed knowledge of the gender of this figure, captured so well by the emphasized focalization, acutely pinpoints the major issue of the scene. The question in the epigraph to this essay, taken from Troy's first ensnaring of Bathsheba, becomes most resonant here: “Are you a woman?” (192).

Like the corpse scene, events in the swamp scene are organized around womanliness and power, but this time they are not in contradiction. Liddy does not question Bathsheba's womanliness as Troy had. In fact, she earlier had suggested that Bathsheba was too womanly (230). For Bathsheba to be re-interpellated into her culture, for her to go home, a woman must come to fetch her. For Bathsheba must recognize her femininity and power. In finally seeing Liddy before her, and in mustering a whispered greeting, Bathsheba sees and knows her maid, and thus herself, in a drama of sexual choice. The woman whom she recognizes is female but is not a mother. Nor does she act like a child in this scene. It is also important that she is a servant. On one hand, it acknowledges the cultural construction of the female in a position of servitude. On the other hand, it does not endorse such a position for Bathsheba. Rather, the presence of the servant Liddy stresses gender similarity but class difference. Bathsheba is constructed here as the female farmer who keeps a woman maidservant as well as farm boys. Thus, while the first boy is a metonymy of her powerful position, Liddy is both metonymy and metaphor. She represents both a part of her mistress's power and yet shares the same gender with her mistress. This scene establishes for Bathsheba, then, sexual differentiation without loss of power.

If the corpse scene raises the question of womanliness and power, this scene answers the question in terms of the power of running a farm. With these two scenes, womanliness is redefined from innocence, motherhood, and being a “runaway wife” (332) to independence, economic wealth, and “stand[ing] your ground” (332).

It can be argued that after this redefinition, Bathsheba is returned to her former status. She is hardly powerful as she waits for Troy, becomes indecisive about Boldwood, and looks back at the past as if she were herself dead (356). Yet the effect of Troy's delay and the renewal of Boldwood's suit highlights the great difficulty of retaining female power in the patriarchal realm. At this point in the text, the feminine is subsumed again, while issues of masculinity resurface to join the hermeneutic code (what will happen next?). The hermeneutic imperative is no longer located around Fanny (how many corpses are in the coffin?) or Bathsheba (how will she react; will she come home?) but around men: Troy's return, Boldwood's needs, Oak's patience. I think that this particular re-direction of the syntagm very much determines how the closure is often read, as a sign of male taming and a re-assertion of male power. The return to issues of masculinity makes Bathsheba into a dependent, passive woman who waits for her husband to come home. It almost re-inscribes her as a child and certainly positions her as lack. Rather than reading the closure through these re-inscriptions, however, which are patriarchal, it is more productive to see the end as following upon the narrative stress points of gender struggle.18

The rest of the text does not tame Bathsheba into the domestic sphere, but, rather, awards and removes, or downright denies, her access to traditional roles associated with the Victorian domestic sphere: waiting wife, widow, innocent, child bride, and mother. Her position as waiting wife and possible widow is treated as a legally dangerous situation for her, in that if Troy does not return, she may lose her farm. However, it is also critiqued by Hardy as a false position constructed by the selfishness of man. Hardy's criticism of female domestic entrapment is furthered by the fact that Bathsheba is not a mother—she is not forced to bear children (as are, say, Mina Harker or Jane Eyre). Thus, Far from the Madding Crowd actually questions what counts as domestic, even as it redefines masculinity and femininity through the process of (re-)alignments of gender and power.

The marriage of Bathsheba and Oak, then, is more complicated than a recuperation of Bathsheba into a patriarchal prison-house. While the closure fixes the equation of male power and female dependency, realigning cultural constructions of gender and biology, it does so only after destabilizing those alignments so forcefully that the equation itself becomes suspect. In allowing Oak the positions of both phallic male and castrated male, while awarding Bathsheba the contradictory position of powerful and dependent female, Hardy denies power and sexuality to neither sex.

Finally, Hardy's “solution” of gender mixing through power shifts does not work for one ideological end at the moment of the text's production. His writing of Bathsheba as strong and yet womanly, a farmer and wife, but not a mother, could be appropriated for different political ends. Part of its own power is no doubt due to the fact that it could serve diametrically opposed interests at the same time: say, that a woman should be made less powerful by recuperation into the domestic sphere, or that woman should be allowed more independence within it, or that woman should be liberated entirely from it. The re-definitions proposed in Far from the Madding Crowd serve no agenda in particular, as they stand, except to feed the growing uncertainty at the end of the nineteenth century: what is woman?


  1. Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (New York: St. Martin's, 1977) 192, 330. All further quotations are from this edition. Page references appear in parentheses.

  2. For D. H. Lawrence's shrewd understanding of Hardy's treatment of gender, see his “Study of Thomas Hardy,” Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Edward D. Macdonald (London: 1961) 398-516. For important differences between Lawrence and Hardy, see Robert Langbaum, “Lawrence and Hardy,” D. H. Lawrence and Tradition, ed. Jeffrey Meyers (London: Athlone Press, 1985) 69-90 and Mark Kinkead-Weekes, “Lawrence on Hardy,” Thomas Hardy after Fifty Years, ed. Lance St. John Butler (London: Macmillan, 1977) 90-103. For a contemporary assessment along the same lines as Lawrence's but concentrating on Far from the Madding Crowd, see William Mistichelli, “Androgyny, Survival, and Fulfillment in Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd,Modern Language Studies 18:3 (1988) 53-64. This analysis is sensitive to the gender politics of the text, but falls into the rhetoric of fulfillment—arguing somewhat sentimentally that the “androgyny” of Oak and Bathsheba serves the “fulfillment of their humanity” not merely the “survival of their species.” Attractive as this may be, I am not arguing from a critical position which relies on the terminology of androgyny or fulfillment.

  3. Robert Gittings, Young Thomas Hardy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978) 276.

  4. Laurence Lerner and J. Holstrum, eds. Thomas Hardy and His Readers (London: 1968) 33. See also Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy (New York: Random House, 1982) 168, 173.

  5. Lerner and Holstrum 35.

  6. See Penny Boumelha, Thomas Hardy and Women (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982) 32-4 and Rosemarie Morgan, Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy (New York: Routledge, 1988) 30-57.

  7. Boumelha 44; Morgan 43; Morgan 44ff.

  8. For contradictions in Hardy's treatment of women and for feminist readings of his contradictions see Mary Childers, “Thomas Hardy, the Man Who ‘Liked’ Women,” Criticism 23:4 (1981), 317-34.

  9. Michèle Barrett, Women's Oppression Today (London: Verso, 1985) 110. The brevity of my remarks reduces the complexity of Boumelha's argument, however. Indeed, she is one of the first feminists to investigate Hardy's relationship to the sexual ideologies of the period. But I disagree with her method for analyzing the relations between representations and culture. And I regard Far from the Madding Crowd as more sophisticated an early work than she does.

  10. For another and very different deconstruction of the male/female binary, see Adrian Poole, “Men's Words and Hardy's Women,” Essays in Criticism 31:4 (1981), 328-45.

  11. For a fuller discussion of the structure of story and the changing value of paradigmatic events, as well as for a working out of connections among narrative, subjectivity, and ideology, see Steven Cohan and Linda M. Shires, Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction (London and New York: Routledge, 1988).

  12. Tzvetan Todorov, The Poetics of Prose, tr. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977) 111-112.

  13. See Elaine Showalter’s provocative reading, “The Unmanning of the Mayor of Casterbridge,” Thomas Hardy: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987) 175-89.

  14. Morgan 35-7, 44-6; Boumelha 34-6; also Judith Bryant Wittenberg, “Angles of Vision and Questions of Gender in Far from the Madding Crowd,The Centennial Review 30:1 (1986) 25-40; and Janie Senechal, “Focalisation, Regard et Desire dans Far from the Madding Crowd,” Cahiers Victoriens at Edouardiens 12 (1980) 73-84.

  15. I thus disagree with Beegel's somewhat dismissive assessment of Boldwood, but she is right to connect him with stasis and death. Susan Beegel, “Bathsheba's Lovers: Male Sexuality in Far from the Madding Crowd,Thomas Hardy: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987) 207-226.

  16. Morgan 53-57; Boumelha 33.

  17. See Beegel 216-17.

  18. Gittings reports (268) that there might have been yet another sheep-flock scene, but for Leslie Stephen's editorial control. The fourth would have contrasted even more fully the difference between Oak and Troy. This fact seems to add weight to the argument that such care-taking scenes are not merely about labor, but also concern the construction of masculinity.

  19. See Sigmund Freud, “Instincts and their Vicissitudes,” A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1957) 70-86.

  20. For support of Bathsheba's turn away from victimization, see Chapter 46, “The Gurgoyle, Its Doings,” which connects the spitting of water from the gurgoyle's mouth with phallic destruction of the feminine. As “the persistent torrent from the gurgoyle's jaws directs all its vengeance into the grave” (341), it uproots the blossoms and bulbs that Troy has planted at Fanny's headstone. Like the hideous gargoyle, Troy, sleeping nearby, has ruined Fanny. After Troy discovers the wastage and dismantled grave, he turns away in momentary self-hatred (343). It is left to Bathsheba to repair the ravages and to ask the help of Gabriel, less the phallic male than Troy, to turn the gargoyle aside, so that a “repetition of the accident” might be “prevented” (347). This avoidance of “repetition” is significant because it is as much a comment on Bathsheba, who will not be used so again, as it is on the stone jaws which will aim elsewhere from now on, by her orders. Bathsheba also remains self-aware enough, through this re-masculinized section of the text, to resist Boldwood in the name of something female, even if she is unable to speak it to him. In response to his question, “Do you like me, or do you respect me?,” she replies “I don't know—at least, I cannot tell you. It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs” (376). She holds on, still, to that which she defines as womanly, though she perceives it to be as threatened as Fanny's grave.

Works Cited

Barrett, Michèle. Woman's Oppression Today. London: Verso, 1985. 4th ed.

Beegel, Susan. “Bathsheba's Lovers: Male Sexuality in Far from the Madding Crowd,Thomas Hardy: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 207-226.

Boumelha, Penny. Thomas Hardy and Women. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. 1982.

Childers, Mary. “Thomas Hardy, the Man Who ‘Liked’ Women.” Criticism 23:4 (1981) 317-34.

Cohan, Steven and Linda M. Shires. Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Freud, Sigmund. “Instincts and their Vicissitudes,” A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1957. 70-86.

Gittings, Robert. Young Thomas Hardy. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978.

Hardy, Thomas. Far from the Madding Crowd. New York: St. Martin's, 1977.

Kinkead-Weekes, Mark. “Lawrence on Hardy,” Thomas Hardy after Fifty Years. Ed. Lance St. John Butler. London: Macmillan, 1977. 90-103.

Langbaum, Robert. “Lawrence and Hardy,” D. H. Lawrence and Tradition. Ed. Jeffrey Meyers. London: Athlone Press, 1985. 69-90.

Lawrence, D. H. “Study of Thomas Hardy,” Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence. Ed. Edward D. Macdonald. 1936. rpt. London, 1961. 398-516.

Lerner, Laurence and J. Holstrum. Eds. Thomas Hardy and His Readers. London: 1968.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy. New York: Random House, 1982.

Mistichelli, William. “Androgyny, Survival, and Fulfillment in Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd.Modern Language Studies 18:3 (1988) 53-64.

Morgan, Rosemarie. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Poole, Adrian. “Men's Words and Hardy's Women.” Essays in Criticism 31:4 (1981) 328-45.

Senechal, Janie. “Focalisation, Regard et Désire dans Far from the Madding Crowd.Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens 12 (1980) 73-84.

Showalter, Elaine. “The Unmanning of the Mayor of Casterbridge.” Thomas Hardy Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 175-89.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Tr. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Wittenberg, Judith Bryant. “Angles of Vision and Questions of Gender in Far from the Madding Crowd.The Centennial Review 30:1 (1986) 25-40.

Cris Yelland (essay date 1995)

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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 Desperate Remedies in 1871 on and into the 1970s. Page (1980: 151-2) opens similarly, as does Chapman (1992: 34-5). Most of the criticism of Hardy's faults of style centres on the problem of ‘pedantry’. This term includes heavy-handed generalisations, pretentious Latinism in lexis, and strained allusions to scientific facts and to objects of high culture, especially paintings.

One problem with the question of pedantry is that the grounds for accusing Hardy of it have changed. For instance, to a modern reader, narratorial displays of knowledge may be offputting, but display of knowledge was a common, and highly-valued, feature of Victorian writing. George Eliot's displays of knowledge were valued enough to be collected and published on their own, as if they were the fruit in the fictional pudding (Main 1874). Further, the degree to which various kinds of knowledge on display were thought objectionable has changed too. Consider this passage from Far from the Madding Crowd:

We now see the element of folly distinctly mingling with the many varying particulars which made up the character of Bathsheba Everdene. It was almost foreign to her intrinsic nature. Introduced as lymph upon the dart of Eros it eventually permeated and coloured her whole constitution.

(Hardy 1978: 243)1

A modern reader might object to this on the grounds that it contains a redundant classical allusion, redundant because it is either mystificatory (if you do not know what the dart of Eros was) or snobbishly decorative (if you do). But the Saturday Review objected because of the medical language in it, not the classical allusion:

A quack doctor before the days of Public Vaccinators might have written such a sentence as a talking advertisement. But a man of refinement, and not without a sense of humour, might surely have put the not unprecedented fact that a girl fell in love with a soldier in simpler and less professional language.

(Cox 1970: 39)

The Saturday Review's reaction is comparable to William Watson complaining of words ending in ‘logy and ism’ in Tess (Cox 1970: 198), and Andrew Lang complaining of Tess's ‘odd mixture of science and literature’ (Cox: 1970: 196). This hostility to one element of Hardy's style is symptomatic of a general tension between the claims of classical and scientific knowledge in the late nineteenth century, the tension which had issued also in Culture and Anarchy, which preceded Far from the Madding Crowd in the Cornhill by five years. Hardy's practice of juxtaposing kinds of knowledge usually kept apart was, in this context, a serious fault, and exacerbated by a related fault, that Hardy did not only bring in ‘inappropriate’ material, but also did so in strained and clumsy ways.

By contrast, many modern critics see some elements of Hardy's stylistic heterogeneity as a virtue. Elliott (1984: 19-34) concedes Hardy's ‘janglings and oddities’, but approves of the mixture of archaisms, technical language and orthodox educated language in Hardy, and of the varied life-experiences which he claims produce it. Salter (1973: 145-64) praises the ironic effect of ‘pedantry’. Similarly, Page argues that Hardy was a careful stylist, and that his mixture of styles, though often awkward, makes for ‘vitality’ (Page 1980: 151). Chapman argues similarly, in praise of the ‘variety’ of Hardy's style (1992: 36-42). Arguments like these, conceding that Hardy's style is often ‘pedantic’ but claiming compensating virtues, are dominant in criticism in the second half of the 20th century. Stylistic heterogeneity indicates a rich cultural variety, and this is worth the price of ‘pedantry’. Widdowson (1990: 219-25) goes further, to argue that stylistic ‘awkwardness’ is a valuable device for subverting cultural hegemony.

There has been, then, since the 1870s a general agreement that Hardy's style has elements of ‘pedantry’, though reactions to ‘pedantry’ have varied. The most hostile reactions were those of Victorian reviewers, for whom ‘pedantry’ was ‘viciously stimulated workmanship’ (Cox 1970: 15), ‘an intellectual graft on coarse and vulgar thoughts’ (Cox 1970: 23), or ‘verbose and redundant’ (Cox 1970: 28). In what follows I shall discuss two elements of Hardy's ‘pedantry’, his use of generics and his practice of allusion, in detail, to identify what makes for ‘pedantry’ in Hardy's style. Then I shall argue that the hostility of many Victorian reactions to ‘pedantry’ was part of a conservative defence of a specific cultural hierarchy, one with classical learning firmly at the top, and that the period of Hardy's writing was a period of anxieties about the nature of ‘culture’ in general. I shall restrict my discussion to Far from the Madding Crowd, because the problem of ‘pedantry’ has particular importance for the novel which established Hardy as a successful writer with no need to display cultural credentials.


Most modern critics are concerned to minimise the problem of Hardy's ‘pedantry’. There is one full-length book on Hardy's allusions, Springer's Hardy's Use of Allusion (1967), and this too is concerned to justify this aspect of ‘pedantry’ and lessen the unease which it might create. The book adopts a seemingly commonsensical procedure, a ‘target’ method of dealing with allusions and the other aspects of ‘pedantry’. Faced with the frequent allusions in a Hardy novel, Springer looks them up, then presents the texts or other things alluded to as ‘targets’, as sub-texts which are activated by allusion. For example, Springer notes a high proportion of Biblical allusions and echoes in the parts of Far from the Madding Crowd which deal with Gabriel Oak, and argues from this that Oak should be read as an admirable, because Christian, hero (1967: 73-6). This approach has its scholarly value, but it tends to obscure the problematic qualities of this aspect of Hardy's ‘pedantry’. The approach re-privileges the areas of knowledge which are used as targets, and restates or reimplies that fiction has a conventionally pedagogic function. In this respect, the modern reader, who is likely to be using the New Wessex edition, the Penguin, or the OUP paperback, is in a position quite different from that of Victorian readers with their unannotated book or serial editions. The note in the modern text is a strong signal to readers to suspend their relationship with the text to turn to the back and look it up. Armed with enough information to ‘get’ the allusion, we can then co-operate in the sharing of meanings which the allusion offers. The editor of a modern students' edition acts here as a go-between to maintain a relationship of teacher and favoured pupil between author-narrator and reader. In the Victorian reading situation the practice of allusion was much more risky. An allusion which ‘failed’ by being ‘strained’ or ‘awkward’ could rupture the collaboration between author and reader, so that the reader might accuse Hardy of showing off, of wrongly mixing (confusing) registers, of knowing the wrong things or of making false comparisons.

One primary effect of annotation is to provide the reader with enough (instantaneously) previous knowledge to grasp the information offered in the allusion. Whether or not the reader has, or can be given, this information might seem to be the primary criterion for whether an allusion succeeds or fails, but I believe that it is not. While there is a pleasure in ‘getting’ an allusion, and the informational content of it is its most prominent feature, it is not crucial to success or failure. Compare, for instance, an example from a novelist famous for her allusions:

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters.

(Eliot 1972 [1872], Ch 1)

and an example from Far from the Madding Crowd of Hardy at his most pedantic:

The others shambled after with a conscience-stricken air; the whole procession was not unlike Flaxman's group of the suitors tottering on towards the infernal regions under the conduct of Mercury.

(p. 314)

Most readers would agree that Eliot's allusion succeeds and Hardy's fails, but this difference cannot be due to the difficulty of ‘getting’ the allusion. Certainly, the allusion to Flaxman is hard to ‘get’, but if we are being honest about it, the allusion to Italian painters is very nearly as hard; but the fact that we cannot, when we encounter the opening of Middlemarch, give an accurate account of the Blessed Virgin's sleeves does not seem to matter. What then is the source of success or failure, effortless wisdom or straining pedantry, in different allusions?

The chief obstacle to understanding this question is the assumption that an allusion is primarily there to give information, by ‘cueing’ another literary work or cultural artefact. Fowler (1981) suggests instead that the significance of allusions to high-cultural objects or to cultural stereotypes is not in the recognisable truth or untruth of the propositions they contain, but in the way they create and maintain a close relationship between narrator and reader. Fowler's discussion begins with Barthes' S/Z (1970), and argues that it is seriously undertheorised, though stimulating and productive. Barthes' account of the ‘five codes’ of realist fiction suffers, in Fowler's view, from the fact that Barthes' account of his codes does not connect them to linguistic specifics (1981: 97-8). Fowler's discussion is part critique of Barthes, part a remedying of this weakness, in that Fowler explores the concrete linguistic specifics of one of the codes, the one which Barthes variously terms the ‘Referential’, the ‘Cultural’, or the ‘REF’ code. Central to Fowler's discussion is a syntactic construction which is common in 19th century fiction, a past tense narrative or descriptive clause whose object is a complex noun phrase with the following structure: demonstrative determiner + head + relative clause with its verb in the present tense. The relative clause uses the present tense to make a statement which purports to be true universally, outside as well as inside the world of the fiction (Fowler 1981: 103). Although Barthes' examples are from Balzac, the construction which Fowler identifies is easy to find in English fiction. The opening sentence of Middlemarch is one example:

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

(Eliot 1972 [1872]: Ch 1)

Is there a familiar kind of beauty which is thrown into relief by poor dress, a known category like ‘gamine’ or ‘Junoesque’? No, but the deictic ‘that’ behaves as if there is, and the reader accepts and co-operates with the empathy between narrator and reader so offered. This is followed by the authority of the generalisation, realised in the generic present tense. What happens in the opening of Middlemarch is that the narrator asserts authoritative knowledge and readers grant the narrator's authority willingly, because they are allowed a share in it. The construction which Fowler identifies, which I shall call a ‘REF construction’, can be divided into two components, a ‘familiariser’ (here the demonstrative) and an ‘asserter’ (here the generalisation), the two working together and almost simultaneously. Under ‘familiariser’ I include demonstrative determiners, ‘the’ as determiner, which has a similar, slightly weaker, effect, and the use of first- and second-person pronouns, all of which Fowler categorises as ‘“interpersonal” usages designed to implicate the reader’ (1981: 105). In his discussion of the ‘Referential Code’, Barthes is eloquently scathing about the ‘army of stereotypes’ which ‘stalk’ 19th century fiction (Barthes 1970: 206), but even he understates the case and the potency of the kind of construction which Fowler identifies. The familiariser in particular not only alludes to pre-existing stereotypes, it confers existence on them. The frequent use of demonstratives in advertising slogans (‘that Friday feeling’, ‘bridge that gap’, ‘that Condor moment', etc.) is one example of this, and George Eliot's invention of a ‘familiar’ though non-existent kind of beauty is another. The fact that Eliot's allusion above is to a category, a ‘kind’ of beauty, is also important in this process. The vagueness of it, relative to the specific reference to a particular painting by Flaxman, gives readers space to construct a meaning, a target of the allusion, out of their own cultural knowledge. This knowledge may be, strictly speaking, inadequate to the task, but it is not felt to be so. We do have an idea of what the Virgin Mary's sleeves looked like, although it may be gained from sources other than Italian paintings, from illustrations in children's Bible stories, or wherever. The specific reference is much riskier, a blunt pass/fail situation in which you either know the painting or you don't.

Fowler's discussion, (I have greatly simplified a long and suggestive essay) affords two valuable insights into the problem of Hardy's pedantry. The first is the importance of precise analysis of how allusions are constructed; the second, much larger, insight is that the significance of allusion is primarily interpersonal, to do with the combination of empathy and authority which the 19th century narrator typically claims and shares. Fowler's work makes it possible to explain why the opening of Middlemarch is not ‘pedantic’ and the allusion from Far from the Madding Crowd is. George Eliot's reference to Italian painters appears with an invitation to empathy in the ‘that’, but the Hardy allusion consists only of a direct comparison between the drinkers and Flaxman's suitors. There is no empathy created, only a qualification of the narrator's authority in the weak ‘not unlike’. The readers are thus assigned a role of receivers of information, and asked to be the audience for a display of knowledge which they are not allowed to share. The success or failure of an allusion, in short, is in large part a question of syntax and modality, rather than the difficulty of its informational content.

Fowler's discussion is mainly about generic statements in narratives, but his principles can be applied, in a modified form, to specific allusions to objects like paintings. I shall divide my discussion, taking Hardy's generics first and then his specific allusions.

One problem, and opportunity, for the Victorian narrator, is that there are many ways of making generic statements, many transformations of the ‘core’ form ‘All X are Y’. Generics can occur in both plural and singular form, and can be syntactically concealed, for instance in a relative clause, or further transformed into prenominal adjectives. In chapter 1 of Middlemarch, for instance, there are numerous generalising constructions. Many of these are restricted in their application, by being in the past tense, or being tied to an individual character's perception, or to ‘general [i.e. provincial] opinion’. There are also the following narrator's generics:

(i) Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

(ii) Celia mildly acquiesced in all her sister's sentiments, only infusing them with that common-sense which is able to accept momentous doctrines without any eccentric agitation.

(iii) For the most glutinously indefinite minds enclose some hard grains of habit, and …

(iv) Poor Dorothea! … so much subtler is a human mind than the outside tissues which make a sort of blazonry or clock-face for it.

(v) … but is there any yoked creature without its private opinions?

The first two of these are REF constructions, demonstrative + head + relative clause structures. The second part of (iv) is also a relative clause. All of the relative clauses are restrictive, an important point which I shall take up later. The first part of (iv) is a ‘core’ generic, but its effect is muted by its being not a complete sentence, but the conclusion of one, and by the explicitly interpersonal exclamation ‘Poor Dorothea!’ at the sentence's beginning. Generic (v) is also the conclusion of a sentence, and it too has an explicit appeal to the reader's agreement, in that it is a rhetorical question. Example (iii) is a ‘core’ generic, but the rest of the sentence is not, and the fact that the sentence opens with the conjunction ‘For’ stresses the connection with the preceding, non-generic, sentence. Eliot's practice here is to indulge freely in generics, but to conceal them, syntactically by mixing them in sentences with non-generic clauses, rhetorically by attaching explicit appeals for agreement. Here these are an exclamation and a rhetorical question; elsewhere, as in Chapter 15 of Middlemarch, which is very rich in generics, there is a high frequency of first- and second-person pronouns, as in:

(i) We belated historians must not linger after his example …

(ii) Most of us who turn to any subject we love …

(iii) We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman …

There are also frequent REF constructions, a number of modified REF constructions with determiners other than a demonstrative, and other variants. What connects Eliot's generics is that they almost always include some element functioning as ‘familiariser’. A generic may be syntactically concealed, or, when Eliot makes generic statements in a clear form close to the core, she attaches first-person pronouns. Hardy, by contrast, freely uses simple generic constructions without familiarising elements. The opening of Chapter 29 is a good example:

5 We now see the element of folly distinctly mingling with the varying particulars which made up the character of Bathsheba Everdene. It was almost foreign to her intrinsic nature. Introduced as lymph upon the dart of Eros it eventually permeated and coloured her whole constitution. Bathsheba, though she had too
10 much understanding to be entirely governed by her womanliness, had too much womanliness to use her understanding to the best advantage. Perhaps in no minor point does woman astonish her helpmate more than in the strange power she possesses of believing cajoleries that she knows to be false - except, indeed, in that of being utterly sceptical on strictures that she knows to be true.
15 Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance. When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the situation. She has never had practice in making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.

(p. 243)

There is one familiarising element in this passage, the ‘We’ at the beginning. After that, the passage moves through the register clash which so irritated the Saturday Review to a series of generic statements, from ‘Perhaps’ (line 7) onwards to the end. There are seven generics altogether in this short passage. In what forms?

The first two, connected, assertions, in the sentence beginning ‘Perhaps in no minor point …’ (lines 7-11) are blatantly generic, announced as such by the ‘woman’. All the finite verbs in the sentence are in present tense, with none of the flexible movement between narrative past and generic present which is typical of George Eliot. The next sentence, the first of the second paragraph (lines 12-13), does move from narrative past to the generic half-concealed in a subordinate clause, but the remaining four assertions are purely generic. Their impact is intensified by the fact that they are four separate sentences. There is no familiarising element and no syntactic concealment of the assertions. Two other features give the passage its abruptly authoritarian quality. The first is that the ‘balanced’ structure of the first generic sentence (lines 13-15), and the repetition and reiteration of key lexical items throughout the passage, ‘self-reliance … strong … strength … strength … weakness … weak’ make for a strong tendency to epigrammatism, which increases the impact of the assertions. The second is that this epigrammatic quality is enhanced by the abstract nature of the lexical items themselves; as well as the repeated abstractions, there are ‘constitution … womanliness … understanding … advantage … inadequacy … novelty … condition’. By these means, the generic assertions announce their presence very clearly. The only mitigation of the impact of the assertions is the ‘Perhaps’, which is not so much a familiariser as a failure of nerve. Overall, the effect of the blatant generics is one of over-long, limp epigram, as if the parade of assertions in the second paragraph represents successive failed attempts to find a construction witty enough to end on.

Fowler makes only a passing reference to the practice of scientific or high-cultural allusion, describing it as ‘a further mechanism for activating REF’ (Fowler 1981: 105). The principle that allusions are primarily significant as interpersonal devices between narrator and reader still applies to specific allusions, but to divide Hardy's allusions into ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ demands some additional concepts. As a preliminary, specific allusions in Far from the Madding Crowd can be defined as essentially metaphors, having an underlying form ‘X in the novel resembles Y in the real world’. This form appears in several surface structures.

To analyse these structures, I shall adopt the terminology of Leech (1969). In this terminology, the thing which is under discussion in a metaphor or simile is the ‘tenor’, the thing to which it is compared the ‘vehicle’, and the connection is the ‘ground’ of the comparison (1969: 151). Leech also offers the suggestion that metaphors can be ranked according to their unexpectedness, that (his examples) ‘many moons ago’ is more expected as a measure of time than ‘a humanity ago’ (1969: 31). In this scheme, the unexpectedness of a comparison is a function of the semantic distance (in normal usage) between the tenor and vehicle of the comparison.

The simplest category of specific allusions in Far from the Madding Crowd includes things like the quotation from Barnes on p. 456, which is simply a borrowing, like the quotations on p. 188 (from Milton) and p. 210 (from Keats). These decorate the narrative and display the narrator's reading, but the fact that they are marked as quotations renders them unthreatening—the narrator explicitly makes a comparison which the use of quotation marks admits to be simply decorative. And literary allusions were valued commonplaces in Victorian fiction. To use Milton for the phrase ‘the injur'd lover's hell’ when dealing with Oak's suffering in unrequited love involves no shift of meaning at all, only a pseudo-comparison whose ground is obvious and explicitly given, and where the distance between tenor and vehicle is perhaps chronologically great, but semantically close to zero.

Most of the specific allusions in Far from the Madding Crowd take the form of a simile. Oak sees Bathsheba ‘in a bird's-eye view, as Milton's Satan first saw Paradise’ (p. 63); a half-mile of road stands before the exhausted Fanny Robin ‘like a stolid Juggernaut’ (p. 325), feasting labourers become ‘as merry as the gods in Homer's heaven’ (p. 208), and there are many other examples. In all these examples, and most of the others, the structure easily allows for the ground of the comparison to be given before the allusion itself, thus producing the form ‘tenor—ground—vehicle’. The structure is: Oak's seeing (tenor)—bird's-eye view (ground)—Satan (vehicle). This pre-digests the allusion and renders it ‘reader-friendly’, for the reader is able to accept the information given in the comparison, and this will suffice even in default of previous knowledge. You do not have to have read or remembered Paradise Lost to get the point of the allusion, the ‘bird's-eye view’. Nor is it necessary to know what a Juggernaut actually is, only that it is ‘stolid’. Where the ground is explicitly given, and appears before the vehicle, the allusion is rendered familiar automatically. The simile on p. 51 is an exception to this, and so more dangerous in terms of the relationship between narrator and reader: ‘He wore … a coat like Dr. Johnson's’. Here, the ground is not given, and the reader may be alienated. A version giving the ground, ‘a coat as baggy as Dr. Johnson's’ would be more inviting.

In addition to explicit similes, there are many loose or qualified similes which stress the fanciful nature of the comparisons they make. The repentant behaviour of Oak's dog is ‘a sort of Commination service’ (p. 75); an anticlimax is ‘somewhat resembling that of St John Long's death’ (p. 200); Oak is ‘a species of Daniel in her kingdom’ (p. 146) (my italics). These stress that the semantic distance between tenor and vehicle is unusually great. They often, as in the above examples, further stress their oddity by not pre-giving their grounds, but reserving the grounds for a relative clause post-modifying the vehicle, like the Commination-service ‘which, though offensive, had to be gone through once now and then to frighten the flock for their own good’ (p. 75), or a post-modifying prepositional phrase, ‘St John Long's death by consumption in the midst of his proofs that it was not a fatal disease’ (p. 200). This produces the structure tenor—vehicle—ground, in which the comparison is not justified or explained until after it has been made. Premodifying the noun functioning as vehicle would enable the reader-friendly structure tenor—ground—vehicle.

Extensive post-modification of the noun functioning as vehicle is a characteristic of Hardy's specific allusions. Withholding the grounds of the comparison until after it is made, then insisting on giving it, especially at length, has an estranging effect, especially if the semantic distance between tenor and vehicle is very great. Some examples are:

(i) [A group of labourers] advanced in the completest balance of intention, like the remarkable creatures known as Chain Salpae, which, distinctly organised in other respects, have one will common to a whole family.

(p. 126)

(ii) The disturbance [the effect of the Valentine on Boldwood] was as the first floating weed to Columbus—the contemptibly little suggesting possibilities of the infinitely great.

(p. 149)

(iii) Indeed, he seemed to approach the grave as a hyperbolic curve approaches a straight line—less directly as he got nearer.

(p. 153)

(iv) She was in a state of mental gutta serena; her mind was for the minute totally deprived of light at the same time that no obscuration was apparent from within.

(p. 438)

The first of these examples has the vehicle of the comparison post-modified in a lengthy non-restrictive relative clause, and the other three have similar postmodification in appositional explanatory units which are reduced relative clauses. Like the first, these clauses would, in full form, be non-restrictive. The difference between a restrictive and a non-restrictive postmodification here realises a difference in modality, between alluding to shared knowledge, on the one hand, and imparting it from a position of unshared superiority, on the other. For instance, in (ii), ‘Chain Salpae which … have one will’ could be read as assuming some previous knowledge of Chain Salpae in general, and specifying a particular variety of them. But the actual, non-restrictive, structure, ‘Chain Salpae, which … have one will’ assumes no previous knowledge at all. There is a marked contrast here between Hardy's practice and George Eliot's. Eliot's restrictive relative clauses assume that the reader shares much of the narrator's knowledge, and that that knowledge can be alluded to. Hardy's structure, tenor - vehicle - non-restrictive explanation of ground, should not properly be called an allusion at all. It does not offer to allude to what is already known by narrator and readers, but to inform the readers of what they do not know, assigning them a role as receivers of information, not sharers in it. Perhaps the readers even know as little of Chain Salpae as do the labourers to whom they are compared. The comparisons are themselves highly unfamiliar to begin with, and the effect is very much heightened by the syntactic structure which insists on giving the ground, but only after the comparison has been made. And there is no familiarising element in the comparisons. In the structure of the noun phrases functioning as vehicle there is no demonstrative determiner to act as a familiariser; (i) and (ii) above have ‘the’ as determiner, which has a mild familiarising effect (though this is offset in the second by the epithet ‘remarkable’), but (iii) and (iv) have the estranging ‘a’, in ‘a hyperbolic curve’ and ‘a state of mental gutta serena’. This combination of stated unfamiliarity with insistence on giving the ground separates reader and narrator here, and leaves the reader in a kind of intellectual no-man's-land, and the narrator talking to himself. This contrasts with the much more orthodox and reassuring effect of the combination of a demonstrative determiner with a restrictive relative clause, as in:

… that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people of the parish and the drunken section …

(p. 51)

The ‘Laodicean neutrality’ above is one example of the most discreet structure for a specific allusion—the reduction of the vehicle to an epithet premodifying the head noun which functions as the grounds of the comparison, with a minimum of postmodification. A variation on this is to give the grounds in a brief postmodification. Other examples are:

Oak could pipe with Arcadian sweetness

(p. 90)

… fingers extended to an Elymas-the-Sorcerer pattern …

(p. 102)

Saint-Simonian notions of share and share alike …

(p. 105)

In all these examples, the vehicles and the grounds are very closely juxtaposed, producing an effect of tactfulness and easy command of the relationship between the ‘small’ of Wessex and the ‘great’ of the educated world. It is not that Hardy was incapable of this effect of wearing learning lightly; he uses orthodox allusive structures like the above epithet/vehicle + head/grounds structures freely. But he also freely used structures which disturb the relationship of empathy between narrator and reader which allusion should normally promote.


In his discussion of allusion, Wheeler (1979) argues that allusion in Victorian fiction, especially allusion to a small group of texts including Paradise Lost, Pilgrim's Progress and the Bible, had a cohesive effect of reminding readers how much they shared a culture:

Whereas the modern reader has greater breadth of knowledge, however, the Victorian reader had a more detailed familiarity with a few of the key works which formed the literary corner-stone of the ‘shared culture’ of the age.

(Wheeler 1979: 17)

Wheeler's quotation marks around ‘shared culture’ are important. To see why, we can look to the division between different uses of the term ‘culture’ which is made by, among others, Williams (1958, 1976), Johnson (1979) and Bennett et al. (1977). In essence, they divide ‘culture’ into two concepts: the first might be called ‘high culture’ (culture 1): a concept of culture derived from classical learning, involving moral and aesthetic virtues of various kinds and defined by its opposite, which is an absence called ‘anarchy’ or something equally pejorative. The second ‘culture’ (culture 2) is not a normative term, but a descriptive one, and tends easily to pluralism and relativism. The first meaning is usual in the 19th century, the second in the 20th. The significance of literary study in this division is that, as Baldick (1983: 59-82) has argued, literature was held by many to have especial significance in accommodating culture (2) to culture (1). Here, for instance, is Matthew Arnold juggling with two meanings of ‘culture’:

this culture (to call it by that name) of the Barbarians was an exterior culture … those studies by which, from the world of thought and feeling, true culture teaches us to fetch sweetness and light …

(Arnold 1868: 203)

Arnold's ‘true culture’, derived from ‘thought and feeling’ (not action) is a construct made out of culture (1) and defined by rejection of its perceived opposite. It is also a minority interest, except that the ‘us’ seeks to construct it as shared and thus ‘common’. Arnold's difficulties about ‘culture’, like those of Ruskin, Mill and others, derived from the contradiction between their concept of culture as essentially classical and the pressure, through educational provision and the growth of a mass reading public, to accept, accommodate or colonise the culture of ordinary people. The process was paralleled by the political process of the extension of the franchise. The agonising over the 1867 Reform Act and the fate of the railings round Hyde Park had its counterpart in the struggles of Arnold and others to maintain their ideals of culture while simultaneously defending and extending their applications.

The normative concept of culture (1) was derived from the classics and the social institutions, the universities and the public schools, which maintained the dominant position of classical learning. Even in those educational organisations explicitly committed to broadening the cultural franchise, the influence of classical culture was dominant. John Morley, addressing the London University Extension Society in 1888, found in ancient universities the source of his inspiration:

It is true that we cannot bring to London, with this movement, the indefinable charm that haunts the grey and venerable quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge … but I hope … that every partaker of the benefits of this society will feel himself and herself in living connection with those two famous centres …

(Morley 1890: 195)

Literature and its study were generally perceived as having the very significant role of promoting socio-cultural cohesion. This role was to be fulfilled without challenging the institutions which maintained the dominant culture; instead, literature was to serve as a diluted version of the classical culture which was reserved, through the public schools and the universities, for the ruling elite. In this task, the practice of allusion, of making reference to the ‘shared culture’, was an especially prominent and significant practice.

Hardy's relationship with this cultural project was uneasy. Debarred from a university education by family poverty (Gittings 1978: 74), discouraged from classical reading by his early mentor Moule (Millgate 1982: 71), he trained as an architect, and educated himself otherwise by broad and intensive reading (Millgate 1982: 89-92). He was also, all his life, acutely sensitive about class distinctions, and capable both of radical and deferential reactions (Millgate 1982: 172, 195, 202). As a result, the ‘three strands’ which he saw his life as composed of, the professional, the scholarly and the rustic (Hardy 1970: 32), were not accommodated into the hierarchic ‘common culture’ of his time. One modern critic has described Hardy's stylistic heterogeneity as an expression of his ‘legitimate desire to call things by their proper names’ (Page 1980: 159). Cultural pluralism in the 20th century has legitimated this desire. It was a grave stylistic fault to Hardy's conservative contemporaries, because it challenged their ideas of cultural hegemony. Hardy sometimes smooths the way for an allusion or a generic, and sometimes foregrounds it as much as seems possible, constructing himself in turn as relaxed polymath and as cultural iconoclast. The structure for allusion which I identified earlier, of tenor—vehicle—lengthily explained ground, undermines the very idea of there being a ‘common’ or ‘general’ or ‘shared’ culture. A ‘common’ culture which has to be constantly explained is obviously not common at all.

It is clear that the peculiarities of Hardy's allusive practice in even an early novel like Far from the Madding Crowd were not the result of incompetence; he was capable of ‘normal’ allusive constructions, but he often also used structures which brought different elements of culture (in its descriptive sense) into clear and equal focus. He transgressed the boundaries of the ‘common’ culture of his time, and showed in doing so what a precarious construct it was.2


  1. All quotations from Far from the Madding Crowd are from the Penguin edition, London 1978.

  2. I wish to thank the editors and readers of Language and Literature for their meticulous and very helpful comments on the first draft of this article.


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Baldick, C. (1983) The Social Mission of English Criticism 1848-1932, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Barthes, R. S/Z (1975 [1970]) (trans. R. Miller), Hill & Wang, New York

Bayley, J. (1978) An Essay on Hardy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Bennett, T. Hartley, J., Hawkes, T., Martin, G. et al. (1977) Mass Communications and Society, Open University Press, Buckingham

Chapman, R. (1992) The Language of Thomas Hardy, Macmillan, London

Cox, R. G. (1970) (ed.) Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage, Barnes & Noble, New York

Eliot, G. (1972 [1872]) Middlemarch, Chatto & Windus, London

Elliot, R. V. W. (1984) Thomas Hardy's English, Blackwell, London

Fowler, R. (1981) ‘The Referential Code and Narrative Authority’, in Literature as Social Discourse, Batsford, London

Gittings, R. (1978) Young Thomas Hardy, Penguin, London

Hardy, F. E. (1970) The Life of Thomas Hardy, Macmillan, London

Hardy, T. (1978 [1874]) Far from the Madding Crowd, Penguin, London

Johnson, L. (1979) The Cultural Critics, Routledge, London

Leech, G. (1969) A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry, Longman, London

Lodge, D. (1966), Language of Fiction, Columbia UP, New York

Main, A. (1874) Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings from the Work of George Eliot Chapman & Hall, London

Millgate, M. (1982) Thomas Hardy, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Morley, J. (1890) ‘On the Study of Literature’, in Studies in Literature, Macmillan, London

Page, N. (1980) Hardy and the English Language, in Thomas Hardy, Bell & Hyman, London

Salter, C. H. (1973) Hardy's ‘Pedantry’, Nineteenth Century Fiction, 28, 145-64

Springer, M. (1967) Hardy's Use of Allusion, Macmillan, London

Wheeler, M. (1979) The Art of Allusion in Victorian Fiction, Longman, London

Widdowson, H. G. (1990) Hardy in History, Heinemann, London

Williams, R. (1958) Culture and Society, Penguin, London

Williams, R. (1976) Keywords, Penguin, London

H. M. Daleski (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11059

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 Obscure clearly stand alone as Hardy's two great novels, Far from the Madding Crowd is nonetheless a major achievement and as good as anything else he wrote. Admittedly, it has one poorly contrived and ineffective sequence—the Greenhill Fair episode, which brings Troy back into the narrative after his disappearance—but its mature mastery, following some of the persistent crudities of A Pair of Blue Eyes, is remarkable. The gain in assurance is immediately evident in the tone and the style, which now effortlessly accommodate the vivid and the humorous, as in the following early description of the ways in which Gabriel Oak prepares his person for the proposal of marriage he intends to make to Bathsheba Everdene: “[He] used all the hair-oil he possessed upon his usually dry, sandy, and inextricably curly hair, till he had deepened it to a splendidly novel colour, between that of guano and Roman cement, making it stick to his head like mace round a nutmeg, or wet seaweed round a boulder after the ebb.”2 The warm humor plays throughout on the rustics, whose simple, steady lives are set against the passionate upheavals of the protagonists; but it even sports with serious thematic matter: “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” (83). It is this high-spirited narrative that contains Hardy's first major portrayal of a failed marriage. It also presents an exploration of the possibilities of love that is characterized by its originality and profundity; and if some of the action tends to be melodramatic, melodrama is the seedbed of Hardy's genius.

The title of the novel, the strong presence of the rustics, the detailed rendering of the agricultural year—particularly of what might be called “the sheep year,” with its lambing, washing, shearing, and marketing scenes—the assertion that, on the day of the shearing, “God was palpably present in the country, and the devil had gone with the world to town” (194), the venerable barn in which the shearing takes place that is said to be “natural to the shearers” as they are “in harmony” with it (196): this kind of emphasis appears to place the narrative in a straightforward pastoral tradition. When the quotation from Gray is restored to its context, however, the title, while still continuing to evoke “pastoral affairs” (74), has a decidedly ironic dimension:

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.

The narrative may be located in a sequestered vale of life, but the wishes of its characters are hardly “sober” and exhibit a pronounced tendency “to stray.”3 The tendency is exemplified in miniature and in the comic mode by the story told about Bathsheba's father. Mr. Coggan calls him “one of the ficklest husbands alive,” a man whose “heart would rove” and who could not help his “wicked heart wandering.” But he manages to “cure” his straying when he makes his wife take off her wedding ring: “[A]s soon as he could thoroughly fancy he was doing wrong and committing the seventh,” says Coggan, “’a got to like her as well as ever, and they lived on a perfect picture of mutel love” (111).

That more ominous forces may lurk in the pastoral scene, however, is intimated in the early episode that changes Gabriel's life. His dog drives his ewes over a precipice, and in a typical Hardy landscape—“the attenuated skeleton of a chrome-yellow moon” hangs over “an oval pond” that glitters “like a dead man's eye”—Gabriel looks down on “a heap of two hundred mangled carcases, representing in their condition just now at least two hundred more.” It appears that the dog, “under the impression that since he was kept for running after sheep, the more he ran after them the better,” had “collected all the ewes into a corner, driven the timid creatures through the hedge,” across a field, and finally “hurled them over the edge” (86-87). The scene vividly dramatizes how even in a quiet pastoral setting creatures may be driven to destruction. This episode also has a proleptic symbolic force that establishes it as a frame for the ensuing action. The dog destroys unwittingly, a wayward animal force; in the tale that subsequently unfolds we are invited to watch the operation of a similarly wayward and destructive force in human beings, a force that drives them (though from within) as ineluctably as the dog drives the sheep. Hardy quietly insists on the parallel. Shortly after this scene when Gabriel encounters Fanny Robin and gives her some money, his fingers touch her wrist: “It was beating with a throb of tragic intensity. He had frequently felt the same quick, hard beat in the femoral artery of his lambs when overdriven” (101). And at the end of the narrative, in the climactic scene in which Farmer Boldwood kills Sergeant Troy, we are told that “all the female guests” in the room remain “huddled aghast against the walls like sheep in a storm” (440).

In A Pair of Blue Eyes it was sexual inhibition that was shown to have tragic consequences; in Far from the Madding Crowd it is sexual passion. In this novel Hardy begins his prolonged engagement with what he conceived as the destructive effects of passion. But he also uses the portrayal of such passion as a foil to what he takes to be a more stable and enduring kind of love, making this the motivating force of the narrative. The contrast is established through the opposition between Gabriel and Troy, who serve as prototypical figures in Hardy's developing male typology, and through Bathsheba's marriages first with Troy and then with Gabriel. Nor is this novel unique in the canon only because it resolves its triangular opposition in two marriages; it further complicates it through the heroine's deep involvement with a third man, Boldwood. Keeping Bathsheba (and her choices) firmly at the center of the narrative and more and more tightly enmeshing the lives of the four protagonists, the novelist is effectively able to depict varying possibilities of love.


Gabriel Oak, it will be recalled, is the character in Hardy in relation to whom the rule of the void is first prescribed.4 Once he becomes aware of “an increasing void within him” (64), he is ready for love—and fixes on Bathsheba Everdene as well suited to supply his need. The opening description of him, however, suggests that he is unlikely to appeal to the spirited girl whose “ropes of black hair” tumble over the crimson jacket she wears (64), and who on occasion rides her pony while lying flat on its back, “her head over its tail, her feet against its shoulders, and her eyes to the sky,” having glided into this position with “the rapidity … of a kingfisher” and the “noiselessness … of a hawk” (65):

In his face one might notice that many of the hues and curves of youth had tarried on to manhood: there even remained in his remoter crannies some relics of the boy. His height and breadth would have been sufficient to make his presence imposing, had they been exhibited with due consideration. But there is a way some men have … for which the mind is more responsible than flesh and sinew: it is a way of curtailing their dimensions by their manner of showing them. And from a quiet modesty that would have become a vestal, which seemed continually to impress upon him that he had no great claim on the world's room, Oak walked unassumingly. … This may be said to be a defect in an individual if he depends for his valuation more upon his appearance than upon his capacity to wear well, which Oak did not.


That the manly Oak still bears the marks of youth and even boyhood in his face suggests that he is a reworking of the immature Stephen Smith of A Pair of Blue Eyes. There is nothing effeminate, however, about Oak, whose physique is “imposing” and who has an unbreakable manliness of temperament that “wears well.” The immaturity that clings to him, it is indicated, is of a sexual nature, for it shows itself too in a “modesty” of disposition that is not only quiet but virginal. Oak, indeed, is a diffident man, psychologically so diffident that he appears to be smaller than he is, to make little of himself in a general “curtailing” of his physical “dimensions” and reducing of his “claim on the world's room.” His diffidence expands, ramifying into all aspects of his relations with Bathsheba. It makes him inexpressive, for, though he wants to communicate “his impressions” to her, he would as soon think of “carrying an odour in a net as of attempting to convey the intangibilities of his feeling in the coarse meshes of language” (70-71); and this in turn makes him feel inferior to her (again recalling Stephen Smith in relation to Elfride): “I can't match you, I know,” he says to her, “in mapping out my mind upon my tongue. I never was very clever in my inside” (72). It makes him slow—too slow for the kingfisher and the hawk—and physically timid with her: when he takes her hand, he holds it “but an instant” for “fear of being too demonstrative,” and so only touches her fingers “with the lightness of a small-hearted person” (72). The small-heartedness is also projected in a dimness of being that makes him look, when he is juxtaposed with Troy, “like a candle beside gas” (299). And it manifests itself too in an acceptance of his subordination to her “superiority” that implies a readiness for a reversal of traditional sexual roles: her recognition of her superiority pleases “by suggesting possibilities of capture to the subordinated man” (73).5

When Oak proposes to Bathsheba, she says she “shouldn't mind being a bride at a wedding, if [she] could be one without having a husband” (80), making it apparent he has not occupied the blank spot in her consciousness. She tells him she wants somebody “to tame” her since she is “too independent,” and she knows he is not the man for the job. So little is he capable of taming her that he is in retreat before the battle is joined, characteristically reducing his claim to her as he does on the world's room: “But I love you,” he says to her, “—and, as for myself, I am content to be liked” (80). All he arouses in Bathsheba is “a yawn” and the conviction, presumably in a number of related respects, that he is not “good enough” for her (126).

Hardy complicates his presentation of Oak—and so quite transforms the male line he had started with in Stephen Smith—by making him masterful in everything other than his relations with women. As is shown time and again in the narrative, he is a natural leader of men, an expert shepherd, and resourceful, conscientious, and reliable in all that pertains to life on a large farm. As a shepherd (if not as a lover), with four lambs hanging over his shoulders, he looks “an epitome of the world's health and vigour” (156); and as a man among men, though he is “one of the quietest and most gentle men on earth,” he is capable—when he thinks the rustics are not showing sufficient respect in their talk of Bathsheba—of “[rising] to the occasion with martial promptness” and a ready fist (157). Paradoxically, his tendency to make little of himself is the basis of a self-mastery that even Bathsheba eventually comes to recognize and to envy: it is his selflessness that underlies his general reliability and resourcefulness, for “among the multitude of interests” by which he is surrounded, he shows that those which affect “his personal well-being [are] not the most absorbing and important in his eyes”; and it ensures too that he is always capable of seeing things as they are, for he looks “upon the horizon of circumstances without any special regard to his own standpoint in the midst” (355).

Oak, that is, is an impressive exemplar of the type of decent, honorable, though sexually ineffective man that is to recur in the novels that follow. In posing him against Sergeant Troy as a contender for Bathsheba's affections, the novelist appears to be wryly contemplating the irony that gives Oak all the virtues that his rival so manifestly lacks—and none of the potency that he so manifestly possesses. Nevertheless, it will be the burden of the tale, as we shall see, that Oak's is the only kind of love that endures; and so from the start his “affection,” though limited in force by being so “placid and regular,” is also said to flow “deep and long” (83). When he loves, however diffidently, it is once and for all: “You know, mistress,” he says to Bathsheba shortly before she marries Troy, “that I love you, and shall love you always.” And he adds that she is more to him than his “own affairs, and even life!” (248) He is sincere in what he says, of course, but in terms of the plan of love propounded by the novelist, the question that insistently poses itself is how, in the face of Bathsheba‘s apparent indifference to him, he keeps his love alive. Love, as we have seen, is defined as “an extremely exacting usurer” (73), and it demands its pound of flesh. What saves Oak, it would seem, is that he is prepared to settle for less than that, as emerges on the day of the sheepshearing: “Poor Gabriel’s soul was fed with a luxury of content by having her over him, her eyes critically regarding his skilful shears.... Like Guildenstern, Oak was happy in that he was not over happy. He had no wish to converse with her: that his bright lady and himself formed one group, exclusively their own, and containing no others in the world, was enough” (197-98). Oak, moderate and restrained, is satisfied by a metaphorical possession of the woman he loves: it is “enough” for him that they form “one group” and so together have possession of something that is “exclusively their own.” Consequently, he does get a return on his usurious love, for his soul is “fed with a luxury of content”; and though it is the exposure of “the void” within him that has made him love her, he does not fall into an unrequited emptiness, for merely to be with her, as in this scene, makes him “full of [a] dim and temperate bliss” (198). It is a contentment that is sustained by such contact throughout the period preceding her marriage to him and by her growing dependence and reliance on him in all that concerns her farm.


Where Gabriel may be seen as a more complex development of Stephen Smith, Farmer Boldwood takes off, as it were, from Henry Knight. He is a man of forty-one and, until he receives Bathsheba's valentine, has been “a confirmed bachelor” (177), as Knight was “a bachelor by nature.” But he too is a more complex conception than his predecessor:

The phases of Boldwood's life were ordinary enough, but his was not an ordinary nature. That stillness, which struck casual observers more than anything else in his character and habit, and seemed so precisely like the rest of inanition, may have been the perfect balance of enormous antagonistic forces-positives and negatives in fine adjustment. His equilibrium disturbed, he was in extremity at once. If an emotion possessed him at all, it ruled him; a feeling not mastering him was entirely latent. Stagnant or rapid, it was never slow. He was always hit mortally, or he was missed.


The narrator is surely undecided by design here, for in offering two alternative explanations of Boldwood's outstanding feature, his stillness, he contrives to insinuate both possibilities, and, though they may appear to be contradictory, they are in fact complementary. Boldwood's stillness is an outward sign of an assumed self-sufficiency, a self-containment that makes it unnecessary for him to move toward anything. But this seems more like frozen motion than a genuine inner stillness, since what may be taken to be an enormously powerful outward drive is held in “perfect balance” with a neutralizing, “antagonistic” force of withdrawal. And this is indeed “the rest of inanition,” though in a more profound sense than may strike casual observers, who presumably see it as exhaustion. But it is a hidden emptiness, the heavy immobility of the void, that the confirmed bachelor bears within in much the same way as the young shepherd. The difference between Oak and Boldwood is that the latter has not yet been made aware of it; it takes Bathsheba's valentine to do the trick. And unlike the temperate Oak, who is throughout an epitome of self-mastery, Boldwood is “mastered” by the feeling that now wells up in him. From the moment he receives the valentine he is a man possessed.”

The change in Boldwood, once he fixes on Bathsheba as a love object, is even apparent physically. When her figure “shines” on his eyes, it “[lights] him up as the moon lights up a great tower,” though it is suggested that the light actually comes from within:

A man‘s body is as the shell, or the tablet, of his soul, as he is reserved or ingenuous, overflowing or self-contained. There was a change in Boldwood’s exterior from its former impassibleness; and his face showed that he was now living outside his defences for the first time, and with a fearful sense of exposure. It is the usual experience of strong natures when they love.


Boldwood may have a “strong nature,” and so be at the opposite pole from a character such as Stephen Smith, but he nonetheless resembles him in one respect. Stephen had a tendency to “draw himself in with the sensitiveness of a snail”; Boldwood too, prior to the valentine, has lived within his “shell,” not so much in sensitive withdrawal as in the natural “reserve” of a habitual sense of “self-containment.” His reserve has made him physically impassive, for no feeling moves into or out of his hard, shell-like “impassibleness,” keeping him closed up like a dark tower or shut book. When Bathsheba comes into his life, the new feeling “overflows,” and he then writes himself in his body, “the tablet of his soul”; powerfully lit from within, he now can be read at a glance. Having sallied forth from the tower, he lives “outside his defences for the first time”; or, alternatively, having shed his shell, he has “a fearful sense of exposure.” But it is not only that he is now exposed to the outside world; he is also exposed to a consciousness of the void within, and so it is imperative for him to fill it. What he feels for Bathsheba is said to be “genuine lover's love” (173) because it springs directly and urgently from his own need. The need is so strong that the first words he addresses to her are an “offer of marriage” (177).

Just as Oak (as we have seen) tells Bathsheba that he will love her “always” and that she is more to him even than life, so Boldwood, when she informs him “her final decision” is that she “[cannot] marry him” (251), declares that his feeling for her is “a thing strong as death” and that no “dismissal by a hasty letter” can affect it (257). In the end he will show his feeling is so strong that he can deal out death; but it is a paradox of his condition that this man who is mastered by his passion, obsessed and possessed by it, is sexually diffident, as he himself admits in an important exchange with Bathsheba:

The most tragic woman is cowed by a tragic man, and although Boldwood was, in vehemence and glow, nearly her own self rendered into another sex, Bathsheba's cheek quivered. She gasped, “Leave me, sir—leave me! I am nothing to you. Let me go on!”

“Deny that he [Troy] has kissed you.”

“I shall not.”

“Ha—then he has!” came hoarsely from the farmer.

“He has,” she said slowly, and, in spite of her fear, defiantly. “I am not ashamed to speak the truth.”

“Then curse him; and curse him!” said Boldwood, breaking into a whispered fury. “Whilst I would have given worlds to touch your hand, you have let a rake come in without right or ceremony and—kiss you! Heaven's mercy—kiss you! …”


Boldwood here takes his stand on the need for “right” and “ceremony” in a man's relations with a woman, speaking out of the knowledge that his own relations with Bathsheba have been marked by an exemplary propriety and decorum. But when this passionate man, who breaks into “a whispered fury” at the idea of Troy's having kissed her, and who ultimately will kill as well as curse him, reveals that he has not dared “to touch [her] hand,” we may assume that in the case of the “confirmed bachelor,” as in that of the “bachelor by nature” in A Pair of Blue Eyes, an underlying inhibition has been at work.

The nature of Boldwood's inhibition—unlike Knight's—is not explored, but in this respect the assertion that the farmer is nearly Bathsheba's “own self rendered into another sex” proves most suggestive. He is said to be overtly like her “in vehemence and glow,” but (as remains to be seen in her case) there is perhaps a deeper resemblance in the paralyzing effect sexually of a long-sustained sense of self-sufficiency.6

In the face of Bathsheba's denial of him, Oak maintains himself on the crumbs offered him; Boldwood appears to revert to his earlier condition. When she marries Troy, the farmer seems to freeze. Oak looks sympathetically at “the square figure sitting erect” on his horse, his head “turned to neither side,” his elbows “steady by the hips,” and the brim of his hat “level and undisturbed in its onward glide” and finds “something more striking in this immobility than in a collapse” (296). Boldwood might indeed have been expected to collapse, to fall into the void opened up within him and disintegrate, when his aroused feeling meets with no return. He contrives with iron will, however, to repress his feeling, and so, it would seem, to remain immobile on the edge of the void, precariously poised to move away from it if chance should offer or topple over into it. In the event, he enacts both possibilities. He remains locked in the “fond madness” of his “unreasoning devotion to Bathsheba,” and “a great hope” germinates in him when it seems possible, a year after Troy's disappearance, that Bathsheba might remarry (392). He renews his suit, but since Troy's body has not been found, Bathsheba will not contemplate marriage until seven years have elapsed from the time of his supposed drowning. Expecting to receive her consent at the Christmas party he is giving some fifteen months after that event, Boldwood asks Oak whether there is “anything so wonderful in an engagement of little more than five years” (421). Like Stephen Smith, it appears, Boldwood is intent on ensuring possession of his beloved but is more than ready to delay it. “It seems long in a forward view,” Oak answers laconically. Boldwood's mind, we are to understand, is already “crazed with care and love,” as the “extraordinary collection of articles” he has purchased for Bathsheba later reveals (446); when Troy appears at the party and claims Bathsheba, nothing can prevent Boldwood's collapse. His initial “gnashing despair” changes to “a frenzied look” when she screams on Troy's “seizure” of her—and he shoots the sergeant (439).


Bathsheba initially makes all the wrong choices in regard to the men in her life. First, she rejects Oak, whom she ultimately marries and with whom she is set to live happily ever after at the end of the narrative. Then, having registered Boldwood's indifference to her at the Casterbridge cornmarket, she brings him into her life by inciting him with her valentine, which she seals with the words “Marry Me” (147). And she not only sends the valentine to him on a whim but also, in a manner reminiscent of Elfride on her pony in A Pair of Blue Eyes, leaves it to the fall of a book as to whether she should send it to him or not. “So very idly and unreflectingly was this deed done,” comments the narrator (148), but she so chooses to do. When Boldwood proposes to her, she tells him she is not in love with him and cannot marry him, but she is conscious that love is “encircling her like a perfume” (177), and she is also left with “a strong feeling that, having been the one who began the game, she ought in honesty to accept the consequences” (181-82). Boldwood persists, and she is on the verge of giving way—“I will try to love you,” she says, and adds that she has “every reason to hope” that within about six weeks she will “be able to promise” to be his wife (210-11)—when she meets Troy. Then she marries Troy.

She meets Troy for the first time when she is making her nightly tour of inspection of the farm. She is going back to the house “by a path through a young plantation of tapering firs” when, at “the darkest point of her route,” she hears footsteps:

The noise approached, came close, and a figure was apparently on the point of gliding past her when something tugged at her skirt and pinned it forcibly to the ground. The instantaneous check nearly threw Bathsheba off her balance. In recovering she struck against warm clothes and buttons.

“A rum start, upon my soul!” said a masculine voice, a foot or so above her head. “Have I hurt you, mate?”

“No,” said Bathsheba, attempting to shrink away.

“We have got hitched together somehow, I think.”


“Are you a woman?”


“A lady, I should have said.”

“It doesn't matter.”

“I am a man.”


Bathsheba softly tugged again, but to no purpose.


This is one of the scenes in the novels that first bears the unmistakable Hardy stamp. It also strikingly exhibits his new maturity as a novelist as he makes the scene resonate with symbolic and proleptic force. From the moment Bathsheba encounters Troy, we see, she becomes entangled with him, caught up so firmly she cannot get free. In a word, she is “hooked.” When she does try to free herself, she tugs so “softly” that it is “to no purpose.” The effect of the sudden contact is nearly to throw her “off her balance,” but in trying to recover it she moves only closer to him, becoming conscious of his “warm clothes,” of the warmth of his body, that is. It is in more than one sense “a rum start,” as Troy says, and a portentous one. It is made even more so by the strange way in which Troy chooses to announce his entry into her life: “I am a man,” he says; and Bathsheba, who has already been conversing with the “masculine voice” that has addressed her out of the darkness, can only gasp. It is with masculine strength of a kind she has not previously encountered that she now has to contend: when he later “looks hard” into her eyes, she at once looks down, “for his gaze [is] too strong to be received point-blank with her own” (215), and penetrating looks, we know, have their special significance in the novels. But this is a strength, it has previously been intimated, that she needs to measure herself against: at the Casterbridge cornmarket, “something” in the appearance of the “lithe slip of humanity” she is there said to be suggests her “potentiality” for “alarming exploits of sex, and daring enough to carry them out” (140). Troy, who is utterly unlike both Oak and Boldwood, is the kind of man, it rapidly becomes clear, to test that daring; he is indeed a New Man among Hardy's diffident men (though Manston of Desperate Remedies is a villainous forebear).

It is a mark of the novelist's imaginative control that Bathsheba's first instinctive response to bodily contact with Troy is “to shrink away” as much as she can. It is a crucial response as we shall see, and we do well to bear it in mind, for we tend to lose sight of it amid the brilliance of what follows:

“Is that a dark lantern you have? I fancy so,” said the man.


“If you'll allow me I'll open it, and set you free.”

A hand seized the lantern, the door was opened, the rays burst out from their prison, and Bathsheba beheld her position with astonishment.

The man to whom she was hooked was brilliant in brass and scarlet. He was a soldier. His sudden appearance was to darkness what the sound of a trumpet is to silence. Gloom, the genius loci at all times hitherto, was now totally overthrown, less by the lanternlight than by what the lantern lighted. The contrast of this revelation with her anticipations of some sinister figure in sombre garb was so great that it had upon her the effect of a fairy transformation.

It was immediately apparent that the military man's spur had become entangled in the gimp which decorated the skirt of her dress. …


When Troy opens the dark lantern, we have one of the first epiphanies in the novels, the use of epiphany being one of Hardy's major techniques for implying significance as opposed to his tendency to provide regular narratorial directives in that regard.7 Troy is the focus of attention, and Bathsheba is the one who looks; what is suddenly illuminated comes to her with the force of a “revelation.” In the epiphanic mode, it is Troy's inner essence that is revealed here, and we do well to bear this in mind too, especially in view of what soon becomes the narrator's increasing hostility to him. Troy's “brilliance” is directly attributable to the “brass and scarlet” of his uniform (and we remember the crimson jacket in which Bathsheba makes her first appearance). But it also streams out of him, shattering the darkness as a trumpet would the silence. It is an inner radiance that confounds the spirit of place, the darkness being “totally overthrown, less by the lantern-light than by what the lantern light[s].” It is the darkness, moreover, of a site that, even “gloomy” at “cloudless noontide,” is “dark as midnight at dusk, and black as the ninth plague of Egypt at midnight” (213). What emanates from him is a sexual vividness and brightness, as is underscored when the phallic spur finally becomes apparent. To be open to such brightness, it is implied, is liberating: when Troy takes in what has happened, he says to her, “You are a prisoner, miss” (215); the rays of the lantern that reveal this to be the case are said (in an image that otherwise would be incongruous) to “burst out from their prison” when the lamp is opened.8

After this encounter Troy pursues Bathsheba, wooing her with a combination of genuine admiration and designing flattery until one day her response signifies that she has capitulated, that “the seed” that will “lift the foundation” has “taken root in the chink,” at which point “the careless sergeant [smiles] within himself, and probably too the devil [smiles] from a loop-hole in Tophet,” for this is “the turning-point of a career” (226).

A more tangible turning point in the relationship is the occasion of the sword exercise (239-41), which John Bayley calls “one of the greatest scenes in English fiction.” It is also, one may add, an early instance of Hardy's use of symbolic action to convey sexual significance, a technique that enabled him to bypass Victorian restrictions in this respect.9 Troy uses the demonstration, in the first place, to test Bathsheba, and her ability to stand up to his onslaught bears sharply on his later disillusionment with her. He starts with “a preliminary test” to learn whether she has “pluck enough” to let him do what he wants, and he insists that he cannot “perform” if she is afraid. He lies to her about the sword, denying that it is “very sharp” when in fact it “will shave like a razor,” but she is nevertheless unflinching when “his cuts” come so close that “had it been possible for the edge of the sword to leave in the air a permanent substance wherever it flew past, the space left untouched would have been almost a mould of Bathsheba's figure.” But the performance is also designed, of course, to demonstrate his skill: “Never since the broadsword became the national weapon had there been more dexterity shown in its management than by the hands of Sergeant Troy.” He crowns the performance by using the razor-sharp sword to cut a lock of her hair—“Bravely borne!” he says to her. “You didn't flinch a shade's thickness. Wonderful in a woman!”—and then to spit “upon its point” a caterpillar that has settled on her bosom. When he finally tells her how sharp the sword is, she shudders: “I have been within an inch of my life,” she says, “and didn't know it”; but he assures her she has been “perfectly safe”: “My sword never errs.” In this scene, in which the sexual overtones gather fast and thick, Troy has indeed shown a mastery of his weapon. He also shows he is the kind of man who will not hesitate to put a woman at risk.

For Bathsheba the exercise reenacts and intensifies the visionary experience of her first encounter with Troy. As his “reflecting blade” flashes, catching “beams of light” from the sun, the atmosphere is “transformed to [her] eyes,” and she is “enclosed in a firmament of light, and of sharp hisses, resembling a sky-full of meteors close at hand.” Troy, that is, is once again all brilliance and sparkle, a fiery, vital force, manifesting himself in strong contrast to the dullness of Oak's restraint and the gloom of Boldwood's obsession. The woman who told Oak she wanted someone to tame her is mastered here, feeling “powerless to withstand or deny” Troy:

He was altogether too much for her, and Bathsheba seemed as one who, facing a reviving wind, finds it blow so strongly that it stops the breath.

He drew near and said, “I must be leaving you.” He drew nearer still. A minute later and she saw his scarlet form disappear amid the ferny thicket, almost in a flash, like a brand swiftly waved.

That minute's interval had brought the blood beating into her face, set her stinging as if aflame to the very hollows of her feet, and enlarged emotion to a compass which quite swamped thought. It had brought upon her a stroke resulting, as did that of Moses in Horeb, in a liquid stream—here a stream of tears. She felt like one who has sinned a great sin.

The circumstance had been the gentle dip of Troy's mouth downwards upon her own. He had kissed her.


One has to give full and careful weight to this scene in order to be able later to engage with the narrator's ambivalences. If Bathsheba is overwhelmed by Troy here so that afterward she loves him, loving “in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance” (243), her capitulation is presented in positive terms. Troy may for her have become his sword as he disappears “almost in a flash, like a brand swiftly waved,” and so the encounter with him may “stop the breath” in its perilousness, but it is also vitalizing, “a reviving wind,” waking her to sexual life. And when he kisses her and fires her into passion, making her blood beat and setting her aflame, it is by way of an expansion of being that “enlarges” emotion even if it “swamps” thought. If we may be inclined to regard this as an equivocal gain, the man who works the enlargement and produces the emotion that issues in her tears is seen, like “Moses in Horeb,” to possess miraculous powers. Prudent thought would anyway be of no avail.10

Subsequently, however, Bathsheba's “culpability” is said to lie in her “making no attempt to control feeling by subtle and careful inquiry into consequences” (244). The view of her relationship with Troy that the narrator now appears to endorse is that she is foolishly infatuated with him and so is led to marry the thoroughly irresponsible and dissolute man that he reveals himself to be, a man who eventually deserts her as he has earlier abandoned Fanny Robin. Justice may be done to Troy's sexual glamour and vitality, but he is otherwise consistently condemned.

He is condemned, first, out of his own mouth: “He had been known to observe casually that in dealing with womankind the only alternative to flattery was cursing and swearing. There was no third method. ‘Treat them fairly, and you are a lost man,’ he would say” (221). He is condemned too by his own actions, as on the night of the great storm when, instead of taking steps to protect the ricks on Bathsheba's farm (which has now become his responsibility), he leads the farmworkers in a “debauch” that makes for a “painful and demoralizing termination to the evening's entertainment” he has arranged (303). And he is condemned furthermore by the hostile commentary of the narrator, who seems bent on maintaining a negative consistency of characterization. A few examples of this must suffice. He is said to be “moderately truthful towards men” but to lie “like a Cretan” to women; since his “vicious phases” are “the offspring of impulse” and “his virtuous phases of cool meditation,” the latter have “a modest tendency to be oftener heard of than seen” (220). We are told that his “deformities” lie “deep down from a woman's vision,” while his “embellishments” are “upon the very surface” (244). When he plants the flowers on Fanny's grave with what I take to be genuine emotion—I shall discuss his attitude toward Fanny later—the narrator remarks that “in his prostration at this time” he has “no perception that in the futility of these romantic doings, dictated by a remorseful reaction from previous indifference, there [is] any element of absurdity” (372-73). And what Troy has “in the way of emotion” is described as “an occasional fitful sentiment which sometimes [causes] him as much inconvenience as emotion of a strong and healthy kind” (400).

Troy, clearly, is not an admirable character, but the failure of his marriage to Bathsheba is not solely to be attributed to him. Although he is again viewed critically when he and Bathsheba are seen alone for the first time after the marriage, it is also suggested that something more is at issue between the couple than emerges (rather like the scene in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady—published a few years later—in which we first see Mr. and Mrs. Osmond after their marriage and register the change in their relationship):

“And you mean, Frank,” said Bathsheba sadly—her voice was painfully lowered from the fulness and vivacity of the previous summer—“that you have lost more than a hundred pounds in a month by this dreadful horse-racing? O, Frank, it is cruel; it is foolish of you to take away my money so. We shall have to leave the farm; that will be the end of it!”

“Humbug about cruel. Now, there 'tis again—turn on the waterworks; that's just like you.”

“But you'll promise me not to go to Budmouth second meeting, won't you?” she implored. Bathsheba was at the full depth for tears, but she maintained a dry eye.

“I don't see why I should; in fact, if it turns out to be a fine day, I was thinking of taking you.” …

“But you don't mean to say that you have risked anything on [the race next Monday] too!” she exclaimed, with an agonized look.

“There now, don't you be a little fool. Wait till you are told. Why, Bathsheba, you have lost all the pluck and sauciness you formerly had, and upon my life if I had known what a chickenhearted creature you were under all your boldness, I'd never have—I know what.”


The injured tones of the couple as they engage in mutual recrimination indicate how soon the marriage has lost its gleam, the point being made additionally and emblematically by some “early-withered leaves” that spin across the path of their gig (319). But if Bathsheba is justifiably angered by his prodigal behavior, it is not clear why she—as distinct from her money—should be so diminished, for her voice is “painfully lowered” from its habitual “fulness and vivacity.” We recall too that on her first appearance after the marriage she has spoken “listlessly” and “seemed weary” (282). And if Troy, in turn, is led to assert his mastery in the marriage, there is nothing in the scene itself to account for the kind of disenchantment he expresses, neither her nagging nor her chickenheartedness—he, if anyone, should have the full measure of her “boldness”—being presented as so obnoxious as to warrant his implied regret that he has married her.

Shortly thereafter, when Troy is reduced to asking Bathsheba for money (which he wants to give Fanny), we are told that he deems it “necessary to be civil,” though he does “not now love her enough to allow himself to be carried too far by her ways” (330). It seems that the decline of his love for Bathsheba may be linked to his chance encounter with Fanny, with whom he has lost touch but not deliberately abandoned, and this impression is strengthened when Bathsheba discovers he keeps another woman's “coil of hair” in the case at the back of his watch (331). The discovery greatly upsets Bathsheba and forces her to review her situation. The account we are then given of her attitude to marriage suggests the cause of Troy's disenchantment with her, though the narrator carefully stops short of stating this himself:

Directly he had gone, Bathsheba burst into great sobs—dry-eyed sobs, which cut as they came, without any softening by tears. But she determined to repress all evidences of feeling. She was conquered; but she would never own it as long as she lived. Her pride was indeed brought low by despairing discoveries of her spoliation by marriage with a less pure nature than her own. She chafed to and fro in rebelliousness, like a caged leopard; her whole soul was in arms, and the blood fired her face. Until she had met Troy, Bathsheba had been proud of her position as a woman; it had been a glory to her to know that her lips had been touched by no man's on earth—that her waist had never been encircled by a lover's arm. She hated herself now. In those earlier days she had always nourished a secret contempt for girls who were slaves of the first good-looking young fellow who should choose to salute them. She had never taken kindly to the idea of marriage in the abstract as did the majority of women she saw about her. In the turmoil of her anxiety for her lover she had agreed to marry him; but the perception that had accompanied her happiest hours on this account was rather that of self-sacrifice than of promotion and honour. Although she scarcely knew the divinity's name, Diana was the goddess whom Bathsheba 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 simplicity of a maiden existence to become the humbler half of an indifferent matrimonial whole—were facts now bitterly remembered.


The narrator states that the sense of “spoliation” Bathsheba so bitterly registers here is due to her “marriage with a less pure nature than her own,” but the rest of the passage suggests it stems from the brute fact of marriage itself. It is not merely that she has “never taken kindly to the idea of marriage.” If it was a positive “glory” to her, prior to her own marriage, to know she had remained sexually untouched by any man, this feeling would seem to extend beyond a girlish pride in virginity since she is said to “hate herself now”—to be disgusted, apparently, by sexual experience per se. Such experience, the image of the caged leopard implies, has not been liberating, has failed to realize the hope symbolized in the scene with the dark lantern. Certainly the feeling of self-hatred is evoked in direct response to the recall of those untouched lips and waist. This suggests that her resentment at being “conquered” may also be related to the fact of her sexual submission and that it is not merely disillusionment in Troy that has brought “her pride” low. Similarly, her renunciation of “the simplicity of a maiden existence” for life as “the humbler half of an indifferent matrimonial whole” is felt as a “degradation,” and the strength of the revulsion suggests a more profound kind of humbling. Indeed, she was only led into marriage in the first place “in the turmoil of anxiety for her lover,” by her jealousy and fear of losing him, that is, as she has previously admitted to Oak: “I went to Bath that night,” she tells him, “in the full intention of breaking off my engagement to Troy,” but when she learns he has been eyeing a beautiful woman, she is caught “between jealousy and distraction” and marries him (311).

The specific fear of losing Troy would seem to have allayed Bathsheba's more general fear of sexual contact and impelled her to go against her own nature, for it is Diana she “instinctively adore[s]”: Bathsheba, that is, is temperamentally a virgin, “sufficient to herself.” It is in this more profound sense that Boldwood, as we have seen, may be said to be “nearly her own self rendered into another sex”: Boldwood the bachelor, apparently confirmed in his self-sufficiency, and Boldwood the lover, who even when roused out of himself does not dare to touch her hand. Paradoxically, a sufficiency of self, a firm sense of self-establishment, is a precondition for a successful sexual relationship, provided it does not function, as in these instances, to inhibit sexual response. Marriage, even in its “happiest hours,” is a “self-sacrifice” to Bathsheba, for her martyrdom to sex entails the violation of her vaunted self-sufficiency. Bathsheba and Boldwood may thus be regarded as victims of what might be called a Diana complex. In this respect Hardy is astonishing in his handling of gender, moving far beyond an essentialist position to a profound understanding of what may be common to both man and woman. And Bathsheba and Boldwood are merely the first of major Hardy characters who are caught in sexual incapacity. Hardy will again explore the working of the complex in his portrayal of Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge, of Grace Melbury in The Woodlanders, and of Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure. It is interesting that, some two years after the publication of Far from the Madding Crowd, there should be an indication of a similar condition in the work of a woman novelist. In Chapter 7 of Daniel Deronda, it is said of Gwendolen Harleth that “she objected, with a sort of physical repulsion, to being directly made love to. With all her imaginative delight in being adored, there was a certain fierceness of maidenhood in her.” Gwendolen is unmarried at this point, but we may infer that she—like Bathsheba—carries such fierceness with her into marriage.11

In the quoted passage from Far from the Madding Crowd, however, the narrator both implies that Bathsheba is temperamentally unsuited to marriage and contrives to camouflage this by suggesting at the same time that it is her marriage to Troy that is the trouble. What he leaves quite unsaid—though this is of the essence—is what the effect of her attitude is on Troy. Troy is no doubt a wastrel and a philanderer and so the wrong man for Bathsheba, but in the failed marriage there is more to his side of things than the novelist appears willing to admit. Troy's accusation of chickenheartedness on Bathsheba's part now takes on another meaning. In the sword exercise, we recall, Troy said he could only “perform” if she were not afraid; if she did not flinch then, we may suspect she has been inclined to “shrink away” from him now, much as she instinctively did on the occasion of their first encounter in the dark. It is not her nagging about money that is the main cause of his rapid disenchantment with her; it seems reasonable to assume, rather, that she has proved incapable of really opening herself to him. D. H. Lawrence (as I have analyzed in detail in The Forked Flame) may instruct us as to what, in all likelihood, lies behind such incapacity (this applying as well to Grace and Sue, to Boldwood and Henchard): in his depiction of a similar inhibition in Constance Chatterley, he shows it is a fear of losing the self that is at issue. Bathsheba, at all events, with her sense of violation, is a prisoner not of Troy, as in the scene with the spur, but of self.12

If this reading is valid, then it is Bathsheba's sexual irresponsiveness that makes Troy feel they are not truly married. Support for this view is provided by one of the most striking scenes in the novel (and in Hardy)—the confrontation of Troy and Bathsheba over the open coffin that contains the bodies of Fanny and her child, whom he has fathered:

He had originally stood perfectly erect. And now, in the well-nigh congealed immobility of his frame could be discerned an incipient movement, as in the darkest night may be discerned light after a while. He was gradually sinking forwards. The lines of his features softened, and dismay modulated to illimitable sadness. Bathsheba was regarding him from the other side, still with parted lips and distracted eyes. Capacity for intense feeling is proportionate to the general intensity of the nature, and perhaps in all Fanny's sufferings, much greater relatively to her strength, there never was a time when she suffered in an absolute sense what Bathsheba suffered now.

What Troy did was to sink upon his knees with an indefinable union of remorse and reverence upon his face, and, bending over Fanny Robin, gently kissed her, as one would kiss an infant asleep to avoid awakening it.

At the sight and sound of that, to her, unendurable act, Bathsheba sprang towards him. All the strong feelings which had been scattered over her existence since she knew what feeling was, seemed gathered together into one pulsation now. The revulsion from her indignant mood a little earlier, when she had meditated upon compromised honour, forestalment, eclipse in maternity by another, was violent and entire. All that was forgotten in the simple and still strong attachment of wife to husband. She had sighed for her self-completeness then, and now she cried aloud against the severance of the union she had deplored. She flung her arms round Troy's neck, exclaiming wildly from the deepest deep of her heart—

“Don't—don't kiss them! O, Frank, I can't bear it—I can't! I love you better than she did: kiss me too, Frank—kiss me! You will, Frank, kiss me too!” …

“I will not kiss you!” he said, pushing her away.


Hardy's characterization here is superb. Troy acts with complete sincerity and spontaneity, and so is unassailable. The commentary, otherwise so hostile, grants him this: as he begins to melt into motion, the unfreezing of his “congealed immobility” is given an affirmative connotation by the parallel established between it and the discerning of “light” in “the darkest night,” just as the softening of his features bespeaks the tenderness with which he approaches the dead Fanny.13 (His feeling now, we may remark in passing, is not different in kind from that which he later exhibits at Fanny's grave, though the narrator is not as charitable to him then.) But the suffering that Troy inflicts on Bathsheba is also sharply rendered. His gentle kissing of Fanny is an “unendurable act” for Bathsheba not alone for the quality of the feeling it reveals toward the dead woman but also in its utter negation of her, his wife, as if he were unaware of her very presence there. The fear of losing him that has led her into the marriage now operates to make her try to save it, though paradoxically it has all along been a threat to “her self-completeness,” and this propels her into her grotesque competition with Fanny. But Troy is remorseless. Putting an effective end to their marriage, he proceeds to spell out what has undermined it: “This woman,” he says to Bathsheba, “is more to me, dead as she is, than ever you were, or are, or can be,” and he then calls Fanny his “very, very wife.” He also adds, “heartlessly”: “You are nothing to me—nothing. A ceremony before a priest doesn't make a marriage. I am not morally yours” (361). If Troy here brutally insists on Bathsheba's lack of responsiveness to him sexually, we cannot but reflect that the professed depth of his commitment to Fanny and of his love for her must be supposed in turn to have affected his own sexual response to Bathsheba, even though he may have believed Fanny to be “miles away, or dead” (320) throughout the marriage.14

Troy acts on his sense of Fanny as his “very wife” in the tombstone he puts up for her and in its inscription (“Erected by Francis Troy / In Beloved Memory of / Fanny Robin …”); and in due course Bathsheba seems to accept the fact too: her inscription on the same tombstone reads—“In the same Grave lie / The Remains of the aforesaid / Francis Troy …” (451).


When Troy disappears, Bathsheba, “perceiving clearly that her mistake had been a fatal one,” accepts her position and waits “coldly for the end” (386). Eventually, however, Boldwood renews his suit, and she is on the verge of agreeing to marry him within about six years when Troy stages his return at the Christmas party. She is initially prostrated by the killing, but she “[revives] with the spring” (450), and a year after her “legal widowhood” (454) she and Oak decide to marry. Their coming together is celebrated in a passage that is pivotal in Hardy's future development as a novelist:

They spoke very little of their mutual feelings; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good fellowship—camaraderie—usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death—that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.


The love that Bathsheba and Oak achieve, we are told, is “the only love” worth having, being the only kind of love that is “strong as death” and so will endure. Its various attributes are clearly distinguished. First, it is a love that is akin to friendship, being fundamentally a matter of “good fellowship” or “camaraderie.” Sometime previously Bathsheba has begun “to entertain” for Oak “the genuine friendship of a sister” (334); by the time this feeling ripens into love, they are “tried friends” and share the mutuality of a friendship that can take their feeling for each other for granted. Second, their love is founded on “substantial affection,” a phrase that is carefully chosen. It is based on affection, not “passion,” that is, and hence is substantial, for (in Solomonic cadence) it can neither be extinguished nor dissipated, whereas passion is “evanescent as steam.” Third, it is a love that is solidly rooted in “hard prosaic reality,” flowering out of it; it is thus rooted too in a mutual fullness of knowledge that broadly encompasses “each other's character.” Fourth, it is a love that is marked by the compatibility of the lovers, a general affinity of interest that embraces a “similarity of pursuits” and an association not only in their “pleasures” but in their “labours” too. It is, therefore, a multifaceted love, and it is the fact that it is a “compounded feeling” that gives it its strength.

The sentiments expressed in the quoted passage at first seem unexceptionable in view of the tale that has preceded it. Passion indeed seems to have vanished like steam, for there is nothing left of the passion of Troy and Fanny, of Troy and Bathsheba, and of Boldwood for Bathsheba. Where the compounded feeling of camaraderie will foster true love, passion has destroyed the lovers, only Bathsheba of those named above surviving to carry on with ordinary life. It is another matter, however, when this passage is viewed in relation to the novels that follow it. The pronouncement of the seer is so emphatic that it would seem to foreclose any future exploration on his part of the nature of passion, the more especially since its destructiveness was shown to be sordid rather than tragic. And who would want to try to take hold of steam? Yet Hardy proceeded hereafter to devote all his major work (with the exception of The Mayor of Casterbridge) to this subject. An explanation of the seeming contradiction perhaps lies in the fact that his see-er had seen and shown aspects of passion that his seer ignores in his final sweeping generalization. He had shown, for instance, that the passion of Bathsheba and Troy (the main focus of interest in the novel) was not destructive per se, that it was, if anything, her lack of passion that was the trouble. This problem of the reluctant or unresponsive woman certainly preoccupied Hardy and led him to persevere in tackling it in varied passionate contexts.15 Furthermore, the see-er had seen and vividly conveyed that passion could be not only destructive but vitalizing; and if the seer invoked Solomon at its demise, the see-er had called on Moses with no less force at its birth. More needed to be said before the seer could be left to hold such sway. And though Bathsheba is set in the end to flourish in her marriage of camaraderie, we cannot but feel that the see-er has insinuated she will be missing something.16 It is a fact, at any rate, that the ideal camaraderie does not seem to interest the novelist very much, for analogous relationships founded on it tend to be tacked on to the end of the novels that follow—that is, until he essays a full-scale treatment of it in Jude the Obscure, with the sort of consequences that remain to be determined.


  1. Howard Babb, “Setting and Theme in Far from the Madding Crowd,” 147; Irving Howe, Thomas Hardy, 52.

  2. Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, 75. Further page references to this novel will be incorporated parenthetically in the text.

  3. John Goode also remarks that the narrative, “far from ignoring ignoble strife, is the story of wishes and their consequences which are neither sober nor noiseless” (Thomas Hardy: The Offensive Truth, 31).

  4. See Chapter 1, 32-33 above.

  5. In contradistinction to this view of Oak, Annette Federico talks of his “sexual equilibrium”: “He is Hardy's version of the male ideal, perfectly balanced between the flesh and the spirit” (Masculine Identity in Hardy and Gissing, 71). Robert Langbaum remarks on “Gabriel's strong sexuality throughout” and says his name suggests “phallic strength” (Thomas Hardy, 80, 84).

  6. Marjorie Garson, however, calls “the rigid monklike celibacy” of Boldwood a “parody” of Bathsheba's “wilful self-sufficiency” (Hardy's Fables of Integrity: Woman, Body, Text, 25).

    A number of critics have also commented (though in different terms) on the resemblance between Boldwood and Henry Knight: John Lucas states that “Boldwood is very like Henry Knight in his romantic vision of women” (“Hardy's Women,” 132). And Ronald Blythe says “the farmer, like the man of letters in A Pair of Blue Eyes, is sexually timid and uncertain” (introduction to Far from the Madding Crowd, 26).

  7. See the Introduction for a discussion of the connection between Hardy and James Joyce in this respect, 8-9 above.

  8. There is a lot more to this scene, as I have tried to bring out, than that phallic spur, which is often made a limiting focus of attention. Cf. Richard C. Carpenter, who says “there is patent phallic symbolism … in this scene in the cruel potency of the spur and the soft, enveloping tissues of the gown” (“The Mirror and the Sword: Imagery in Far from the Madding Crowd,” 342). Rosemarie Morgan, in her “revisionary” (that is, feminist) analysis of the scene, gives even more weight to the momentous spur, “[T]he soft, feminine folds of the woman's dress pierced through by the man's projecting blade [sic] suggests (and prefigures) not only the act of love-making, but as a material representation of inner, intangible desires, the erotic seizure now taking hold of the two young lovers” (Women and Sexuality, 33).

  9. John Bayley, An Essay on Hardy, 121. Another striking instance of Hardy's provision of a sexual subtext by means of symbolic action is his description of Tess's ride with Alec in his gig in Tess of the d'Urbervilles: see Chapter 7, 156-58 below.

  10. This is to view the scene in radically different terms from a critic such as Susan Beegel, who (with reference to the sword exercise) refers to “Troy's brand of death-dealing passion” and says that “Bathsheba's love for Troy is a love which embraces helplessness; his feeling for her one which exults in the powerlessness of its victims” (“Bathsheba's Lovers: Male Sexuality in Far from the Madding Crowd,” 210, 212).

    Robert M. Polhemus refreshingly says that “it simply will not do to moralize smoothly on this chapter … and deplore Bathsheba's reaction to Troy as ‘self-destructive’ [the reference is to Beegel], misguided, or tragic. To do so misses the point, slighting and cheapening the soul-shaking power of the erotic.” But Polhemus himself diminishes this power by going on to call Troy “the seducer, the huckster of desire and instant gratification” (Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D. H. Lawrence, 240, 246).

  11. I am indebted to my colleague, Joshua Adler, for drawing my attention to this passage in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda.

  12. See The Forked Flame: A Study of D. H. Lawrence, 293-99.

    Peter J. Casagrande views the problem as one of lost innocence:

    Bathsheba is filled with repugnance toward physical contact and near-hysteria at the thought of having lost her innocence. Sexual union with Troy has left her with a sense of “spoliation,” “degradation,” and pollution, the unalterability of which she would never “own … as long as she lived.” Therefore she hates herself, regards herself a bloody victim, a fallen woman. … Her instinctive affinity for Diana … reinforces this. Her idea of growing up is, in short, a nervous panicky one requiring fulfillment of the impossible dream of regaining the lost “simplicity of a maiden existence.” (“A New View of Bathsheba Everdene,” 64)

  13. George Wing is one of the few critics to accept that Troy is sincere here: “There [is] a curious warmth in the shallowness of the dandy's heart, and an unexpected fidelity in his fickleness. As he stands before Fanny's rough coffin … he is unequivocal and, I think, sincere” (Thomas Hardy, 50).

    Cf. Ian Ousby, who takes the more usual view: “With the discovery of Fanny Robin's death and the belated awakening of his guilt, Troy turns on Bathsheba in a misogynistic fury that is anything but feigned. [His] arguments … are now advanced over Fanny's coffin with an intensity that loses nothing for being rooted in hypocrisy and self-deception” (“Love-Hate Relations: Bathsheba, Hardy and the Men in Far from the Madding Crowd,” 38).

  14. I am indebted to a graduate student, Dorit Ashur, for this view of the presumed consequence of Troy's love for Fanny.

    Linda M. Shires maintains that, “though the point is not made directly by Troy, Fanny is the truer wife because she has produced his child, because she is a mother, while Bathsheba is not” (“Narrative, Gender, and Power in Far from the Madding Crowd,” 172).

  15. It is perhaps not irrelevant to note that Hardy's biographer has stated that his wife, Emma, failed “to respond physically” to him (Millgate, Thomas Hardy, 166).

  16. Only Lionel Adey, so far as I know, points to what Bathsheba stands to lose in the marriage to Oak: “Certainly Bathsheba does right to choose companionate love wherein is no ecstasy, but she also jettisons a part of herself that, had Troy proved a fitting husband [and she a fitting wife, we might add] would have given her life an élan it will never know again” (“Styles of Love in Far from the Madding Crowd,” 60-61).

Clay Daniel (essay date December 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3394

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 Storm—The Two Together,” Hardy alludes to Milton also surreptitiously to undercut the generic expectations of a reading public with whom even Leslie Stephen was “careful.”2 This public was “given, according to the mood of the nation at this time, to nostalgic dreams of a rural England that was lost.”3Far From the Madding Crowd, by all accounts, was received as a splendid response to this nostalgia. More recent readers, however, have noted that the novel provides a “grotesque pastoral” in which the “reader … could hardly fail to note how often the events of the novel work against the concept of a peaceful pastoral that the title leads him to expect.”4 In “The Storm—The Two Together,” Hardy uses Milton to disguise the dark, troubled depths that swirl beneath the conventionally idyllic surface of his novel. Milton had gone to the pastoral world to represent the problems that beset his society, and Hardy follows him into a pastoral world that is as bright and as depraved as Milton's complex paradise of sin, death, betrayal, frailty, seduction, lust, and contemplated suicide.

Hardy prepares for his adaptation of Milton's epic simile by identifying Bathsheba with Eve; and he uses this pivotal identification to define Boldwood as Adam, Troy as Satan, and Gabriel as the angel who guarded Eden. The significance of Bathsheba's identification with Eve is suggested by her last name: Everdene. She is an ever-green and ever-flawed Eve, still lingering within the precincts of paradise. This characterization is adroitly developed by Hardy's first description of her. Bathsheba appears in pastoral splendor, withdraws a looking-glass, and smiles at herself: “She blushed at herself, and seeing her reflection blush, blushed the more” (9). The narrator explains, “Woman's prescriptive infirmity has stalked into the sunlight, which had clothed it in the freshness of an originality” (10). This scene vividly recalls the original woman's first glimpse of herself in a lake that to her “seem'd another sky”:

                    I started back,
It started back, but pleas'd I soon return'd,
Pleas'd it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love.


Bathsheba “has her faults. … And the greatest of them is—well, what it is always … Vanity” (Hardy 11). The cracks in the mirror of Hardy's “fair product of Nature in the feminine kind” (10) clearly parallel those of Milton's “novelty on Earth, this fair defect / Of Nature” (10.891-92), “longing to be seen / Though by the Devil himself” (10.877-78).

Boldwood is the Adam destroyed by Hardy's Eve. Milton describes “two of far nobler shape erect and tall, / Godlike erect, with native Honor clad” (4.288-89). Hardy describes the “upright” Boldwood as “erect in attitude, and quiet in demeanour. One characteristic pre-eminently marked him—dignity” (75). “His large forehead” (95) also suggests Adam's “fair large Front” that “declar'd / Absolute rule” (4.300-01). Boldwood's lofty isolation leaves him, like Adam, without a history—“No mother existed to absorb his devotion, no sister for his tenderness, no idle ties for sense” (97). Hardy, in fact, explicitly identifies Boldwood with Adam when he characterizes Boldwood as one who “had never before inspected a woman” and to whom “women had been remote phenomena”:

On Saturday Boldwood was in Casterbridge market-house as usual, when the disturber of his dreams entered, and became visible to him. Adam had awakened from his deep sleep, and behold! there was Eve. The farmer took courage, and for the first time really looked at her.


Adam recounts seeing Eve formed in his dream, waking “to find her, or for ever to deplore / Her loss” (8.479-80). Raphael then rebukes him as uxorious (8.561-95). Boldwood's similar adoration of Bathsheba will cause his destruction. Hardy enhances this point by quoting Milton (PL 5.449-50) to ascribe jealousy to Boldwood, “the injured lover's hell” (94). As this hell begins to simmer, and Boldwood is reduced to “an unhappy Shade in the Mournful Fields by Acheron” (182), Hardy fuses Adam's decision to die with Eve, his subsequent bitter repudiation of her, and his frustration at being unable to refuse life or wife from God. Boldwood regrets that “the first woman” he had ever loved (158) had cost him his self-respect and standing (160). He laments, “O, could I but have foreseen the torture that trifling trick was going to lead me into, how I should have cursed you; but only having been able to see it since, I cannot do that, for I love you too well!” (158).

Gabriel, as appropriate to a shepherd who owns a copy of Paradise Lost, echoes Milton's angel in several key ways. Most obviously, “his Christian name was Gabriel” (7). He had “a quiet modesty that would have become a vestal”; and his face retained “some relics of the boy,” though “at the brightest period of masculine growth” (8). These descriptions echo traditional, Miltonic, representations of angels as “prime / In Manhood where Youth ended” (Michael; PL 11.245-46) who bear themselves with “mild” dignity (Raphael; PL 5.371). He, like Eve's protectors, keeps an anonymous “strict watch that to this happy place / No evil thing approach or enter in” (PL 4.562-63). He is assisted in this watch by the Wessex equivalent of “th' unarmed Youth of Heav'n” (PL 4.552): Cainy Ball. This boy, as his mother had thought she had named him after the slain brother rather than his slayer, lends an especially edenic touch. Gabriel also is aided in his watch by his knowledge of the heavens (8, 14). This knowledge had helped him many times to escape the “evil consequences” of possessing a faulty—and punned—watch (8).

Sergeant Frank Troy—ironic scion of the Lords of Severn—is the literary descendant of Satan, especially in his guise of dashing warrior reduced to playing the “Plebeian Angel militant / Of lowest order” (PL 10.442-43). As the novel begins, the déclassé Troy resides in a place “of which the chief constituent was darkness” (69). We meet him on “a night when sorrow may come to the brightest without causing any great sense of incongruity.” He is “as good as in the county gaol” (71). Yet it is no ordinary gaol but the “Dungeon … Prison” of Satan (PL 1.61, 71), the dimmed, sorrowful, once-brightest of Heaven gone to seed: “If anything could be darker than the sky, it was the wall, and if anything could be gloomier than the sky, it was the wall, and if anything could be gloomier than the wall it was the river beneath” (70). Satan escapes from his dismal prison to ruin Adam and Eve and to unite paradise and hell; and the similarly devilish role to be played by Troy in relation to Bathsheba and Boldwood is presaged by Hardy's fusing Milton's descriptions of Eve's first, vain glimpse of herself in a pool that she mistakes for sky, the despoiled Adam and Eve's appearing more naked in clothes (9.1113-15, 1138-39), and Sin and Death joining Earth to Hell by building “high Archt, a Bridge” (10.301) across Chaos:

From this chaotic skyful of crowding flakes the mead and moor momentarily received additional clothing, only to appear more naked thereby. The vast arch of cloud above was strangely low, and formed as it were the roof of a large dark cavern, gradually sinking in upon its floor; for the instinctive thought was that the snow lining the heavens and that encrusting the earth would soon unite into one mass without any intervening stratum of air of all.


As with Bathsheba and Gabriel, Troy's identification in this infernal triad is enhanced by his name. Satan is not frank, but neither is Troy. But “Troy” suggests a correspondence with Satan as a loser of epic contests; and something of serpent lingers in sergeant, especially when he speaks. As Troy pitches the farmer's suicide (180), Boldwood replies, “Devil, you torture me!” (179). This “juggler of Satan” (182), the “stripling” Troy (161; PL 3.636), with his “devil-may-care tone” (176), proves especially adept with women such as Bathsheba:

Nevertheless, that a male dissembler who by deluging her with untenable fictions charms the female wisely, may acquire powers reaching the extremity of perdition, is a truth taught to many by unsought and wringing occurrences. And some profess to have attained to the same knowledge by experiment as aforesaid, and jauntily continue their indulgence in such experiments with terrible effect. Sergeant Troy was one.


Satan's “sovran Mistress … sole Wonder” and “Empress of this fair World” (9.532-33, 568) soon become Troy's thrice-repeated “Queen of the Corn-market” (133). In this seduction, “the careless sergeant smiled within himself, and probably too the devil smiled from a loop-hole in Tophet” (135). Hearing of Troy's encounter with Bathsheba, Boldwood laments that his Eve has sold herself to Troy “soul and body … so utterly” (180).

These identifications climax in the storm scene. Gabriel is alerted to the approaching storm by the presence of a toad and “the serpentine sheen” of a garden-slug (188). Each of these signs recalls Satan in Paradise Lost. The serpent/slime imagery points to Satan “mixt with bestial slime” in his successful attempt on Eve (PL 9.165). In his prior, unsuccessful, attempt, Satan had become “squat like a Toad” whispering with “Devilish art” into the ear of the sleeping Eve (4.800-01). Milton's description of the “toad” that is apprehended by the angelic watch includes military and agricultural imagery:

                    As when a spark
Lights on a heap of nitrous Powder, laid
Fit for the Tun some Magazin to store
Against a rumor'd War, the Smutty grain
With sudden blaze diffus'd, inflames the air:
So started up in his own shape the fiend.


Hardy similarly describes Gabriel, in opposing Troy's imperilling the harvest: “In juxtaposition to Troy, Oak had a melancholy tendency to look like a candle beside gas” (187).7

In his representation of the “storm” in Eden, Milton identifies Gabriel with Libra (sign of God's weighing scales), which interposes between Satan (whom Milton identifies with Scorpio: sign of lust and death, the dragon and the serpent) and Eve (whom Milton identifies with Virgo: sign of fertile Demeter and virginal Proserpine, and usually personified holding “an ear of corn, or a spike of grain”).8 Hardy retains this triad to structure his storm scene: Bathsheba (Eve/“Queen of the Cornmarket”/Demeter/imperilled virgin Proserpine) is preserved by Gabriel from the menace associated with Troy (Satan/Serpent/Dragon). But he modifies Milton's simile in several significant ways. First, Hardy's Eve is awake. As “out leapt the fifth flash, with the spring of a serpent and the shout of a fiend,” Oak beholds “the only venturesome woman in the parish” (192). This is not so much an optimistic assertion that a woman can defend herself as it is the troubling admission that she must defend herself against a danger for which she is responsible. Bathsheba's harvest is menaced by the ravages of a storm that is closely linked with Troy, “ruling now in the room of his wife” (185). Troy imperils this harvest by ignoring Gabriel's warnings and then getting the farmhands drunk at his harvest dance and “Wedding Feast” (187). The dangers posed by this hireling swell into the vast destruction “breathed from the parted lips of some dragon about to swallow the globe” (190).9

Though willing to credit “a direct message from the Great Mother” indicating that catastrophic storms must occur, Hardy repudiates messages from a providence that can avert devastation by determining conflicts before they begin.10 Milton asserts that “all the Elements / At least had gone to rack, disturb'd and torn / With violence” had God not interposed his scales to signal Gabriel's victory in protecting the sleeping Eve (PL 4.993-95). Hardy, however, insists that the elements must go “to rack” as the “heavenly light” yields “diabolical sound” that is not seduction but destruction (193). The chapter's first sentence flutters with the presence of stirring, angry angels: “A light flapped over the scene, as if reflected from phosphorescent wings crossing the sky, and a rumble filled the air. It was the first move of the approaching storm” (191). As in Eden, the focal point of the battle is the firmament: “Manoeuvres of a most extraordinary kind were going on in the vast firmamental hollows overhead. The lightning now was the colour of silver, and gleamed in the heavens like a mailed army” (192). Gabriel arms himself with “his ricking-rod, or poniard …—a long iron lance.” This weapon recalls the angelic “Spear” that ignites the detected Satan (PL 4.810). In the novel, after a fierce struggle, Gabriel's rod shivers with the grisly form of the dragon-storm in the heavens:

Heaven opened then, indeed. The flash was almost too novel for its inexpressibly dangerous nature to be at once realized … 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 … one of the grisly forms had alighted upon the point of Gabriel's rod.


Where Milton had subtly hinted at the connection between Satan and death by identifying him with Scorpio, Hardy personifies death in the storm against which his Gabriel must struggle. Hardy's Gabriel echoes Milton's victorious angel when he announces, “But Heaven be praised, it is all the better for us” (194). Yet this Gabriel's effort hardly can be called a victory. It is at best, as Gabriel also says, “a narrow escape.” The melding of paradise and hell, portended by the first glimpse of Troy in his “gaol,” has been completed by the storm: “A sulphurous smell filled the air; then all was silent, and black as a cave in Hinnom. … The darkness was now impenetrable.” The “venturesome” Bathsheba has merged with the “bold … ad'ventrous Eve” who plucks the apple (9.921). Clearly, the storm has revealed Bathsheba's own folly—if not fall—in marrying a hireling-devil. Her “love, life, everything human,” even in Gabriel's eyes, “seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe.” Those who slept through the storm are worse off than she. Their dismal condition is represented in epic terms. Emerging from the barn, “the whole procession was not unlike Flaxman's group of the suitors tottering on towards the infernal regions” (197). The chief victim of Troy's pursuit of Bathsheba is the over-loving Boldwood. Boldwood, deranged by his courtship of Bathsheba, has allowed his corn to be destroyed by the storm. His is “a carelessness which was like the smile on the countenance of a skull” (199).

One of Milton's sources for identifying the epic scales with God's judgement is Daniel 5:27: “Thou hast been weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.” This verse is quoted by Joseph Poorgrass in his assessment of Boldwood's prospects at his trial for killing Troy: “‘Justice is come to weigh him in the balance,’ I said in my reflectious way, ‘and if he's found wanting, so be unto him’” (294). This second judgement eerily echoes the thunder and lightning of the first. Largely due to his “insane” behavior during the storm (295), Boldwood is spared the noose; his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Adam, too, is pardoned by God, who “delays / His hand to execute what his Decree / Fix'd” (10.771-73). For Milton, this was the seal to a felix culpa. For Hardy, it is merely culpa. Troy goes from prison to hell, and Boldwood goes to prison and hell. Hardy has rewritten Milton to suggest a paradise, lost, permanently, by Eve. After losing his corn, Boldwood had lamented to Gabriel, “I had some faint belief in the mercy of God till I lost that woman” (199). Quoting Jonah, Boldwood adds, “‘I feel it is better to die than to live.’” Nevertheless, hearing of the commutation, “‘Hurrah!’ said Coggan, with a swelling heart. ‘God's above the devil yet!’” (297). Hardy here takes a page from Pippa Passes. In light of Hardy's adaptation of Milton's weighing scales, God, if anywhere, is not above his tormented creation. A slain devil has united a despoiled Heaven and earth, Gabriel “‘is joined to idols’” (308), and Boldwood-Adam is condemned to a lingering suffering rather than to the death he craves.11 Milton's God has been displaced by Hardy's “Great Mother.” Whoever or whatever she may be, her judgements are heavy, enduring, and not unlike those wrought by the “nature” of Hardy's later novels.


  1. Marlene Springer, Hardy's Use of Allusion (Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1983) 4.

  2. In his 12 March 1874 letter to Hardy, Stephen wrote of the novel,

    May I suggest that Troy's seduction of the young woman will require to be treated in a gingerly fashion, when, as I suppose must be the case, he comes to be exposed to his wife? I mean the thing must be stated but the words must be careful—excuse this wretched shred of concession to popular stupidity; but I am a slave.

    Quoted from Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd, ed. Robert C. Scheik, Norton Critical Edition (New York: Norton, 1986) 343. Citations of Far From the Madding Crowd will refer to this edition.

  3. Rosemarie Morgan, Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy (London: Routledge, 1988) 32.

  4. Charles May, “Far From the Madding Crowd and The Woodlanders: Hardy's Grotesque Pastorals,” English Literature in Transition 17 (1970) 150; Lewis Horne, “Passion and Flood in Far from the Madding Crowd,Ariel 13 (July 1982) 39. May summarizes this debate in arguing that Far From the Madding Crowd is a distortion of pastoral (147-50). He also notes the impact of epic on the work, citing Lascelles Abercrombie, Thomas Hardy: A Critical Study (1912; New York: Russell & Russell, 1964) 97-169. Also see Michael Squires, “Far From the Madding Crowd as Modified Pastoral,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25 (1970): 299-326.

  5. Citations of Milton refer to John Milton: Complete Poetry and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey, 1957).

  6. Also see page 81.

  7. Hardy's echo in Return of the Native is even more explicit. When the protector Venn slaps the destoyer Wildeve on the shoulder, the narrator comments that Wildeve “started like Satan at the touch of Ithurtiel's spear” (The Return of the Native, ed. James Gindin, Norton Critical Edition [New York: Norton, 1969] 121).

  8. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Myths of the Zodiac (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978) 72. For Milton's development in this scene of the classical myths associated with Virgo, Libra, and Scorpio, see Clay Daniel, Death in Milton's Poetry (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1994) 39-41.

  9. To characterize Troy as a “hireling or novice” (13) that is Gabriel's antithesis, Hardy also alludes to Milton's denunciation of “Blind Mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold / A Sheep-hook, or have learn'd aught else the least / That to the faithful Herdman's art belongs!” (Lycidas 113-31). This passage—in its descriptions of sheep “swoln with wind” and a “shearer's feast” that excludes “the worthy bidden guest”—would seem to have suggested, in addition to the significance of musical ability to characterize Gabriel, two central episodes in Far From the Madding Crowd: the blasting of the sheep and Troy's “harvest supper and dance” (185)/“Wedding Feast” (187). Hardy quotes Lycidas 126 in Chapter 21, which recounts the blasting of the sheep. In Hardy's twist to the theme of the good shepherd, “God was palpably present in the country,” things prosper, and sheep are regularly fleeced—and eaten—in “the Shearing-barn, which on ground-plan resembled church with transepts” (112-13). From this angle, Gabriel is identified with Satan as eavesdropper and associate of fire (16, 20-23, 37-38, 39-42).

  10. Howard Babb discusses nature as a moral force that enacts, rather than represents (as in Paradise Lost), the story's theme (“Setting and Theme in Far From the Madding Crowd,” (ELH 30 [1963]:147-61).

  11. Poorgrass's concluding quotation of Hosea 4:17 (“Ephraim is joined to Idols”), then, far from being “comically irrelevant” (308n), is the culmination of Hardy's identification of Oak with Solomon, especially Solomon as “that uxorious King, whose heart though large, / Beguil'd by fair Idolatresses, fell / To Idols foul” (PL 1.444-46; 1.400-05; PR 2.169-71). When Bathsheba appears headed for marriage with Boldwood, Oak quotes Ecclesiastes 7:26: “‘I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets!’” (120). He would have done well to quote the entire verse: “… whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.” Oak himself is taken by “this Ashtoreth of strange report” (42).

Penny Boumelha (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6477

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 choice,” to use Franco Moretti's phrase;1 the woman is first attracted to the “right” partner, then distracted by one or more “wrong” partners before confirming—whether emotionally or formally—the “rightness” of the original choice. Also central to all three, though, is a perhaps less familiar story of class mobility and social allegiance, focused through the narrative structures of fluctuating economic fortunes, ownership of property, the accumulation of financial or social capital, trading, and inheritance. These two central points of concern are, of course, deeply interconnected, thematically and in narrative terms. The triangulated relationships of potential lovers represent marital choice as the primary mode of class transition for women; it is evident that, though Fancy, Bathsheba, and Grace have all received a good education, in each case it functions rather as a marital asset than as an alternative path for class mobility. So, the vicissitudes of the lovers display the panoply of social possibilities for the heroine, and the eventual choice of husband is at the same time the choice of class position, or at least of economic and/or social status. The choice turns out slightly differently in each case. In the simplest of the three texts, Under the Greenwood Tree, Fancy Day only mildly flirts with the possibility of accepting a richer or more educated suitor before confirming her choice of Dick Dewey the carter. In Far from the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdene over time accepts all three suitors—the penurious half-aristocratic Troy, the wealthy landowner Boldwood, and the (variously) farmer, shepherd, and bailiff Gabriel Oak; the “right” choice can only be confirmed by the melodramatic elimination of the rivals. In the complex and self-consciously sardonic The Woodlanders, Grace Melbury is never allowed (or obliged) to sacrifice her social rise for the confirmation of her original choice, Giles Winterborne, though the rightness of the attachment is nonetheless allowed a brief and consolatory post mortem confirmation. In each case, the presence of differences of class serves at some point to stimulate romance, to merge ambition and desire, and to thwart fulfillment.

Of course, the choice to be made is never only about class position. In each case, the first-presented suitor represents a certain sturdy, faithful worth apparently associated with his being native to the locality, while the other possibilities may include a sexually compelling but faithless newcomer such as Troy or Fitzpiers, and a wealthy but unattractive older man such as Shiner or Boldwood. What might be called moral merit seems to be related directly to occupation: in each case, the “good” suitor is engaged in manual labor, the feckless suitor is as far from it as can be imagined, and the wealthiest option is a landowner. It would be easy to deduce from this a kind of sexual pastoral, in which the unshowy virtues of the hero represent the timeless qualities of a stable rural society in the heart of nature, disrupted by the influence of city-dwellers and outsiders who bring with them inappropriate ideas, aspirations, and values threatening the survival of the locality. This is a view that has often been argued, and indeed all three of the texts draw upon the conventions of the pastoral mode in a way that might appear to endorse it: the use of the seasonal cycle to structure the time-span of events, for example, or the association of the hero with fruitful labor, or the references to fertility rites and folk rituals, or the use of resonantly symbolic and allusive rural phenomena such as flocks of sheep or apple-trees. But in my view, such elements are self-consciously used to question as well as to evoke the values of the pastoral, and it would be a great mistake to settle for seeing in these novels a representation of country life as an idyllic and timeless enclave, sheltered from the pressures of contemporary life.

Rural society, for Hardy, is just that: a society, in which exploitation, solidarity, and the struggle for survival are experienced quite as keenly as they are in urban settings. Mellstock, Weatherbury, and Little Hintock are not simply backdrops for the sympathetic engagement of nature with human activities, but places of work and unemployment, financial loss and gain, social hierarchy and economic transaction. Economic and social detail is precise and significant: such episodes as the twopence Oak pays so that Bathsheba can pass through the turnpike gate, Marty's sale of her hair for two sovereigns to supplement her meager piecework earnings, or Mrs. Day's anxiety to make known to the neighbors the quality of her tablecloths and cutlery are constant reminders of the determining power of economic and class relations, even when they also carry other kinds of figurative weight. Work is taken in a serious and specific sense; in the symbolic set piece of the storm scene of Far from the Madding Crowd, for example, the reader is still always made aware of how Gabriel's experience of work enables him to predict the weather or how he goes about saving the ricks. We know how money is acquired and lost, how much things cost and laborers are paid, what domestic as well as agricultural labor supports the local economy. Clearly then, interpretation of these novels will need to focus on their realism as well as their obeisances to pastoral convention.

The plot of marital choice that I have outlined above combines the issues of gender and class in making clear the extent to which the social fate of the heroine depends upon the class and economic position of her husband; as Mr. Melbury puts it, “a woman takes her colour from the man she's walking with” ([The Woodlanders unsure which edition.], xii, p. 86). Class position and economic position may be at variance, of course; Fitzpiers is clear that he has “stooped to mate beneath” himself (Woodlanders [W], xxxv, p. 251) even though he is supported by the money of the Melburys. Nevertheless, whereas a hero can marry “up” or marry “down” without significantly transforming his own position, the social status of the heroine is secondary and derivative as soon as she marries. This combination of class and gender in the marital plot is important, and will be further discussed in the accounts of the individual texts below, but there are also other issues to be considered in relation to Hardy's mapping on to one another of the social discourses and facts of class and gender.

Hardy's concern with cross-class romance could almost be described as obsessive, and it persists virtually throughout his writing career. Indeed, his first (unpublished and now lost) work bore a title that could almost serve as an epigraph to his fiction: “The Poor Man and the Lady.” This continuing concern is fueled, I think, by an eroticization of class difference, in which the “otherness” of the other class is conceived through a kind of melancholic desire. That this cross-class desire is not simply a transposition into other terms of social ambition is evident, because it appears to be the difference, and not the class position in itself, that carries the erotic charge. In any case, it traverses the divisions of class in all directions (doctor for working girl, or educated woman for laborer, as well as shepherd for farmowner or maid for aristocratic soldier), so that it by no means always implies any form of social gain. At the same time, the prevalence of class-disparate romance in Hardy also means that the representation of gender difference is shot through with an alertness to questions of power, status, and inequality. The love relationship is, in a sense, perceived as inherently politicized, and antagonisms and rivalries of class are installed at the heart of desire. Gender difference and class difference, working in the space between antagonism and desire, are both represented as relations of power, and their intersections can take various forms. The different distributions of power are not necessarily singular and uni-dimensional, though; gender privilege and class privilege may reinforce one another (as in, say, Fitzpiers's casual appropriation of Suke Damson), but they may just as easily be in conflict (as in Bathsheba's dismissal of Oak from her employ for the way he speaks to her as a woman) or in other complex forms of overlap. Exploitation, patronage, and solidarity can function together or contradictorily within the social relations of class and those of gender.

Further, the mapping on to one another of issues and relations of class and gender has an important role to play in denaturalizing the differences upon which both forms of social organization are predicated. The differences come to be seen as contingent and arbitrary rather than as inherent and fixed, as they were presumed to be in much of the ideology of the period. For instance, the concern of the novels with actual or potential changes of class position makes it impossible to see social status as fixed once and for all by birth or descent. Nor is it only the plot of sexual choice that rests upon class mobility; the novels are full of characters who are (in the terminology of the time) self-made or of decayed aristocratic stock, and Gabriel Oak demonstrates the volatilities of class position in his migrations between landowner and wage-laborer status. Change, mobility, and choice are to the fore in the representations of class difference. At the same time, these novels combine—often rather unsettlingly—numerous voices of conventional wisdom about the nature of women and their difference from men with other moments that destabilize the certainties of the nineteenth-century gender polarity. The scenes of shared labor crucial to the representation of fulfilled love between Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene and of the thwarted love of Marty South for Giles Winterborne stress likeness and commonality rather than difference. Bathsheba's fear that her social and economic power may have made her “mannish” is answered decisively but unexpectedly in Liddy's positing of gender convergence rather than polarity: “not mannish; but so almighty womanish that 'tis getting on that way sometimes” (Far from the Madding Crowd, xxx, p. 209). At moments such as those I have cited, differences—whether of class or of gender—are clearly shown as products of history rather than of nature.

Although the representation of class and gender differences and alliances is not confined to the heterosexual love relationship, it is there that Hardy locates their pains and pleasures at their sharpest. Difference itself is often powerfully erotically charged. There is, I think, something fetishistic about Hardy's textualization of sexuality, and it is often expressed in a slightly disturbing way through the disembodied gender significations of clothes; the scene in which the gazes of the members of the Mellstock Quire all “converge … like wheel-spokes” upon Fancy's boot, lovingly exploring its “flexible bend at the instep” and “rounded localities of the small nestling toes” (Under the Greenwood Tree [UGT,], i, iii, pp. 25-26) is echoed by the scene of the assembled wives and mistresses of Fitzpiers staring at his abandoned nightshirt, or by Boldwood's secret amassing of a hoard of silk and satin dresses, sable and ermine muffs, all carefully labeled “Bathsheba Boldwood” as if they substituted for the woman herself. Perhaps it is because of this erotic dimension to his understanding of difference that Hardy so notably conceives and represents the intensely social discourses of gender and class in almost entirely individual terms. Certainly, both class and gender shape and color the experience and relationships of individual characters, but the novels are almost devoid of any sense of collectivity. The rises and falls of class position happen through and to individuals; Oak's catastrophic loss of his investment, for instance, is due to his foolishness in leaving his freshly lamb-fed dogs unattended, rather than to changes in market prices.

Where gender is concerned, matters appear rather different. Though there is little of female friendship in the novels, both Far from the Madding Crowd and The Woodlanders contain important moments in which a recognition of commonality of experience between women overcomes the way in which their own emotional interests place them at odds; in the first, Bathsheba takes responsibility for Fanny's burial and grave initially because it is her role as employer, but then out of fellow-feeling, while in the second, Grace Melbury and Felice Charmond cling together in the woods in a mutual acceptance of the suffering of the other. Nevertheless, in each case that commonality rests upon the private experience of the love relationship, and then only because the man (and not just the situation) is in each case shared. It is striking, too, that none of the central female characters in these texts has a mother; Fanny and Grace have stepmothers, Bathsheba has (if only briefly) an aunt, Marty South has only a father. The effect is to heighten the sense of isolation in which these characters live out their common dilemmas.

This absence of mothers also throws into sharper relief, at least in the cases of Fancy Day and Grace Melbury, the patriarchal power of the father, whose role it is to make, accept, or refuse the marital choice on behalf of his daughter. Mr. Day's attempt to prevent Fancy marrying Dick and Mr. Melbury's early desire to force Grace to marry Giles are only apparently opposites; in fact, they betray the same social power. In each case, too, the primary concern of the father is whether his daughter, educated beyond the level of her family and her peers, will justify the investment by making a socially advantageous marriage. In other words, the daughter is at once the object of and the vehicle for the social ambition of the father. But if the social ambition belongs to the father, the social mobility belongs to the daughter. A kind of freedom, it nevertheless threatens to leave her “as it were in mid-air between two storeys of society” (W, xxx, p. 214) until one or other of the class-positions is confirmed by the status of the husband. The exercise of such patriarchal power, if not always by a literal father, will prove tragic in some other of Hardy's texts, but in these interrelated novels, it is shown in the end to be futile. In Under the Greenwood Tree, the father's power to make the marital choice on behalf of his daughter is comically subverted—with, it must be said, only a token resistance—by the notably unsupernatural intervention of the wise woman Mrs. Endorfield. In The Woodlanders, the father's power is carefully foregrounded in Melbury's vacillations as he impels Grace in one direction and then another according variously to the dictates of his conscience, his ambition, or his information. Finally, he is left looking rather pathetic by Grace's decision to return to Fitzpiers, which he is unable to fit into the scheme of his own power: “I have been a little misled in this … there has been some mistake—some arrangement … which I didn't quite understand” (W, xlviii, p. 359). In both texts, then, the social power of the father is asserted even as his individual power is undermined through the structure of the narrative.

Under the Greenwood Tree, according to its author's 1912 Preface, deals with the story of the church musicians and their eclipse “lightly, even … farcically and flippantly at times” (UGT, Preface, p. 5). Much the same could be said of its rather mild and low-key version of Hardy's central plotmotif, marital choice among class-differentiated suitors. Here, class differences are small, their determinations upon behavior insignificant, and their ultimate impact minimized; work and economic exploitation are largely absent; rivalries are minor, mistakes are rapidly retrieved, and tragedies averted. Narrative elements that will become significant in the other novels under discussion have not yet made their appearance: no man is financially ruined, no woman seduced and abandoned, and no one dies for love. Nevertheless, even in this lightly sketched version, it is the representation of class and gender relations that gives the novel much of its interest.

The text focuses in part upon a tension between community and individualism, tradition and modernity. It features a group of men—the Mellstock Quire—for whom the order of things, social as well as natural, lies in stasis, cycle, and repetition. Images of literal stasis (the picturesque, the statuesque, the silhouette) abound, and the novel's pastoral structure, focused on the cycle of the seasons, takes the narrative from the communal festivities of Christmas to those of Dick and Fancy's wedding. Against this background are set the two individual men whose role is to rupture the cyclical pattern and disrupt the stasis. Parson Maybold breaks the rhythm of the church festivals by substituting Fancy's “free” solo playing (UGT, iv, v, p. 167) of the organ for the communal performance of the Quire. Mr. Shiner has no respect for the traditions of the (literally cyclical and repetitive) dance:

“All I meant was,” said Dick, rather sorry that he had spoken correctingly to a guest, “that 'tis in the dance; and a man has hardly any right to hack and mangle what was ordained by the regular dance-maker, who, I daresay, got his living by making 'em, and thought of nothing else all his life.”

“I don't like casting off: then very well: I cast off for no dance-maker that ever lived.”

(UGT, i, vii, p. 53)

Positioned between the group who want things to stay the same and the individuals who want to change them is Fancy Day, so that her choice among available suitors represents also a choice among attitudes to community and tradition. As Gatrell has pointed out,2 the novel is full of expressions of suspicion and distrust toward women, voiced in a kind of choric fashion by the Mellstock men. From the moment when Fancy's boot disrupts the group by compelling their attention at once to its workmanship and its embodiment of femininity, neither the reader nor the members of the Quire are ever in doubt that the male group of the outset will yield to the heterosexual couple of the conclusion. Fancy's role, it seems to me, is to represent femaleness; it does not depend upon, or even require, any individualization of her. The reader is given virtually no direct representation of any desire, intention, or feeling of Fancy's; all must be inferred from the commentaries and interpretations of (male) others, and are usually generalized on the basis of gender. “[Women] be all alike in the groundwork: 'tis only in the flourishes there's a difference,” advises Mr. Dewey (UGT, ii, viii, p. 108). At the same time, though, Dick's doubts, wonderings, and general confusion are scrupulously reported to the reader: “This brought another meeting, and another, Fancy faintly showing by her bearing that it was a pleasure to her of some kind to see him there; but the sort of pleasure she derived … he could not anyhow decide, although he meditated on her every little movement for hours after it was made” (UGT, ii, i, p. 69).

As a result, thrown into relief against Dick's guileless incomprehension, Fancy often comes to seem a skillful manipulator, possessed of mysterious and unexplained knowledge about the ways of the world. In the conversation that leads to Dick's proposal, for instance, there is no level of commentary guiding the reader to know whether Fancy has consciously set out to elicit it, but the self-evidence of his naivety seems to impute worldly knowledge to her. This superior knowledge seems, too, more in the nature of womanly instinct than evidence of her much-vaunted education; the novel certainly allows her precious little of scholarship and intellectual activity. The narrative voice, then, is more or less aligned with the collective wisdom of the Mellstock Quire as Dick is initiated into the ways of women. As a result, the largely cynical generalizations about women receive a degree of narrative endorsement, as when Mr. Dewey's views are confirmed as “truth”: “In fact, it is just possible that a few more blue dresses on the Longpuddle young men's account would have clarified Dick's brain entirely, and made him once more a free man” (UGT, iv, i, pp. 142-43; italics added).

Since there are no other young and marriageable women of any narrative significance in the text, Fancy is almost the exclusive focus of both erotic attention and gender generalizations, and her status as a kind of queen bee among the workers of Mellstock is brought out by the repeated references to beehives. In a sense, then, Fancy is Woman for the novel: if she is fickle, it is because women are fickle, and if the novel tells us Woman is fickle, it is because Fancy is fickle. Just as Tess Durbeyfield will later be “pure woman” precisely because she is impure, so Fancy Day is “perfect woman” (UGT, iii, iv, p. 135) precisely by virtue of her imperfections; complete in her incompleteness, she is, for this text, the singular example of “united 'ooman” (UGT, i, vi, p. 44).

Fancy's symbolic choice between the old ways and the new comes to what is in a sense a predictable conclusion: a compromise. She does displace the Quire from the church, but she also adopts many of the old-fashioned customs, in order to have a wedding like her mother's. Her exposure to the ways of “persons of newer taste” (UGT, v, ii, p. 193) allows her to bring about some modest changes in manners and habits. This ending in compromise does not constitute an avoidance of resolution, though; it marks the novel's final recognition that the breaking of pattern and cycle by the intrusion of desire is in turn itself a pattern, a cycle. Only this, after all, enables the group to recognize from the moment of his first enraptured gaze that Dick Dewey is a lost man: “Distance belongs to it: slyness belongs to it: queerest things on earth belongs to it. There—'tmay as well come early as late, s'far as I know. The sooner begun the sooner over; for come it will” (UGT, ii, iii, p. 75).

Though pastoral and mythological allusions are still significant, Far from the Madding Crowd is a novel in which class and economic relations assume a much more prominent status. If not exactly predicated upon class, its central romance is certainly permeated by work, money, and considerations of social status. The fluctuations of Oak's fortunes, and indeed of Bathsheba's, are carefully detailed. Economic motivations are often powerful, as when Troy's final return to his wife is motivated as much by her ability to keep him as by the recrudescence of desire. Most importantly, the literal and metaphorical language of economic transaction—of debt, waste, begging, investment, gamble, and contract—here both doubles and displaces the language of emotional interaction: Bathsheba feels she owes Boldwood a “‘debt, which can only be discharged in one way,’” for example, and his final proposal to her is improbably as “‘A mere business compact’” (FMC, li, p. 368 and liii, p. 386). The sense that Bathsheba and Oak are right for each other is mediated through their development of what might be called the great virtues endorsed by the text: shared work and shared commitment to the importance of labor and money. In this last, they are distinguished from the fecklessness of almost all those around them. The detail of working life in the novel, considerable as it is, is also accompanied by the detail of work refused, wasted, or neglected. To some extent, the early Bathsheba and Oak share the same carelessness; she wishes she could afford to pay a man to do the work for her, and he dozes off to sleep and loses his sheep. They help to educate one another into responsible workers and landowners, with money-saving interventions as the currency of their romance. The twopence that Bathsheba will not pay at the turnpike and Oak's reputation as a “near” man, one who mends his own socks even when he can afford not to, predestine them for one another as surely as anything more romantic. The equilibrium of the end is doubly enabled: obviously, by their economic equivalence as Oak's application and thrift help him to climb back from wage-earning status to capital accumulation, but also by Bathsheba's final half-articulated proposal to Oak—a proposal which, to pick up one of the novel's dominant metaphors, she owes him.

The proximity of love relationships and economic relations (debt, dependency, possession) in the novel draws attention to its conception of gender relations as suffused by distributions and inequalities of power. For a novel which is certainly, on one level, among the great literary romances, Far from the Madding Crowd is also curiously, strikingly full of episodes of malice, both human and otherwise. Probably the most obvious and extreme instance comes in Troy's torturing of Boldwood by delaying the news of his marriage in a way that impels his rival to offer him higher and higher bribes. But there are other such moments, too, great and small: Bathsheba's sacking of Oak, his refusal in return to save her sheep until she begs, Troy's repudiation of Bathsheba over the coffin of Fanny Robin, the gargoyle's destruction of his dilettantish efforts at atonement, even the man at the workhouse's stoning of the dog that has assisted Fanny along the Casterbridge highway. Again, the novel's romance is repeatedly undercut by undertones of antagonism and even violence in its representation of erotic and love relationships: rowelled spurs, shears, swords, lashing reins, guns, mark the various stages of relationship. Troy's symbolic seduction of Bathsheba in the hollow amid the ferns takes the form of a sword-exercise, and its intensity has something faintly sado-masochistic in its exaggerated performances of cowering and swagger:

She shuddered, “I have been within an inch of my life, and didn't know it!”

“More precisely speaking you have been within half an inch of being pared alive two hundred and ninety-five times.”

“Cruel, cruel 'tis of you!”

“You have been perfectly safe nevertheless. My sword never errs.”

(FMC, xxviii, p. 196)

Beside this figurative violence there also runs another, related strain of imagery. Though there is what might be called a narrative endorsement of Bathsheba in the novel's final scene of quiet marriage, it is also noticeable that the process of maturation which fits her to Oak is represented—often though her own speech or consciousness—as a humiliation, a taming, a conquering. Similarly, Boldwood is reduced from his initial haughty independence to a state of pitiful obsession and eventual incarceration, and Fanny Robin's suffering after her abandonment by Sergeant Troy is portrayed at a length and with a relish hard for the reader to enjoy. The world of desire and passion is here one of extremity and violence. That the novel is able to conclude with romance fulfilled is due largely to the displacement of sexual relationship, at least between Oak and Bathsheba, by economic interaction. It is less as male and female that they are finally united than as landowners, workers, and social equals. Their engagement is confirmed by the discussion of “the details of his forthcoming tenure of the other farm. They spoke very little of their mutual feelings” (FMC, lvi, p. 409).

There is a sense in which this is a surprising outcome; no first-time reader, I think, could predict from the novel's opening that particular turn of events. It begins rather awkwardly. Gabriel Oak is what might be called a class-type, representing and delimited by his social position: a faintly ridiculous rustic with his “ruddy mass” of a face, his “emphatically large” boots, and a watch that has only one working hand (FMC, i, pp. 7-8). Bathsheba, similarly, begins as a gender-type, an enactment of “[w]oman's prescriptive infirmity” (FMC, i, p. 10), complete with emblematic looking-glass. It seems appropriate that their earliest interactions are so disjointed and uncommunicative, each observing the other from carefully described vantage points as if they occupied distinct narrative spaces. As the novel progresses, however, something very different happens. The point is not that the evolution of the individual characters takes them further from stereotype, but rather that the very bases of the types are undermined. It is not a change in Bathsheba, but a different understanding of gender, that takes the novel from “[w]oman's prescriptive infirmity” to a situation in which Bathsheba is “so almighty womanish” that it abuts the mannish (FMC, xxx, pp. 209). Similarly, that Oak becomes gentleman enough for Bathsheba is not only due to his accumulation of capital, nor to any development that we know of in his dress or social habits, but also to a changed idea of the determining power of class. The exuberant ideological confidence of the novel's opening is chastened along with its characters in the course of the narrative.

In many ways, The Woodlanders draws upon the same range of narrative elements and allusions as these predecessors. It is a much more disturbing novel than either, though, in its gesture towards and final avoidance of the expected conclusion, its blurring of the roles of its initially clearly opposed hero and villain, and its unsettling generic ranging across social comedy, tragedy, and melodrama. There are two elements in particular, though, that create the sense of disturbance: the peculiarly unstable character of class and sexuality, and the prevalence of obsession. From the interaction of the two emerges something quite different in the handling of the central plot of marital choice.

As in the earlier texts, love and desire act as the medium of significant patterning of relationships and characters. At the same time, relationships among the central characters are often very specifically socio-economic. That is, relationships of class alliance and antagonism here take the form of relations of employer and employee, landlord and tenant, workmates and traders. For all the novel's allusions to Sophoclean tragedy, Norse mythology, and pastoral, The Woodlanders clearly does not represent “one of those sequestered spots outside the gates of the world” (W, i, p. 8). Rather, its society is grounded in economic interaction and sexual desire, often in complex interaction. It is a novel in which the language of “fate” and “destiny” is harnessed to something very much more like a materialist determinism:

As with so many right hands born to manual labour, there was nothing in its fundamental shape to bear out the physiological conventionalism that gradations of birth show themselves primarily in the form of this member. Nothing but a cast of the die of Destiny had decided that the girl should handle the tool; and the fingers which clasped the heavy ash haft might have skilfully guided the pencil or swept the string, had they only been set to do it in good time.

(W, ii, p. 10)

There is, then, nothing natural or inherent about class position. It does not betray itself in intrinsic physical traits—nothing about Grace shows Fitzpiers that she is not his social equal—though in time it becomes written upon the body, in Melbury's sore back as much as Marty's right hand. This idea contributes to the pervasive sense of class mobility in the novel: Felice the “lady of the manor” is an actress who married a wealthy manufacturer, Melbury is a self-made man, the professional Fitzpiers comes from an aristocratic family in decline, the coffin-stool in Marty's cottage reveals a formerly wealthy family background. In this disturbingly mobile social environment,3 Grace is repeatedly described in economic terms, as a valuable gift, as yielding a return, as raw material or value added. She is, in a sense, an asset in transactions among men, who can cancel Melbury's debt to his wronged rival, or confer money and status on Giles, or balance money and social degradation for Fitzpiers. Most of all, she is Melbury's investment in the future and his profit from a lifetime's labor, and, like all capital, she must be carefully husbanded. Melbury's fixation on Grace's social position drives the plot, and there is real pathos in his prospective satisfaction that she might fulfill his obsessive social ambition by becoming too socially elevated to acknowledge him in public: “If you should ever meet me then, Grace, you can drive past me, looking the other way. I shouldn't expect you to speak to me, or wish such a thing—unless it happened to be in some lonely private place where 'twouldn't lower 'ee at all” (W, xxiii, p. 159).

Melbury is an obsessive in a novel of obsessives. At times—as with John South's inexplicable identification with the tree outside his window—it seems that irrationalism governs the novel. More particularly for my argument here, the combination of a high level of mobility and of obsessive single focus which runs through the novel's representation of social status is replicated in its version of sexuality. The plot is full of second marriages, infidelities, promises made and broken, actual or multiple attachments, and (at least as a possibility denied) divorce. It shows a society of what might be called erotic mobility, within which each sexual attraction exercises a power so compelling that it reduces character after character to symbolic somnambulism. As with class position, there is a sense that erotic choice is both arbitrary and determining; neither is fated, but each imposes its own fate. Once Marty's hands have been set to piecework, the chances of her acquiring artistic and musical accomplishments diminish to vanishing point. Similarly, once a sexual choice has been made, it cannot simply be ignored: Felice's murder at the hands of a rejected lover, Giles's death from typhoid and chivalry, Grace's departure with Fitzpiers after a narrow brush with the man-trap, all result from sexual commitments broken but not unmade.

Clearly, the novel's focus on the provisionality of class position and the restlessness of desire significantly transforms its fable of marital choice. The profoundly non-monogamous sexuality represented does not lend itself to any symbolically definitive commitment. It is fitting that Grace's choice of a suitor is in turn so restless and transitory, continually made and unmade until the novel's conclusion takes her out of the society of Little Hintock altogether. Grace acts as the appropriate focus of the novel's social and erotic choices precisely because she spends so much of it in a state of suspension, “between two storeys of society” (W, xxx, p. 215), “neither married nor single” (W, xl, p. 293), “a conjectural creature” (W, v, p. 39). Grace's vacillations and uncertainty signify the complexity of the novel's version of the plot of marital choice.

If the concluding couple of The Woodlanders frustrates expectations of rightness endorsed, there is one relationship of equality in the novel. Giles and Marty have the shared work, shared knowledge, and shared language that in Far from the Madding Crowd confer its rightness upon the Bathsheba-Oak marriage. In the erotically compulsive and socially restless world of The Woodlanders, though, their unchanging comradeship is sterile because it stands apart from the shifting obsessions of desire: “In all our outdoor days and years together, ma'am … the one thing he never spoke of to me was love; nor I to him,” says Marty (W, xliv, p. 327). Where difference is the erotic spur, their complementarity finally isolates them from their society and from each other.

In these three pastorally influenced novels of marital choice, then, class difference is as central to the generation of desire and its thwarting or fulfillment as gender difference. Indeed, it might even seem that, under the constraints imposed by nineteenth-century publishing conventions, experimentation with class position stands in for its sexual equivalent. It is important, though, that Hardy's versions of gender and class are never displacements of one another. Whether in the simplicity of Fancy's choice, the false starts that Bathsheba's financial independence allows her, or Grace's restive and half-made commitments, it is the interplay and contradiction between these two powerful social discourses that is the focus of narrative attention. In Hardy's fiction, the plot of romance—often seen as the plot of the private life—is profoundly social.


  1. Franco Moretti, The Way of the World: The “Bildungsroman” in European Culture (London: Verso, 1987), pp. 248-49, n. 33.

  2. Simon Gatrell, “Introduction,” in UGT, pp. xviii-xix.

  3. See John Bayley, “A Social Comedy? On Re-reading The Woodlanders,” in Thomas Hardy Annual No. 5, ed. Norman Page (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987), p. 17.

Further Reading

Bayley, John. An Essay on Hardy. Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Elbarbary, Samir. “The Male Bias of Language and Gender Hierarchy: Hardy's Bathsheba Everdene and His Vision of Feminine Reality Reconsidered.” Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens, 41 (1995), 59-79.

Garson, Marjorie. Hardy's Fables of Integrity: Woman, Body, Text. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Goode, John. “Hardy and Marxism.” In Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy: The Novels. Ed. Dale Kramer with the assistance of Nancy Marck. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990, pp. 21-38.

Green, Laura. “‘Strange [In]difference of Sex’: Thomas Hardy, the Victorian Man of Letters, and the Temptations of Androgyny.” Victorian Studies, 38 (1995), 523-49.

Higonnet, Margaret R., ed. The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Ingham, Patricia. Thomas Hardy. Feminist Readings. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International; London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

Jacobus, Mary. “Tree and Machine: The Woodlanders.” In Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Thomas Hardy. Ed. Dale Kramer. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1979, pp. 116-34.

Kramer, Dale. “Revisions and Vision: Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders.Bulletin of New York Public Library, 75 (1971), pp. 195-230, 248-82.

Kramer, Dale, ed. Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Thomas Hardy. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1979.

Levine, George. “Shaping Hardy's Art: Vision, Class, and Sex.” In The Columbia History of the British Novel. Ed. John Richetti. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 533-59.

Miller, J. Hillis. Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Morgan, Rosemarie. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. London: Routledge, 1988.

Morgan, William W. “Gender and Silence in Thomas Hardy's Texts.” In Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art. Ed. Antony H. Harrison and Beverly Taylor. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1992, pp. 161-84.

Poole, Adrian. “‘Men's Words’ and Hardy's Women.” Essays in Criticism, 31 (1981), 328-45.

Scarry, Elaine. “Work and the Body in Hardy and Other Nineteenth-Century Novelists.” Representations, 1/3 (1983), 90-123.

Williams, Merryn, and Raymond Williams. “Hardy and Social Class.” In Thomas Hardy: The Writer and His Background. Ed. Norman Page. London: Bell & Hyman, 1980, pp. 29-40.

Wittenberg, Judith Bryant. “Angles of Vision and Questions of Gender in Far From the Madding Crowd.Centennial Review, 30 (1986), 25-40.

Wotton, George. Thomas Hardy: Towards a Materialist Criticism. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1985.

Wright, T. R. Hardy and the Erotic. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989.

Keith Selby (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8322

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 (even Hardy's last novel, Jude the Obscure (1896), was published well before film had properly evolved as a narrative medium), but rather that he emulated it. Lodge writes:

Hardy uses verbal description as a film director uses the lens of his camera—to select, highlight, distort, and enhance, creating a visualised world that is both recognisably ‘real’ and yet more vivid, intense and dramatically charged than our ordinary perception of the real world.1

The view that Hardy's art is commonly ‘visual’ has now become generally accepted.

However, to concentrate on that art at the level of narrative would be to tell only part of the story. Despite the fact that Hardy classified both the novels I will be focusing on here—Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), and Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891)—as ‘novels of character and environment’,2 the manner in which these two novels present their narratives shows a difference in Hardy's conception of his fictional rural world. This difference is most noticeable in his depiction of the rustics, and illustrates a difference in Hardy's attitude towards his audience and subject-matter. While the depiction of rural characters in the early Far from the Madding Crowd has these characters as an innocent chorus to the main action, by the time of Tess of the d'Urbervilles these rural characters have taken on a credibility which places them far beyond the smock-frocked Hodges of the earlier novel. When, in Far from the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba inherits the farm, things go on in the rural world pretty much as before; but when Tess's father dies and the life-holding on the cottage is lost, the family is homeless. Tess turns to Alec, and the fatal consequences of the straightforwardly social requirement for money and shelter leads to the novel's tragic dénouement. There is thus in Tess a far greater particularity about the pressures of the social world, a particularity which reveals much about Hardy's changing attitude to his characters and to his audience. If a tendency for hokum—‘theatrical speech, action, etc., designed to make a sentimental or melodramatic appeal to an audience’3—is evident in the rural chorus of Far from the Madding Crowd, by the time of Tess of the d'Urbervilles it has all but disappeared. The question I will address in this chapter is whether that difference is reflected in the character and work of two filmmakers who adapted these novels: John Schlesinger and Roman Polanski.

Hardy is a novelist who displays not only a magnificent virtuosity in narrative and storytelling and a refined consciousness of the forces of society: he is also a writer working at a moment in the history of the English novel when the tension between the realist and self-conscious modes was, perhaps, most marked. This tension was first noted in Hardy's fiction by John Peck, who pointed out that although there is often much that is direct and evocative in Hardy's descriptions of people and of places, this visual impression is commonly followed by a paragraph of ‘polysyllabic awkwardness as Hardy attempts to analyse the character or situation he has just presented in such an uncomplicated way.’4 This certainly holds true for the first few paragraphs of Far from the Madding Crowd. The novel opens:

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.5

This is certainly a highly visual piece of description, verging, almost, upon caricature, but the reader cannot go far wrong: the picture suggests a simple-hearted, good man, so closely in touch with nature that he is manifestly a part of it. It is also a picture which the rest of the novel goes out of its way to stress. In what is probably one of the most famous scenes in the novel, the hay-rick scene (chapter thirty-six) it is Oak who reads the signs of nature warning that a storm is brewing, and Oak who in consequence saves Bathsheba from financial ruin, while Troy and Bathsheba's drunken labourers are sleeping off their overindulgence.

If this opening paragraph is a model of visual description, the second paragraph puts the description firmly back in the hands of language:

His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgement, easy motion, 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.6

There is nothing here to contradict, or even to expand on the impression the reader had already formed: we might probably have predicted that Oak would be uneasy within the formal confines of the church and would be thinking more about dinner than the vicar's sermon. But what is interesting is that, for Hardy, conceptual abstraction is at least as fascinating as physical reality. There are critics, no doubt, who will argue that this is an example of the characteristic pretensions of the self-educated man. Others may allude to Hardy's oft-quoted sentiment that art was ‘no mere copying of life’—hence his dismissal of what he called ‘photographic writing’ as an ‘inartistic species of literary produce’.7 The opening of this novel is not just a particular response to the world at a particular moment in social history. It is also an aesthetic response to the novel form at the tail-end of the nineteenth century. It is out of this amalgam that Hardy emerges as a ‘cinematic’ novelist: on the one hand, a novelist who gives us direct, visual access to his fictional world; and on the other, a novelist who makes us wonder at its meanings.

Far from the Madding Crowd was the first novel in which Hardy used the setting of ‘Wessex’, a setting which rapidly asserted itself as a quasi-real place with its own history, places and personages.8 It is obvious that such a ‘reality’ would rapidly attract the attention of the filmmaker.9 For one thing, the fiction world of the novel is a simple one, telling a simple story of simple lives in rural England, with plenty of opportunities for period costume, Barsetshire accents and ritualised ale-swilling. However, the fact that Hardy himself did not conceive of the novel as hokum is evidenced in the title itself—an ironic invocation of Gray's ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (xix), 1750:

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

Certainly, this novel is no rural idyll. With its bunch of rustic simpletons and simple rituals, customs and habits, it may be set far from the madding crowd, but it tells a dark and dangerous tale, with characters at the mercy of almost uncontrollable passions and forces, both in themselves and in nature. This is a story in which an innocent and pregnant woman is left by her seducer to die in the workhouse, a story in which one man is financially ruined, another is murdered, and another confined for life as a madman. Paradoxically, there is a very real sense in which Hardy captures something of Gray's philosophical predicament: simple renunciation of the great, wide world is not enough, because ‘from the tomb the voice of nature cries’ (‘Elegy’, xxiii). This sentiment is echoed in the novel by Troy, to Bathsheba, standing beside Fanny's open coffin: ‘This woman is more to me, dead as she is, than ever you were, or are, or can be … You are nothing to me—nothing … A ceremony before a priest doesn't make a marriage. I am not morally yours.’10

The question for the filmmaker—whose language and grammar is of the descriptive and the visual—is whether he or she can hold together the presentation of visual content and complexity of artistic form. This was precisely the task undertaken by John Schlesinger in his version of the novel for MGM (UK) in 1967. The cast included Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene, Terence Stamp as Sergeant Troy, Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak, with a script by Frederic Raphael and cinematography by Nicolas Roeg.11 The location, taken exclusively in Dorset and Wiltshire, has much to do with the magnificence of many of the landscapes, even when page-by-page scripting seems to slow the film almost to a stop. In fact, everything in the film, as in Hardy, is driven by landscape, so that what we see is beautiful even when the characters or situations are not. There is, indeed, plenty of room for hokum: ‘In this rather plodding film the insufficiency of the foreground is partly offset by the winsomeness of the backgrounds. The very sheep are so engaging as to entice our gaze into some extremely amiable woolgathering’, writes John Simon.12 But something has happened in the thirty years since the film was released. Alan Bates and Julie Christie remind us of 1960s hippies taking in the sunshine on the south coast. They look as if they have arrived on the set after a shopping-spree in Carnaby Street or the Portobello Road—Christie in an Indian print cotton off-the-shoulder number (but no cow-bell), while Bates, as a struggling sheep-farmer, appears to be sporting a kaftan. What we are seeing, of course, is not a nineteenth-century novel, but a 1960s adaptation of a nineteenth-century novel. There is nothing unusual about this, since as audiences and readers we are almost always aware of our own historical position relative to the text.

But it must be said that Schlesinger made little attempt to do anything very exciting with the novel. There is a good deal about the film that is highly reminiscent of those worthy Sunday tea-time dramatisations which rattled off the Barry Letts assembly-line at the BBC during the late 1960s and into the 1970s: something good, clean and morally uplifting before going to bed (if the audience happened to be young) or before settling down to enjoy the evening (if the audience happened to be adults). This is not surprising: as a student at Oxford University from 1945 to 1950, and later as a producer-director at the BBC from 1956 to 1961, Schlesinger was well-steeped in the notion of the English literary classic and English public service broadcasting. Victorian fiction had always been a rich source for material of this nature, but it had been Dickens, rather than Hardy, who had attracted the programme-makers' eyes. There was a very good reason for this. Dickens's genius in large part lay in being able to mix sentiment and melodrama so brilliantly—the former indulgent but seldom in bad taste, the latter stirring and exciting without toppling into Gothic excess unsuitable for a middle-class Sunday afternoon.13 Hardy, however, with his tendency for gloomy pessimism and the occasional flighty woman who ends no better than she should have been, was a different matter. If there was bravery in Schlesinger's dramatisation of the novel, it was, perhaps, in the fact that he took it on at all.

In fact, Schlesinger develops Hardy's story with rigorous evenhandedness. The opening displays a sensitivity to Hardy's visual dramatisation of his landscape which is quite stunning. It is worth analysing the first few minutes of the film in some detail:

  • 1 The film opens with titles over the sea and sky, with solo flute playing in the background. Tilt and pan-shot to a steep cliff-edge. Low tilt, revealing sheep-tracks on wild landscape, but no signs of any human habitation.

  • 2 Slow pan and tilt, almost as if the camera is looking for something, the landscape changing now to rolling valleys, the music becoming more formal and orchestral. There are the first signs of human habitation, a ploughed field and a small farm building. Diegetic sound: sheep and a dog barking, the dog in the distance running wild, chasing the sheep, ignoring the man's shouted commands.

  • 3 Man, sheep and dogs in mid-shot; one dog out of control, chasing and biting sheep viciously and at random.

  • 4 Cut to horse in distance being ridden by a female. Solo flute, the sea in the background. The woman is riding along the cliff-edge, her hair blown by the wind, then off track on to rough grass.

  • 5 Cut to medium close-up of the woman waving to Oak in the distance, who waves back. Cut again to see her in long-shot. She rides out of the rough and back on to a small sheep-track.

  • 6 Cut to Oak carrying a lamb, walking across neat green fields. Cut to Bathsheba looking out of a window. Oak is accompanied by a dog. Bathsheba hides at the back of the house, while Mrs Hurst invites Oak indoors, where he sits awkwardly in the parlour, Mrs Hurst opposite him and the lamb upon his lap. Oak explains that he was intending to ask Bathsheba to marry him, but Mrs Hurst, who is evidently unimpressed, tells him that Bathsheba has many other suitors. He leaves.

  • 7 Cut to Bathsheba chasing after him. He stops and offers her his hand which she, significantly, refuses, explaining, as she does so, that she does not in fact actually have dozens of suitors. He appears to accept this, and appears to assume also, therefore, that they will be married. Then follows a series of shots inside a barn and gradually moving out during which Oak is telling Bathsheba of the various luxuries she can expect as his wife: a small piano; a £10 gig for market; a frame for cucumbers; to have the marriage announced in the papers, likewise the births of the babies. The final suggestion does not appear to please Bathsheba, who looks coy.

  • 8 Tracking-shot to Oak and Bathsheba outside the barn. Bathsheba explains that she cannot marry him because she doesn't love him. There is the sound of wind rising in the background throughout this interview between the two characters.

  • 9 Cut to aerial long-shot of the dogs, rounding up the sheep, driving them towards a man, presumably Oak. The camera pulls back further, further and further, the details of the scene becoming almost unidentifiable.

I think it is fair to say that this is brilliantly executed, and conveys precisely the overall thematic concerns both of its specific novel and of Hardy as a writer in general. At the broadest critical sweep of Hardy's novels, it can be said that the fundamental pattern of Hardy's novels is that they will contain one or more characters who are in conflict with the world in which they find themselves—characters like Bathsheba, Eustacia and Clym in The Return of the Native, Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess, Jude and Sue. These characters can generally see the value of conformity, but something in their personality makes it impossible for them to conform. Their instinctive, natural and human response to others and to situations is at odds with the orderliness of society. This is paralleled by nature itself—the landscape, the weather—which appears often indifferent to the plight in which human beings find themselves; sometimes wilfully destructive of all of humanity's attempts to create meaning and pattern in the physical world. This fundamental conflict—between society and order on the one hand, and the instinctive unruliness of human behaviour on the other—is evident through the novel, and brilliantly evoked by the opening few minutes of Schlesinger's film, which serves not only almost as a self-contained piece of drama, but also almost as an opening of a symphony, rehearsing all the tensions, motifs, tropes and structures which are to be found in the novel as a whole.

The sea and sky in the opening shot establish the overriding impression and role of nature in the novel: it is huge, pure existence, simply, apparently, looking on. The movement of the camera in these opening sequences reinforces this sense of distance: many of the shots, for example, are in long-shot, with people being either absent from the land entirely, or barely distinguishable upon it. This is a technique we recognise from many of Hardy's novels, one of the most memorable being, perhaps, that marvellous description of Tess, insignificant against the temporal and spatial scale of the earth and the universe at large, ‘like a fly upon a billiard table’.14 Both in Hardy's novels, and in this opening sequence, everywhere we look, we find this fundamental conflict. As we see the ploughed field, the first sign of human habitation, so the solo flute (the instrument played by Oak in the novel), gives way to formal orchestral music. The dog, out of Oak's control, is obeying its own, instinctive and unruly desires to attack the sheep, despite Oak's attempts to train it. The horse—long a symbol of this same conflict between the passions and the need to control them—is being ridden by Bathsheba close to the cliff-edge, and she is obviously and significantly well off the beaten track. Oak, carrying a lamb, offers it to Bathsheba for a pet—yet another reference to the conflict between the natural and the social. This opening perfectly summarises the novel's thematic concerns and interests. It grasps the novel as a whole and translates it into a visual representation of its patterns, concerns and interests. This world of both novel and film is fundamentally a thematic one in which characters play out their lives against a much broader backdrop.

But the historical reality of ‘Wessex’ at that time was wildly at odds with the kind of picture presented by both Schlesinger and Hardy. Throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, and even into the first decade of the twentieth, Dorset was experiencing that social phenomenon now euphemistically referred to as the ‘depopulation of the English village’. During the fifty years of the period 1860-1910, about 350,000 agricultural workers simply disappeared from the land. The historical, social, and economic reasons for this depopulation have been well documented:15 the development of the American wheat prairies hit cereal-farming severely, just as the importation of cheap wool from Australia and of refrigerated meat from the Argentine undercut the wool and meat markets. The consequence of this was one of the greatest agricultural depressions ever known. Only a hundred years previously, at the end of the eighteenth century, many of the small villages about which Hardy writes were thriving, agricultural communities. Winfrith Newburgh, about eight miles east of Dorchester and about two miles from Wellbridge Manor (the Woolbridge manor in which Tess and Angel spend the first night of their ill-fated honeymoon), is just one such parish. John Hutchins records in his monumental History of Dorset (1774), that Winfrith Newburgh then contained: ‘about 100 houses, three hundred and fifty inhabitants, ten teams, seven freeholders, and twelve copyholders’.16 And farming, too, was good: ‘there is fertile corn land, and good sheep downs, about 2000 sheep being kept in the parish’. Not that these material benefits necessarily filtered through to the agricultural workers; labourers' wages were then ‘about 1/- a day, mechanics' 1/6d; and provisions in general very dear; the price of butchers' meat 4d a pound’.17 Even so, Winfrith thrived economically in the first half of the nineteenth century, reaching its peak about 1850, when—as the 1851 Census records—over 1,100 people were living in the parish. A century later, in 1951, this number had fallen to 587.

The ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had brought with it an immediate recession in agriculture, and a consequent increase in the price of basic foodstuffs. Further, the agricultural labourer, largely denied his rights over common lands by the active enclosures of the period, found it impossible to subsidise his family's food supply as he had in the past. A piece of folk-rhyme of the period accurately details the effects of enclosure, and the local hatred of the landed classes that was to follow:

The law arrests the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But leaves the greater rascal loose,
Who steals the common from the goose.

It was this widespread enclosure of common land, low wages and poor living conditions which gave rise to several decades of agricultural unrest in Dorset, the most famous being the notorious ‘Captain Swing’ riots—taking their name from the mythical signatory of the threatening letters sent to landowners, and commonly tied to a stone thrown through their windows. The widespread rioting, machine-breaking, and rick-burning of the Captain Swing period—which led in large part to the eventual and over-zealous transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs—was recorded by Mary Frampton, sister to one of the most active and unpopular magistrates of the time, James Frampton of Moreton:

November 28th [1830]—Notice was received of an intended rising of the people in the adjacent villages of Winfrith, Wool, and Lulworth … [the rising at Winfrith] … took place on the 30th. My brother, Mr. Frampton, was joined very early that morning by a large body of farmers … all special constables, amounting to upwards of 150, armed only with a short staff … The mob … would not listen to the request that they should disperse. The Riot Act was read. They still surged forward and came quite close to Mr. Frampton's horse; he collared one man, but in giving him charge, he slipped from his captors by leaving his smock-frock in their hands.18

The degradation and misery that lies behind these stories are hidden by the images Hardy was himself feeding to his London-based publishers and reading public: images of the pastoral and the smock-frocked Hodge. At the time he was writing Far from the Madding Crowd, one of the most vociferous commentators of the period, the aristocratic rector of Durweston from 1848 to 1875, Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne, was trying to raise public awareness of the destitution and grinding poverty found amongst the Dorset poor.19 Osborne, or ‘S.G.O’, as he signed himself in his numerous letters to The Times, soon became involved in bitter personal controversy with George Bankes, Conservative MP for Dorset (1841-56). Bankes upheld the Corn Laws, whilst Osborne argued that Peel was right to repeal them. Osborne, along with other commentators, such as Joseph Arch, accused Bankes of painting a misleading rosy picture of labourers' conditions to Parliament, whilst Bankes scoffed at what he called ‘the popularity-hunting parson’ for grossly exaggerating the hardships of the poor.20 Admirers interpreted the initials S.G.O as ‘sincere, good, and outspoken’, and outspoken he certainly was. He spoke of Yetminster, a typical Dorset village of the time, as:

the cesspool of everything in which anything human can be recognised … whole families wallowing together at night on filthy rags, in rooms in which they are so packed, and yet so little sheltered, that one's wonder is that physical existence can survive as it does the necessary speedy destruction of all existing moral principle.21

That other great agitator of the period, Joseph Arch, commented, when he was attempting to organise the General National Consolidated Trades Union movement in Dorset in 1872, that ‘the condition of the labourer in that County was as bad as it very well could be … and worse than that commonly found in the negro plantations of the American south’.22 Little indeed was being actively done to improve things. Given, for example, that in Hutchins's day Winfrith Newburgh had consisted of ‘about 100 houses’ with a population of 350-400, by the time of the 1851 Census, and with the population in Winfrith having virtually trebled—to over 1,100—the number of households had risen to only 161. The Parliamentary Report on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture comments, in 1843, that ‘such villages as Bere Regis, Fordington, and Winfrith … (in which there is an average of seven persons to a house) … are a disgrace to the owners of the land and contain many cottages unfit for human habitation’. There is in this that always rather shady distinction between the ‘house’ and the ‘household’: the Reverend Eldon S. Bankes, rector of Corfe Castle, records in 1867 (only seven years before the publication of Hardy's novel) that in one cottage on Corfe Heath, divided into three ‘households’, there were thirty-three people living. And in Winfrith, in common with many other Dorset villages, landlords—willing rather to pull down cottages than to build and maintain new ones—found it more economically practical to have single ‘houses’ partitioned into several ‘households’. Living conditions for that de-smocked Hodge at the hands of Mr James Frampton must have been as cramped, squalid and unhealthy as they possibly could be.

This puts the chorus of rustics in Far from the Madding Crowd in a rather different light. For them, the news that Dicky Hill's wooden cider-house has been pulled down, and that Tompkin's old cider-apple tree has died and been rooted up is proof enough of the ‘stirring times’ in which they lived. The luxury of smoky evenings spent in the cosiness of Warren's malthouse belonged to an earlier age altogether—if they ever existed at all. To complain about this would be rather like complaining that Austen did not mention the slave trade or the Napoleonic Wars, or that Dickens was not a feminist. But it does mean that when we watch Schlesinger's adaptation of the novel, it's not him we have to accuse of hokum.

By the time of Tess of the d'Urbervilles Hardy's history had changed considerably. Unlike the earlier novel, which was begun and finished in a relatively short time and which—notwithstanding a certain cautiousness over the Fanny Robin story—had a relatively easy relationship with its editor, Tess was much longer in the writing, and had a much more troubled passage into print. It was written, Hardy claimed, to shield ‘those who have yet to be born’ from misfortunes like those of Tess, and plans for the novel were begun as early as the autumn of 1888.23 Just over half the novel was accepted by the newspaper syndicate of Tillotson & Son for publication under the title of ‘Too Late Beloved’ (or ‘Too Late, Beloved’), but when the first sixteen chapters reached proof stage in September 1889, serious objections were raised by the editors and the agreement was finally cancelled at Hardy's request.24 The story was then declined by the editors of Murray's Magazine and also by Macmillan's Magazine.25 By about the end of 1890, the novel was ready for serial publication in The Graphic and Harper's Bazaar, but it was not until March the following year that Hardy finished the novel. Of the various changes Hardy made to make the novel suitable for serial publication (this included the loss of the baptism scene)26 the most notorious is probably that involving Angel's use of a wheelbarrow to carry the three dairymaids in turn over the flooded road—close physical proximity obviously proving too much for the editors of the day.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles tells an age-old story: that of a woman's sufferings in a society whose attitudes towards sex and women have condemned her. Again, what is at the heart of the novel is a conflict between instinctive behaviour and the social dictates which restrict behaviour. What is interesting, however, is the extent to which this novel, written almost twenty years after Far from the Madding Crowd, places the depopulation of the Dorset villages at centre-stage—‘the process, humorously designated by statisticians as “the tendency of the rural population towards the large towns”, being really the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced by machinery’.27 Indeed, in Tess, the consequences of depopulation take a front seat: John Durbeyfield is a poor, struggling farmer, a man dispossessed of his once-great family, and of almost any means of sustenance: when the horse, Prince, is killed, the single remaining means of maintaining his family dies with it, and it is this ‘spilling of blood’, which leads Tess to agree to go to the d'Urberville house, which in turn leads to the loss of her virginity, social condemnation and the final, symbolic spilling of Alec's blood when he is stabbed by Tess: ‘The oblong white ceiling, with this scarlet blot in the midst, had the appearance of a gigantic ace of hearts.’28 Quite unlike the situation in Far from the Madding Crowd, it is the reality of that great agricultural depression which acts like the spring on the trap which is finally to net Tess. When Angel's mother advises him not to be ‘so anxious about a mere child of the soil’,29 the same tension is implicit in Tess's character as we find throughout, not least in her use of language: Tess, ‘who might have been a teacher, but the fates had decided otherwise’, had passed the Sixth Standard at the National School, where she had learned to speak ‘correct’ English. On the one hand, ‘she spoke dialect at home’; on the other, ‘ordinary English abroad and to persons of quality’. Tess thus quite literally ‘spoke two languages’,30 and this is symbolic of how awkwardly she is poised between the worlds of the old, rural, agricultural community, and the new, social world, which is draining the life out of the old:

Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions … and the daughter, with her trained National Teachings … there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together, the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.31

When Tess is herself sent off to make her fortune in this new Victorian age with the family of incomers, the Stokes, who have bought the family name of d'Urberville, the tragedy of the past confronting the present must inevitably follow.

Clearly, a story of this kind demands a very different kind of filmmaking to Far from the Madding Crowd. On the face of it, Roman Polanski would seem to fit the bill. If Schlesinger's background in Oxford and the BBC equipped him to provide us with a classic adaptation for an audience weaned on public service broadcasting, Polanski's background qualified him to understand the darker values of the later novel. His own life seems to mirror many of its most tragic events. Born in Paris in 1933, Polanski's life includes his internment as a child in a German concentration camp, the early death of his mother at Auschwitz and the horrifying murder of the actress Sharon Tate, his second wife, to whom the film Tess (Columbia, 1979) is dedicated. Polanski was charged with the seduction of a fourteen-year-old girl in 1977 and fled America to avoid the remainder of a gaol sentence. There he had made some of his greatest films—Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, with its flawless handling of plot and characterisation—bringing to Hollywood the technical innovation he had learnt in film school in Poland. At the moment of writing, Polanski is still attempting to arrange an out-of-court settlement with his alleged victim, which would enable him to return to America, and to mainstream filmmaking once again. Tess was in some ways a return to his much earlier work, most notably Noz w Wodzie (Knife in the Water, 1962), which was cowritten with Jerzy Skolimowski and the last he made in Poland.

It is easy to see why Polanski should find the novel so perfectly suited to his own interests and concerns, preoccupied as they often are with alienation, individual isolation and the understanding of evil. It is the fate of an individual in an alienating society which fascinates Polanski, and he uses Hardy's novel as a framework within which to couch this idea. Throughout the film, we are struck by the result of Tess's non-conformity in a conformist society. Tess craves the security which conformity would give her, and yet there is something both in her character, and in her past—both ancestral and individual—which makes that conformity and security unattainable.

But where the novel takes in the broad span of a disappearing rural community, Polanski's adaptation focuses much more locally on the simple domestic reality of Tess and her relationship with Angel and Alec. The film opens with music strongly reminiscent of Percy Grainger, part of the English country-garden movement with which we associate cosy Edwardian high-teas on tidy Edwardian lawns, ladies in long cotton dresses and the sound of tennis. There are even strains of Greensleeves in the opening music, which serve only further to reinforce our sense of a secure, reliable and pretty past. And pretty Tess certainly is. The opening few shots of the film fill the screen with gorgeous distant landscape bathed in a golden light, but then, as the camera pulls back, more of this landscape is revealed. There is a scrubby track in the bottom left corner of the screen, which seems only accidentally to be a part of what we see. This is one of the characteristics of this opening: we are constantly given the impression that all this is happening quite coincidentally, that the camera may just as easily be filming another story elsewhere, and that it is simply recording whatever is happening. Coincidence is important in Hardy's novels, and in Tess particularly; if Angel had found the letter Tess had pushed under his door, perhaps he would have been able to see her past in a different light. Coincidence is also central to the camera work in the opening to Polanski's film. It is consistently unobtrusive, so that we receive paradoxically a strong sense both of verisimilitude and of the fact that the film is artlessly conceived and executed. Of course, quite the reverse is the case, with the film hiding its own processes of structuration so carefully that we are almost totally unaware of how our responses are being managed and manipulated. While the camera appears merely to sit, unobtrusively watching, we see, along this revealed track, in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, a group of people dancing or walking along towards us to the tune of a highly stylised folksy tune. Everything is slow-moving at this point of the film and occurs in real-time, in stark contrast to the careful pacing and editing towards the end of the film, when Tess and Angel are attempting to escape the police after the murder of Alec.

Throughout this opening, the impression is that things cannot be hurried: actions, events, simply happen, and the camera is simply watching. This not only serves to increase that strong sense of verisimilitude, but also ties in precisely with the effect of fate upon an individual's existence, a theme common to Polanski, and to Hardy: ‘As Tess's own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: “It was to be”. There lay the pity of it.’32 There is clearly much in the overall impression of the opening to the film which we find in Hardy also. But it is in how this overall impression is developed through the details of the piece that we find the most noticeable differences.

In the opening to the film, the procession of young girls, all dressed in white, all heavily decorated and garlanded in the floral mode, and all gaily waving switches presumably pulled from the local hedgerows, are preceded by four musicians—elderly men making music of a delivery and scale which seems quite beyond both them, and beyond their simple instruments. This is the first of many visual contrasts in this opening between youth and old age, between the past and the present. Characters seem to be drawn almost coincidentally to this spot somewhere in an ill-defined rural setting, and somewhere in an ill-defined rural past. As the procession passes, the camera merely follows abstractedly, refusing to focus on any particular person or thing. The procession of young girls crosses another track, and, as they move out of shot, so we see another character, a straggling old man coming towards us. This is John Durbeyfield, the haggler, and is the first precise shot of many in the film where we see characters moving first towards us and then away from us, along their own roads. Characters in this film are fundamentally alone, each following his or her own track. Camera movement reinforces this point immediately. First, the camera follows Durbeyfield, then tracks to give us his point-of-view of the procession now moving away from him. These are people whose paths quite literally cross, but who are fundamentally and symbolically following their own, isolated little tracks. Further, the past and the present (represented by the young girls, the four elderly musicians who precede them and John Durbeyfield, respectively) see each other differently, and from different perspectives. The focus at this opening of the film is very much upon such issues, and serves to foreshadow the idea of individual isolation and alienation from others and from society.

It is at this point that we return, as it were, to Hardy's novel: Durbeyfield is greeted by Parson Tringham, riding on a horse, who relays to him the story of the past grandeur of the d'Urberville family and recognises in him the final relict in the male line: ‘Yes—that's the d'Urberville nose and chin—a little debased.’33 Parson Tringham is the first representative of the Established Church; here, he is sitting on a horse, talking down to Durbeyfield, in much the same way that the Established Church later, both in Angel Clare's family, and in Tess's attempts to have her baby baptised, talks down to her also. Tess is at a transitional point in history, the past has decayed, and the established present which is replacing it is a world in which people like Tess and her kind have no place. We then cut to Parson Tringham riding away from us, again from Durbeyfield's point-of-view, another shot of people retreating along their own track. There is then a cut to the club-dancing scene and the girls dancing merrily together, followed by another cut to three young men approaching along the road towards us, dressed in Sunday-best. One of the young men, who turns out later to be Angel Clare, intends to join in, but the other two (his brothers, both in training for the Church), decide against the idea, concerned that somebody may see them mixing with common country-folk, again foreshadowing the idea of correct social behaviour. Angel grabs the nearest pretty young girl (we do not know at this stage of the film whether this is Tess), and dances. Again, the role of the camera here is simply to watch, simply to see, and we are not aware how carefully our responses are being managed. We note in this scene, for example (and again, this is done almost in passing), one of the local lads trying to take the hand of Tess in dancing. We do not know at this stage in the film that this young girl is Tess. But we do see her rebuff the local youth's attempt to make her join in with the dancing. This is clearly significant, and illustrates a good deal of Polanski's intention and attitude to Tess here: the fact that we don't yet know this is Tess, and the fact that we see her decline the youth's offer to dance, tells us that, at least so far as Polanski is concerned, this young woman believes she is rather better than the rural community. This may or may not be Hardy's attitude to Tess in the novel; certainly, we are told that Tess ‘had hoped to be a teacher, but the fates had seemed to decide otherwise’.34 But in the film the simple fact that Polanski has his Tess behave in a way which tells so much of her character without revealing her identity reveals in its turn a great deal about Polanski's interpretation and presentation of that character.

This, then, is Tess; but it is Polanski's Tess, not Hardy's. In the novel, there is a diffidence in her character which does not square with the defiance we see in her character at this point in the film, a point which is underscored by the cinematic use of sound and image: as Clare leaves the club-dancing, so the music and the sunlight fade also, and we cut to Angel walking past the defiant Tess. Throughout the novel, Angel's social prejudices are stronger than his natural feelings. Here, and later, he has to leave Tess behind, simply because she threatens his deeply-rooted sense of correct moral behaviour. As he moves away from her, into a retreating distant point, so the darkness of the scene is rapidly increasing, and with it goes the whole sense of security and stability of the club-dancing scene. Things take on an almost absurdist sense of threatening inconsistency. Out of the increasing darkness lurches Durbeyfield, drunk, and in the back of an open cart; silhouetted against a darkening and brooding red sunset; we cut to the girls dancing, but the camera-angle is now low, the girls now looming above us, weird shapes in the darkening light. Polanski pushes imagery as far as he can take it without destroying the mastery with which he has constructed the whole illusion of verisimilitude in these opening scenes. The next cut is to Tess approaching her parents' cottage, and the lighting is actually brighter although it is supposedly contiguous in time. Polanski is quite willing to sacrifice a mere detail of continuity editing in order to reinforce or to establish a meaning—here, the threatening and brooding potentiality of the scene that he wants to capture, the sense of potential alienation and loneliness. But these meanings are Polanski's, not Hardy's. If Schlesinger is true to Hardy's hokum rather than Dorset's history, Polanski is true to his own history rather than Hardy's, so that in the end he, too, is guilty of a kind of hokum.

And this is the difference. An excellent film though it undoubtedly is, the sensation when watching Tess is akin to what we feel when we read a travel book by a writer who has passed through a place in which we live. The places sound the same in the telling: but they don't feel it. In his Notes from a Small Island (1995), Bill Bryson gives us his impression, as an American living in England, of drinking beer in an English pub:

So I sat and drank beer, and watched, as I often do in these circumstances, the interesting process by which customers, upon finishing a pint, would present the barman with a glass of clinging suds and golden dribble, and that this would be carefully filled to slightly overflowing, so that the excess froth, charged with an invisible load of bacteria, spittle and micro-fragments of loosened food, would run down the side of the glass and into a slop tray, where it would be carefully—I might almost say scientifically—conveyed by means of a clear plastic tube back to a barrel in the cellar. There these tiny impurities would drift and float and mingle, like flaky pooh in a goldfish bowl, awaiting summons back to someone else's glass. If I am to drink dilute dribble and mouth rinsings, then I do rather wish I could do it in a situation of comfort and cheer, seated in a Windsor chair by a blazing fire, but this appears to be an increasingly elusive dream.35

All very interesting stuff: knowledgeable, detailed, and delivered with considerable panache. Total nonsense, of course, but stylish nonsense. We know the place, we may even share Bryson's particular hokum for the Windsor chair, the real ale, the blazing fire, the bygone and more secure age—but it's not quite right, this picture of the English pub as a place where the English go merely to exchange saliva.

We could, of course, take it on at the physical, practical level: turn to the Licensed Victuallers' Association to check out the accuracy of Bryson's observations. Or we may consider instead how it is that we do actually know the hokum of which Bryson is talking, since we share his notion of an England and of a time that never was. And similarly, of course, we must also remember that Hardy often simply wrote to his own audience's hokish expectations, temporarily and variously having them seated, as it were, in Warren's malthouse, or The Pure Drop, or Rollivers, the inevitable chorus of rollicking rustics rattling and burbling around them. For in a sense it really is this simple, even if difficult to quantify absolutely; like a shadow passing briefly across a window, this hokum is something we glimpse, a palimpsest of a recreated past that never could and never has existed.

Or could it? On 11 September 1997, the Poole and Dorset Advertiser carried the following note:

Local people of all ages have the rare chance to appear in the latest TV production of a Thomas Hardy classic about to begin filming. London Weekend Television is appealing for those who would like to appear in its new £1m-plus version of Tess of the D'Urbervilles to attend a casting session for extras.

It takes place at the arts centre in School Lane near the Grove in Dorchester—where Hardy's statue stands—tomorrow, Friday, September 12, between 9am and 5pm.

Everyone is welcome but anyone interested should make sure they bring a recent photograph with them. The producers say they are particularly looking for character.

Seven weeks of filming for Tess takes place in Devon and Dorset between September 26 and November 3.

The three-hour TV film is due to be shown on the ITV network in February.

Locations include Swanage Pier as well as Cerne Abbas, Minterne Magna, Turnerspuddle and Burton Bradstock.

History will be well catered for in this new offering: Swanage Pier doubling as Hardy's Bournemouth (Sandbourne); Cerne Abbas (with symbolic glimpses of the well-endowed Giant) as Tess's Marlott. And we may be assured that there will be room, too, for something in the way of hokum: ‘The producers’—prospective applicants, be warned—‘are particularly looking for character’.


  1. David Lodge, ‘Thomas Hardy and Cinematographic Form’, Novel, 7 (1974), pp. 254-64.

  2. See, Thomas Hardy, ‘General Preface to the Novels and Poems’, 1912 edition of his works.

  3. This is the definition of hokum offered by the OED.

  4. John Peck, ‘Hardy and Joyce: A Basis for Comparison’, Ariel, 12: 2, pp. 71-86 (p. 83).

  5. Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (London, Macmillan, 1965 [first published 1874]), p. 1. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  6. Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, p. 1.

  7. Florence Emily Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy 1840-1928 (London, Macmillan, 1962), p. 351.

  8. See, F. B. Pinion, A Hardy Companion: A Guide to the Works of Thomas Hardy and their Background (London, Macmillan, 1968), p. 28.

  9. The filmography of Far from the Madding Crowd and of Tess of the d'Urbervilles is remarkably similar. Far from the Madding Crowd was first dramatised for film in 1915, directed by Larry Trimble, who also wrote the screenplay. It was not then remade until 1967, when it was directed by John Schlesinger (see note 11, below). Tess of the d'Urbervilles was first filmed in 1924, directed by Marshall Neilan, screenplay by Dorothy Farnum and cinematography by Dave Kesson. It was then not remade as a film until Roman Polanski's Tess, 1979.

  10. Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, pp. 352-3.

  11. Far from the Madding Crowd, 1967, MGM, 165 minutes, colour.

  12. John Walker (ed.), Halliwell's Film Guide (London, HarperCollins, 1993).

  13. Robert Giddings, ‘Hooked on Classics’, New Socialist, December 1985, pp. 40-1.

  14. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman (London, Macmillan, 1974 [first published 1891]), p. 159. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  15. See Merryn Williams, Thomas Hardy and Rural England (London, Macmillan, 1972), p. 111: ‘In the eighteen-seventies, after the Agricultural Workers’ Union had given a further strong impetus to migration, Dorset was one of only nine counties in England which recorded an absolute population decline. The so-called golden age of agriculture had brought real benefits only to the farmers and landowners.’

  16. John Hutchins, The History and Antiquities of Dorset, 1774 (1st edn); 4 vols, 1973, vol. 4, p. 279.

  17. Hutchins, History and Antiquities, p. 282.

  18. The Journal of Mary Frampton of Wool, 1885.

  19. See Cecil N. Cullingford, A History of Dorset (London, Phillimore, 1980), pp. 109-12.

  20. Cullingford, History of Dorset, p. 110.

  21. Cullingford, History of Dorset, p. 111.

  22. Williams, Thomas Hardy, p. 194.

  23. Pinion, A Hardy Companion, pp. 46-7.

  24. R. L. Purdy, Thomas Hardy, A Bibliographical Study (London, Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 71-2.

  25. This time, Hardy knew the ‘fearful price’ he had to pay ‘for the privilege of writing in the English language’. See ‘Candour in English Fiction’, in Harold Orel, Thomas Hardy's Personal Writings (London, University of Kansas Press, 1966; Macmillan, 1967), pp. 150-1.

  26. This was published in The Fortnightly Review in May 1891 as ‘The Midnight Baptism: A Study in Christianity’.

  27. Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, p. 436.

  28. Hardy, Tess, p. 471.

  29. Hardy, Tess, p. 455.

  30. Hardy, Tess, p. 58.

  31. Hardy, Tess, p. 61.

  32. Hardy, Tess, p. 108.

  33. Hardy, Tess, p. 35.

  34. Hardy, Tess, p. 88.

  35. Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island (London, Corgi, 1995), p. 252.

Further Reading

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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 Madding Crowd.” In Thomas Hardy's Major Novels: An Annotated Bibliography, pp. 39-63. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998.

Comprehensive annotated list of works written about Far from the Madding Crowd, with a section on the circumstances of its composition.

Weber, Carl Jefferson. The First Hundred Years of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1940: A Centenary Bibliography of Hardiana, compiled by Carl J. Weber. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Library, 1942, 276 p.

Early bibliography, with extensive references to 1940.


Gittings, Robert. Young Thomas Hardy and Thomas Hardy's Later Years, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1990, 488 p.

An edition including two previously published biographical works.

Hands, Timothy. Thomas Hardy, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995, 209 p.

Biographical-critical work which traces Hardy's life and work in relation to his times.

Hardy, Thomas, and Florence Hardy. The Life and Works of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1928, edited by Michael Millgate, Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1985, 637 p.

A new edition of two volumes of Hardy's autobiography, previously published under the name of Hardy's wife Florence but believed to have been written mostly by Hardy himself.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography, New York: Random House, 1982, 637 p.

Comprehensive biography, which at the time of its publication, was considered the definitive Hardy biographical source.

Turner, Paul. The Life of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, 326 p.

Critical biography which emphasizes biographical sources for Hardy's writings, especially Hardy's affinity for classical literature.

Seymour-Smith, Martin. Hardy: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, 886 p.

Lengthy, chronological biography which often challenges the views of earlier biographers.

Widdowson, Peter. Hardy in History: A Study in Literary Sociology. New York: Routledge, 1989, 260 p.

A study of Hardy as cultural icon which reveals the process of critical canonization.

Wright, Sarah Bird. Thomas Hardy: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2002, 430 p.

Comprehensive guide to Hardy's life and work in dictionary form.


Beegel, Susan. “Bathsheba's Lovers: Male Sexuality in Far from the Madding Crowd.Tennessee Studies in Literature 27 (1984): 108-27.

An essay focusing on the male characters in Far from the Madding Crowd, with emphasis on Hardy's treatment of their sexuality.

Boumelha, Penny. Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form. Sussex, England: Harvester Press, 1982, 178 p.

A feminist interpretation of Hardy's fiction, focusing on the novels written between 1871 and 1886.

Bullen, J. B. “Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd: Perception and Understanding.” Thomas Hardy Journal 3, no. 2 (May 1997): 38-61.

Analysis of modes of perception and understanding in Far from the Madding Crowd, based on Victorian psychological theory.

Cortus, Betty, Earl E. Simons, and Mark Harris. “Hardy: Drama and Movies: Masterpiece Theatre's Far from the Madding Crowd, Dialogues from 1998.” Hardy Review 4 (winter 2001): 102-05.

Discussion of a television adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd.

Draper, R. P. “Hardy and the Pastoral.” Thomas Hardy Journal 14, no. 3 (October 1998): 44-56.

Discussion of Far from the Madding Crowd, Under the Greenwood Tree, and Tess as examples of pastoral works.

Dusseau, John L. “Three Hardy Flowers.” The Midwest Quarterly 35 (spring 1994): 290-304.

A discussion of the intensity of compassion shown in Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

Fisher, Joe. “Far from the Madding Crowd: Priapus in Arcadia.” In The Hidden Hardy, pp. 38-62. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Examination of what Fisher calls a counter-text in Far from the Madding Crowd, which he says was used by Hardy to gain power over readers.

Garson, Marjorie. “Far from the Madding Crowd: Venus' Looking Glass.” In Hardy's Fable of Integrity: Woman, Body, Text, pp. 25-53. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1991.

A study of the text and subtext of Far from the Madding Crowd, stressing a pattern of binary opposition in the novel.

Gatrell, Simon. “Far from the Madding Crowd Revisited.” Thomas Hardy Journal 10, no. 2 (May 1994): 38-50.

Discussion of conflicting representations of Gabriel Oak by the narrator.

Jones, Lawrence. ““A Good Hand at Serial”: Thomas Hardy and the Serialization of Far from the Madding Crowd.” Studies in the Novel 10, no. 3 (fall 1978): 320-34.

Jones outlines the circumstances surrounding the serial publication of Far from the Madding Crowd, noting that Hardy made several changes which would ensure the novel's success.

———. “George Eliot and Pastoral Tragicomedy in Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd.Studies in Philology 77 (1980): 402-25.

An analysis of the ways in which George Eliot provided a pastoral literary model for Far from the Madding Crowd.

Kurjiaka, Susan K. H. “Myths and Metaphors of Women's and Workers' Lives in Three Hardy Novels.” Mount Olive Review 7 (winter-spring 1993-94): 86-91.

Study of stereotypes of rural women in Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Desperate Remedies.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, 428 p.

Overview of the origins and importance of Far from the Madding Crowd, in Part II of this important bio-critical study.

Mitchell, Judith. “Far from the Madding Crowd.” In The Stone and the Scorpion: The Female Subject of Desire in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy, pp. 162-73. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Chapter on female characters as objects of desire in Far from the Madding Crowd, part of a full-length study of Hardy's and two other novelists' approaches to female sexuality.

Nollen, E. M. “The Loving Look in Far from the Madding Crowd.” In Thomas Hardy Yearbook. Guernsey: England, Toucan Press, 1986, pp. 69-73.

A study of the treatment of love and its relationship to sight in Far from the Madding Crowd.

Ogden, Daryl. “Bathsheba's Visual Estate: Female Spectatorship in Far from the Madding Crowd.Journal of Narrative Technique 23, no. 1 (winter, 1993): 1-15.

Analysis of techniques used to portray the ways female characters look at the world in Far from the Madding Crowd.

Page, Norman. Far from the Madding Crowd, Oxford Reader's Companion to Thomas Hardy. Cambridge, England, Oxford University Press: edited by Norman Page, 2000, 120-29 p.

Overview of the novel's publication history, plot, and critical reception.

———. Thomas Hardy: The Novels. Basingstoke, Hampshire, England: Houndmills, 2001, 199 p.

Full-length study of Hardy’s major novels, with several chapters on Far from the Madding Crowd.

Pettit, Charles P. C. “Merely a Good Hand at a Serial? From A Pair of Blue Eyes to Far from the Madding Crowd.” In The Achievement of Thomas Hardy, edited by Phillip Mallet, pp. 1-21. Basingstoke, England: Houndmills, 2000.

Chapter in a compilation of essays on Hardy. The title is a reference to a quotation from Hardy.

Regan, Stephen. The Nineteenth-Century Novel, a Critical Reader, edited by Stephen Regan. London: Routledge, 573 p.

Collection of criticism on important nineteenth-century authors. Part II has articles on Far from the Madding Crowd by Richard C. Carpenter, Judith Bryant Wittenberg, and John Lucas.

Schapiro, Barbara A. “Psychoanalysis and Romantic Idealization: The Dialectics of Love in Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd.American Imago 59, no. 1 (spring 2002): 3-26.

Psychoanalytic view of romantic idealization in Far from the Madding Crowd, with extensive reference to Hardy's own life and his views of women.

Shelston, Alan. “Were They Beautiful? Far from the Madding Crowd and Daniel Deronda.Thomas Hardy Journal 8, no. 2 (May 1992): 65-7.

Discussion of Hardy's possible influence on George Eliot, including a comparison of Far from the Madding Crowd and Eliot's Daniel Deronda.

Stave, Shirley A. “Far from the Madding Crowd: And Nature Saw What She Had Done, and It Was Good.” In The Decline of the Goddess: Nature, Culture, and Women in Thomas Hardy's Fiction, pp. 23-48. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

A chapter on Far from the Madding Crowd, part of a longer study of images of women in the Hardy novels.

Webster, Roger. “Reproducing Hardy: Familiar and Unfamiliar Versions of Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d'Urbervilles.Critical Survey 5, no. 2 (1993): 143-51.

An analysis of the history of critical reception of two novels, with some attention to their film adaptations.

Additional coverage of Hardy's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers, Vol. 6; British Writers: The Classics, Vols. 1, 2; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1890-1914; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 123; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 18, 19, 135, 284; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Novelists, and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0;Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Exploring Poetry; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 3, 11, 15; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 8; Poetry for Students, Vols. 3, 4, 18; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 2, 60; Twayne's English Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 10, 18, 32, 48, 53, 72; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; and World Literature Criticism.

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