Friday, May 6, 2016

Book Review: Far From the Madding Crowd

Title: Far from the Madding Crowd 

(This review is dedicated to the subscriber with whom I watched part of the video based on this novel last week. I didn't want to spoil the story for you, and I enjoyed the pictures and music as much as you did.)

Author: Thomas Hardy

Date: 1874, 1984

Publisher: Signet

ISBN: none

Length: 384 pages including preface, afterword, bibliography, and map of fictional setting

Quote: “Farmer Everdene’s niece; took on Weatherbury Upper Farm; turned away the baily, and swears she’ll do everything herself.”

You could say that the rest of the story is about how life punishes Bathsheba Everdene for being so independent. Or you could say that life rewards her for being independent and punishes her for being frivolous.

Pretty and popular, Bathsheba claims to have passed age twenty without ever having been in love. Before she came into her inheritance, Gabriel Oak loved her for herself alone, without knowing or caring what she might inherit; Bathsheba said she wasn’t in love with him. Shortly after coming into her inheritance, she sent the neighborhood grouch a Valentine card, having let chance decide whether she’d address the pretty card to him or to a child. He also proposed; Bathsheba wasn’t in love with him either. Then she met Frank Troy, who had planned to marry Fanny, the mother of his child, but lost patience when Fanny wasn’t intelligent enough to meet him at the right church. Bathsheba liked him. And, like many of the first guys young women like, he wasn’t good enough for her to wipe her boots on.

Readers will guess that Gabriel is the man for Bathsheba, but they won’t guess the thoroughly nineteenth-century way Hardy brings the two together. In a twentieth-century novel it wouldn’t have been considered credible. Gabriel’s and Bathsheba’s love of farm life, willingness to work hard, and fundamental integrity are unusual but not incredible; for me they make this couple much more enjoyable than most fictional couples.

Readers have, unfortunately, probably chosen this book from a high school reading list. Readers probably wonder why they have to spend so much time reading about “Wessex,” a fictional county in England. Hardy’s Wessex novels are a fine example of what used to be called "regionalism" in writing, which makes them excellent escape reading, but since your teachers probably aren’t trying to encourage your appreciation of escape reading I suggest reading this book with an eye to what Hardy was trying to tell young women.

Not that that was all Hardy had to say. When not writing, he did building and landscaping work. Places interested him as much as people. He invented Wessex by rearranging the towns and buildings of Dorsetshire. The maps of Wessex that his fans have lovingly created show what fun several generations of readers have had, comparing Hardy’s novels with the historical reality of the place where he lived. Tours of Dorsetshire are still organized specifically for this purpose.

Another interesting topic for term papers would be the peculiar history of Hardy’s fiction-writing career. Hardy’s novels were bestsellers in their day. Publishers wanted more. Hardy decided to stop writing novels because some critics thought his characters were too real. Bathsheba Everdene wasn’t the most harshly criticized of his characters. The interesting thing from a modern point or view is that the Victorians were less disturbed by The Mayor of Casterbridge, who exploits an old Anglo-Saxon law and sells his wife (as a slave, not a prostitute), than they were by Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Comparing these characters could provide material for an impressive paper on the value system of the Victorian critics as compared to your own value system.

Then there’s Hardy’s view of mental illness. One character in this novel is recognized by the others as insane. How many of the characters would you consider sane or competent? At what point do they lose their sanity, and how can you tell? What about characters in other Hardy novels?

Whatever your purpose in reading Far from the Madding Crowd, it’s a lively and readable story, with a good deal of romance that never turns into mere erotica and a good deal of conflict that never turns into mere violence. It’s an excellent choice for fast readers who want to write thoughtful, scholarly term papers. And it’s worth reading merely as a sweet, but not insipid, oldfashioned romance.

Regular readers can probably recite this paragraph along with me...Far from the Madding Crowd is not a Fair Trade Book, because Thomas Hardy no longer needs a dollar. It can be added to a package with other books, which can be Fair Trade Books, for $5 per package (for shipping). The price per copy is $5, so if you buy one copy, you send a total of $10 to either of the addresses at the very bottom of your screen, with the pertinent information about which book(s) you want and where to mail it/them.