„Far from the madding crowd“ (1874) was originally published anonymously as a monthly serial in Cornhill Magazine, where it gained a wide readership. It’s Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel and his first major literary success.
The novel is placed in 19th century rural England, where social codes and class distinction are the rules upon which life is lived.
The beginning away from the crowd
The beginning finds us in Norcombe Hill, where a young shepherd cares for his flock of sheep. He seems to have it all together, enjoying a simple, yet satisfying life. His name is Gabriel Oak, a name suggestive of his character.
Bathsheba Everdene disrupts his simple world through her unexpected presence. She’s a young soul, oblivious of the world around her, possessing nothing in reality but dreaming of something bigger and greater for herself.
Bathsheba keeps away from everybody, doing whatever brings her satisfaction and thinking not about the consequences of her behavior. She seems lost in a world of moral behavior guidelines and social rules. Her spirit is too wild to be tied down. Her status too low to allow herself to be connected with another. She wants to belong to somebody or something, and, yet she is too young to understand what commitment to anything really means.
The moment Gabriel Oak proposes to her is the moment we understand her true nature, that of a bird destined to wither in the cage that society has decided for her.
In the middle of the crowd
After rejecting Gabriel’s proposal of marriage, Bathsheba disappears. Gabriel is left alone to attend to his old life, although nothing will be the same old life for him after hoping her could have more.
Due to an unfortunate event, the shepherd loses his flock and moves on to find employment to survive. On his way to Casterbridge, he helps put out a fire on a farm. He does such a great job, that the owner wants to offer him employment.
After all the struggles, in the middle of the farmers, emerges Bathsheba, proud and strong, confident, yet, still immature. She inherited her uncle’s estate and seemed well-off. The roles are reversed now, or, at least, that’s what it seems.
Despite being the head of the farm, Bathsheba knows very little about running a farm. She depends upon her staff to pull through at the end of the day. Now that people are working for her, she has a false sense of control over her life and that of others.
Although Bathsheba acts from a powerful position, she seems as inexperienced as before. She doesn’t seem to understand that her actions have consequences. We can see this when she sends a Valentine card to a prosperous and mature bachelor, Mr. William Boldwood, intended as a joke on a normal day.
Disrupting the “crowd”’s life bears consequences
Mr. William Boldwood’s world is forever shattered by a gesture of immaturity on Bathsheba Everdene’s part. A proud member of his society now turns into a hopeless individual, trapped between his duties and his devotion towards an apparently selfish individual.
Bathsheba belongs to nobody but loves the idea that everything revolves around her. Her helpless feelings from the beginning now turned into an illusion of power.
The illusion of power is shattered by Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant, who takes pleasure in playing games. He plays with Mr. William Boldwood when he tells him he is not interested in Bathsheba Everdene. He plays with an innocent young lady, Fanny Robin, who was supposed to marry him but gets left behind when he goes off to advance his military career.
Bathsheba and Frank get married. A decision that will have a deadly impact on all involved. The tables have turned. Bathsheba, who was chased by two men, ends up chasing a man who seemed to be haunted by his deeds of the past.
Their marriage brings misfortune in the life of Fanny Robin. She was an innocent young lady, who fell in love with Frank. The day they were supposed to get married, she mixes the churches where she was supposed to be at. That gave Frank the chance of backing down on his word and leaving Fanny, not knowing she was carrying his child.
Mr. William Boldwood knows nothing but pain now when he understands his love is forever lost. He has previously asked for Bathsheba’s hand in marriage after pursuing her for what seemed to be an eternity.
Gabriel Oak is the only constant in Bathsheba’s life. He remains with her despite her decision, understanding she will need him now more than ever. He finds ways to hide his devoted love deep down and knows his duties are far more important than his feelings.
Nothing will be the same in the “madding crowd”
Everything we do in life comes back around.
Mr. William Boldwood doesn’t get to marry Bathsheba, although he came very close.
After having pretended to be dead, Frank returns to Bathsheba, who was about to marry Mr. Boldwood. At the moment, understanding he will never have her, Mr. Boldwood kills Frank.
It’s a moment of relief, of peace being restored in Bathsheba’s little world.
Mr. Boldwood’s firm will be under Gabriel Oak’s responsibility. He is now stepping up on the social ladder. In his mind, he is one step closer to Bathsheba, and yet, still so far.
Time is the healer of all wounds. Even though Bathsheba’s life wasn’t easy, she finally understands that Gabriel’s devotion and love were the only beacons of hope she had all along. She knew he would forever be there to help her pick up the pieces of her life decisions.
Gabriel Oak marries Bathsheba Everdene “far from the madding crowd”. They go away as two individuals, without anybody knowing, to return as a strong unified couple, prepared to stand the test of time.
Takeaways from “Far from the madding crowd”
Thomas Hardy has an excellent manner of telling a story.
His characters seem simple, yet their inner world is as complex and complicated as any other.
Despite being set in 19th century rural England, life’s questions and struggles are the same as in any century. It’s about hope and determination. It revolves around the desire to overcome your environment and your status. It’s about never giving up even when it seems impossible to continue.
Life, in general, is complicated, and people do what they have to do to make their lives better. There’s no right or wrong way of doing things. There just isn’t. There’s only what we have to do with what’s available to us or what we make available. Why would Thomas Hardy’s characters be any different?