This review is a little late in coming, but better late than never, eh?
I hadn’t read a proper classic in a good long while, choosing instead to indulge in the more mainstream books which make for such easy reading. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up Far From the Madding Crowd, with only my faint pleasurable reminisces about Tess of the D’Urbervilles to reassure me.
I was pleasantly surprised. The language wasn’t as difficult to read as I’d remembered, and — tediously overwritten descriptions and amusing names aside — the story was a pretty damn compelling soap opera.
The young, beautiful, and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene is unlike most women of her time: when her uncle passes away, leaving behind no male heirs, Bathsheba takes it upon herself to run his farm.
Enter Gabriel Oak, rich man turned poor, who once courted Bathsheba and is now working under her. Then add Bolwood, a respected farmer of Bathsheba’s stature, an ideal man to marry, but one she does not love. Throw in the dashing, sensual Sergeant Troy, and you’ve got the perfect ingredients for a tragically beautiful and beautifully tragic tale.
First off, Hardy knows how to write a damn good story. There’s secret love affairs, dead bodies, broken promises, impulsive decisions, and all the other makings of a story that makes you say, “Oh no they didn’t!”
Yes, the writing style is a little… verbose. I’m not a big fan of overlong descriptions of minute details, but, well, it comes with the package of that period’s writing, so I dealt with it. Besides, Hardy can actually be pretty witty in his descriptions, making amusing or insightful comments about human nature and society.
It is actually his depiction of human nature that I liked the most; Hardy creates real characters, who have their strengths and weaknesses. And ultimately — although this is a tale of romance and relationships — I felt that the real story was how Bathsheba changes over time. Her journey through relationships is also a journey of growth.
Hardy is known for his progressive views about women, and Bathsheba is a case in point: for her time period, she is an incredibly strong and fearless woman. But I have to admit, I didn’t like her much at the beginning of the story, for she was also arrogant and vain and thoughtless. Her experiences in love change her, and while some people may think this weakens her and weakens Hardy’s depiction of a strong woman, I thought Bathsheba became more real over time. I could empathize with her struggles, with her foolish love for a man that doesn’t love her. If anything, I think her weaknesses made her a much more likeable character.
As for the men, the only character I could empathize with was Sergeant Troy, who reminded me of a more calculating and passionate version of Wickham from Pride and Prejudice. There wouldn’t have been much of a story without Troy; he is the one who brings conflict and who brings about the changes in Bathsheba, showing her vulnerabilities. Yes, Troy is self-serving and vain, but those characteristics are what make Bathsheba aware of her own shortcomings. Besides, the Fanny (yes, really, that’s a girl’s name!) plot line adds a lot of depth to his character.
The other two men — Gabriel Oak and Mr Bolwood — felt more like empty archetypes. Oak is the pensive, patient and reasonable man, who has had hard luck but keeps on going. Bolwood is the worst; he is a husk of a man, his only qualities being his wealth and appropriateness for marriage.
The plot is a pretty gripping love-square between these four, with a number of unexpected plot twists. But I thought the end was a little contrived, probably because relatively happy endings always leave me unsatisfied. Don’t ask why. I have to say, though, that it never would have worked out for them, had Bathsheba not gone through all the drama and outgrown her snobby arrogance.
In sum, I prefer Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but I have to admit that Far From the Madding Crowd is far from tedious; on the contrary, it could make a very fun TV soap.
This book is one of my 100+ Reading Challenge!