A book with a love Triangle: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Several years ago, I picked up the novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles because I thought it looked interesting based on the cover description. I immediately fell in love with Thomas Hardy’s writing and that became one of my very favorite books. Last year, I planned to add another Hardy novel to my challenge in 2016, and when the film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd came out, I decided two things: I had to see the film, and this would be the Hardy novel of choice for the upcoming year.
I almost never see a film before reading the book, but in this case I made an exception. I like to visualize the world the author creates through my own imagination before watching someone else’s interpretation–otherwise when I read, I see only the images from the film instead of my own version of how things look, sound, and feel. In this case, I simply couldn’t wait. Carey Mulligan is one of my favorite actresses, and the film looked too beautiful to pass up. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend it. Not only is the film visually stunning, the acting is superb and the chemistry of the cast is unparalleled. Here is a trailer for the film:
Now that I have praised the film let’s get into the novel.
Set in the idyllic English countryside, Madding Crowd is on one level a tale of romance, but on another level it is an unflinching coming-of-age account that despite being written over a hundred years ago applies to those of us entering the frightening world of adulthood today. More than the luscious descriptive passages of the story’s setting, more than the titillating suspense as the narrative unfolds, the best aspect of this novel was its honesty.
Bathsheba Everdene, our heroine, and the cast of characters that pepper the story are depicted with such an intense honesty in their thoughts and behaviors, revealing so much of human nature and the absurdity of our actions, that it makes the reader laugh out loud at the absurdity of human interaction and cringe in awkwardness as Bathsheba often blunders her way through her initial experiences of adulting. Spoiler: she does not always adult very well.
Bathsheba refuses to conform to many of the societal expectations of women, even those that she secretly enjoys. This often results in confusing, off-putting social situations where she says one thing but acts contrary to that statement in the same breath. Some readers may view her as a tad hypocritical or capricious for this, but I feel that Hardy writes her in such a manner that she becomes endearing; this trait is so honest. So many of us like to believe we are one way or think one way, but in reality humans are so complex. We often act in ways that diametrically contradict our philosophies, and Hardy lovingly holds this mirror up for us to recognize in ourselves the same flaws we see in his characters.
Although perhaps youthfully contradictory (she is discovering herself and what she believes in, after all), Bathsheba is smart, witty, and stubborn. She is a master of herself; none can manipulate her will. Early in the story, Bathsheba is an educated but not wealthy young woman living with her Aunt until her prospects change. Then her uncle dies, leaving her his prosperous farm. This gives the fiercely independent Bathsheba a means to support herself and a new level of wealth. Rather than marry and have her husband take care of business, Bathsheba takes over the management of the farm herself and does so quite successfully. She determines early on that she will not marry; she cannot bear the thought of “being someone’s property.”
Before her fortune changes, she encounters a farmer named Gabriel Oak. At the time of their meeting, Oak is modestly “taken care of.” He has no great wealth but would make a suitable match for Bathsheba. However, her wild streak refuses to let her settle down and she declines his proposal of marriage. Soon after, she leaves to inherit the farm, and Gabriel becomes a ruined man when his own farm fails, reversing their stations in life.
A few months after losing his farm, Gabriel travels around the countryside looking for work as a shepherd to begin rebuilding his wealth. By chance, he ends up finding work on Bathsheba’s farm. Despite an awkward beginning, he and Bathsheba grow to become good friends. Although he never quite extinguishes his love for her, he manages to control it.
Bathsheba remains quite rigid in her desire to avoid marriage despite being advised by those around her to marry the local eligible bachelor, Farmer Boldwood. I would like to pause here and point out that most of us go through this same phase in our early years as we seek out our future mates. Bathsheba is confronted with several men, all eligible for marriage, and she must navigate through these potentials to find her man.
Oak represents the solid, steady choice in a partner. He’s probably a bit dorky, cute but awkward. He is the nice guy that you tell yourself is only “just a friend” even though you know deep down he truly cares for you in ways that others will not. It takes you several years and a string of total losers before you realize you are an idiot for not marrying this guy. Thus enters Gabriel Oak into the ultimate friend-zone. (Poor guy. Look at the love emanating from those big brown puppy-dog eyes).
Then there are the Boldwoods of the world. The person that it “makes sense” to date. The one who is quite good looking, probably quite popular. On the surface you make the right couple, but deep down you know this person will end up boring you to tears after a few weeks. This is Boldwood–wealthy, nice enough, but no sparks. You could never truly let your hair down and be yourself in front of him.
And then….then there are the Troys. The bad boys. The ones your mother warned you about. The ones who will steal your wallet and empty your bank account after breaking your heart. You know they are the absolute WORST choice you can possibly make romantically, but you will do it anyway. The very thing that should repel them is the thing that attracts you. It’s a lesson just about everyone learns at least once. Yeah, he’ll dazzle you with his sword tricks all right, but just make sure he doesn’t steal you purse when you aren’t looking. Or your sister.
Assuming you are a gorgeous, intelligent young woman who can have any man in the world, what would YOU do? Don’t forget that Bathsheba is an immature and impulsive person. Before we go any further, pop quiz. Next, Bathsheba will:
a.) completely ignore her feelings for Oak and pretend they never had a “thing” and then get angry when he doesn’t worship the ground she walks on (even though she pretends she doesn’t care)
b.) send a valentine to Boldwood as a completely weird and inappropriate joke, causing him to fall in love with her, and then completely scorn his advances
c.) let the bad boy Troy convince her to do crazy things and run away with him
d.) All of the above
Did you guess d? You are so smart. Are you starting to get a little frustrated with her yet? Just remember, you were almost assuredly like this at one point, too. Plus, they didn’t have TV or social media back then so they had to make their own fun.
Bathsheba marries bad boy Troy and none of us are shocked when he gets bored a few months in and starts itching to do some bad boy things. We are pretty shocked, though, when Troy and Bathsheba run into Troy’s “first love” Fanny Robin, a woman he left at the altar (albeit, by mistake. They both showed up but to two different churches and think they were each jilted by the other). He is shocked by her utterly destitute appearance but at the same time, he needs to keep his wife from his former mistress. He promises Fanny in a feverish whisper that he will meet her tomorrow and bring money for her. Bathsheba knows something is up but doesn’t press the issue as they continue homeward.
Meanwhile, homegirl Fanny Robin (who is sweet but simple and still hasn’t caught on to the fact that Troy is a class-A bad boy) literally drags herself through the fields to get to town in order to meet her lover. She gets there but tragically dies from exhaustion. None the wiser, Troy goes out to search for her but of course can’t find her.
In the mean time, Bathsheba hears of Fanny’s death and having been a former servant on the farm, has the body brought there to be kept until the funeral the next day. Oak, being the ultimate good guy that he is notices the name “Fanny Robin and infant” written on the coffin in chalk and wanting to spare Bathsheba the eventual heartache when she finally puts it together, rubs off the latter part of the inscription. Bathsheba starts to remember her husband talking about his first love, this blonde angel whose lock of hair he STILL KEEPS (I warned you, he is awful) in his pocket watch and she puts it together. She realizes Fanny was that girl, and then realizes it was she they saw on the road the previous day. Bathsheba opens the coffin to confirm and sees the infant in there as well, realizing the full weight of her spouse’s awfulness.
Troy comes home to find the bodies of his lover and child and of course goes off the rails in true bad boy fashion. The whole thing ends with him leaving and faking his own death by drowning, whereby he can leave Bathsheba and start a new life somewhere else. The one redeeming thing about Troy is that you do believe in the moment he honestly does have real feelings–Fanny’s death, for example, completely destroys him–but then he forgets them and fixates on his next victim. He is the ultimate poster boy for lack of impulse control.
Bathsheba never quite fully believes he is dead but goes through the motions of being a widow for a year until Boldwood again begs for her hand in marriage. Although she openly admits to him that she doesn’t want to go through with it, she tells him that she feels like she owes it to him for sending him the Valentine and making him think he had a chance. At this point, he’s so lovesick he doesn’t care HOW he gets her, as long as he gets her, so they agree to have a five year courtship before she will consent to marry him. As this decision is reached at Boldwood’s Christmas party, Troy decides he hasn’t ruined his wife’s life enough so he decides to turn up, crash the party, and try to force her to give him all of her money.
After the initial shock of “seeing a ghost” the townsfolk realize it’s Troy and he tries to grab Bathsheba and roughhouse her into going home with him. At this point, this is the second time Troy has thwarted Boldwood’s attempt to marry Bathsheba, and he just ain’t having it. The second Troy lays a hand on Bathsheba, Boldwood shoots him down dead without blinking an eye, then walks himself down to the jail and confesses to murder.
You really have to feel bad for the guy. He was the pathetic victim of the whimsy of a pretty girl. But on the other hand, he was a super convenient plot mechanism to get rid of the bad boy and the right guy, making way for none other than the RIGHT GUY! Plus, Hardy is nice enough to let Boldwood escape being sentenced to death through an insanity plea. All’s well that end’s well, right?
Admittedly, it is a long painful journey for her to get there–to get out of her own way and figure out who she really is and where she truly belongs–but that’s how it is for all of us. Life is that sometimes painful, sometimes painfully awkward, journey to enlightenment. So yes, this a romance. Yet I argue it’s more so a story about growing up, making mistakes, and being honest with who you are and what you want. Hardy’s beautiful writing will make you laugh, cry, cringe, and most of all feel saddened when you reach that last page.