Before the name Everdene (spelled -deen) was popularized by a willful, bow-and-arrow-toting girl fighting against an oppressive government, it was the name of an equally strong, spirited, and independent young woman, Bathsheba Everdene, the heroine of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far From The Madding Crowd.
Published anonymously in a monthly serial in 1874, Far From the Madding Crowd chronicles the life and times of Bathsheba Everdene and her romantic trials with three very different suitors.
**warning: may be a bit spoiler-ish beyond this point (but not much)**
Though born poor, Bathsheba Everdene, upon the death of her uncle, inherits his farm in the English countryside. Although young and inexperienced, she single-handedly takes on the task of running and supervising the workers and goingson of her farm, something that was unheard of in the 1800s. A little before she inherits her uncle’s farm, while visiting her aunt in another town, Bathsheba meets Farmer Gabriel Oak, a newly independent farmer/shepherd. Gabriel Oak, despite being level-headed, responsible, and grounded in his beliefs and principles, immediately falls in love with Bathsheba and asks for her hand in marriage. Having just known Gabriel, Bathsheba refuses his offer, claiming that she was penniless and far beneath his station. In truth, at the time, though Bathsheba liked the thought of marriage and the attention it would bring her, she didn’t relish the thought of having a husband and being with the same man day in and day out very much.
Broken hearted but determined to love Bathsheba forever despite being rejected, Gabriel strives to forget her and move on with his life. When Bathsheba’s visit with her aunt ends, Gabriel mourns that he would never see Bathsheba again. However, fate was not done with them yet. An unfortunate turn of events in the life of Gabriel Oak puts him once again across Bathsheba’s path – this time, he, a poor shepherd seeking employment, and she, an heiress of a sprawling farm.
Her new station in life as an independent, beautiful, and unmarried young woman running and maintaining a farm attracts the attention of everyone in the neighborhood, including farmers, laborers, and villagers, much to her pleasure. However, there was one man who did not seem to be affected by her feminine charms – the wealthy, stoic, and mysterious Farmer Boldwood, owner of the farm adjoining hers. Immune to her presence (for he never seemed to notice her whenever they were in the same room), she was determined to attract his attention. This she succeeds in doing through an act of sheer folly.
Once aware of her existence, Farmer Boldwood acknowledges that Bathsheba, in terms of grace and beauty, was a cut above the average woman and declares his undying love for her, asking her to marry him as he would be her perfect match in every way. He promised to cherish and provide for her better than any man can and will. On her part, Bathsheba, never imagined that her one act of foolishness to get Farmer Boldwood’s attentions would get her a marriage proposal. Having no reason to refuse his offer except for a lack of love on her part, Bathsheba finds it difficult to thwart his advances. In her guilt to make amends with Farmer Boldwood, Bathsheba makes him believe that he may hope to receive her hand and learn to love him someday.
Though all signs point to Farmer Boldwood marrying Bathsheba, the arrival of a new character in the village, Sargent Troy, derails not only Farmer Boldwood’s plans but also Bathsheba’s life. The handsome, dashing, sweet-talking, soldier sweeps Bathsheba off her feet, who falls madly in love with him despite herself. Ignoring the sound advice of Gabriel (who has become not only a trusted employee but also her only friend) and forsaking her promise to Farmer Boldwood, Bathsheba abandons herself to love and passion and runs away with Troy. Unfortunately, by putting her happiness above all else, Bathsheba’s choices, contrary to everyone’s expectations, cause irreversible consequences not just in her life but also in the lives of those around her.
As an independent, spirited, and intelligent individual, Bathsheba Everdene has the misfortune of living in a time when young unmarried women were not allowed make their own choices and live their lives on their own terms. At the time, young women were expected to be dependent on men – to run their farms, manage their finances, and support them in marriage. It was unheard of for young women to reject marriage proposals from sensible men based on a lack of love. Bathsheba, because of her good looks and later, good fortune, was troubled by other people’s expectations of her marriage and happiness. To live up to the expectations of society, should she have chosen the young, practical, but plain Farmer Gabriel or the wealthy, successful Farmer Boldwood despite not being in love with either of them?
Far From the Madding Crowd has been compared to Middlemarch, as both novels highlight rural, middle-class society. Both novels also have strong female characters who forsake family or societal expectations in the name of love or for personal happiness, though in very different ways. Middlemarch and Far From the Madding Crowd also have similar narrative styles, in which readers are privy to the characters’ secret lives, thanks to an omnipresent and rather opinionated narrator. In fact, it is even believed at the time that George Eliot was the real author of Far From the Madding Crowd. However, unlike George Eliot, Thomas Hardy pays more attention to the setting of his novel and describes their natural surroundings in detail.
Though categorized as a romance, Far from The Madding Crowd is so much more than a love story. It is a critique on society and the traditional roles of men and women, championing feminism and independence. It’s also a story of loyalty and friendship, bonds that far outweigh ephemeral passions. Far from the Madding Crowd also raises ethical and moral issues on the limitations and extent of loyalty, obligation, and atonement and sees the evolution and maturity of many of the characters, from Bathsheba Everdene to Gabriel Oak, Farmer Boldwood, and Sgt. Troy. Once young, naive, idealistic, or practical, they undergo drastic changes upon meeting and knowing each other – some for the better but some for the worse.
Although I enjoyed Far From the Madding Crowd, I had no strong reactions or feelings toward Bathsheba Everdene, the events in her life, or the choices she made. Unlike Middlemarch, I was not incensed or annoyed by any of the characters or affected by their thoughts or actions. Although Bathsheba made some colossal mistakes in her life and changed considerably mentally and emotionally by the end of the novel, I was not particularly moved by her plight. However, it would be unfair to use Middlemarch as a yardstick to measure other classic works of literature against, as they are all brilliant in their own right. Far From the Madding Crowd is a thought-provoking piece of literature that should definitely not be passed up.
Far From the Madding Crowd as been adapted for the screen many times. There’s a 1967 movie version starring Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene, a 1998 tv movie starring Paloma Baeza as Bathsheba and hunky Nathaniel Parker (who also played steamy and dreamy Mr. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea) as Gabriel Oak, and the latest version (2015) starring Carrie Mulligan as Bathsheba, Matthias Shoenaerts as Gabriel Oak, Michael Sheen as Farmer Boldwood, and Tom Sturridge as Sgt. Troy.
Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) – Thomas Hardy
Penguin English Library; 445 pages
Personal rating: 3.5/5