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Geometric Solids: Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd

By posted at 3:26 am on July 29, 2009 6

coverI first heard about Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd about twenty years ago, when I was in seventh or eighth grade. My classmates and I were all reading Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz, and our English teacher attempted to guide our reading choices to higher-brow material.

“I think it’s great that you’re all reading so much,” she said. “But when you’re choosing books to read, try to read classics.” She mentioned, for example, that she had recently read Far From the Madding Crowd while recovering from surgery.

I had no intention of abandoning King or Koontz, but I did check out a copy of Hardy’s novel from the public library. I tried to read it but didn’t get far. The first two paragraphs had enough unfamiliar vocabulary and tonal foreignness to repel me as a thirteen-year-old:

When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people and the drunken section.

It took me ten years to try another Hardy novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I read and loved after my first year as an English teacher myself. The pleasures afforded by Hardy’s fiction, I realized, require patience, a more mature appreciation of language, wider knowledge of the adult world, and a sense of the past. (Google is helpful, too, in deciphering Hardy’s obscure mythological and Biblical references.)

This summer, as I picked up Far From the Madding Crowd for another go, I was better equipped to appreciate Hardy’s wryly delicate humor in passages like the following: “It may have been observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in. Some people look upon marriage as a short cut that way, but it has been known to fail.”

Funny – and, indeed, as in Tess and The Return of the Native, in this novel Hardy concerns himself with love’s entanglements. Bathsheba Everdene, a young and imperious beauty, named for the woman who occasioned King David’s sinful plotting, finds herself involved not in a romantic triangle, but a romantic quadrilateral, as three men vie for her affections. Their names, like hers, are evocative of their identities: Oak, the solid shepherd; Boldwood, the increasingly audacious farmer; and the Troy, the scoundrel as fallen as the citadel that is his namesake.

There’s a reason that the romantic triangle is such a commonly-used fictional device: it has a geometric elegance, a pointedness that keeps a story moving. The romantic quadrilateral is harder to make work. Hardy does it well enough that 135 years later people are still reading the book. Compared to later works like Tess and Native, though, this one – the earliest of Hardy’s best – known novels – is a bit of a disappointment.

For one thing, it lacks a narrative center. This romantic quadrilateral is nothing so neat as a square or a rectangle. It’s more ungainly – an irregular trapezoid, perhaps. It’s difficult work to set up three suitors in a reasonably rounded way, and while Hardy’s developing one, the other two tend to fade to the background. In the end, the male characters come perilously close to being as wooden as their names or, in Troy’s case, a bit too starkly villainous.

At times the plot’s contrivances seem arbitrary, meant to force the narrative (originally published serially in a magazine) in its intended direction without especial regard for plausibility: Oak lies down in an apparently abandoned wagon, whose owners return and just so happen to be heading to Bathsheba’s farm; Troy nearly drowns and, believed dead, runs off to America to join the circus for a convenient span of time, returning just when his presence will cause the most upheaval.

Bathsheba herself, vain, proud, described by one of the men who marries her as “this haughty goddess, dashing piece of womanhood, Juno-wife of mine,” seems to be a rough draft for Eustacia Vye, the more famous heroine of Hardy’s Return of the Native. Eustacia (a favorite of Holden Caulfield’s, you may recall) is, in Hardy’s description, “the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well,” he writes, for “she had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman.” In comparison to Eustacia, Bathsheba is too kind, too mortal, and less vivid.

In other ways, too, Madding seems a rough draft of Native, which arranges its characters not in a triangle or quadrilateral, but in overlapping Venn diagrams of desire. In both novels, some characters come to tragic ends, some are seared by their experiences but survive, chastened but wiser. Return of the Native was published in 1878, four years after Far From the Madding Crowd, and in most ways it’s a better book. It has a sharper sense of place; a more forceful narrative arc; more emotionally weighty and realistic plot turns; and, despite a rather tedious beginning in which backstory is provided by the gossip of eccentric country folk, less of such stock characters, whose humorousness has not aged well.

I guess you could say that my eighth grade teacher gave me a bad recommendation. After all these years, finally reading this novel was a bit anticlimactic. But in the larger sense, she was right: King and Koontz may have been fine for my adolescence, but ultimately they were bridges to more ambitious reading projects. My teacher’s offhanded remark about Hardy stuck with me, giving me a sense of the rewarding places to which those bridges might lead. Though I might have skipped this particular novel without much of a loss, Hardy’s best work is definitely worth the journey.





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6 Responses to “Geometric Solids: Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd”

  1. evankerry
    at 8:21 am on July 29, 2009

    This was the first Hardy book I read. I found it entertaining and delightful. Far from the tragedy of later novels such as The Mayor of Casterbridge which I am currently reading.

  2. Edan
    at 8:58 am on July 29, 2009

    I assume your teacher assigned classics, and that in high school you read others. It makes sense, then, to read King and Koontz on one's own time; in fact, it proves that even though you had to read for school, you kept on reading, for fun. It's odd that your teacher would push you to "read classics," without a keener sense of what you, in junior high, might like (or be moved by), at that age. I wonder, do you introduce classic books to your high school students?

  3. Chuck
    at 9:35 am on July 29, 2009

    My favorite love quadrilateral in in "Twelfth Night." Shakespeare solves the problem of the triangle that's frustrating Olivia, Orsino, and Viola, by doubling the boy and revealing that he's a girl. Now–almost magically ("most wonderful," Olivia marvels)–each Jill has her Jack. Perhaps to counter the magic with a little realism, Shakespeare gives us more lonely characters than in the major romantic comedies: Sir Anthony, Malvolio, and Antonio.

  4. Frank Kovarik
    at 9:35 am on July 29, 2009

    I might have enjoyed this book more if it had been the first Hardy book I'd read. As it was, though, I kept comparing it to others I thought were more accomplished. And yes, though it certainly has its share of tragedy, it's a little sunnier than some of the later ones.

    In this particular instance, my teacher may have been a little off in her sense of what adolescents would have an appetite for, but overall she encouraged us to read (and write) what we were interested in. I still remember a book project we had to do in eighth grade. It was supposed to be on a "classic," but we could choose our own books. I did mine on The Grapes of Wrath, and I still remember certain passages and images from the novel.

    In my department, we do teach classics (The Odyssey, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Shakespeare, Frederick Douglass, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, etc.), but we choose them with an eye toward what will work with high school students. And we also teach more recent stuff that we think is great but wouldn't necessarily be considered classic yet (George Saunders, Edward P. Jones, Mary Oliver, Colson Whitehead, Kathleen Finneran, etc.).

  5. Molly
    at 11:42 am on July 30, 2009

    Ack! Is it just me or is Hardy EVERYWHERE these days? I love him, but it's just a weird feeling to see so many reviews of his books suddenly. I recently picked up The Woodlanders to read this summer. FFMC sounds really good too…

  6. Anonymous
    at 10:42 am on July 31, 2009

    I stumbled on FFTMC (my abbreviation for my students) in my high school library, and read it for pleasure and by choice. What a pleasure, what a choice. It led me to read most all his other works before I was a senior. To me FFTMC is one of Hardy's best, far superior to Clym Yeobright and his mother who perishes from a poisoned serpent bite on Egdon Heath (talk about totally contrived and implausible). Another great Hardy read is The Mayor of Casterbridge. Somewhere in the rest of my life I'd like to turn it into an opera.
    Try Nicholas Roeg's film adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd with Alan Bates, Julie Christie, and Peter Finch.

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