Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Published in 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd is the story of the young, independent and beautiful Bathsheba Everdene (what a name!) and three very different men. Gabriel Oak is a thoughtful, competent young shepherd who meets her and quickly proposes marriage. Mr. Boldwood is an older, gentleman farmer who has no experience with women and falls in love with her too. Francis Troy is a semi-aristocratic soldier who has experience with women and is not to be trusted. It wouldn’t be much of a story if Bathsheba chose the right one right away.

The novel is set in the region of southern England that Hardy called “Wessex”. There are many fine descriptions of the countryside and country life. The downside is that there are a few too many discussions between the local rustics, who speak in dialect and serve as a rural Greek chorus.

The title is from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

The characters in Hardy’s first popular novel do live far from the crowds, but don’t always avoid madness. They might get under your skin a little bit (it’s remarkable how fictional people can affect us).

One of my favorite passages comes near the end of the novel:

Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — camaraderie — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.

One Way Literature Can Help

When I was in college, many years ago, there was this girl. I can’t remember exactly what the circumstances were, but one night I was trying to get or stay on intimate terms with her and said something that was really dumb (foolish, pathetic, etc.). The gist of it was that no one else would ever be as important to me, but what I said was even more melodramatic than that. Her appropriate response was something like “are you kidding?”. As you can tell, I’m still embarrassed more than 40 years later. 

Well, I’ve been reading Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd, first published in 1874. The heroine, Bathsheba Everdene (quite a handle, as people used to say), has given the local gentleman farmer, Mr. Boldwood, the mistaken impression that she might marry him. It all started when, on a whim, she sent him a valentine. Then she encouraged him some more. He’s never had any experience with women and has fallen in love with her. Meanwhile, she’s fallen in love with a dashing but unreliable young soldier. Miss Everdene tries to let Mr. Boldwood down easy, but he doesn’t take the news very well. Some excerpts:

Oh, Bathsheba, have pity on me! … I am come to that low, lowest stage – to ask a woman for pity! … I am beyond myself about this and am mad… I wish you knew what is in me of devotion to you; but it is impossible … In bare human mercy to a lonely man, don’t throw me off now! There was a time when you turned to me, before I thought of you! … I took for earnest what you insist was jest [that damned valentine!], and now this that I pray to be jest you say is awful, wretched earnest… I wish your feeling was more like mine, or my feeling more like yours! Oh, could I have foreseen the torture that trifling trick was going to lead me into, how I should have cursed you; but only having been able to see it since, I cannot do that, for I love you too well! … Bathsheba, you are the first woman of any shade or nature that I have ever looked at to love, and it is the having been so near claiming you for my own that makes this denial so hard to bear. How nearly you promised me! … Where are your pleasant words all gone – your earnest hope to be able to love me? Where is your firm conviction that you would get to care for me very much? Really forgotten? Really? … Would to God you had never taken me up, since it was only to throw me down! … I tell you all this, but what do you care! You don’t care….Dearest, dearest, I am wavering even now between the two opposites of recklessly renouncing you and labouring humbly for you again. Forget that you have said No, and let it be as it was!

I know it’s only fiction, but what I said to that young woman a long time ago doesn’t embarrass me as much now.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

I browsed through Lolita when I was much younger, looking for the good parts. I was seriously disappointed. When I was older, I started it a few times but very quickly lost interest. Now I’ve finally read what many consider to be one of the best novels of the 20th century, maybe even the best.

For the most part, I wasn’t that impressed. Most of the novel details Humbert’s obsessive fascination with his young step-daughter. Nabokov engages in lots of entertaining word-play and makes fun of the American cultural scene, but it’s claustrophobic being locked up in Humbert’s fevered brain. Lolita’s body is present, but as a character she is pretty much a cipher.

That’s part of Nabokov’s purpose, of course. At the end of the novel, Humbert admits to himself that he’s stolen her childhood. He hasn’t allowed her to be a person. Lolita (the character) finally emerges when Humbert meets her a few years later, after she’s run away and started her own life. That’s when Lolita (the novel) at last delivers some emotional impact. It’s terribly sad to meet someone you still love who doesn’t love you — and in this case never did, for good reason.

Postscript:  Coincidentally, I just came upon an article about Nabokov, in which the author suggests that Humbert’s expression of guilt regarding Lolita’s stolen childhood is merely a device to gain the reader’s sympathy (Lolita is supposedly written by Humbert as a confession after he’s arrested). That could be, but I found his words convincing as a reaction to the sadness of meeting Lolita again and the memories it evoked.

George Eliot and Gary Larson Knew Something About Life

From The Far Side, by the consistently brilliant Gary Larson:

From Daniel Deronda, by the often brilliant George Eliot:

[Note: Daniel is now immersed in the the question whether a Jewish state should be established (the novel is set around 1875). Gwendolen has married a controlling, unlovable aristocrat.] 

“And Gwendolen? She was thinking of Deronda much more than he was thinking of her — often wondering what were his ideas ‘about things’, and how his life was occupied.

But … it was as far from Gwendolen’s conception that Deronda’s life could be determined by the historical destiny of the Jews, as that he could rise into the air on a brazen horse, and so vanish from her horizon in the form of a twinkling star.

With all the sense of inferiority that had been forced upon her, it was inevitable that she should imagine a larger place for herself in his thoughts than she actually possessed. They must be rather old and wise persons who are not apt to see their own anxiety or elation about themselves reflected in other minds.”

How often are relationships symmetrical? Is it even a goal worth seeking? Maybe it’s a cosmic joke.

Is it too cynical to believe that we only become old and wise after it hardly matters?