Far From The Madding Crowd / Thomas Hardy

It had been decades since I last read a Thomas Hardy novel. Now, picking up Far from the Madding Crowd, I was surprised at how clunky his prose often struck me. And yet, embedded throughout are descriptive turns of phrases that delight the mind’s ear.

In this book, for the first time, Hardy adopted the term “Wessex” to designate the geographical area for the story’s location. It is the location in which he was to set a good many of his future novels. Published as a serial in 1874, the story is quite straightforward, describing a lover’s advances rebuffed and his patience rewarded in the final chapter. The heroine, Bathsheba, struck me as selfish woman who plays fast and loose with Gabriel Oak, a shepherd who is hopelessly devoted to her. While an admirable suitor, he also comes across as too saint-like to be totally believable.

What has delighted readers through the years is the rich atmosphere that Hardy presents as a backdrop. The locale is a remote agricultural district in southwestern England. It brings to life the rhythms of an agrarian culture that was already fast disappearing at the time the book was written. The rural people described come across as wise philosophers, and their lives are portrayed as essentially untroubled. Even if a pipedream, Hardy’s Wessex is a place we all want to believe existed, once upon a time.

While the topic of Far from the Madding Crowd is a serious one, like Dickens before him, the author is astute enough to introduce comical moments to lighten the piece. While the story itself is rather pedestrian, it does vividly capture the scents and views of a world far removed from our own. The pastoral landscape he presents continues to speak to the heart. Hardy’s great achievement is bringing his Eden, this Wessex, alive on the page.

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