Far From the Madding Crowd was an elaborate Victorian valentine of a book. Having only read Tess before this out of Hardy novels, I did not expect the gentleness and forgiveness that the characters in Far From the Madding Crowd find among their fellow human beings. But I certainly see in shadow here the more chiseled tragic lines of the later Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Three features of Hardy’s writing in Far From the Madding Crowd especially impressed me. The first is the agricultural, pastoral, and wild settings of the story, the weather in the woods. I used to read some books for this kind of thing alone. There was a time later when I had no use for it. In this first reading of Far From the Madding Crowd though these were possibly my favorite parts. I copied passages about sheep-shearing, about the oat harvest, about a lightning storm. In the opening pages, the cold, distant, anciently named and charted fires of the constellations enthralled me. Hardy venerates the antique customs that characterize and ennoble the works and days of country dwellers, even the mentally dense ones. The country setting must be the reason for the novel’s title. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the beauty of the countryside does nothing to cancel a jot or iota of human misery. But it is a constant tantalizing reminder of the earthly paradise so close in human vision, so absolutely remote from human fallenness. Here at least some of the characters live in a degree of harmony with nature, of philosophy and religious faith.
Hardy also gives rein to an unexpected spirit of playfulness in Far From the Madding Crowd. He draws little diagrams now and then which seem to be just for fun. The men in the taverns have amusingly ignorant conversations. A horse stops chewing and looks up while a man makes Bathsheba a passionate declaration of love. Even at moments most intense for the characters, Hardy will step back in the narrator with a cool or amused observation on their humanity.
And then there is what you could call the Gothic element, the melodrama. Certain plot elements are actually ridiculous but constantly redeemed by Hardy’s sly sense of the ridiculous. That sense of humor however doesn’t cancel out the chilling quality of some of the situations. In one chapter, there is a horrible “gurgoyle” in the church architecture that, though inanimate, behaves with spite and vengeance. There are other examples in the novel of a bad magic or imp of perversity at work. Not to mention a freaky (but very humanely portrayed) case of mental derangement.
I have to say something more about religion in the novel, after glancing at it above. You know that beautiful poem of Hardy’s “The Oxen.” In this novel, I get the same sense of complex respect for religious faith and even a hint of that child-like hope that “it might be so.” Even as he tears apart the religion of the establishment and the theological gymnastics of “simple people.” There is a recognition in the plot of prayer’s power to transform a moment of crisis. And the love story, of course, is redolent with Christian allegory (or at least allusion).
It may be that Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a better book than this one. It may be that this is a more real and generous book than Tess. It may also be that Hardy is better in poetry than in fiction. My juries are out on all those questions but I found Far from the Madding Crowd to be a special and thoroughly effective novel.