My favorite part of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), number 47 on the BBC book list, is when the maltster at the local pub tells Gabriel Oak that despite the grittiness of the bacon they are about to eat, he can try not to chew too closely and therefore enjoy the meat without feeling the grittiness. He says, “Ah! ‘tis wonderful what can be done by contrivance!” (39). Although this scene serves a humorous purpose, I think it can also be looked at as an ironic foreshadowing of what is to come. Many of the characters in Madding Crowd contrive and deceive, producing results that are not as wonderful as the maltster suggests with the bacon. Thomas Hardy used this rustic humor as a foil to the plot, which explores how contrivance truly affects its subscribers; the effects are usually tragic.
Sergeant Frank Troy probably employs this contrivance most skillfully. He’s a play boy and soldier who marries Bathsheba despite two other men vying for her attentions. Troy is described as dishonest when it comes to women. “He was moderately truthful towards men, but to women lied like a Cretan—a system of ethics above all others calculated to win popularity at the first flush of admission into lively society” (p. 106).
He manipulates Bathsheba’s emotions and her vanity by telling her what he knows will appeal to her. He calls her beautiful, a phrase she’s never heard from Farmer Boldwood, another of her suitors. We know this is a weakness for Bathsheba because earlier she examines herself in a mirror. In a conversation about Bathsheba, Gabriel Oak says she has her faults, explaining that her greatest one is vanity. Troy also knows this about Bathsheba and contrives to use it to gain her affections. He has no intention of following through on this “love.” He has already had an affair with Fanny Robin at this point in the novel, and it can only be imagined what he said to deceive her as well.
These contrivances do not end wonderfully for Troy. He marries Bathsheba because she demands it after becoming jealous when he flirts with yet another woman. The marriage is unhappy because he no longer keeps up the admiring play-boy role. Instead, he gambles frequently and drinks, a trait that interferes when a dangerous storm threatens the farm for which he is responsible. Bathsheba’s only help during this episode is Gabriel, who remains sober and watchful throughout the novel.
Bathsheba, at first deceived by Troy’s attractive persona, becomes disillusioned, seeing her husband for what he really is. She had deceived herself into believing that he was a person worth marrying despite Gabriel’s warnings against Troy’s character. Bathsheba argues that Troy attends church by sneaking into the back, explaining, in her mind, the reason that nobody sees him at church. “This supreme instance of Troy’s goodness fell upon Gabriel’s ears like the thirteenth stroke of a crazy clock” (122). Gabriel pleads with Bathsheba to listen to his logic, to trust that he has her best interests in mind as he reveals Troy’s vices, but she does not listen. The consequences lead these characters into an unhappy marriage, one that worsens with the death of Fanny Robin and her child. Upon the discovery that Troy is the child’s father, Bathsheba sinks into a depression and Troy flees, eventually believed to be drowned at sea. However, he returns later, only to be shot by Boldwood. The consequences of the small deceits bloom into a large and dramatic episode of sadness, one that could have been avoided.
This story is a definite mirror of the David and Bathsheba story from The Bible. As an undergraduate student, I studied the David and Bathsheba story in my Bible as Literature class. I wrote a paper about the many possible interpretations. We can say that Bathsheba was tempting David and that she wanted the attention. Or we can say that he was a powerful king who made her comply. We really don’t know for sure.
I think everybody’s favorite character in Madding Crowd is Gabriel Oak, whose name calls up images of steadfastness and greatness. He remains true to Bathsheba throughout the story, lending his ear and faithfulness as an employee. He is a stable person, one who does not work to be deceptive. In the end, Oak is the character who is rewarded and who is most liked and admired by the reader. He watches Bathsheba grow up, learn her lessons, then earns her love and respect. They marry, and Oak finally has what he has wanted and deserved from the opening chapters of the novel.
It may seem hard to place Bathsheba as a “good” character who deserves a happy ending. However, we can reconcile this with the fact that she changes, or is forced to change, because of the consequences of her contrivances, her vanity, and the deceit of others. She is somebody we can allow to change because she is young, she is a victim of both Troy and Boldwood, and she is Oak’s object of affection. We want her to change in order to reward Oak. When she runs to a thicket to hide after discovering the truth about Troy and Fanny, there is imagery of Bathsheba losing her voice, then regaining it, a type of rebirth that is a second chance and renewal for Bathsheba. She begins at this moment to become a character that is worthy of sympathy and an outcome happier than what had been offered to her before.
Any book that explores the transcendent ability of human beings, the ability we have to change and become better, is a book worth my time. I love Thomas Hardy’s novels, and this is just one in a long line of great books by this wonderful author. See my reviews of his books Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure (which includes a humorous story about sock puppets) by clicking the links.