Long considered one of England's foremost nineteenth-century novelists, Hardy established his reputation with the publication of Far from the Madding Crowd in 1874. It was the first of his so-called “Wessex novels,” set in a fictitious English county closely resembling Hardy's native Dorsetshire.
The novel, whose title was borrowed from Thomas Gray's famous “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” initially appeared in magazine serial form and was the first Hardy work to be widely reviewed. Variations of its rustic characters and settings were to be repeated in several future novels. The novel's protagonist, Bathsheba Everdene, would also presage other strong Hardy heroines. Plot and Major Characters Bathsheba Everdene, who has inherited a large farm from her uncle, becomes the center of attention for three men.
After a chance meeting with a gentle sheep farmer, Gabriel Oak, Gabriel proposes marriage to Bathsheba, but is refused, as she does not consider him a proper suitor. Gabriel loses most of his herd and becomes a faithful shepherd for Bathsheba. She then meets a neighboring well-to-do farmer, Mr. Boldwood, who impresses Bathsheba. She later capriciously sends him a valentine, which excites Boldwood, and he later proposes marriage. Bathsheba puts him off, but it is assumed that she will succumb.
In a subplot, a marriage between Bathsheba's servant, Fanny Robin, and the dashing Sergeant Troy is stopped because of a misunderstanding. Troy turns his attentions to Bathsheba and impresses her with his dazzling sword practice. Troy gains her hand in marriage, leaving Boldwood heartbroken. Meanwhile, the hapless Fanny dies in the workhouse, and her body is brought back to Bathsheba's farm. Bathsheba discovers the corpse of a baby, Troy's child, beside that of Fanny.
Troy then disappears, and when his clothes are discovered on a beach, it is presumed that he has drowned. Boldwood reappears on the scene, and Bathsheba agrees to marry him out of a sense of remorse. Troy, however, unexpectedly returns and is killed by the distraught Boldwood, who is later tried and found insane. Bathsheba is at last ready to see the true worth of Gabriel, who has faithfully waited like the Oak of his last name, and the two are married. Major Themes A facile interpretation of Far from the Madding Crowd would be that true love triumphs over adversity.
Since Hardy's ending, however, has often been criticized as contrived, other dominant themes in the novel should be explored. The “Wessex” setting is almost a theme in itself, with the changeless rhythms of nature and agrarian life set against the vicissitudes which confront the characters. It is noteworthy that the most positively portrayed characters are those closest to the earth, such as Gabriel and the peasants who work the soil. The timelessness of the setting is contrasted with the struggles that the characters face against time and chance.
Had Bathsheba not sent the valentine, had Fanny not missed her wedding, for example, the story would have taken an entirely different path. Another important theme is that virtue will ultimately be rewarded. Bathsheba's final acceptance of Gabriel is a form of redemption for her earlier willful behavior. The development of Bathsheba's character reinforces the ideas that vanity is futile and that rebellion will ultimately be put down for the good of the community.
While Bathsheba ultimately is portrayed as a reformed character, the reader may find that her old feisty self was truly more interesting. Critical Reception Far from the Madding Crowd was the first Hardy novel to receive considerable critical attention. It was widely reviewed in England and also marked an important stage in the growth of Hardy's international reputation; the Paris journal Revue des deux mondes, for example, made it the occasion for a long survey-article on Hardy's work to date.
After the appearance (anonymously) of the first installment, the Spectator observed that “If Far from the Madding Crowd is not written by George Eliot, then there is a new light among novelists. ” Critics during a number of decades have noted that the early serialization of the novel presupposed certain conventions, which could account for the melodramatic nature of many of the scenes. Study of Hardy's manuscript has shown that he had to make extensive alterations in the portions of the novel referring to Fanny Robin and her illegitimate child.
Hardy was widely read and respected at the turn of the twentieth century, but a perception that his work was mostly for a popular audience discouraged serious criticism for several decades. In 1940, a seminal issue of the Southern Review devoted solely to Hardy precipitated a rebirth in Hardy criticism. Early modern critics tended to praise Far from the Madding Crowd's evocation of rural life or its universality of theme. By the 1960s and 1970s, Freudian and feminist criticism predominated.
In the 1980s and 1990s, critics used a wide variety of critical approaches to Far from the Madding Crowd. While some reviewers continued to adopt a New Critical stance, most were influenced by deconstructive or New Historical techniques. A few of the themes critics exploited were the forms of love in the novel, its subtexts, Hardy's narrative techniques, the relationship of Far from the Madding Crowd to Hardy's own life experiences, and the novel's treatment of gender and power. Reviews of film and television adaptations of the novel formed a wholly separate genre of criticism. '