The Importance of Place
Hardy called the fictional adaptation of the English old country that is the primary setting of his novels “Wessex” and described it as a “partly real, party dream country.” Connection to one’s place, one’s land and community, matters greatly in this and other Hardy novels. Readers can pay attention to a character’s sense of place and connect it to the plot outcome for that character. Generally, in Far from the Madding Crowd, the closer the connection to place, the better the character fares.
Consider the characters who suffer greatly in the novel. Despite her dalliance with Troy and her pregnancy, Fanny has in Weatherbury a true home, a community and sense of place. But when she leaves Weatherbury to find Troy and ask him to fulfill his promise to marry her, a promise, readers must think, that he made in order to persuade her to sleep with him, that her downward spiral begins. She has no place in the military garrison or in the town that houses it; in fact, it’s her very lack of belonging to this community that causes her to arrive at the wrong church, missing her wedding and inviting Troy’s scorn. Fanny is a vagrant thereafter, wandering from place to place and finally collapsing in the workhouse at Casterbridge. Her choice to uproot her life is her undoing, as is clear by the compassion and pity the villagers and farmers in Weatherbury feel for her and in their care to bring her body home for burial.
Troy, too, is a wanderer by choice; he, too, has little sense of place. It’s unavoidable that a military man will travel from garrison to garrison, but even after Troy leaves the military, he cannot settle on Bathsheba’s farm. One day, he’s in a coastal town to bet on races; another, he’s at market in Casterbridge—not to do business, but to idle time away. Even in Weatherbury he’s antsy; he finds the farmhouse oppressive and wants to remodel; he finds the farm work boring and would rather drink. It’s interesting that Bathsheba first meets Troy on a path used by passersby, away from her family’s farm, and that she marries him in Bath, a city unfamiliar to her. He represents an uprootedness from place and community, a state in which he thrives but in which Bathsheba suffers. Troy’s wanderings take him all the way to America and back; his return, at last, to Weatherbury is not motivated by homesickness but by the thought of easy lodging, good food, and Bathsheba’s beauty. It’s fitting, in an ironic way, that Troy, after his long roving, is buried right back where he started, in the village he rejected.
Boldwood, readers might think, has a strong sense of place. Yet a little contemplation reveals that, while he does stay close to his land, he loses his connection to it in his obsession with Bathsheba; further, Boldwood is by choice an isolated man whom the villagers hardly know. He could have a confidante in Oak but keeps Oak at arm’s length, as a laborer, not a friend. No one else even attempts to approach Boldwood, who seems to the villagers almost aristocratic in his removal from them. Boldwood’s world, as he descends into his passion for Bathsheba, shrinks—from the village, to the farm and then the farm house, and finally to the little closet of his bedroom, where he stores his fantasy future with “Mrs. Boldwood.” Without the corrective that companions would provide, he indulges his obsession to the ruin of his crops, Bathsheba, Troy, and his own life. Appropriately, his murderous outburst removes him entirely and permanently from the community and place that might have sustained him.
By contrast, Oak and Bathsheba are deeply rooted in their village, on their farm, and in their community. Readers may have found amusing the villagers’ reception of Oak, the newcomer, in the malthouse. However, careful attention reveals how eager all the characters involved are to confirm community and to draw the newcomer in. They offer Oak drink and food, apologizing for its rustic nature; he partakes gratefully, declining to comment on the gritty cheese and communal tankard. Then connections between the villagers and Oak’s grandparents and parents are examined—proof that Oak is already home. Gradually, as they come to know Oak, the villagers respect and befriend him; one, Jan Coggan, becomes Oak’s close friend and confidante. Oak is at home and happy to work the fields and herds; the one time that he does storm out of Weatherbury, he is eager for an excuse to come back. Bathsheba, too, has deep roots in the village. The farm was her uncle’s; she loves the place and wants not only to see it flourish but also to be one of the prime reasons for its success. She is willing to defend the farm, even at risk to her life. Though she is a major employer in town, she is nevertheless close to Liddy and sympathetic to how her farm and her behavior affect the laborers’ well-being. As mentioned above, the threats to Bathsheba’s happiness come from outside the community, and she makes her gravest errors when away from the community, at Bath or on the road to and from Casterbridge.
Like the unfortunate, uprooted Troy and Fanny, Oak and Bathsheba end the novel in Weatherbury, drinking tea in the farm house, which is itself a symbol of the unchanging countryside and community that sustains the characters, while outside, the villagers—the community—comment approvingly on their union.
The Importance of Perspective
In a notebook Hardy kept in 1878, he explained that “A Plot, or Tragedy, should arise from the gradual closing in of a situation that comes of ordinary human passions, prejudices, and ambitions, by reason of the characters taking no trouble to ward off the disastrous events produced by the said passions, prejudices, and ambitions.” Throughout Far from the Madding Crowd, readers encounter characters who lack the perspective needed to prevent “disastrous events.” Some characters lack this perspective because of youth and immaturity; others thrust it away purposefully. The importance of perspective is particularly revealed in the contrasts among the three suitors for Bathsheba’s love.
Troy, for instance, precipitates disaster for many—Fanny and her baby, Bathsheba, Boldwood—because he refuses to adopt perspective. Troy lives utterly in the present. He is “a man to whom memories were an encumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity.” He takes his pleasures where and when he can and thinks little of consequences. Because of this lack of perspective, Fanny gets pregnant, and because he can’t wait on her to correct a simple mistake, she remains unmarried—a disaster indeed, in her culture. Undeterred by these events, Troy tempts Bathsheba to come, unaccompanied, to his room for a tryst; when she finds him at Bath, he has already moved on to the temptation du jour. Even when Troy does experience regret and guilt—emotions that arise from perceiving how past actions have affected the present—he cannot sustain them. After impulsively buying Fanny’s tombstone and adorning her grave, he wakes to the storm’s damage and finds that “the merest opposition had disheartened him.” He simply walks away, out of his past and present, toward a less encumbered life. Even when he returns to Bathsheba, Troy shows a disturbing disjunction with the past. He returns as if nothing has ever happened to change his claim on her—and legally, of course, he is correct. He is her master. Yet their continuing together is an untenable thought to her and to Boldwood, of whom Troy knows enough to judge, if he could be make to take the trouble, a threat.
Boldwood is another character who lacks perspective, but his is a different kind of lack. Boldwood understands the past and the future quite well; he uses the past to force the future he wants, and he’s willing to wait for that future. Boldwood’s mistake is to lose sight of import. His fixation on the errant valentine is extreme. Oak’s words of caution, Bathsheba’s protestations, his own laborers’ fears—none of these alerts Boldwood to the dangerously obsessive quality of his love for Bathsheba. He places such heavy value on Bathsheba’s prank—one that Libby egged her on to carry out in the first place—that it justifies his hounding and torturing her. His lack of perspective arises largely from extreme self-centeredness. Even when Bathsheba begs and pleads for him to let her be, he presses her for promises till she is in tears. Only the blast of the gun with which he kills Troy seems to bring Boldwood to his senses; only when Troy dies does he find the perspective that reveals the destructive nature of his passions. To his credit, he drops his suit immediately and offers himself up for arrest and punishment.
Bathsheba, throughout the novel, turns to the one suitor who does have perspective, Gabriel Oak. Oak has both an appreciation for how actions and consequences are unavoidably intertwined but also a flexibility that allows him to adapt to changing circumstances. Disasters, such as the loss of his sheep or Bathsheba’s rejection of his proposal, befall him. Successes, as with his work on the two farms and his position of leadership among the workers, attend him. He does not take either kind of result too much to heart, and he makes allowances for the weaknesses of the people around him, knowing that he is not flawless (readers may recall that he nearly died in the shepherd’s hut and had to be rescued by his dog and by Bathsheba). Bathsheba soon learns that when she needs advice, Oak has it. When she refuses his advice, as on the matter of Troy’s character, she regrets the results. Bathsheba longs to talk with Oak about Boldwood but hesitates to do so because of her own culpability and because she knows Oak still loves her. More than once, she walks to his house but can’t bring herself to go in. At every crisis, she seeks Oak out—or would if she could bring herself to do so. As she sits by the coffin, she thinks, “What a way Oak had . . . of enduring things.” Neither she nor Boldwood have been able to learn “the simple lesson which Oak showed a mastery of by every turn and look he gave—that among the multitude of interests by which he was surrounded, those which affected his personal well-being were not the most absorbing and important in his eyes. Oak meditatively looked upon the horizon of circumstances without any special regard to his own standpoint in their midst” and was not “racked by incertitude,” as Bathsheba is.
Oak, then, models the perspective that is necessary for any person who does not wish his or her “passions, prejudices, and ambitions” to lead to tragic ends. Fittingly, he is the successful suitor, marrying a battered but still beautiful Bathsheba as her friend and partner more than as her possessor, as Troy was and as Boldwood hoped to be.