decorated initial 'F' ar from the Madding Crowd, first serialised anonymously in the Cornhill Magazine from January to December 1874 and next published in a two-volume elegant edition by Smith, Elder & Co. in November 1874, marked the first literary success of Thomas Hardy and brought him a considerable financial reward. Because both the serial and the book versions were well received, Hardy could now abandon architecture and devote himself completely to his literary career. Eventually, he married his beloved Emma Gifford after a prolonged courting period.

In November 1872, Hardy received a letter from Leslie Stephen, the new editor of Cornhill, the leading literary magazine, inviting him to contribute a story in serial form for that magazine. Stephen had read Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and found ‘his descriptions admirable’ (Florence Hardy 95). Hardy, who was delighted by the proposal, replied that he had in mind a pastoral tale with the title Far from the Madding Crowd, in which ‘the chief characters would probably be a young woman-farmer, a shepherd, and a sergeant of cavalry’ (Florence Hardy 95). Almost a year later, in September 1873, he submitted the first 10 chapters of the novel. The publication started in the January 1874 issue of the magazine and ran for twelve monthly instalments until December. Leslie Stephen, who was dismayed by the sexual content of the novel, heavily censored the book prior to publication in the magazine.

Early reviewers recognised in Hardy an important new voice in English fiction. The Spectator's reviewer wrote that ‘the details of the farming and the sheep-keeping, of the labouring, the feasting, and the mourning, are painted with all the vividness of a powerful imagination’ (Hutton in Cox 31). Some critics even believed that the novel could have been written by George Eliot herself, or it was a good imitation of her novels (Kramer 24). The French critic, Léon Boucher praised Hardy’s novel for its ‘grand passion’ (Kramer 24). However, Henry James, who vehemently disliked Hardy’s work, remarked vitriolically that in Far from the Madding Crowd ‘everything human in the book strikes us as factitious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs’ (368). Recent scholars disagree: Geoffrey Harvey contends that ‘this is the first novel in which Hardy attempts to present an entire rural community, with its shared culture and human solidarity, set in a landscape he knows well’ (22). In her biography of Hardy, Claire Tomalin asserts that Far from the Madding Crowd ‘is the warmest and sunniest of his novels’ (126).

The Novel’s Title and Setting and the Invention of Wessex

The title of the novel is a quotation from the famous poem written by the pre-Romantic poet Thomas Gray (1716-76), ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1751):

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

By alluding to Gray’s poem, Hardy evoked the decline of English rural culture that was being rapidly transformed into an urban and industrial civilisation. To be ‘far from the madding crowd’ meant for Hardy to be far from the bustle of modern, urbane civilisation, of which he disapproved. Hardy classified his novel as belonging to the ‘novels of character and environment’. Its title illustrates the central idea of the author’s wish to portray the interaction between people and the environment, which profoundly determines their lives. The plot of the novel departs from the traditional pastoral convention and unfolds the dramatic fates of the beautiful Bathsheba Everdene and her three suitors who are bound together in a complex web of public, private, and intimate relations.

In Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy for the first time applied the name of an imaginary Wessex to his beloved Dorset, a county in south-west that was one of England’s least populated and poorest. Hardy presented Wessex as a mystical ‘dream-country’ hardly touched by industrialisation and modern life. In the Preface to the 1895 edition Hardy explained:

In reprinting this story for a new edition I am reminded that it was in the chapters of Far from the Madding Crowd, as they appeared month by month in a popular magazine, that I first ventured to adopt the word Wessex from the pages of early English history, and give it a fictitious significance as the existing name of the district once included in that extinct kingdom. The series of novels I projected being mainly of the kind called local, they seemed to require a territorial definition of some sort to lend unity to their scene. Finding that the area of a single county did not afford canvas large enough for this purpose, and that there were objections to an invented name, I disinterred the old one. [Preface]

The village of Weatherbury, modelled on Puddletown, is a wonderful bucolic retreat with sheep grazing on green pastures. However, Hardy’s intention was by no means to depict an idyllic picture of farming conditions in Dorset in the early 1870s.

Love triangles

The story, set in an area around Weatherbury in the late 1860s or early 1870s, is structured on a series of love triangles that allow the reader to reflect on the nature of human relations in a traditional rural setting. The dominant character in the novel, which anticipates Hardy’s future tragic heroines, is the young, beautiful and independent country girl, Bathsheba Everdene, a woman-farmer, who inherits a large farm near Weatherbury from her uncle and soon attracts three different men: the honest but poor shepherd Gabriel Oak; Sergeant Frank Troy, a rakish Don Juan in uniform; and the respected middle-aged landowner William Boldwood. At the beginning of the novel, Bathsheba is slightly vain and sexually provocative, but later she strives for a spiritual and financial independence. The novel masterly depicts her development to maturity and self-reliance. When the first suitor, Gabriel, proposes to Bathsheba, she is flattered by his offer but turns him down because she finds him plain and poor after he loses most of his livestock when his young dog drove almost all his sheep over a cliff. The second suitor, Boldwood, proposes to Bathsheba after he receives from her a jocular message on the Valentine card with the words: ‘Marry me’. Boldwood feels humiliated when Bathsheba turns him down because she does not love him, but then, unexpectedly, she agrees to reconsider her decision.

Eventually, Bathsheba marries hastily the third suitor, the outgoing and sexually most attractive Sergeant Troy, who seduced her with his titillating swordplay. However Troy, proves to be an irresponsible and unreliable husband. He is not interested in running his wife’s farm and wastes her money in gambling. Earlier, Troy was in love with one of Bathsheba’s former servants, Fanny Robin, whom he had impregnated and deserted after a fatal misunderstanding. Fanny dies in childbirth at the Casterbridge Union House. In the emotional climax of the novel, Bathsheba discovers to her horror and indignation the corpse of a baby beside Fanny’s body in the coffin and soon learns that its father is Troy. After Fanny’s burial, Troy, who confides that she was the only girl he loved, abandons Bathsheba. There are rumours that he was drowned, but he was rescued by boatmen and then left for America. In the meantime, Boldwood gives a Christmas party at which Bathsheba is invited. In the midst of the party, Boldwood, thinking that Sergeant Troy is dead, renews his courtship of Bathsheba, only to see Troy reappear to claim his wife. In a sudden moment of frenzy Boldwood shoots Troy dead, but Bathsheba still does not accept him as her new husband. Troy is buried beside Fanny, and Boldwood goes to jail for life. In the end, Bathsheba and Gabriel are married after she finally recognises the intrinsic worth of her loyal and faithful shepherd. As Hardy explains, the couple have a wonderful marriage based upon a rare combination of a long history, similar interests, camaraderie, and deep friendship.

He accompanied her up the hill, explaining to her the details of his forthcoming tenure of the other farm. They spoke very little of their mutual feelings; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship — camaraderie — usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam. [Chapter LVII]

In this passage Hardy presents his theory of love, which is essentially anti-romantic, but based on ‘happy circumstances’, i.e. on chance. For Gabriel Oak true and heartfelt love is inseparable from sacrifice, reliability, loyalty and endurance. He is the only one of Bathsheba’s three suitors who has all these qualities. Far from the Madding Crowd is the last of Hardy’s novels to deal with a successful relationship between man and woman. His subsequent novels show the impossibility of achieving such a union.

A subversive pastoral

Although Far from the Madding Crowd continues the pastoral themes of Under the Greenwood Tree, it also anticipates some of the themes of Hardy’s major novels which deal with human predicament in tragic terms. They can be read as a symbolic representation of antagonistic forces which have control over man. Hardy shows how chance can lead to the downfall of helpless people. Although the novel has a form of pastoral romance, it tells the story of the ill-fated passions and illustrates Hardy’s belief in the randomness and fragility of human existence. Therefore, as Norman Page has put it, “Far from the Madding Crowd is often classified as a pastoral novel, though it would probably be just as accurate to describe it as anti-pastoral” (73).

In fact, Hardy skilfully blended pastoral romance with melodrama and tragic predicament. Far from the Madding Crowd is about love, marriage and existential mishap. However, the pastoral atmosphere of the novel disables its tragic coincidences. The cause of Boldwood’s imprisonment can be traced to the single, trivial act of Bathsheba having sent him a Valentine card. This small whim triggers a chain of events which lead eventually to his tragic fall. Fanny Robin is another tragic character. Troy makes her pregnant, leaves her and marries Bathsheba, who is attracted by his sexuality. Eventually, Sergeant Troy, who is in fact vain and mendacious, becomes a tragic figure by mere chance and coincidence. In Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy ultimately repudiates the concept of the Edenic pastoral, which alludes to the untarnished relationship between God, man and nature in a traditional rural surrounding.

In keeping with its tragic elements, Far from the Madding Crowd makes use of Biblical and mythical allusions in plot and characters. The names Bathsheba of course alludes to the Biblical beauty, also spelled Bethsabea, whom King David saw bathing and fell in love with her. Gabriel Oak similarly refers to the archangel Gabriel, who appears four times in the Bible. Shepherd Gabriel is like a Biblical guardian figure, a messenger of God. His surname also symbolises the strength and endurance of the oak tree. He is always ready to protect Bathsheba despite his misfortunes. The novel prompts the reader to ask whether human beings cannot fight with their predicament and, like the herd of Gabriel’s sheep, plunge to their deaths.

Comtean positivism and Darwinian universe

Hardy’s treatment of man and nature in Far from the Madding Crowd reflects Auguste Comte’s positive philosophy and a Darwinian outlook. The theory of evolution by natural selection exerted a great impact on Hardy, who was a close reader of Charles Darwin’s works. In fact, Far from the Madding Crowd reflects Hardy’s belief that people should adapt to changing circumstances if they want to survive. At the end of the novel Bathsheba decides to marry Gabriel Oak, whom she had earlier rejected on a whim, because she has undergone a painful process of mental evolution and, finally, she recognises Gabriel as the most proper match for her. According to Hardy’s evolutionary meliorism, which was his own reinterpretation of Comte’s Positivist ideas and Darwin’s evolutionary philosophy: ‘Men gained cognition with the flux of time’ (The Dynasts, Afterscene). Thus, Hardy’s optimistic approach to the bleak Darwinian universe gives room for rejection of self-interest and the development of empathy and ‘loving-kindness’.

Far from the Madding Crowd may be regarded as the first of Hardy’s major novels. Hardy depicted an idyllic image of a rural English community still immune to the ache of modernism that menaced traditional lifestyles in the countryside. He presented a fairly consensual class co-existence. Bathsheba Everdene mingles with her farmhands and even works with them if necessary. Good shepherd Gabriel Oak and his beloved Bathsheba, who embody the best of the English rural tradition, possess the admirable qualities of energy, independence, firm principles, strength of mind, and love of nature; with such virtues they may preserve the rural tradition from erosion. However, the apparently idyllic and pastoral atmosphere of the novel is marred by tragic irruptions which anticipate Hardy’s dramatisation of the human predicament in his later major novels. Fate plays a major role in Far from the Madding Crowd. Hardy, like Shakespeare, shows that destiny dominates individual free will. In fact, Wessex is no idyllic locus amoenus (pleasant place). In spite of its pastoral background, it has a sinister side, too, which can be attributed to the influence of Darwin’s views on Hardy’s vision of man and nature. Fortuitously, Hardy invented the concept of evolutionary meliorism, which simply said that human relations and the world can be improved by positive human effort.

Related Material

References and Further Reading

Boumelha, Penny. ‘The Patriarchy of Class: Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Woodlanders’, The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, ed. by Dale Kramer, 130–144. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Clarke, Graham, ed. Thomas Hardy: Critical Assessments. Mountfield: Helm Information Ltd., 1993.

Cox, R.G., ed. Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage. London and New York: Routledge, 1979.

Ghosh, Oindrila. ‘Darwin, Evolution and Unity of Life: Far From the Madding Crowd and Hardy’s Ambivalent Vision of Nature’, The Golden Line Magazine A Magazine of English Literature, Vol. I, issue 2 , October 2015, [Online], 13-18.

Hardy, Florence Emily. The Life of Thomas Hardy: 1840-1928. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan 1962.

Hardy, Thomas.Far from the Madding Crowd

_____. The Dynasts. Project Gutenberg.

Harvey, Geoffrey.The Complete Critical Guide to Thomas Hardy. London: Routledge, 2003.

James, Henry. ‘From The Nation’ (Dec. 24, 1874) in Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Robert C. Schweik. New York: Norton, 1986, 367-68.

Kramer, Dale. The Forms of Tragedy. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1975.

Morgan, Rosemary. Student Companion to Thomas Hardy. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.

Page, Norman. Thomas Hardy: The Novels. Houndmills, Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Pinion, F.B. A Hardy Companion. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Plietzsch, Birgit. The Novels of Thomas Hardy as a Product of Nineteenth Century Social, Economic and Cultural Change. Berlin: Tenea, 2004.

Schur, Owen. Victorian Pastoral: Tennyson, Hardy, and the Subversion of Forms. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989.

Shires, Linda. ‘Narrative, Gender, and Power in Far from the Madding Crowd’, The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy, ed. Margaret R. Higonnet, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Southerington, Frank Rodney. Hardy’s Vision of Man. London: Chatto & Windus, 1971.

Tomalin, Claire. Thomas Hardy. London: Penguin Books, 2007.

Created 4 September 2020