Before publishing ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ in 1874, Thomas Hardy’s novels were known, by readers at the time, to be rather vulgar because of their concentration on country folk and not members of high society. This was an unusual choice for an author at the time, whilst other classics by Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters focused their attentions to tales of the aristocracy. Hardy’s many Biblical and Romantic allusions added a new dimension to the novel, and his often profound comments show there is more to this tale than just a simple love story. In Victorian England, farm workers were seen to be poor people who accumulated large families and were generally less presentable in appearance and often had a lower standard of living. However, Hardy attempted to alter feelings of city folk towards the countryside and its rustics by writing his pastoral tragedy with an aim to help educate the literate people of the city.
The novel is an authentic depiction of people living in rural society during the nineteenth century. Each of the main characters represents the different personalities that existed in the social climate at the time. The story takes place in a rustic part of England in the late Victorian period and follows three suitors in pursuit of the female character whom, they feel, would be their ideal wife. The lady at the centre of attention in the village is Bathsheba Everdene.
Being a wealthy, independent young lady, she is highly sought after. She is the protagonist, propelling the plot through her interaction with her various suitors. At the beginning of the novel she is a penniless young lady but she quickly inherits and learns to run a farm, from her uncle, in Weatherbury, where most of the novel takes place. The three suitors are William Boldwood, a middle-aged man of a serious and dignified character, Gabriel Oak, a humble and honest farmer, shepherd and bailiff, and Sergeant Francis Troy, the novel’s antagonist, an intelligent young man whose gambling addiction and impulsive behaviour thwart his determination to achieve his goals.
Hardy’s love for the countryside is obvious in his novel, with the main characters either owning or managing a farm, except Troy. Hardy loved the culture of the town, the plays, the art galleries, and the music. Hardy disliked London’s contempt for the country lifestyle as well as those who sought change and modernisation. Rustics in the novel are attributed with honesty and integrity whilst outsiders with no feelings are displayed as insensitive, destructive and inhumane.
Hardy’s novels were even considered to be dull, mainly because they were focused on the countryside. In ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, Hardy therefore aims to alter the perspective that people had of the countryside. Gabriel Oak, one of the three suitors, is a man who is portrayed to be close to nature. His character is similar to Hardy himself who was born in rural Dorset, which has much natural beauty, and was also close to nature.
The title itself also suggests that Bathsheba and her suitor would, ideally, like to move away from the lively, ‘mad’ atmosphere of the town, ‘… Madding (meaning madly) Crowd’. A further influence on Hardy’s novel was his own experience with the class system. Hardy’s family were working-class folk and were involved in masonry. This is reflected in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ by displays of affectionate admiration for farm workers and rustics. In the 1870s society was still dissected into a class system, since the important rise in factory work and industrialisation. This was due to the industrial revolution occurring in Britain from 1820s to 1900s. The novel displays these clear hierarchies with the community but shows impartiality to all.
The novel could be seen as simply a love story, which could be why it was a best-seller, as many people enjoy the thrills, betrayal and drama of romantic love stories. Hardy shows how marriage should not be disguised as a way of showing that you love someone, but that people need devotion, commitment and different atmospheres within the household to be satisfied with married life. The subject of feminism arises once Bathsheba receives a proposal of marriage from Boldwood. She shows that she has a strong mentality, and is not intimated into tamely accepting his proposal, attributes which were possessed by Hardy’s own mother.
Her independent status allows her to enforce her own decisions without the consideration of another person’s viewpoint. This enables her to effectively ‘choose’ her husband. Bathsheba shows that she has control of her life, and that she will not be forced to make decisions by any one person and so refuses Boldwood’s proposal, realising that he could not give her the life she would like. Bathsheba feels Boldwood would work, and the income would not be spent enjoying themselves, and she does not want to be classed as a housewife. In the current social climate, over the years more and more women are working more and retiring later, with a factor being that women are fitter and they do not like the idea of being housewives.