Book Reviews: Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native

There is a temptation by the modern reviewer of classical creative works to view those works with a somewhat jaundiced eye, seeing them through the lens of modern interpretations of morality, propriety and cultural mores. I have long fallen into this trap. My first impressions of most non-genre Victorian literature like Thomas Hardy or of earlier works from authors such as Jane Austen were all colored by this modern perspective. For a long time, I considered Austen’s works as silly. After all, most of the conflicts presented in both of these author’s novels are internal conflicts that to a modern audience seem both quaint and unnecessary. Much of Austen’s most famous works are about women being forced to marry men they do not love simply to save their family’s fortune or falling into ruin because they ran away from home and married for love (or an unwed pregnancy) instead of duty. Indeed, much of the central conflicts of both the Hardy novels I’m discussing, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native, comes from characters who lie to themselves, their future spouses, and their families rather than tell the truth about how they feel and face the wrath of their families and the loss of income.

However, that’s the thing, isn’t it? Much of what both authors was writing about wasn’t so much about these particular characters but about the social standards that created these situations in the first place. Bathsheba Everdene in Far From the Madding Crowd makes a joke of a Valentine’s card for the landowner Boldwood with the words “Marry Me” written on it, even though she had no romantic feelings towards him, nor did he have any towards her until the card was received. The shepherd Gabriel Oak falls in love with Bathsheba early on but rather than submit to a marriage or marry “below her station,” she refuses his advances despite his obvious devotion and her positive relationship with him as a man. After all, Gabriel is just a shepherd, though one who has scrimped and saved enough to have a small farm, while she will inherit a fortune from an uncle. As she goes on to wed a dashing soldier with an income (though one who is both an impulsive gambler and a cad that impregnates a young serving girl and refuses to marry her because she mistakenly goes to the wrong church) who inflames her passions, it is shown that both of the ideal matches according to the social standards of the time eventually reveal themselves to be utterly ruinous to Bathsheba. If it sounds like a soap opera, it should. Much of what might be considered daytime soap opera fare draws its inspiration from the same type of stories Hardy and Austen wrote at the time.

In Return of the Native we see a similar type of dishonesty with oneself that causes central conflicts. Diggory Venn is a reddleman, a seller of red dyes that unfortunately died the skin of its purveyors, having made a decent living. He pines for Thomasin, who refuses him on account of both his social station and her infatuation with a local innkeeper named Damon Wildeve. Thomasin and Wildeve are to be married but a delay in their marriage license causes him to back away from the relationship. In truth, he loves Eustacia, an aloof landowner, and the two had previously been involved in a relationship that Eustacia had broken off because she did not think Wildeve a suitable match for someone of her station. However, when Wildeve becomes involved with Thomasin, Eustacia becomes interested again, hoping that he can take her away from the countryside because she feels she deserves more than a pastoral life. When Thomasin’s cousin Clym, a diamond merchant, returns to the heath from Paris, Eustacia fixates on him as someone who can take her to the urban life in a place like Paris that she desires. Wildeve inherits a fortune after he marries Thomasin and despite his marriage, would rather run off to America with Eustacia, who has by this time married Clym.

None of the people in this story are happy with the lots they chose in life, and none of them can seem to be honest with themselves or the people around them about their unhappiness until such time as literally someone in the story dies due to a mistake or misunderstanding brought about by all their lies. Even as I read the descriptions I’m writing of these stories, I think they sound so goddamn absurd. Modern life, with a focus on the needs of the individual, laughs at all these situations because we’ve “moved beyond” things like arranged marriages and marriages based on social status and the income of the husband rather than the feelings of both individuals. Leaving aside that there are some cultures where to this day these ideas are still practiced, modern Western culture has actually taken some of the lessons of these novels and applied them.

That I personally and Western culture on the whole has moved beyond the necessity for such situations should not, however, cloud the enjoyment of the novels, both on the merits of the prose and on the lessons they impart. When I first picked them up, I thought my disdain for Thomas Hardy would prevent me from enjoying them – after all, I’d read some Hardy in high school English classes and immediately hated both the overwrought language and the “ridiculous” social situations. Within the first 40 pages of Far from the Madding Crowd, I was hooked. Both novels are not only excellent examples of the literature of their time, but are universally worthy of the name classics that transcend their time period, if only the reader can suspend their modern prejudices and enjoy them.

One other note about these two novels. Victorian times are notable for their disdainful misogyny, and if one is to read literature from that time, such misogyny must be accepted with just as much deference as I’ve discussed for other things in this review. However, I got the feeling that even for a man living in Victorian times, Thomas Hardy really did not have a lot of respect for women in general. Many of the female characters are not only flighty, with little seeming desire or ability to have the slightest independent thought. Even beyond that, it seems the author took great pains to make the women who do have such independence to be almost malicious in their desire to toy with men’s affections, or so unable to assert their own agency that they become victims of their circumstances to an alarming (and ultimately) disastrous degree. I am not exaggerating when I say that deaths result from how Hardy portrays these feminine qualities. With that said, I stand by my assessment. This author’s works are good enough that one should overlook what would be called “problematic” things in modern culture.

I’ll give both books 4 stars on the strength of the prose, the depth of characters and complexity of plots. These books are classics for a reason and if you can look past your modern biases, you should find excellent reading.

July 29, 2018 at 6:42 pm | Books | No comment

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