Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Woman's folly

In keeping with my prior commitment to read more classics, I recently finished Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. I still haven't worked myself up to taking another stab at Wuthering Heights or Madame Bovary (and I absolutely refuse to consider A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man!) but this one sounded interesting. (Actually, Braiden was assigned to read it for his AP English class, and he finds it useful to have me to discuss books with.)

It wasn't until after I finished that I realized it's "Madding," not "Maddening." It comes from a line in an old poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, but it means 'frenzied' either way. And it's a book that in some ways celebrates the virtues of English country life in the mid 1800s, and I found myself more than once caught up in the beautiful descriptions and wishing for a pastoral life (or at least something slower than the frequently frenzied life of Los Angeles). The story begins with Gabriel Oak, a humble and wise farmer (in spite of his relative youth) who is smitten by the beautiful but vain Bathsheba Everdene. Bathsheba has nothing and has come to live temporarily with her aunt. Although Gabriel bluntly proposes to Bathsheba, she turns him down because she does not love him and soon moves away. And when one of Gabriel's dogs drives his sheep over a cliff (thus ruining him as a farmer) he ends up working for Bathsheba in Weatherbury, where she has inherited her uncle's farm.

But Bathsheba is aptly named, and while Gabriel is able to master his emotions for her, she inadvertently draws the attentions of William Boldwood, a very prosperous and dignified neighboring farmer. While Boldwood is highly respected and emotionally closed, the accidental attention of such a beautiful young woman brings a complete change in him, and he becomes nearly mad in his love for her. But a third suitor appears, the dashing Sergeant Frank Troy, who excites a far more passionate response from Bathsheba than the more stable and respectable Oak and Boldwood.

Love is such a central theme of this book that many readers flat out consider it a romance (something I'm very hesitant - and embarrassed! - to do). Bathsheba's feelings for Oak and Boldwood border more on friendship and respect, whereas Troy elicits an exciting and passionate feeling. But in falling for him she overlooks his many and deep faults, much to her own later regret and possible financial ruin. But the feelings of love on the part of the men in the story are worth considering, too. Gabriel's love for Bathsheba is steady and measured, whereas Boldwood's is almost wild and excessive in keeping with his complete change of character. Troy's feelings, on the other hand, are fickle and self-serving, and emphasize Bathsheba's foolishness and recklessness in impulsively following her emotions.

But in spite of her faults, Bathsheba is a strong and independent female character in contrast to the frequent social references in the story to women having lesser judgment and abilities than men. She manages to run a farm successfully in spite of several beginner's mistakes. In such a male-dominated world of business she handles herself rather well. (And yes, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games is named after her.) Hardy also inserts another character, Fanny Robin, who illustrates the sad state of women in such a society who don't have the support of a husband or at least money to protect them as Bathsheba does, and she becomes a tragic note in the story.

Even if it is called a 'romance,' I enjoyed the story quite a bit (besides, I had to have something appropriate to post on Valentine's Day). The overriding theme of love and romance and how it fits into relationships was interesting, and the colorful way it's depicted in the story illustrated well the intenseness of feelings, especially in youth. But with all such 'classics,' I honestly wonder how well high-school students will understand and appreciate such aspects of the story with their lack of experience and maturity. Maybe I give them too little credit, but perhaps that's also why it's usually older readers who consider such books 'classics,' while the younger readers groan at having to read them.

No comments:

Post a Comment