Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book Review: Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy, 1874)

Wonderful book.  The language isn't too tough, and the message still rings today.  Sure, it's a romance at heart, and a nice one.  But there's also a story of personal struggle; of failure, floundering, seeking to gain a foothold in life, and finally succeeding by the sweat of one's own labor.

This was Thomas Hardy's second book, and first big success.  After Charles Dickens died in 1870, the public wanted a new Dickens.  They thought they found it in Hardy.  And for a few very well written books he did provide.

At first, the name thew me.  When I read "madding crowd" I pictured bustling London, and the struggle to get away from it, or ahead in it, or something along those lines.  But the theme is showing a glimpse of country life that is far from that whole scene.  It's an easy, slow paced novel that I've enjoyed reading more than once.  Hardy lived in Dorset in the south west of England for several years and often wrote of that rural life.

You've got the main character - and you can tell he's an upright citizen by his name, Gabriel Oak - and you've got the love interest who is haughty and beautiful.  Right there you can see how things will go.  But don't think it's unnecessarily predictable.  It's not.  I was tight in this thing right up to the end.  I could see things weren't going well.  I could see bad decisions made, but I could understand why they were made.  That's an important distinction.  So many writers put their characters in bad situations, or have them make bad decisions that make you want to throw the book at the wall.  It feels contrived and unnatural.  You think how stupid they are!  What an obvious plot device.  But here, Hardy shows he is master of his craft by having good characters make bad decisions, and we still love them, because we understand them.

We start with good ol' Gabriel Oak.  He's bound to make a success of himself.  He does no wrong.  He's ready to show the world what he's got.  But then Hardy does a strange thing.  He shows Oak's downfall at the beginning of the book.  Oak has an unfortunate change of circumstances for the worse, and is left destitute.  Oh my!  But he's our hero!

Fear not.  This book isn't some silly nonsense about good people having things handed to them because they're beautiful (and being shown as good because they're beautiful).  No, this book is about an honest man who does what he has to do.  He's instantly likable, he's the person everyone else turns to in times of trouble.

But anyway, enough of that.  There's something else I want to address.  This book has one flaw, and it bugs me every time I see it in 19th century literature.  This subject wasn't adequately addressed until the 20th century...all because of society!

An unmarried woman gets pregnant.  Oh, horrors!  What's to be done with her?  Oh my, what ever shall we do?  We must kill her!  Kill the witch!

I hate to give anything away, but I'm going to with this part.  You see, there is a scoundrel in the book.  He's the kind of guy who marries a woman for her money.  He is the one who gets young girls pregnant and leaves them.  But since we're writing in Victorian times, we simply can't have good things happen to that poor unmarried pregnant girl.  Usually, she dies.  That's the only way to deal with such a terrible sin.  I suppose readers back then wanted that.  I don't know.  But it always shows a frustrating predictability.  Can't they deal with the situation in any other way?  Can't she just have the baby, and live there in the village and people treat her with kindness?  Why would people shun her?  Why would she have to run away, live on the streets, be fired from her job, be run out of town and die, unloved, in a poor house.  And when her baby dies in childbirth (as they always do) why would people say, "it's for the best"?

Don't answer any of that.  Those are rhetorical questions.  I've read enough Victorian literature, and written enough about it, that I thought I had it out of my system.  But apparently not!  I've got to rant some more!  It obviously existed (pregnancy out of wedlock) and has done so for eons (pretty sure childbirth predates marriage).  And writers certainly wrote about it...a lot.  So why didn't they ever come up with a better ending?  The women always died.  Usually the babies died, too.  Gee, never saw that one coming.

Okay, enough ranting.  That part of the book isn't bad enough to take away from the rest of the fun.  This really is a great book.  It gives you a feeling of good guys winning, of people doing nothing more than working hard, being honest, and getting ahead because of that.  Plus, Thomas Hardy shows us bits of country life that are both interesting and entertaining.

Patrick Allitt is a lecturer on Victorian Britain, and he gives this wonderful description.  I can't do it justice so I'll just quote him.

"Hardy was masterful in evoking rural England, which is undergoing great changes.  As the agricultural depression sets in in the face of American competition, and as farming itself from being an ancient rural craft starts to become mechanized, he charts these changes very cleverly.  For example, in Far from the Madding Crowd, the foreground plot is accompanied by a sort of Greek Chorus of the yokels, the peasants in the background, and there are regular scenes at the malt house, the old pub, where these yokels who have lived there time out of mind, and their fathers, and their fathers, all sit around together, and nothing seems to be changing on the surface; and yet their conversations always have a little edge to them as new developments are coming in to the community."
It's a wonderful slice of rural England in the late 1800's, as well as a bit of intrigue, some romance, and some adventure.  This book leaves you feeling good.

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