Thursday, May 14, 2015

Why, it might have been worse - Far from the Madding Crowd's view of life

In a recent interview, Tim Parks said that he reads “[f]or the intensity of engagement with someone else’s view of life.”  He is referring to any and all literature, but the intensity is particularly intense in Far from the Madding Crowd, where the marionettes and melodrama – characters and story – are as blatantly in service of grander themes as anywhere in Victorian fiction.  Sometimes this can seem a little artless; sometimes like its own kind of art.

The view of life is something like:

1.  Paganism.  The non-human world has its own force, will and purpose.  The gods (Greek, Celtic, Christian, in a sense) still walk the earth, at least in southwest England.

2.  Time does not pass but accumulates.  “In these Wessex nooks the busy outsider’s ancient times are only old; his old times are still new; his present is futurity” (Ch. 22).  This effect is strong enough in The Mayor of Casterbridge for me to notice it there.  Just as strong in Madding Crowd.

3.  Irrationalism.  In human terms, God or the gods behave capriciously.  On their own terms, who is to say.  Humans also behave capriciously.  They are not only irrational in the usual novelistic ways – trading long-term gains for immediate pleasures, or letting unconscious desires overwhelm conscious wisdom – but behave randomly, which is a hard thing to represent in a novel, where the author is in most senses in charge of the randomness.

I mean, the major drive of the plot can be traced back to a coin flip.  Actually, a book flip, since it is Sunday and flipping a coin would be sinful:  “’Toss this hymn-book; there can’t be no sinfulness in that, miss’” (Ch. 13).  See, Hardy can be hilarious.  Anyway, in an irrational and random world, behaving randomly can be a kind of rationality.

4.  The result is: Fatalism.  Tragedy becomes Sophoclean – you might be destroyed even if you do everything right, and minor transgressions have outlandishly tragic consequences.  You bury a loved one in the best way you can, and the earth rejects the body, just because you did it.  You treat a woman with respectful distance, and she accidentally curses you, assuming the tossed hymn-book business really was random.

Sorry, interruption.  The random decision is to whom to send a valentine, to a little boy or to a neighbor farmer who has caught the heroine’s attention by not gaping at her in public.  The book toss comes up “farmer,” but then the heroine has to seal the envelope.  She has “’a unicorn head – there’s nothing in that…  two doves – no’” but picks “’one with a motto – I remember it is a funny one, but I can’t read it.’”  The motto is MARRY ME; in other words, the beautiful widow sends her bachelor neighbor a valentine stamped with MARRY ME.  This causes a great deal of trouble.  To any Victorianists wandering by – is this a super weird thing to have at hand, or did everyone have a MARRY ME stamp, like it just came with the set?  So odd.

Undigressing:  in the last line of the novel, one of the farmhands says “’But since ‘tis as ‘tis, why, it might have been worse, and I feel my thanks accordingly’” (Ch. 57), again a very funny line, although it is only later Hardy novels that make it a good joke.

An irony of the title is that the rural characters of this Hardy novel are just about as “madding” as whatever urban crowd the title’s Far assumes.  How could they not be?  That is, says Hardy, how we are.

Almost all of the above is not perceived by the characters but is clear to the highly intrusive, hyperimaginative narrator, so I will end tomorrow with a few words about him.


  1. I'm a new reader to your blog, and I've been loving these posts on Hardy (whom I've never read). Thanks for sharing!

  2. Ines, thank you so much fro visiting, and for the kind words. It has been a pleasure to write about Hardy, however inadequately.

  3. I have not ready Hardy for years, but I don't recall thinking of his works as particularly humorous. That hymn-book toss is pretty funny, though, as is the "MARRY ME" stamp.

    If Hardy had waited another 30 years or so, he could have gotten around the weirdness of his heroine possessing such as stamp by having her throw one of those little Necco candy hearts into her Valentine's letter. At least one in every box reads "MARRY ME." Heck, he could have had product placement royalties.

  4. I've got a good one I'll use today. Sometimes Hardy is almost goofy.

  5. I have been silently following your Hardy postings, and I remain uncertain as to whether or not you are now a "fan" of Hardy. Chalk that up to my careless reading of your blog. But I've enjoyed the reading. And I wonder what is your favorite Hardy novel.

  6. Well, I am a fan of literature, and Hardy is literature. I'm getting him figured out.

    I enjoyed this novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, more than The Mayor of Casterbridge or Jude the Obscure, but I think that has more to do with understanding Hardy better. Also, Madding Crowd is easier than those other two, I am now convinced of that.

    I'll try Return of the Native soon, which will let me test out some hypotheses, so to speak.