The last of my projected Hardy readings, although I liked them all so much that I believe I’ll return to him someday.
The novel follows the fortunes of Bathsheba Everdene, who, after we first meet her as a poor relation of a well-to-do farmer, suddenly inherits the farm and vows to run it herself. For she’s single. When I say the novel follows her fortunes, I mean it essentially follows the course of her loves—it’s interested in her as a woman trying to make a go of independent farming, and Hardy is modern enough not to doubt that she’s smart enough and wilful enough to learn how to do it. What eventually breaks her from it is not the hardness of the task, but her romantic entanglements.
She has three suitors, who kind of move in and out of the story in a chiasmic fashion. First there’s Gabriel Oak, who’s a newly-established independent farmer when she meets him. Therefore he’s above her in station. She happens to save his life, though, one night in the sheep-pastures, and he falls in love with her. She won’t have him—doesn’t love him, and doesn’t intend to marry. Then she disappears—she was only in the town temporarily, visiting an aunt. Then he’s ruined through an accident that kills his flock. He’s forced to become an itinerant laborer.
Wandering the countryside on hiring-day, he eventually makes himself useful by putting out a fire in some haystacks, and is hired by the farmer—who turns out to be Bathsheba, newly come into her fortune. She hires him strictly as a shepherd, and treats him as one of the hired men only.
The second suitor is a neighboring farmer named Boldwood. He’s the only man of her station in the neighborhood who doesn’t gawk at her beauty, and in a moment of mischief she sends him a valentine. Anonymously, but he soon learns who sent it, and it explodes his world. He’s never before thought of marrying—never looked at a woman twice—and now all the pent-up passion of an entire lifetime (he’s considerably older than her) comes rushing out. She’s scared—she only meant it as a prank, and puts him off as long as she can. Finally he pressures her to consider marrying him, and to give him an answer by a certain date.
Unfortunately, in the meantime she meets Sergeant Troy, her third suitor. He’s a local boy of some education (meaning barely acceptable social station) who’s unfortunately kind of an adventurer. He made promises to one of Bathsheba’s servants, Fanny, then deserted her—something known only to Oak and Boldwood—and now he comes back to town and strikes up a whirlwind romance with Bathsheba. He’s a dashing soldier, she’s a beautiful heiress, and he sweeps her off her feet. (There’s a wonderfully sensual scene where he dazzles her with a display of swordsmanship, his blade always stopping just short of hitting her.)
Boldwood is driven nearly mad by his defeat at the hands of this well-known cad, and threatens to kill him. Bathsheba rushes off to Bath, where Troy has gone with his regiment, to warn him, and comes back married to him.
Unfortunately, she soon realizes what a cad Troy is, and the crisis comes when Fanny, who had disappeared, comes back—with a baby. She and the baby promptly die, and it’s only then that Troy realizes it was Fanny he truly loved, and that Bathsheba realizes that Troy had fathered a baby before meeting her, and never told her. Troy leaves, and goes swimming in the sea, and disappears. It’s thought he’s drowned, and soon Boldwood is after her again.
Again he pressures her to give her an answer by a certain time—Christmas Eve. He throws a party, but then Troy shows up at it, having decided that sponging off his legal wife, even if he doesn’t really love her, is better than living hand-to-mouth like he has been. Boldwood is driven over the edge by this, and shoots Troy. Boldwood then turns himself in, and is imprisoned for life.
This leaves Oak, who gets the girl in the end. All this time, he’s loved her hopelessly, and utterly selflessly—trying to get her to do right by Boldwood, and not get entangled with Troy, and meanwhile going far beyond his duties as shepherd to make sure her farm prospers. In the end, she realizes that his is true friendship and loyalty—he loves her in spite of having seen all her bad qualities, and has time and again put her own interests above his own. They marry.
What a difference a couple of decades seems to have made for Hardy’s outlook. While this, like the other books of his I’ve read, contains the same cynical asides about marriage, religion, and life in general, they’re fewer than in his later books, and balanced by a genuine optimism about the possibility of love and happiness—it’s rare, but real—that gets dimmer and dimmer as time goes by. The writing, too, seems younger—more passages of celebratory nature poetry, some quite transporting.
Oak is a picture of male constancy to go with Tess’s female constancy—and Hardy knows that because society is what it is, Oak doesn’t have to die a martyr. In that sense he sacrifices less, and maybe even suffers less, but he’s a touching figure nonetheless. Something of the mythical about him, I think, rather like the heroine of Persuasion—his constancy and selflessness are maybe too much to be believed, although they’re certainly not a problem for the enjoyment of the novel. But compare him to Jude, who’s just as constant to Sue, but only after a youthful indiscretion of his own. Oak is purer (as his allegorical name implies: he’s sturdiness itself).
Bathsheba, meanwhile, is an interesting character. I don’t think Hardy is punishing her for daring to be an independent woman farmer. In fact, her flaws show up before her fortune does: a little haughtiness, which money turns into that fatal moment of mischievousness. She’s awful slow in recognizing that Oak is the best man she knows, but throughout she’s quite insistent that she doesn’t want to marry for anything less than love. In that she’s like Eustacia in Return of the Native, but except for her one moment of youthful playfulness, she’s not fickle like Eustacia. She’s not really a romantic—or at least, if she is, she’s one without many illusions. She only wants to marry for love, but doesn’t think that’s liable to happen, and so is perfectly content to live without marriage, as much work as that may mean.
That her desire for love leads her to disaster—for she really does love Troy, in spite of his flaws—may simply be Hardy’s way of contrasting varieties of love. Bathsheba suffers for a blind, romantic love, but in the end she finds happiness, too, we’re told, in a love that, because it’s made of different stuff, will endure and satisfy much more than the other kind. So in the end she gets what she was holding out for—a marriage founded in love.
That’s the most optimistic ending I’ve seen in any of Hardy’s novels I’ve read.