A 'Far from the Madding Crowd' Review: Where I Have The Gall To Critique A Classic

Most critics don't spend much time reviewing works that are a year or 10 years or over a century old. Part of that reason is due to the fact people tend to turn to critics in order to find out if a movie is worth watching, or a game should be played, or if a book is a good read. This means a critics main job is to review brand new products or works of art so the consumer knows if it is worth investing time and money into. I believe another major reason is due to the fact an older work is often already established in the culture, and the masses have already deemed its value. A critic probably shies away from reviewing popular but older works because there is the risk of formulating a review that opposes the established consensus. This isn't to say older works aren't reviewed, but it does say a critic may be antsy about panning Godfather or Mona Lisa.

I personally think there is a lot of value in reviewing established classics, and deciding where they fit into today's culture. Plus I have no reputation as a critic to salvage, so if my opinion deems me a hack with little taste for fine arts then I'll happily sit in the corner with my Mad magazine and bag of Cheetos.

Now, with all that firmly established, I today come forward with my attempt to review Thomas Hardy's best known novel, Far from the Madding Crowd. The novel was initially published in 1874, and was quickly heralded a classic. The novel for the last 50 or so years has been acclaimed as an early work of feminist literature, despite being written by a handlebar moustache wielding man. It has been deemed a profound piece of literature by scholars, and has been studied by students in numerous academic institutions. Actually, this is how I got about acquiring my copy of this novel, because it was required reading for the Women in Fiction course I took in University. Since it was required reading, I decided I should eventually get around to reading it, especially since I wrote an essay on it for my course back in 2008 (need to find out if I wrote things that actually happened in the novel).

Deeming something a classic is all good, but the question is, is it a book that would be interesting outside of academic walls? Is it a book that I would recommend you to read? After all, there is a lot of works of literature that are bestowed with the title of 'classic', and most folks don't have the time required to read them all, along with the other tasks in their life such as expanding their purple lint collection. Of course, I could save you more time by just saying 'read it' or 'do not', but I haven't been overly wordy for a few days, thus I'll provide my answer in the form of several paragraphs of tasty words.

The initial publishing of Far from the Madding Crowd, as previously stated, was in 1874, but it was significantly revised in 1895, and then again, in 1901. My copy doesn't specify which edition is mine, but I think it is safe to assume it is the 1901 edition. From my experience of collecting classic works, the store sold copies are usually the latest editions, unless specifically stated. Even though the revisions are said to have been extensive, I'm positive my critique would be relevant to any copy you happen to have found lounging about in Grandpa Guffman's spider haven known as the attic.

The first thing that will jump out at the casual reader is the raccoon that is hiding behind the boxes of old . . . oh wait, I am not talking about the attic anymore. In the book, the first thing that will jump out at you is the language and writing style. Thomas Hardy's first love was poetry, and it has been said that he wrote novels as his source of income, in order to allow him more time to write poetry. I'm sure if Thomas could have made a good living from solely poetry than novels written by Hardy would never exist, but luckily for the women fiction classes, that isn't the case. But his passion for poetry is very prevalent in the novel, as the writing style is very poetic, and even the characters often speak in a poetic and lyrical fashion. The dialogue reminded me a bit of Shakespeare, though that comparison is far from exact or accurate. The love for language and the creation of art through sentence structure is something shared by both writers. Hardy's focus is definitely on creating clear visual images and making the written words his chief focus. The novel does have a plot, and it would not be fair to say the story is secondary, but I do feel that the writing style and descriptions of the setting are just as integral to the novel for Hardy. Some chapters were almost entirely devoted to describing a snowfall or the rolling hills. There are definitely modern novels that put a great deal of focus on visual descriptions, but Hardy's focus on natural settings exceeds almost any other written work I've encountered (as an English literature major, I'd say a book or two has crossed my path). I think, most can appreciate the skill and beauty involved in artistically forming a visual image of nature through the written word. Hardy is undeniably skilled at it. I am sure there is many that would have their patience tested having to read through a plethora of paragraphs describing how the wind tosses about a leaf.

The best way to prepare a reader, would to clarify this is not like a modern mainstream novel. The first focus is not necessarily on the plot, and it is work that has closer similarities to Romanticism. Hardy is not trying to write realistic dialogue, or even trying to create a world that is grounded in reality. The descriptions are steeped in fantasy and glorify the country side. The dialogue is whimsical and poetic. In many ways, the descriptive beauty counter acts much of the tragedy that takes place in the story.

There is one other elements of the writing style that makes this novel stand out, and that is the narrator. This novel isn't written in the first person, and the narrator give no inclination he lives with or near the characters. Unlike many third person narratives, the narrative is not impartial. Though the narrator never introduces himself or even gives a single inclination it is a character, the narrative clearly has a personality. Throughout the novel, the narrative, or narrator, will give its opinion on a matter or describe how it views a character. I've never really seen this done before in a third person narrative, and it can be quite jarring at first. Once you torn through the first 100 or so pages, you sort of get used to the rather partial narrative your accompanied with. I do have to say that I wasn't a huge fan of this style because I felt it took me out of the story at times and made it hard to connect with some characters, but I definitely give it a trillion points for creating something very different (those points are redeemable at the local WalMart, but I sense Hardy won't be collecting them).

This is still a novel, and so the story is a key element of deciding if you would be interested in reading this already declared to be classic. Hardy's novels are known to be tragic, but Far from the Madding Crowd is not only his most famous but also known as his cheeriest. Despite saying that, Hardy's proclivity towards the tragic and brooding is definitely seen here to an extent. It's not a novel that will fill one with the desire to do cart wheels down the sidewalk while humming joyful tunes. At the same time, this is also clearly a love story, and one the explores the value of loyalty, hard work, and friendship. The story itself is not completely original, as it is the classic love triangle, except the triangle is a square. It is the tale of one beautiful women who is sought after three men rather than the typical two. Much like most love stories, it is established very early which couple the reader should be rooting for and want to see matched up. Of course, like any good love story, that pair has quite the hurdles to jump before they have any chance of uniting (and since the novel is written by a lover of tragedy, I'll leave it up to you to guess if it ever happens -- or you can read it to find out for sure).

The central character is Bathsheba Everdene who is a strong, independent female who inherited her uncle's farm land. This is considered an early work of feminist literature due to the fact that the main character is a female, and she is also depicted fairly positively considering she owns land. Though this is considered a pro women novel among some, I have to say if this was written today that there would be many who would be negative towards it. It may have been deemed feminist at the time (which with all due respect was a time when women were viewed very differently by the majority of society), it is undeniably rather sexist today. Not only do the majority of the characters talk rather disparagingly of women, but the opinionated narrator often will say things like 'smart for a women' or 'went against typical women inclinations.' Bathsheba is often described as being successful because she was able to fight off her womanly urges. Even then, when she does make major mistakes (this is actually quite often) this is blamed on the fact she is a woman thus it was bound to happen. It is clearly implied woman are a weaker sex, and lack important things like logic and strength. Even though Bathsheba is an independent woman, it is made rather clear in the narrative that she will be better off when she is married, and this proven by the fact her eventual marriage is the key point of the novel. So while there are elements of the novel that make it seem like an early work of feminism, it is still clearly a product of its time and littered with sexism.

I also really don't see Bathsheba as the main character even though most scholars and essayist deem her so. She is the integral figure who drives the action of all the other major characters, and the impetus for most of the major events that unfold. She isn't really the character that the readers are left to empathize with or even the character we follow from the start of the novel to the very end. Gabriel Oaks, the loyal employee and friend of Bathsheba, is the true main character whose journey we follow from the start of the tale to the end. In a story where almost every character has a debilitating flaw, Oak is the stand up figure who sticks to his values and maintains a strong character, and most importantly, suffers great pains in order to protect and support dear friends. Oak stands out so prominently amongst the rest because the other main character are hounded with such defective traits. This isn't to say the other characters are evil or entirely negative, but they do allow there emotions to overcome them to make rash and tragic decisions. Oak is a sole representative of a figure who is able to control his emotions and heart, and makes decisions that are for the greater good. These are the key reason why I see Oak as the true main character of the novel rather than Bathsheba who is used to drive other characters' motives.

Far from the Madding Crowd
is definitely a significant book in English literature history. It is a book with vivid language and beautiful descriptions. The novel embraces the rural lifestyle, something which was slowly being eliminated even when originally composed by Hardy. Though it is set in the real world, it is full of elements of fantasy and imagination (though more of the poetic kind rather than the leprechauns and fairies variety). Even the setting created by Hardy, Wessex, is a fictionalized version of Southwest England, and contains several fictional cities such as Casterbridge and Weatherbury. Hardy was unlikely the first to create a fictionalized county, but his great imagination is displayed by his ability to vividly describe the life and look of the area. His skill in description is truly what makes this novel a masterpiece. This same attribute may be a deterrent to some readers. I admit there was times that I felt like skipping a few pages, because I had my fill of learning how the snow flake fell from the sky. My tastes for story don't usually lean towards a novel like this, but I can acknowledge this is a well written novel that is quite beautiful in its poetic form.

Saying all this, I know there are several other classics that hold up better today, and contain stories that would appeal more to a modern audience. This story is a good one, but has been told before and has been much better. That isn't why this novel is a classic, but rather its art of description and prose. If that isn't something that excites you, then I'm sure you will find many other novels more to your liking that are still considered classics. I still believe this is a novel that deserves the praises it has been given, but I also think its appeal is only for a select few. If you decide that you are not going to try to read this novel, then at least google Thomas Hardy. I am sure he has an interesting story, but I am more interested in you checking out the man's handle bar moustache. It is quite powerful.