Thursday, May 14, 2020

Book 233: Far From The Madding Crowd

"She was the stuff of which great men's mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises."

Dates read: May 11-16, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012 edition)

Most people will say that they appreciate a "strong female character", but what exactly do we mean by that? What makes a woman strong? Often it seems like it gets interpreted as literal physical strength, a la Buffy Summers, or else a kind of "tough girls don't cry" emotional repression. As a reaction to the stereotypical depiction of women as delicate flowers prone to wailing or running away when faced with challenges, or as objects to be rescued and therefore earned at the end, there is strength in presenting women as having physical and/or emotional toughness. The idea, though, that the way for women to be strong is to be more like men doesn't feel like it encompasses enough about women's strength.

As a woman, I think what I most gravitate towards when I'm looking for a "strong female character" is agency. The ability to make her own choices, knowing the consequences, and then continue to make them for better or worse in a way that feels like they're actually real choices a person would make. There are a surprising number of these kinds of characters in the classics (though they have a not-unfair reputation for being dominated by men's stories), and some of my favorite have been found in the work of Thomas Hardy. In his Far From The Madding Crowd, our central character is Bathsheba Everdene, who we watch grow from an inexperienced but capable young woman to owning and running her own farm and learning some brutally hard lessons about relationships, through her own effort and largely by her own hand. Bathsheba isn't without flaws, and some of the choices she makes are bad ones, but you never lose the sense that she's in control of her own destiny.

Bathsheba catches the eye of young farmer Gabriel Oak when she's on her way to live with a cousin to help out on the farm, and he soon grows besotted with her beauty. He proposes, but through they've built a friendly acquaintance, she shoots him down because she doesn't love him. She leaves when she inherits a farm of her own, and after financial disaster strikes and Gabriel loses his own toehold in the landed class, he winds up working for her as a shepherd. Unlike many owners (particularly female ones), she insists on being an active part of the operation of her land, and she and Gabriel become trusted allies to each other. When a silly joke with an older, eligible bachelor neighbor, Boldwood, leads to the other man's obsession with her, Bathsheba resists making a marriage with him as well but is under tremendous pressure to accept his suit. And then Sergeant Troy happens...he's young and hot and even though his heart belongs to his childhood sweetheart, he and Bathsheba have a whirlwind fling that ends in holy matrimony. Drama ensues.

If you can read Hardy without feeling a passionate longing to go spend some time out in the middle of nowhere for a while, you're a stronger person than I am. He doesn't gloss over the very real toil of rural life, but he presents it so persuasively as the most harmonious way to live that it makes you think about what it would be like to chuck it all and go buy a little piece of land and work it yourself. I would never do that, I know I'd hate it about 48 hours in, but Hardy was very concerned with growing industrialization and his preference to maintain traditional pastoral lifestyles is obvious. But his real strength lies in his complicated, multifaceted characters. While Gabriel Oak is a little on the idealized side, Bethsheba, Boldwood, and Troy are all painted in shades of grey that give them nuance and interest, and the drama derives from circumstances that mostly feel organic, giving real weight to their choices and interactions.

The more classics I've read in my late 20s and beyond, the more convinced I am that we do young readers a disservice by insisting on reading them in high school. While there's nothing going on here at a conceptual level that a reasonably intelligent teenager couldn't grasp, there's also so much more that you can bring into the novel of your own experience once you have some under your belt that gives it so much more life. If I'd tried to read this at 16, I doubt I would have cared for it, but at 32 (which is how old I was when I read it) it's got full layers of meaning that I really responded to. It's lengthy, but it moves along pretty well, and I would definitely recommend giving it a read!

One year ago, I was reading: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Two years ago, I was reading: This!

Three years ago, I was reading: The Skies Belong to Us

Four years ago, I was reading: We Need to Talk About Kevin

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