03 August 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 57

After one year of gallivanting around the bibliosphere, the "Two or Three" Book Club returns to its roots. When I first came up with this idea, I wanted all book club picks to be classic novels, partly because there's excellent reason to trust texts which have endured for over a century and partly because copies of works in the public domain are easy, and often free, to acquire. (Are you happy now, Bat?) Just don't make the mistake I did and buy a Wilco Books print--which I did because the Signet Classics option seemed too expensive. I'm learning the hard way that we can't put a price on perfect proofreading. 

But enough about that. Let's get started on Thomas Hardy and what it means to be Far from the Madding Crowd . . .

To a person standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of silence, or by the better outlook upon space that a hill affords, or by the wind, or by the solitude; but whatever be its origin, the impression of riding along is vivid and abiding. The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at the small hour of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilised mankind, who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoitre it is hard to gt back to earth, and to believe that the consciousness of such majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human frame.

For all the introverted praise I've ever heaped on solitude, it seems I haven't fully understood it. Apparently, not all solitudes are created equal. Your bedroom may be a great place to recharge your batteries, as the modern expression goes; but a hilltop, in the country, at midnight, is a great place to be initiated into the mysteries of a mythology that has endured for millennia. This is not isolation; it is communion.

But this special form of it is not something readily available to most of us reading Far from the Madding Crowd today--and perhaps it was already becoming a rare commodity when Hardy was writing. If he had hoped to bottle a bit of it with words, he succeeded; and now those who cannot retreat to hilltops can at least retreat into a centuries-old classic. Nice . . .

Chapters 1 to 7

Thomas Hardy couldn't have picked a better name for the first character we meet: Farmer Oak. His "Christian name"is Gabriel, and that is significant, too.

In a Nick Joaquin story, such a combination would signal a cross between the elemental and the civilised. Perhaps in a Hardy novel it is the same, and in Gabriel Oak the soil meets its steward and green things meet their gardener. And just as Joaquin's pagan Christians personify the Philippines, Hardy's humble hero encapsulates England--or at least agrarian England. Well, that's what I think.

But in this case, what are we to say about Bathsheba Everdene, whom Gabriel falls in love with, is rejected by, and eventually comes to work for? I really don't know, but I wish I had English readers who could offer some clues.

* * *

At the end of Meeting 56, LTG asked: "What is the signification of the sheep dog driving the sheep over a cliff? Does it have a larger meaning, or is it basically just a plot device to set up the story?"

If it has a larger meaning or is an allegory of something, I really wouldn't know--but that's the second thing I'd like an English reader to tell me. As a plot point, I totally buy what happens, and not just as a MacGuffin. But that may have been because I knew it was coming. Did anyone else read that part and find it difficult to believe that a dog drove 200 sheep through a hedge and over a cliff, effectively ruining his owner? I think the rationale behind it was that Gabriel needed to be brought down in the world without hurting any of the other farmers in the region, which a drought or a hailstorm would have done. But it's such an incredible misfortune that I wonder if the key word, for anyone else, is "incredible."

Yet what really blows me away is what happens right after . . .

. . . It was as remarkable as it was characteristic that the one sentence he uttered was in thankfulness:

"Thank God I am not married: what would
she have done in the poverty now coming upon me!"

He was not saying it ironically. Gabriel's instinct, if you will pardon an inadequate idiom, is to look at the bright side of things. But he is not simply a "positive person," who, given the choice between the dark side and the light, picks the smiley one. He is profoundly a grateful person, who knows that there is always Someone who has his back, even if it may not look that way all the time . . . and even if he were to reject any help.

* * *

One last note on the writing . . . Many years ago, I made the mistake of watching the movie adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd in which Julie Christie plays Bathsheba. It was a mistake because I had not yet read the novel and the movie seared itself into my memory. So after Thomas Hardy won the latest "Two or Three" Book Club poll, I steeled my imagination for a fight to see the book's images and not the film's . . . and found the task surprisingly easy. Hardy is so good at describing his characters that they can't be anything else but what he wants them to be.

What are your thoughts on Chapters 1 to 7?

1) If the best of your country were represented by a single profession, which would it be?
2) What do you think of Gabriel and Bathsheba so far?
3) So what is the signification of the sheep dog failing the sheep?

Image Source: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy


Sullivan McPig said...

Builders of dykes and other waterworks. Yes, we had to learn as most of our country is below sea level.

And I can't understand why people name their child after a woman who's husband gets killed by the same man that afterwards seduces her. Poor woman.

love the girls said...

On a different note, what do you make of the other Everdene? Katnis who we first find likewise far from the madding crowd?

As for the dog. An act of lunacy in the calm of the hills by a creature that is known for steadfastness, that in turn sets the plot in motion should be more than a plot device for a book that first appears to allude to what is far off.

Bathsheba is not so much seduced as entranced. But the more interesting aspect is that she is the temptress who leads astray the character who most reflects the madding crowd of the city.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sully -- Most countries (including my own) would also go for the farmer, but in your case, if there hadn't been any dykes, there wouldn't have been any farms! =D

It gets worse when you remember that he seduces her before her husband dies and has to murder the poor man to hide the evidence of the adultery. =S If I remember the movie correctly, there will be a future scene in which odd Biblical names become significant, so I'll address that point later. But I do agree with you that it's not the best name to saddle your poor baby girl with!

LTG -- LOL!!! Speaking of names, everyone is so hung up on "Bathsheba" that we overlook the "Everdene"! Except for you, of course. ;-) I hadn't noticed the connection until you pointed it out and think even Suzanne Collins would be surprised by it (Or would she???); but the theme of being "far from the madding crowd" is a good one with which to examine The Hunger Games. (In my draft of this post, I had an allusion to another Dystopian novel--George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four--to suggest that the stigmatising of solitude is a mark of a dystopia; but I took it out because it seemed like too much clutter.)

I also like your analysis of what we may consider the dog's betrayal of his master. I'm obviously going down an interpretative path a little different from yours, but I appreciate your insights! =)

Belfry Bat said...

I have heard report that Bathsheba was bathing in a rather conspicuous way --- and the famous scene in Daniel I'm sure is meant to set a contrast, sort of a redemption cast in the Type of the fall. However that may be, Bathsheba is also the Queen Mother of Solomon the Builder.

Belfry Bat said...

On the subject of sheep-dogs and significations... On one occasion the senior dog conspired to save the shepherd's life, quite apart from the shepherd's own carelessness; the junior dog seems to have driven off the shepherds's livelihood, rather enabled by the shepherd's own carelessness. I won't venture before another chapter or two whether there is foreshadowing in this alternate giving and taking, both occasioned by the same personal frailty, but I'm intrigued!

Enbrethiliel said...


After all these years, remembering that Bathsheba was rewarded for her sin because she conveniently repented can still spray acid all over my spiritual life. =/

Sheila said...

1. It's always farmers. Here in America, I guess corn farmers? But I hate corn farming, because it's propped up with subsidies and GMO and monoculture and destroying our soil and polluting the Gulf of Mexico and and and ... I'd better stop. When you start to study up on agriculture (or anything) you often have trouble being poetic about it anymore.

2. Right now I've got my sexism meter blaring alarms at me about Bathsheba. So far she is just "typically female." She's vain. She doesn't mind being "unladylike" but she'll take a piece out of you if you notice it. At first I felt it was Hardy being sexist, but now I think he's trying to tell us something. There are a few passages about the male gaze -- about how having Oak stare at her robs her of her unconscious beauty, or how having him see her riding astride "makes" her be unladylike, which the actual riding doesn't. And I (not sure if this is where Hardy was trying to lead me or not) felt sorry for Bathsheba ... that she isn't actually trying to be vain, but that no matter what she does, there are going to be people looking at her, and she's going to have to play to that audience instead of being her perfectly good self.

I wonder if "Bathsheba" popped into Hardy's mind on account of the way she's always getting spied on by Gabriel? I didn't think well of him for peeping into the barn through a crack. Not your business, Gabriel! If you are so darn curious why not knock on the door and introduce yourself?

3. Honestly I think the sheepdog drove the sheep off the cliff because Oak made the mistake of not checking up on his badly-trained dog! And Hardy does interpret it for us, saying that the dog gets doing something and does it too much, just like I suspect we will find Oak doing later.

Enbrethiliel said...


I was recently reminded that one huge problem with GM crops that no one ever seems to talk about is that you can't plant the seeds of GM fruits and vegetables. So if you want to grow them again, you have to buy them again . . . from the corporations. I totally understand why the latter would protect the fruits of their research (ironic pun intended), but it's really not a sustainable deal.

As you might have been able to tell from this post, I'm quite a fan of Gabriel, and it wasn't until I read your assessment of his character that I saw he isn't really all that. For one thing, yes, he's definitely a "peeper"! =P I can't really blame Bathsheba for feeling violated. (Great analysis of her name, by the way!) And while no real harm has come of it so far, it could grow into something tragic . . . just like his carelessness with his second dog, seemingly such a little thing, wiped out an entire decade of honest, hard work.

Sheila said...

Yes, that's one thing. Another is that if GM corn cross-pollinates with your field of non-GMO corn, you'll get modified genes showing up in your field .... and then Monsanto's lawyers will come and sue the pants off you.

It's just one more way, along with fertilizers, insecticides, and fancy tractors, that people attempt to turn producers into consumers. If you can make it impossible for people to farm without your expensive gadgets, you can make money off people's need to eat. The side-effect is driving many small farmers out of business after they've gone into debt to buy these things, thinking they would boost yields, and then finding they don't do a whole lot.

I could go on about this all day...

Enbrethiliel said...


Timeo Monsanto et dona ferentem!

By the way, Sheila, I've been thinking that the US could probably be represented by a rancher instead of a farmer. Just for a bit of variety, so that not every country in the world sends farmers to this imaginary convention. ;-) Or would that be too geographically narrow?

Belfry Bat said...

Another effect in gmo cross-polinating is reduced wild-type/heirloom-type fertility --- because that's one of the intended particular modifications the "m" signifies.

Still trying to think about your Question 1. It's tricky because this place is rather too huge; different regions tend to have particular labours standing out, varying from fishing to lumberjacking to... er... well. If I say too much, you'd all figure out where in the Shire I am, and we wouldn't want that!