"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