14 August 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 59

An interesting side-effect of reading Far from the Madding Crowd with people is that the name Bathsheba no longer seems weird. Yesterday, when I was trying to explain the story to someone at work and stopped referring to our heroine as "the girl" when I realised it would be simpler to call her "Bathsheba," he smirked as if I had said something slightly naughty. And there died my short-lived fancy of naming a daughter Bathsheba someday.

But even if everyone in the world read Far from the Madding Crowd, it would still not be a good name to give a girl. Everyone would expect her to be beautiful and to be the downfall of some man . . . 

Was she really beautiful? He could not assure himself that his opinion was true even now. He furtively said to a neighbour, "Is Miss Everdene considered handsome?"

"O yes; she was a good deal noticed the first time she came, if you remember. A very handsome girl indeed."

A man is never more credulous than in receiving favourable opinions on the beauty of a woman he is half, or quite, in love with; a mere child's word on the point has the weight of an R.A.'s. Boldwood was satisfied now.

And this charming woman had in effect said to him, "Marry me." Why should she have done that strange thing? Boldwood's blindness to the difference between approving of what circumstances suggest, and originating what they do not suggest, was well matched by Bathsheba's insensibility to the possibly great issues of little beginnings.

Boldwood's blindness indeed! Every time his character is mentioned, we are given incidents or examples which suggest that something is wrong with his sight. Now we see him needing assistance from a neighbour with clearer vision--clarity defined as "what everyone else sees"--before he can get anywhere. Just as if he really were blind.

Chapters 15 to 21

Almost ten years ago, I had to read another Thomas Hardy novel, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, for a paper called Literature and Visual Media. It wasn't my favourite text from the syllabus, and I'll have to dig up my old notes to remember more of what the Good Professor said about it, but I recall him going on and on about Hardy's descriptions of Tess Durbeyfield. Earlier, lecturing on another core text, William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, he said that appearances can be deceiving--that you can see something clearly and yet never know its true nature until you receive an epiphany. These mental notes are the two lenses through which I am now reading Far from the Madding Crowd.

I hope you note the catch that saying there is more to someone than his appearance requires making a huge deal out of that appearance. And then another big deal out of people's reactions (or failures to react) to it.

But there is at least one character for whom it seems true that what we see is what we get . . . but we see hardly anything.

Dear Friend,

I do not know your name, but I think these few lines will reach you, which I write to thank you for your kindness to me the night I left Weatherbury in a reckless way . . . All has ended well, and I am happy to say I am going to be married to the young man who has courted me for some time . . .

It was dark when Fanny Robin first entered the story several chapters ago, and all that the observant Gabriel Oak could see of her was that she has a slight figure and wasn't wearing a cloak on a cold night. But he could note the music of her voice and compare her pulse to that of an exhausted lamb, so who needs eyes? =P She popped up a second time, in the middle of another night, her actions and words perfectly plain but her form described as a mere shadow in the snow. And now that we come to her third appearance, it even is more of an anti-appearance: she doesn't show up to her own wedding, although there are others who are eager to see the bride. I wonder if we will ever properly note her. 

In the meantime, Bathsheba has gone to Gabriel for his opinion, fired him for giving it, and then belatedly realised she has made an awful mistake. Not the mistake of being unjust to someone who has only ever been kind to her, but the mistake of getting rid of the most useful person on her staff. I think the realisation that she has messed up as a bailiff hurts her far more than the knowledge that she has behaved unworthily as a woman.

"O, what can I do, what can I do!" said  Bathsheba helplessly. "Sheep are such unfortunate animals!--there's always something happening to them! I never knew a flock pass a year without getting into some scrape or other."

Never have there been more unfortunate literary sheep than the ones in this novel! =P

And every catastrophe to the sheep can be traced back to character flaws in their shepherds. Gabriel was careless about training his second dog, and lost 200 sheep in one blow. Bathsheba indulged in another act of selfishness and petty revenge, and lost almost sixty of her own animals. In her case, weakness of character does not directly cause the harm to her flock, but it is still something she has to overcome in order to save them.

Of course, the devoted Gabriel comes back, after she pleads with him not to desert her, and saves her sheep. So the first contrast to be drawn is between the fate of the first unlucky flock in the novel and this second set . . . and the second contrast, between the thoughtless Valentine sent to Mr. Boldwood and the heartfelt letter delivered to Gabriel. I wonder if there will be a third flock of sheep . . . and a third written message from Bathsheba to a man.

What do you think of Chapters 15 to 21?

1. Given that everyone in the novel doubles as a realistic character and a symbol of something, what do you make of Fanny Robin?
2. Did Gabriel give in too easily? Does Bathsheba deserve to have him rub it in a little, even though (of course) he'll never do it?
3. What is the connection between competence (also known as closing) and character?

Image Source: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy


Belfry Bat said...

Having not understood what the deal is between sheep and clover, I sought, and found this fascinating little thing: clover is too nourishing!

1) I think my impression of Fanny (... would that be short for Frances? Or Epiphania?... ) is... she's an opposite of something. I don't know of what. One could say "Troy", but... apart from being nearly invisible, she seems to be completely unencumbered of guile or complication, though she also isn't very practical. Innocent as doves, but not so wise, contrariwise.

I think she's the youngest named woman in the story so far, indeed we should call her "the girl". On the allegorical side, sometimes the youngest is also supposed to be the future, which is the idea in having Cainy Ball as the apprentice shepherd, but sometimes that doesn't work out, as with George's pup... I might have a better sense of how to place her in your allegorical reading if I knew what the plainer characters meant to you.

2) No, I don't think Gabriel gave in; I even think he might have come on the first asking if Laban had called of his own accord rather than bringing Bathsheba's message. Not that Laban would have done so.

Enbrethiliel said...


You're classier than I am. =P My first thought was to look up images of bloated sheep. (If I found any, they didn't look much different from unbloated sheep.)

I do feel a little bad for Fanny. She needs a "guardian angel" (as LTG has been describing our Gabriel) in her life more than Bathsheba does on her farm. So I'd say that she seems to be the opposite of Bathsheba--or at least a contrast to Bathsheba--while Gabriel is the opposite of or contrast to Sergeant Troy.

The problem with my allegorical reading is myself! =P I know very little about rural life England and can figure out the characters only inasmuch as they are also universal types. I really wish an English reader would pop in with some homegrown insights.

When I asked the question about Gabriel giving in, I obviously saw their conflict from Bathsheba's point of view--as a proud power struggle turning out to have unexpectedly high stakes. But I guess Gabriel didn't.

love the girls said...

"Given that everyone in the novel doubles as a realistic character and a symbol of something, what do you make of Fanny Robin?"

Fanny Robin holds the same place as the wren does in Gone with the Wind

“Sometimes Frank sighed, thinking he had caught a tropic bird, all flame and jewel color, when a wren would have served him just as well. In fact, much better.”

The Faith likewise is not a tropic bird but it serves us much better.

Enbrethiliel said...


I haven't read Gone with the Wind, either. LOL! And I can't remember there being a wren from the movie. Sorry again! =)

That's an interesting way to look at Fanny, though, and I wonder whether any of the men coveting Bathsheba will ever come to the same realisation.

cyurkanin said...

"(If I found any, they didn't look much different from unbloated sheep.)" ~ this needs to go SOMEWHERE on your blog page as a permanent link.

Sheila said...

Yes, ruminants can't burp, so if they get too gassy, they can actually die. It's one of the main risks of raising horses, but cows and sheep will bloat too.

1. I think Fanny is just the Woman in Trouble who's going to end up being a crucial turning point in the plot. So far nothing in her story is remotely unusual. She slept with the soldier, believing him when he said he'd marry her, and she's going to end up Ruined. (Have you seen Hardy's poem, "The Ruined Maid"?)

I can't believe, however, that the soldier ever meant to marry her in the first place. Seems like the jilting in the church was a setup ... deliberately confusing her so that she will think it's HER fault they didn't get married, and therefore will have no recourse. I am pretty sure that in England of the time you could sue a man for breach of promise if he said he would marry you and didn't. (Though I've never heard of *poor* women doing this successfully.) So he sets it up so that it looks like *she* dumped *him.*

2. Well, I would have come straightaway without the rubbing-it-in that Gabriel does! I'd be worried that the sheep would die while I was standing on my pride. But it probably is wiser for him to make a little point ... that he isn't going to be dragged around the nose just because he was in love with her once. (Although I am relatively sure that he still is, despite what he says.) And this way he can make sure he gets his job back and isn't just being called out for a one-time favor.

Incidentally, did you notice how similar Boldwood's proposal was to Gabriel's? Both treat it almost like a job offer (which, of course, it is): "you will get these benefits, here is what I have to offer." It's really quite a respectable way to propose. And yet I think they both misjudge what Bathsheba wants. Unlike other women, she isn't desperate to be married, weighing one offer against other offers she is likely to have. She's weighing each offer against what she currently enjoys, and she's happy as she is, so why change? Boldwood says she will never have to get her hands dirty with farming anymore .... it both shows how little he knows her, and why there is no way she'll accept him.

It's on this chapter, though, that I begin to entertain the possibility of her marrying Gabriel after all. Sure, there's a huge social difference. But emotionally, they seem to be equals. That quarrel kind of shows it. And I feel like he would keep her as part of the farming venture in a way Boldwood never would. I think I'm rooting for him! I wonder if this is what Hardy intends?

3. Um ... hm ... I'm not really sure where you're going with this. I know you like to think about closing/competence as being essential, it seems like Hardy just doles out competence to those characters he already sees as important. Bathsheba, for instance, is making a much bigger success at farming than you would think. And if she doesn't know everything ... well, she's a young girl with zero experience, so can we blame that on a lack of character?

It does figure, though, that Gabriel -- who originally was painted as something of a bumpkin, absolutely average in every respect, not good or bad, suddenly is speaking much more elegantly than the other farmers (did he attend college in the last chapter?!) and has rare skills like letting the gas out of sheep which even Boldwood can't do. Hardy is loading Gabriel up with "goodies" so that we are now beginning to think that Bathsheba let a good one get away, despite his loss of his sheep and her gain of a farm that's given them such a difference in social standing.

Belfry Bat said...

“‘That's how we dress when we're ruined,’ said she”

(Really? that's a Hardy, too? Or I might be confused...)

... no, I don't think what we've heard of Fanny suggests that. To be ruined like that, one has to train oneself to gratify wealth, and it doesn't look like the Sergeant has much wealth.

A point that might be worth mentioning: it is noted after Boldwood reads Fanny's letter, that Troy's enlisting was something of a "freak" (which as it is used three times in this novel, sounds like "willful and imprudent"); it has also been mentioned, e.g. in Fanny's letter, that Troy has some noble blood in his constitution. And the point of the juxtaposition is this: in this England in this time, nobility (and, theoretically, those with noble tendencies) do not enlist. If they join the Army, it is by purchasing a commission as an officer. For landed gentry, this would be easy enough; for illegitimate children, they'd have to work hard until they'd saved enough for their commission. And indeed, Troy is said also once to have had a respectable job with plenty chance for advancement. Since Troy neither takes advancement nor saves to buy a commission, there are obvious doubts as to his character and habits with money.

love the girls said...


I thought reading Gone With the Wind was on every literary high school girl's to do list.

But the movie works just as well since Scarlett warming her hands in sister Suellen's Beau's pocket was in the movie.

love the girls said...

Sheila writes : "Gabriel -- who originally was painted as something of a bumpkin, absolutely average in every respect, not good or bad, suddenly. . ."

Really? I thought of him as better than average from the beginning. He managed to attract financial backing to become a farmer and was lowered through no fault of his own to shepherd, and his putting out the fire was better than average.

love the girls said...

Sheila writes : "2. Well, I would have come straightaway without the rubbing-it-in that Gabriel does! I'd be worried that the sheep would die while I was standing on my pride. But it probably is wiser for him to make a little point ... that he isn't going to be dragged around the nose just because he was in love with her once."

Or you can look at it as a partial attempt and success at the taming of the madding shrew.

Enbrethiliel said...


Christopher -- LOL! But a link leading where exactly?

Sheila -- That's an interesting take on the jilting that I never considered! My interpretation was that Frank was willing to marry her to get her to stop chasing him all over the country, and that he would have continued philandering after the wedding. At least it doesn't seem to me that he deliberately misled her about the two churches. And what would he have done if she had realised her mistake sooner? But it does seem to fit!

I can't imagine working so hard for a flock of sheep and then ceasing to care for them just because of a dispute with my boss. So, yes, if I had been asked nicely, I would have come back. But I'm also looking at Bathsheba as a flawed character who will need to grow up before she really gets herself into trouble, and I'd like her to learn sooner rather than later.

As for the two proposals, yes, they do resemble each other, don't they? =) You tend to notice the things my eyes pass over. And I'm glad to read that Gabriel is growing on you!

My deliberately vague (Mea culpa again!) third question was inspired by the connection between flaws in the shepherds and risks to the sheep. I'm getting a sense that it takes not just competence, but also virtue, to run a farm--that competence itself is rooted in virtue. So if you have no experience but at least have virtue, then you still have a shot. And if you have some fatal flaw getting in the way, you'd better hope that someone with more character is also loyal and devoted enough to carry you through!

As for Gabriel being loaded with goodies all of a sudden . . . His small collection of practical books was mentioned earlier, along with an omniscient comment that he had got more out of them than some men get out of bigger libraries; so it's not a surprise to me that he can write or has turned out to be the most intelligent one in the bunch. (He reminds me of the adage that learning is like a pocket watch: we should take it out only when we or someone else needs the time, and never simply to flash it about.) LTG makes other valid points about Gabriel below.

Bat -- I don't think Fanny will end up "ruined" like the speaker in Hardy's poem. But it's clear that she is currently, to use a more modern expression, "screwed." The man who has slept with her will never marry her . . . But that's another Hardy novel, isn't it? ;-)

LTG -- Maybe the literary high school girls in America, but not here! =)

Even in the movie Frank Kennedy clearly regrets marrying Scarlett, but I don't recall whether the script also lets him give voice to the realisation that plainer but more compatible woman would have been a better wife for him than a high-maintenance hottie.

Belfry Bat said...

But that's another Hardy novel, isn't it?

... you would know better than I. The only other Wessex novel I know things about is The Mayor of Casterbridge, but only two or three chapters.

In the meantime I find now I have to be careful what I reference in these comments, because between a short holiday and a lingering sniffle I kind-of tore through the book and finished a couple of days ago. I'm surprised at how much of it still feels fresh and unmuddled, if you know what I mean?

love the girls said...

E. writes : "I don't recall whether the script also lets him give voice to the realisation that plainer but more compatible woman would have been a better wife for him than a high-maintenance hottie."

It's not said in the script because it couldn't be said by a man. He couldn't express it outright anymore than you could have outwardly expressed his unhappiness at having been deceived by Scarlett. Such was simply not done.

Which is a point that might be worth noting at a future situation, given Mr. Bat's earlier comment on this book's Frank's aristocratic lineage.

And no, I'm not giving away the story. Although I suspect Miss E. is further along than she's saying.

Sheila said...

When I say Gabriel is "average," I was thinking of this passage:

"His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people of the parish and the drunken section,—that is, he went to church, but yawned privately by the time the congregation reached the Nicene creed, and thought of what there would be for dinner when he meant to be listening to the sermon. Or, to state his character as it stood in the scale of public opinion, when his friends and critics were in tantrums, he was considered rather a bad man; when they were pleased, he was rather a good man; when they were neither, he was a man whose moral colour was a kind of pepper-and-salt mixture."

But I see now that Hardy moves right on to try to make us like Gabriel, to think there is something special about him. First it's his modesty, then it's the books. Though I still thought him rather dumb at first, going to sleep without opening the vent!

Fanny is Ruined in the sense of "not a virgin anymore," not the rest of it. The word Ruined was used by the Victorians because virginity was everything, your hope of ever getting married, your respectability, etc. Hardy turns it upside-down in his poem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ruined_Maid), but it's a theme in a lot of Victorian novels.

My hint that the soldier never meant to marry her is when, after he promises he will and she goes on her way along the river, there's laughter from within the barracks. I got the impression at that point that he had some nefarious plan, and sure enough, he gets his way. He is definitely, whether he planned this or not, a Bad Sort. I mean, he slept with the maid, right?

E, I agree completely that it takes virtue to run a farm. Isn't that the point (or one of the points) of the bloated sheep episode? Bathsheba doesn't need to know everything about sheep, but she DOES need humility. Farming -- at that scale -- is about dealing with people. She has to have a good eye for untrustworthy people (like the old bailiff) and know how to treat the good ones.

Off topic to love the girls: I didn't mean to berate you for stepping foot in my combox -- I only meant that you should try to back up your opinions with some arguments, because the argument from authority doesn't work if I don't know you. I see I came across as rather "ruffled" as you put it. You certainly may come back if you like.

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat -- As LTG suspects, I am further along than I'm letting on. (Well, I have to be, as the one who writes the readalong posts!) If you want to play detective, there's a hint in a previous post about how much further along you can assume I am at any point in time. (Oh, how mathy, yes?!)

LTG -- It's interesting that Troy would be as much a "tropic bird" to some women as Bathsheba would be to some men!

Sheila -- You have a point. Our introduction to Gabriel goes out of the way to portray him as the neutral midpoint between any extremes his contemporaries may think of. (I suppose in a modern American novel, he'd be described as being too conservative for the liberals and too liberal for the conservatives--but in a much more elegant way, of course!) In fact, that first paragraph about him reminded me very much of the first paragraph about Jonathan Swift's Lemuel Gulliver, who is even more average: he is born in Nottinghamshire, which is right in the middle of England; he is the third of five sons, which makes him the middle child; etc.

The laughter within the barracks was a discordant note to end the proposal scene. (Oooh! Another for contrast--and one without Bathsheba!) At the time I read it, I took it to mean that the other soldiers were saying, "You're really hooked now;" but they could just as easily have meant, "What? Another one?" Poor Fanny. =( Yes, either way, Sergeant Troy is a bad sort.

love the girls said...

Miss E writes : "it's interesting that Troy would be as much a "tropic bird" to some women as Bathsheba would be to some men!"

They're the two most competent characters in the book, and both are most competent at being tropic.

In comparison, Fanny robin when met by Gabriel is like a found injured bird hiding under brush. And like Gabriel she is brought low through no fault of her own.

Belfry Bat said...

Now you're playing a funny notion of "competence", LTG; but I'll wait for the next installment to elaborate.

love the girls said...

Mr. Bat,

Since you have finished the book. Please recall the scene with the shaving instrument that was thought dull that was used in a rather maddened manner to allure the participant.

love the girls said...

Adding on to my reply to Mr. Bat,

Or are you speaking of Bathseba?

Invariably any competency has its foundation with God given abilities. And sometimes the God given gifts are sufficient alone for competency. Bathsheba's ability to attract King David appears to have been God given. So likewise with our Bathsheba's ability to attract.

Belfry Bat said...

'Twas a thrilling moment indeed, but I'm not sure I'd lump in blistering practised skill mis-applied with competence. 'Twould make a fine barber or tanner perhaps, or even a fine soldier if he'd put his mind to that properly, but competence without judgment... I don't know, that's all. It's a funny sort, as I say.

And we've already seen better use of a deadly-sharp thing to actually preseve life and livelihood, in another's hands.

love the girls said...

Mr. Bat,

Mis-applied to the art of soldiering, but not mis-applied to the art of bird catching. To the art of bird catching his skill surpasses all others.