"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.
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