Upon beginning Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, I immediately connected with and was impressed by his heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. Based on the first few chapters, this chick could have been Katniss’s ancestor. She jumps into a traditionally male leadership role as the head of a large farm and prospers; it’s a surprising storyline for a Victorian novel. Before long, though, this tough woman begins to show signs of some “classic” anti-feminist character flaws and ultimately loses her independence and control. Hardy takes an admirable character and turns her into the same old tired trope of a woman wholly at the mercy of her own erratic emotions.
Though Gabriel’s first characterization of Bathsheba is to pointedly note her vanity, she quickly shows herself to be clever, resourceful, independent, and strong-willed. Initially, I found her to be a refreshingly different heroine for a Victorian novel. She starts out the novel as a relatively poor peasant girl but soon inherits her uncle’s farm upon his death and resolves to run it herself. Here, she addresses her new staff at the farm on her first day in charge.
“Now mind, you have a mistress instead of a master. I don’t yet know my powers or my talents in farming; but I shall do my best, and if you serve me well, so shall I serve you. Don’t any unfair ones among you (if there are any such, but I hope not) suppose that because I’m a woman I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good.”
(Liddy.) “Excellent well said.”
“I shall be up before you are awake; I shall be afield before you are up; and I shall have breakfasted before you are afield. In short, I shall astonish you all.
Sounds like a pretty solid job interview to me – I would hire her. Bathsheba continues to impress as she determines to serve as her own bailiff and sell her corn at the market, where she is the only woman. Her vanity is again apparent when she relishes the attention she gets from the men all around her, but I can’t entirely blame her for this. In fact, I can relate. I have to admit, every once in a while, when I look around a meeting room in which I am the only woman at the engineering company where I work, I get a little bit of a rush. I take pride in my ability to prosper in a traditionally male industry, so I don’t begrudge her a little bit of vanity in that regard. All in all, through the first several chapters of the book, I found Bathsheba a woman rather after my own heart, and I liked her. “Now this is a feminist role model! A woman ahead of her time! Thank you, Thomas Hardy!” I thought. But things go downhill from there.
Bathsheba’s first mistake is to capriciously send a valentine to a local confirmed-bachelor, an act which sets off an ultimately tragic chain of events. The valentine was certainly a bad idea, but I feel that Bathsheba is punished too harshly for a ostensibly harmless joke. When the bachelor, Farmer Boldwood, receives the letter, he starts down a path of desire for Bathsheba that becomes an obsession. He confronts Bathsheba repeatedly, asking (in fact, nearly demanding) that she marry him, continually referring to the valentine as the impetus for his passions, and she, feeling guilty for her momentary lapse in judgment, promises or nearly promises to marry him despite not caring at all for him. This was the first time I began to question her feminist credentials. Perhaps she is driven more by penitence than by a lack of will, but Boldwood’s almost violent nature seems to frighten her into submission when she should have firmly held her ground, apologized once, and gotten a restraining order. This is our first sign that while Bathsheba is a bold leader on the farm, she is meek when it comes to personal affairs, and that is why she (and Thomas Hardy) ultimately disappointed me.
It gets worse when she meets Sergeant Troy, the man she will ultimately marry. After turning down Gabriel Oak, the first and most sensible of her suitors, and Boldwood, a gentleman who does seem to truly care for her, she falls for the rakish soldier. This is the part that frustrated me the most. Perhaps I have to concede that there would be no novel if Bathsheba had not chosen her husband poorly, but I was so disappointed that this independent-minded woman who starts out the novel claiming she has no interest in being married to any man (what a concept!) is suddenly overwhelmed by the dashing soldier’s over-the-top flattery. She knows he’s no good, but she falls for him anyway. Why must the bright, strong woman always fall for the rogue soldier? Even Jane Austen’s Lizzie Bennett is partially susceptible to this classic female failing. Apparently all women, even the smart ones, are not only secretly foolish but are also entirely unable to control their emotions and make logical, sensible decisions when romantic feelings are involved. They are ready to give up everything at the slightest nod from a handsome cavalry-man. I’m so sick of reading that storyline. This is not a story of a woman who is trapped and mistreated by society’s expectations for her, like Hardy’s Tess. This is a woman who willfully chooses to debase herself, deny her talents, and submit to a transparently dishonest and immoral man because she “loves” him. She blames this failing, her inability to control her own emotions, on her sex.
My poor life and heart, how weak I am!” she moaned, in a relaxed, desultory way, heedless of Liddy’s presence. “Oh, how I wish I had never seen him! Loving is misery for women always. I shall never forgive God for making me a woman, and dearly am I beginning to pay for the honour of owning a pretty face.”
As Troy grows colder towards her, Bathsheba becomes more desperate for his love, and he dislikes her more and more as the bold woman he married disappears and is replaced by a sniveling submissive. Her subjugation of herself to him, which initially seems to be his expectation and desire, ultimately leads to his increasing disinterest and eventual rejection of her. He asks her for money so that he can gamble and becomes angered when she will not give it to him. When she concedes, gives him the money, and begs that he pay more attention to her instead of running off to the horse races, he becomes annoyed that she gave up so easily and acts so needy. Is Hardy trying to show us that a woman’s strength and independence is a quality that a man should love in her and that she should honor? Maybe I will give him the benefit of the doubt here and accept that interpretation.
In the end, Bathsheba gets what is meant to be a happy ending when she marries Oak, but by that time, she is a more somber version of her former self. Hardy tells us that Gabriel and Bathsheba’s love is not based on passion but a sensible companionship borne out of mutual hardship and shared experience. Yay? Is this happily ever after? After the disaster of her first marriage, I would expect Bathsheba to eschew any future romantic entanglements and return to her prosperous farm, free from any controlling male influence. Instead, she chooses to remarry. At the end of the novel, we don’t know if she lets Gabriel take over the management of the farm in her place or if they manage together – my hope is for the latter, but I think that outcome is unlikely. Though blessed with many of the qualities of a good leader, Bathsheba fails to “sit at the table” as Sheryl Sandberg would tell her to do, and abdicates her power a second time. Someone hand this woman a copy of Lean In.
Hardy’s novel presents the reader with a refreshingly strong female lead who quickly falls prey to one of the more anti-feminist tropes in literature, a complete inability to control her own “emotional female nature.” Someone should have told Bathsheba that it’s ok to date the bad boys, but a smart girl doesn’t marry one.