A hero for the modern world? Changing attitudes to men and masculinity in 

Far from the Madding Crowd.

 A review by Kate Wilson

                                                             But the world of sons has changed: it’s more likely to be boys now with that baffled look, like a night-dweller gone blind in the sunlight.’ Stand up for yourself like a man,’ I would have said. I would have been on shifting ground.  Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye.


All Hardy’s stories are love stories. Far from the Madding Crowd is Hardy’s first and only love story with a happy ending. In no other novel of his do we have such an impression of light and life and rising sap, of tragedy and death brushed aside for a season, as the green shoot might shoulder away the dead leaves on the floor of a Wessex Wood. Hardy needed a clean sweep after the relative failure of A Pair of Blue Eyes and in this, his fourth, yet first fully-realized novel under his own name, there is the sense of his going all out to show his strengths and to please his readership, even at the expense sometimes of his own aesthetic judgement[1].  And what most  certainly pleased Hardy the man[2] as well as the writer, was to have in his sights the vision of a beautiful young woman. Here is one of the many descriptions of Bathsheba Everdene. Hardy starts off with a steady hand and a sharp pencil, sketching in the architectural symmetry of her face - but it takes just a few seconds for his mind’s eye to alight on the parted lips, the lithe body, the soft glint of her eyes:

Something in the exact arch of her upper unbroken row of teeth, and in the keenly pointed corners of her red mouth, when, with parted lips, she somewhat defiantly turned up her face to argue a point with a tall man, suggested there was potentiality enough in that lithe slip of humanity for alarming exploits of sex, and daring enough to carry them out. But her eyes had a softness – invariably a softness- which, had they not been dark, would have seemed mistiness; as they were, it lowered an expression that might have been piercing to simple clearness. (Chp XII)

So preoccupied is the male gaze, we seem to be catching Hardy off guard in a private moment of utter infatuation. The chauvinism is outrageous, of course, and all the more so for its apparent unconsciousness. But perhaps the female readers of his time were more forgiving or just more accustomed to this language of men[3]. Whatever, they could count Hardy on their side, for his unusual empathy for women’s ways of doing and thinking[4] influenced his writing in three important ways: it marked him out as a writer ahead of his times, it hardened his disapproval of the repressive conventions and peculiar injustices which thwarted and curbed women in a society regulated largely by male vested interest[5] and it gave shape in turn to some of the most closely imagined tragic heroines in English literature. But in this passage, we are far from tragedy: we are bathed in the luminous aura of a woman not only naturally endowed with youth, beauty and courage but also socially empowered through the unexpected inheritance of her uncle’s farm. From the start we understand her as a woman operating in a man’s world, who as we see in Chp X, is crucially in charge of the payroll, hitherto the traditional locus of male control.

What kind of man, then, could Hardy have possibly chosen as the deserving partner for this paragon of womanhood?

Bathsheba, herself, has the answer. When her immediate neighbour, the young tenant farmer, Gabriel Oak, comes to propose marriage, she makes no bones about telling him to his face that he isn’t the hero of her dreams – hardly surprising, as Hardy is ambiguous about Oak’s immediate sex-appeal, giving him an imposing height and the many hues and curves of youth on the one hand, whilst on the other, effacing these promising credentials behind his unassuming and unconfident manner. Neither does Hardy hesitate to place Gabriel Oak in an unflattering light, as in the gratuitously ugly mug-shot of him compressing the mouth and face to a mere mass of ruddy flesh, as he struggles to take out his pocket watch. An attempt at humour, maybe, on Hardy’s part, but rather like the media image of Ed Milliband eating a bacon sandwich –this picture certainly puts Oak at a disadvantage in the hero stakes. That and how he presents himself to court her with his hair so oiled as to stick to his head like a nutmeg, or wet seaweed round a boulder after the ebb. No doubt Bathsheba appraised all this inadequacy in a flash:

It wouldn’t do, Mr Oak. I want somebody to tame me; I am too independent; and you would never be able to, I know.[6]

This is bold, even for today, and is enough to send a frisson through most readers, let alone a smitten young man like Gabriel Oak. Hardy, as Lawrence did after him, pushed the boundaries of what could be said about sexual desire, and, as in the ferny hollow scene, he could, and did at times, brilliantly hoodwink the public censor. Following the public condemnation of Jude The Obscure, Hardy defended his intentions in his preface to the full edition, which were, he declared, only to write about ‘what men and women of full age knew about‘ (and particularly liked reading about as well) and this was none other than ‘the strongest passion known to humanity’.  With as yet no inkling of his future success, Hardy had to rewrite several scenes in Far From the Madding Crowd under the direction of his publisher Leslie Stephens, for fear of offending readers’ susceptibilities about where (unmarried) sex could lead[7]. Gabriel Oak, in the course of his proposal to Bathsheba does mention babies, but within the context of married bliss and with such a lumpishness as to put off any fiery young woman from thinking about passion even in the abstract:

And when the wedding was over, we’d have it put in the newspaper lists of marriages. (…) and the babies in the births – every man jack of ‘em! And at home by the fire, whenever you look up, there shall I be –and whenever I look up there will you be. (Chp IV)

Oak’s failure to strike any sparks during his first big encounter with the heroine, marks him down a further notch in the romantic stakes of the story.

So there we have Gabriel Oak – like his boots, showing weakness in his cut but unstinted in his dimension and solidity – rejected instinctively by Bathsheba. What this young woman wants – and who can blame her for her lack of experience? - is the highest homage from a husband I should choose (Chp XLI), that isa man who is brimming with virility and yet who is docile enough to dedicate himself to her forever, precisely in the way Gabriel declares his undying love for her (if only she had noticed): I shall do one thing in this life – one thing certain – that is, love you, and long for you, and keep wanting you till I die. This atavistic model of the ideal lover is embedded both in the female psyche and everywhere in stories of romance and love – where we don’t have to look far for the romantic stereotypes:  in date order, courtly, handsome, but also superhumanly persistent Prince Charming, in the Charles Perrault fairytale Cinderella (1697)

Richard Madden as Prince Kit

Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice (1813), aristocratic, rich, saviour of two young ladies’ virtue, is likewise dedicated to the unfailing pursuit of his beloved Elizabeth. Fortunately, his one (redeemable) fault of pride doesn’t make the heroine falter for too long.

Colin Firth as Mr Darcy

The most dedicated lover of all is Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, 1847). Never mind that he is part man, part devil, part howling animal driven by grief to exhume the body of his beloved Catherine in order to lie with her in her grave. What is retained of him in the female folklore is his fetching dark hair, his passion and, tellingly, his devotion.

The latest romantic hero to appear on our TV screens is Aidan Turner’s Poldark (after the series of novels of the same name by Winston Graham, written between 1945 -1953 and completed in 1973 - 2002)

Aidan Turner as Poldark

Poldark’s image presents a stereotypical composite of desirable male perfection. Note the mythic intensity of the lighting, the wild dark hair and (just under the jacket) the Byronic shirt (sported also by Colin Firth), insignia of the English Romantic poets. To add to his attractions, although the young Poldark is not rich, he has gratifying potential in this direction, besides which there is a sensitive heart beating beneath the pectorals, and a social conscience behind the smouldering eyes.

Such examples of generic hero material are not working models for the real world, in the same way that Bathsheba’s platonic ideal of a marriage without a groom is tellingly recognized by Gabriel Oak as a ‘terrible wooden story’  which can never make sense for grown-up people of flesh and blood. Gabriel is too grounded to tolerate such silliness. And here is a major message to take away from Hardy: his idea of real-world human happiness as the working together in equal partnership of a man and a woman, who know, accept and value each other for what they are and who live together in harmony on this basis.  This is the gist of Gabriel Oak’s marriage proposal. DH Lawrence’s view of the necessary balance between the sexes is more sensualised than Hardy’s:

the source of all life and knowledge is in man and woman and the source of all living is in the interchange and the meeting and mingling of these two.[8]

but Gabriel Oak would have understood the simple, sensible naturalness of such a union.

Heathcliff in despair (Clare Leighton)

Bathsheba, meanwhile, is incapable of such pragmatism, because she is still -at the beginning of the novel at least - looking for her hero, whom she thinks she has found in Sergeant Troy when she first meets him, brilliant in brass and scarlet in his soldier’s uniform. Liddy’s running commentary in Chap X about Troy’s life and accomplishments, voices what both she and her mistress see as a paragon of desirability – and so he might seem on the surface to any foolish young woman or cheerful wearer of skirts - enhanced in their eyes by his appearance as a mysterious and handsome stranger. Bathsheba is completely taken in as Liddy’s tongue runs on - he is a fine figure of a man, so well-educated he reputedly can take down Chinese in shorthand, moreover an expert swordsman who has risen in the ranks without trying at all, and to cap it all, he is so innately superior –a doctor’s son by name and an earl’s son by nature that nobility of blood shines out of him. By this time we are becoming aware of what Bathsheba is blind to - that this dashing piece of manhood, a veritable Zeus to her Juno, is just too vaguely drawn to be believable. In fact, Liddy’s account is little more than a piece of story-telling which Bathsheba weaves further on the basis of nothing much.

In the next chapter, Hardy fills us in with three or four pages of a closely written characterization of Troy, at the end of which we are none the wiser about who he really is. What we do feel is the pressure of a complex, unresolved personality who is somehow heading for trouble. We are soon confirmed in this: Hardy has decided to give him what is a killingly fatal flaw in this proto-feminist novel:  an insensitivity to the needs of women: treat them fairly and you are a lost man is the first rule of his false heart. Yet he is not a bad man –he never passed the line which divides the spruce vices from the ugly –just a very young one, who, when we meet him first, has not yet understood how men and women are reliant on each other for their happiness, nor how bitterly he will grieve for Fanny, his almost wife, once he has so avoidably lost her. In the following passage, we find him doing utterly the wrong thing in pretending to forget his understanding of marriage with Fanny. This scene is one of the most poignant in the novel both as regards the interplay of characters and the underlying social message that women without resources in a patriarchal society can suffer terrible injustice at the hands of men:

And Frank, when will it be?


That you promised.

I don’t quite recollect.

O you do! Don’t speak like that. It weighs me to the earth. It makes me say what ought to be said by you.” (Chp XI)

Is he teasing her or is he being cruel? Is he himself afraid? It doesn’t matter, because as far as Hardy is concerned, he is playing with fire. From now on, Troy is doomed, as is Fanny, for no two fates could be more inextricably bound. It is a fact that in every instance in Hardy’s novels when the partnership between the sexes- that vital link between man and woman - is threatened, all turns sour. In Far from the Madding Crowd, written by a hopeful young author on the brink of his own union with Emma Gifford[9], the institution of marriage is still regarded as desirable,  a view conceded even as late as Jude the Obscure, where the rebellious Sue Bridehead  admits that the ‘intention of the contract is good and right for many.’ The debate here regarding marriage is at a much earlier stage than in Hardy’s last novel. For Fanny there are no life-style alternatives. Without her marriage certificate, she can do nothing more than drag after Troy as a camp follower. Whether she gets married or not is literally a matter of life and death for her, as we can already surmise (although the text does not make this explicit) that she has by this stage fallen pregnant. Women bearing children out of wedlock were harshly treated in Victorian society and could either end up in the gutter or if they were lucky, in a poorhouse. When Troy finally agrees to name the day, she turns up at the wrong church and Troy is left standing at another altar to feel the full humiliation of a public jilting. His anger drives Fanny away, and from this point they are lost to each other. Troy, meanwhile, marries Bathsheba on the rebound, with Fanny still so much on his mind that he drives Bathsheba into the wild jealousy which precipitates their marriage.

Although women can also disrupt the balance by making a poor choice in marriage, as does Bathsheba in her impetuous haste to marry Frank Troy, Tess in marrying her false Angel and Sue Bridehead  in going back to Phillotson in Jude the Obscure - with the exception of this last novel - Hardy’s moral disapproval falls most bitterly on the defaulting male. The more his male characters fail to understand women (Frank Knight, Angel Clare, Farmer Boldwood, Francis Troy), the more bitterly critical he is of them as men. Hardy does not flinch from judging, castigating, humiliating, or even dispatching his male characters if they fail to honour the women in their lives. Hardy rewards inadequate or abusive or manipulative or self-centred or narrow-minded men – the parade of male vices is infinite - with the prospect of a much diminished life without the one woman who might have saved them. In the case of Troy, Hardy contrives the plot to give him no chance of redemption and he suffers all the consequences of his neglect of Fanny at a crushing pace. We never for once consider him as a victim, until we are forced to confront his misery in the awful scene with Bathsheba over Fanny’s coffin.

Again, in this passage we have a powerful piece of writing from Hardy, in its emotional reality far transcending the usual Victorian sentimentalism and melodrama in which it has its roots. Troy has just kissed Fanny and their dead child in her coffin and Bathsheba rushes to cling to him:

Don’t kiss them! O, Frank, I can’t bear it – I can’t. I love you better than she did: kiss me too, Frank - kiss me! You will, Frank, kiss me too!

(…) Troy looked at her in bewilderment. (…) Fanny’s own spirit seemed to be animating her frame. But this was the mood of a few instants only.

I will not kiss you! He said, pushing her away. (….)This woman is more to me, dead as she is, than ever you were, or are, or can be. If Satan had not tempted me with that face of yours, and those cursed coquetries, I should have married her. I never had another thought until you came my way. Would to God that I had; but it is all too late!

He turned to Fanny then.

But never mind darling, he said. In the sight of Heaven you are my very, very wife!


If she’s - that , - what- am- I?

You are nothing to me – nothing, said Troy heartlessly. A ceremony before a priest doesn’t make a marriage. I am not morally yours.

A vehement impulse to flee from him (….) mastered Bathsheba now. She waited not an instant, but turned to the door and ran out. (Chp XL111)

It is an appallingly messy scene, in which both bleed real blood.

Farmer Boldwood, Bathsheba’s third suitor, is hardly less violent in his bullying pursuit of Bathsheba, than Troy is in his rejection of her. Boldwood’s interest in Bathsheba has been first aroused by an injudicious Valentine card she sent to him as a jest. His feelings for her soon develop into a full-blown obsession where any sight of her with another man makes him hot down to his hands with incipient jealousy (Chp XVII). Here is Farmer Boldwood, at his most despicable, playing on her feelings of guilt, moral duty and fear of convention, as he tries to extract from her a promise to marry him in six years’ time, by which time the law should leave her free after the disappearance and assumed death of her husband Troy.

You’ll marry me between five and six year’s hence?

Don’t press me too hard. I’ll marry nobody else.

But surely you will name the time, or there’s nothing in the promise at all?

Oh, I don’t know, pray let me go! she said, her bosom beginning to rise. I am afraid what to do! I want to be just to you, and to be that seems to be wronging myself, and perhaps it is breaking the commandments. There is considerable doubt of his (Troy’s) death, and then it is dreadful; let me ask a solicitor, Mr Boldwood, if I ought or no!

Say the words, dear one, and the subject shall be dismissed; a blissful loving intimacy of six years, and then marriage- O Bathsheba, say them! He begged in a husky voice, unable to sustain the forms of mere friendship any longer. Promise yourself to me; I deserve it, for I have loved you more than anybody in the world!


Boldwood had come close to her side, and now he clasped one of her hands in both his own, and lifted it to his breast.

What is it? Oh, I cannot wear a ring! (…) Don’t insist, Mr Boldwood –don’t!

 In her trouble at not being able to get her hand away from him at once, she stamped passionately on the floor with one foot, and tears crowded to her eyes again.

It means simply a pledge- no sentiment- the seal of a practical compact, he said more quietly, but still retaining her hand in his firm grasp. Come now! And Boldwood slipped the ring on her finger.

I cannot wear it, she said, weeping as if her heart would break. You frighten me, almost. So wild a scheme! Please let me go home!

What is going on here lends itself to more than one interpretation. Hardy was very clever at giving expression to the unspeakable –and at the very least we cannot misunderstand the emotional and physical violence nor the implications in Boldwood’s manner of what he would have liked to have done to Bathsheba had the circumstances been more propitious. She was right to be afraid of him with a simple physical fear – the weak of the strong. We have seen elsewhere[10] the ruthless dissection of the psycho-sexuality of Frank Knight[11] which Freud himself would have been proud of, had he been around at the time. Boldwood, is subjected to a similarly clinical observation of his sexual behaviour. Here he is after the harvest supper, kneeling in a low armchair, clasping Bathsheba’s hand:

His body moved restlessly, and it was with what Keats daintily calls a too happy happiness.  This unwanted abstraction of all dignity (…) was, in its distressing incongruity, a pain to her (…)

Boldwood is gratifyingly punished for this selfish passion or idealization in love which takes no account of the feelings of the real woman in front of him. He further loses his sense of reality to the extent that in his madness he murders his rival Troy, which act he had continually threatened throughout the novel.  Hardy hands him out a life-long prison sentence, where he is as terminally unmanned as if he had been hanged by the neck (a favourite sentence of the Victorian justice system.)[12]  It is thus entirely within the symbolism of the novel to take on face value this final judgement of him as no longer being the man he had once been (Chp L1)

And what of Gabriel Oak in all this? He is the least powerful player of the three men, unmanned in patriarchal terms from the outset by the sudden loss of his livelihood, status and independence. He is constrained on all sides by poverty and the lowered social status which gives him no rights or hope in the competition for Bathsheba’s hand. He must crawl to Bathsheba for a job (Do you happen to want a shepherd, ma’am?). He must have his considerable professional talents publicly overlooked, as in the payroll scene (You quite understand your duties? – you, I mean, Gabriel Oak? (Chp X Mistress and Men). At harvest supper, he must cede his place at the head of the table to Boldwood. He is dismissed for his use of chauvinist discourse -the wrong choice of words for a new breed of woman- when he gives his opinion about the Valentine card Bathsheba sent  to Boldwood (it is unworthy of any thoughtful, and meek, and comely woman Chp XXX). Incredibly, he barely reacts to the bites and hurts of unrequited love, but remains as Bathsheba’s faithful and constant adviser (when she calls upon him), even when the advice he gives her will undoubtedly damage his own chances. His watchword is silence and noble self-abnegation. As Sue Bridehead remarks to Jude as she leaves him:

Remember that the best and greatest are among those who do themselves no worldly good.[13]

But too much placid dignity is not the stuff of a successful lover. He warns Bathsheba against Troy, instead of taking her in his arms and reminding her once and for all where true love really burns. He even does up Boldwood’s tie for him before the Christmas Party, when he knows that Boldwood will ignobly and wrongfully try to extract a promise of marriage from her. There are many times throughout the novel, when we feel Oak might benefit from a good, swift kick.

However, he is a lucky man. Circumstances provide for him and the actions of others give him a final and conclusive opportunity in the marriage stakes. The fact that we are suffused with a warm glow of satisfaction at his success, is all down to Hardy’s sustained support for his character, for the manly resolve, the dignified calm in adversity and the outspoken honesty which ensures his integrity through many trials. Somewhat contrary to his clodhopper beginnings in the first scenes, he rapidly changes in a few chapters into a fine young shepherd and an athletic young fellow of somewhat superior appearance to the rest who, we feel, will soon start to rise again in the world. We learn too of his gentleness and his quick sensitivity to the suffering of others. The scene where he first meets Fanny walking alone out of Weatherby village in the dark, shows his ready sympathy and generosity. Hearing she has no money, he offers her a shilling, which is all he has. He guesses she is unwell, but the story makes no mention yet of her delicate condition:

She extended her hand; Gabriel his. In feeling for each other's palm in the gloom before the money could be passed, a minute incident occurred which told much. Gabriel's fingers alighted on the young woman's wrist. It was beating with a throb of tragic intensity. He had frequently felt the same quick, hard beat in the femoral artery of his lambs when overdriven (...) ' What is the matter?' (he asked). (Chp VII)

Above all though, and what makes him a fit counterpart to our heroine, is Oak’s relation to Bathsheba as a man to a woman who loves her selflessly. And at last, the final element which balances the equation, we start to learn that Bathsheba has deep regard for him, even though she may not realize the extent of her own feelings until the very end of the novel when Oak announces he is leaving Weatherby. Here she is in an earlier scene, ruffled by his cool advice that she could consider marriage to Boldwood without any sin, if she truly thought that her husband, Troy, was dead:

Oak had not once wished her free that he might marry her himself- he had not once said, I could wait for you as well as he. That was the insect sting. (…) But to give her such cold advice – the very advice she had asked for – it ruffled our heroine all the afternoon. (Chp LI)

As the novel moves towards its fairy-tale conclusion, the denouement leaves us with a glad sense of the rightness of things, as it undoubtedly did that first generation of readers. Under cover of the flush of the happy ending, Hardy had achieved a shift – not so apparent then, perhaps - in the perception of the boundaries between men and women. Above all, he had explored what it meant to be a man in a changing society and how men might define themselves against the new breed of strong women who would be coming into their own in the modern world.


Hardy’s cottage, Higher Bockhampton geograph.org.uk, Chris Downer

[1] Leslie Stephen, his editor, cut material that would offend religious or moral sensibilities Despite the damaging effect on his overall design, at this early stage in his career he was prepared to compromise. ‘Perhaps I may have higher aims one day, and be a great stickler for the proper artistic balance of the completed work, but for the present circumstances lead me to wish merely to be considered a good hand at a serial’ - See more at: http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/writing-publishing-and-revising-far-from-the-madding-crowd#sthash.vYYd0v3s.dpuf

[2] For his lifelong infatuation with women, see Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy, the Time- Torn Man, Penguin Books, 2007, p.234  - ‘Hardy always had an eye for women’

[3] A language made ‘chiefly by men to express their (feelings)’ and which Bathsheba as a woman finds inadequate as a medium for giving voice to female sentiment. ( Chp LI, Bathsheba talks with her Outrider)

[4] An interesting early attempt to present a woman’s perspective on things is to be found in some sonnets entitled ‘She, to Him’ written by Hardy in 1866 in the voice of a woman to a man who has been unfaithful to her (see Tomalin, p.71)

[5]What Hardy termed ‘inert crystallized opinion’(quoted in  Jude the Obscure, Penguin Classics, 1998, Introduction by Dennis Taylor, p.xvi). As Hardy grew older his attitude to repressive conventions hardened, culminating in his final outspokenly progressive novel, Jude the Obscure (1895), which earned him vitriolic condemnation for his overt criticism of the three pillars of the Establishment: the Law as it applied to marriage, the Church and its strangle- hold on private life and the vicious inequalities of the class system, which deprived the lower classes of educational and economic opportunity

[6] Far from the Madding Crowd, Chp IV. 

[7] For example, the discovery by Bathsheba of Fanny’s baby in her coffin, was  effaced in the serialized version. Leslie Stephen advised Hardy to treat Troy’s seduction of Fanny ‘in a gingerly fashion’, and instructed him to tone down the treatment of Fanny’s death (ch. 43), eliminating all reference to the illegitimate baby.[ - See more at: http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/writing-publishing-and-revising-far-from-the-madding-crowd#sthash.NuX6w4VS.dpuf ]

[8] DH Lawrence, Letters ii 181, quoted in Bruce Steele, Study of Thomas Hardy and other essays. 

[9] Hardy would marry Emma Gifford on the 17 September September. nine months after the start of the publication of Far from the Madding Crowd in serial form in January 1874. 

[10] Reference to my own article on A Pair of Blue Eyes

[11] It is a strange coincidence that both Francis Troy and Frank Knight  have the same name ‘Frank’. Freud might have had something to say about that as well.

[12] See John Sutherland, Lives of the Novelists, Thomas Hardy, p.176

[13] Jude the Obscure, Penguin Classics, 1998, p. 361

What kind of man, then, could Hardy have possibly chosen as the deserving partner for this paragon of womanhood?

Hardy's Cottage

Oak’s failure to strike any sparks during his first big encounter with the heroine, marks him down a further notch in the romantic stakes of the story.

With a new film of Hardy’s‘Far from the Madding Crowd’coming out, it’s time to reassess what keeps people revisiting this author. Click