Heaven opened then, indeed. The flash was almost too novel for its inexpressibly dangerous nature to be at once realized, and they could only comprehend the magnificence of its beauty. It sprang from east, west, north, south, and was a perfect dance of death. The forms of skeletons appeared in the air, shaped with blue fire for bones—dancing, leaping, striding, racing around, and mingling altogether in unparalleled confusion. With these were intertwined undulating snakes of green, and behind these was a broad mass of lesser light. Simultaneously came from every part of the tumbling sky what may be called a shout; since, though no shout ever came near it, it was more of the nature of a shout than of anything else earthly. In the meantime one of the grisly forms had alighted upon the point of Gabriel [Oak]’s rod, to run invisibly down it, down the chain, and into the earth. Gabriel was almost blinded, and he could feel Bathsheba’s warm arm tremble in his hand—a sensation novel and thrilling enough; but love, life, everything human, seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe.
Oak had hardly time to gather up these impressions into a thought, and to see how strangely the red feather of her hat shone in this light, when the tall tree on the hill before mentioned seemed on fire to a white heat, and a new one among these terrible voices mingled with the last crash of those preceding. It was a stupefying blast, harsh and pitiless, and it fell upon their ears in a dead, flat blow, without that reverberation which lends the tones of a drum to more distant thunder. By the lustre reflected from every part of the earth and from the wide domical scoop above it, he saw that the tree was sliced down the whole length of its tall, straight stem, a huge riband of bark being apparently flung off. The other portion remained erect, and revealed the bared surface as a strip of white down the front. The lightning had struck the tree. A sulphurous smell filled the air; then all was silent, and black as a cave in Hinnom.
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XXXVII
I guess you could call this style of writing “supernaturalism.” In this several-page episode about a lightning storm and the damage it wreaks, Hardy, always the paragon of nature writing, amps up the drama as if it wasn’t just a lightning storm, but one of H.P. Lovecraft’s Old Ones paying the Wessex countryside a visit. “Intertwined undulating snakes of green,” indeed.
This entire extended passage about the storm is the denouement of the book. Each of the four main characters settles into their final configurations during the storm’s passage through the countryside. The way we see this is through their several relationships with the land of Wessex and its agricultural economy. Their personal relationships are one thing, but their relationships with the land will foreshadow their future.
Meanwhile, reading this passage on the lightning storm today, a week or two after my first reading, I get the impression that the entire storm is just a kind of stunning setting for the start of Bathsheba and Gabriel’s eventual reconciliation. The phrases about Bathsheba—her “warm arm tremble[ing] in his hand,” and “how strangely the red feather of her hat shone”— are neatly inserted into the general terror and overwrought stimulation that the storm causes Gabriel. This sudden switch in scale, from the macro storm down to the micro personal level, could come across as solipsistic on Gabriel’s part. It’s mitigated slightly by Gabriel’s extensive preparations for the storm in the previous pages of the chapter; for he has interpreted the impending storm from the beginning as a test of Troy’s stewardship of Bathsheba’s farm.