No, nothing major, not like I’m receiving a giant government bailout or anything like that. I’ve wound up Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, with a small exception, and will move on to William Faulkner’s Light in August in April. I think one big book ( ~15 passages quoted) per month makes for a good rate of progress through world literature.So in the last week I’ve just been picking and choosing from various things I’ve read. Light in August will get the full treatment starting on Wednesday.
Deeds of endurance, which seem ordinary in philosophy, are rare in conduct, and Bathsheba was astonishing all around her now, for her philosophy was her conduct, and she seldom thought practicable what she did not practise. She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises. Troy recumbent in his wife’s lap formed now the sole spectacle in the middle of the spacious room.
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter LIV
This is one of the best-known Thomas Hardy quotes out there. Generally everyone loves a mother, and everyone loves finding something to say about a mother. I happen to see it as a little bit of damning-with-faint-praise: accomplish all this and the most you achieve is to have a future president or poet laureate slip from your womb? (Quick, can you name Barack Obama’s mother?)
Bathsheba is attending a Christmas party at Boldwood’s, when all of a sudden her presumed-dead husband appears and shatters Boldwood’s chances of marrying Bathsheba on the rebound. So Boldwood, taking his cues from R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet videos (or the Jimmie Rodgers–popularized ‘Frankie and Johnny’ song), does what any insane admirer would do and shoots his rival dead.
Somehow, in this one episode, Hardy manages to unite Bathsheba’s earthy practicality in love—as expressed in her reluctance to dally with the affectionate male gaze—with her earthy practicality as a small business–woman. She is the all-practical All-Star here, combining her unquenched affection for Troy with sure steps to save his quickly waning life.
It’s confusing, therefore, that Hardy then sets out to diminish her with the mother simile. Is it that her power over the narrative has reached such a point that he needs to undercut her authority in order to bring the book to a close?
‘Do you like me, or do you respect me?’‘I don’t know—at least, I cannot tell you. It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs. My treatment of you was thoughtless, inexcusable, wicked! I shall eternally regret it. If there had been anything I could have done to make amends I would most gladly have done it—there was nothing on earth I so longed to do as to repair the error. But that was not possible.’
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter LI
Bathsheba Everdene responds to Boldwood here with an utterance that seems as if it had been inserted into the galley proofs of Thomas Hardy’s idyl of the Wessex countryside with a drawing knife and rubber cement. Could this be feminism? Of course, I’ve known women who would have taken the opposite approach, and celebrated that as feminism: fearlessly appropriating male discourse and then not apologizing for her rude treatment of her suitor.
Bathsheba never forgot that transient little picture of Liddy crossing the swamp to her there in the morning light. Iridescent bubbles of dank subterranean breath rose from the sweating sod beside the waiting maid’s feet as she trod, hissing as they burst and expanded away to join the vapoury firmament above. Liddy did not sink, as Bathsheba had anticipated.
She landed safely on the other side, and looked up at the beautiful though pale and weary face of her young mistress.
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XLIV
“Unpredictable soughs full of brown water threaded its endless slopes of sodden tussocky grass, and queer rocks were embedded along its rheumy skylines, eroded by the wind into vague and organic silhouettes.”
—M. John Harrison, “A Storm of Wings,” Chapter 6
I’ve trotted out another quote about swamps today, from the ‘Viriconium’ series of M. John Harrison, in order to point out by comparison just how good a nature writer Hardy is. In the few passages I’ve posted, we’ve seen how he engages all the senses through writing in order to make the environment seem more lifelike. The Viriconium stories are lively and elaborate fantasy stories, about a world at the end of time, and it’s not fair to make over-broad assumptions about books or authors through a single sentence. Here’s another, from indoors:
They stood in the shadow of a huge dead locust, or perhaps it was a mantis. Its forelimbs were folded hieratically above them, clutching something they couldn’t see. Leathery curtains of dried mucus hung down from its ventral joints and openings. Its fading telepathies trickled through Hornwrack’s skull in a reedy counterpoint to the perceptual disorganisation that swelled over him like triumphant organ music from the city’s living inhabitants. His eyes were watering in the lemon fog from the exploding atmospheric distilleries; his nose was running. A tarry fungus flourishing in the shade of the great corpse had begun to corrode the soles of his boots.
—ibid, Chapter 10
Watch the master at work! Hardy first frames his scene in Bathsheba’s eyes, which emphasizes the things that she is seeing. “Bathsheba never forgot…” Then, he limits his description to one sentence (having signaled that brevity, too, with “transient little picture…”). And in that one sentence, he describes the color (“iridescent”), smell (“dank, subterranean”), texture (“sweating sod”), and sound (“hissing as they burst”). And then, to wind it up, he describes the overall impression of the bog through Bathsheba’s eyes and assumptions again: “Liddy did not sink, as Bathsheba had anticipated.” We readers know that the marsh is the kind of footing which appears to have the potential to swallow a traverser whole, because Hardy points out (in only four words, natch!) that Bathsheba held that impression.
In contrast, the Harrison quotes seem static and long-winded to me.
Bathsheba was lonely and miserable now; not lonelier actually than she had been before her marriage, but her loneliness then was to that of the present time as the solitude of a mountain is to the solitude of a cave.
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XLIII
Once again, in the chief aim of figurative language, to provide a gauge where there is no measure apparent, Hardy triumphs. The idea of a quantitative measure of solitude is perhaps a bit far-fetched, but this qualitative comparison really illuminates Bathsheba’s plight.
She is going to sleep on the night that Fanny’s body has been staged at her house for burial in the morning; naturally, the presence so close of Fanny, her husband’s great shame, has set her mind uneasy.
Yesterday I posted a passage about Bathsheba’s regrets over getting married in the first place. This quick line, a couple short chapters later, provides a kind of coda to those feelings, which from this later vantage, seem written at a different level of calm and tranquility. Obviously, part of novel-writing is to maintain the characters’ inner monologues consistently; once again, Hardy proves masterful. In the prior quote, Bathsheba indulges her native standoffishness, which the reader can easily compare to the solitude of a hermit on a mountain: she sees all around yet chooses to absent herself. With the quote above, Hardy throws this present loneliness into another domain altogether: the loneliness of someone whose soul feels truly lost.
Until she had met Troy, Bathsheba had been proud of her position as a woman; it had been a glory to her to know that her lips had been touched by no man’s on earth—that her waist had never been encircled by a lover’s arm. She hated herself now. In those earlier days she had always nourished a secret contempt for girls who were the slaves of the first goodlooking young fellow who should choose to salute them. She had never taken kindly to the idea of marriage in the abstract as did the majority of women she saw about her.…That she had never, by look, word, or sign, encouraged a man to approach her—that she had felt herself sufficient to herself, and had in the independence of her girlish heart fancied there was a certain degradation in renouncing the simplicity of a maiden existence to become the humbler half of an indifferent matrimonial whole—were facts now bitterly remembered. Oh, if she had never stooped to folly of this kind, respectable as it was, and could only stand again, as she had stood on the hill at Norcombe, and dare Troy or any other man to pollute a hair of her head by his interference!
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XLI
Bathsheba Everdene is the most puzzling character in Far from the Madding Crowd, but with this passage, Thomas Hardy really clarifies her motivations. Too bad it arrives forty-odd chapters into the book, but if one’s read this far, it comes as a well-deserved prize to find this little cribsheet stuck between the pages.
Bathsheba and Troy, her husband, have been quarreling over his previous relationship with the ill-starred Fanny Robin, and this passage brings to the fore her regret over marrying at all.
I love self-sufficient people, but reading about them is always a lot more interesting than meeting them, because it’s so hard to find common ground on which to converse. Bathsheba in this passage bemoans the loss of her self-possession and how she has degraded herself through marriage. It’s a pretty revolutionary stance to take, and I think this is why it only comes after we’ve read two-thirds of the book: it would make no sense if we had not already gotten to know Miss Everdene, both through her prior steadfastness against marriage and her latterly regretted indulgence of it.
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.
The only signs of the terrible sorrow Boldwood had been combating through the night, and was combating now, were the want of colour in his well-defined face, the enlarged appearance of the veins in his forehead and temples, and the sharper lines about his mouth. The horse bore him away, and the very step of the animal seemed significant of dogged despair. Gabriel [Oak], for a minute, rose above his own grief in noticing Boldwood’s. He saw the square figure sitting erect upon the horse, the head turned to neither side, the elbows steady by the hips, the brim of the hat level and undisturbed in its onward glide, until the keen edges of Boldwood’s shape sank by degrees over the hill. To one who knew the man and his story there was something more striking in this immobility than in a collapse. The clash of discord between mood and matter here was forced painfully home to the heart; and, as in laughter there are more dreadful phases than in tears, so was there in the steadiness of this agonized man an expression deeper than a cry.
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XXXV
There are a million ways to describe grief, yet this particular one comes out as newly fresh. Part of the excitement of reading, that keeps me posting more quotes and comments about the books I’m reading, is the ability to stop on a paragraph and point out just how great a gift the classics give to us by continually reconfiguring those hoary old emotions—love, fear, anger, grief—into new forms for us readers’ enrichment.
Boldwood is crushed by the news of Bathsheba Everdene’s recent marriage to Troy. Gabriel Oak’s own feelings to the nuptials are rather sensitive as well, but he has been protecting his feelings by estranging himself and his heart from Bathsheba for most of the book.
Hardy shows us Boldwood’s brittle nature through paradox. We’ve seen this technique before; the author explains something in some detail, then with a grand gesture says, “Aha! this actually means the complete opposite.” Hardy does set it up for us here, as we have been privy to the details of Boldwood’s tragedy over the last couple chapters, as Boldwood sees Bathsheba’s love drifting out of his reach. It is we readers that he is addressing in “to one who knew the man and his story.…”
So really, the perspective that Boldwood’s fate brings to us disinterested readers, the perspective that Hardy has spent most of the novel creating, is that here is a man who is so committed to rectitude and keeping up appearances that it is only someone like us readers or our surrogate, Oak, who have followed the trace of Boldwood’s tragedy, who can actually discern that tragedy while he yet maintains his bearing.
The erosion of that bearing, however, will be the story of the remaining chapters.
In making this statement Boldwood’s voice revealed only too clearly a consciousness of the weakness of his position, his aims, and his method. His manner had lapsed quite from that of the firm and dignified Boldwood of former times; and such a scheme as he had now engaged in he would have condemned as childishly imbecile only a few months ago. We discern a grand force in the lover which he lacks whilst a free man; but there is a breadth of vision in the free man which in the lover we vainly seek. Where there is much bias there must be some narrowness, and love, though added emotion, is subtracted capacity. Boldwood exemplified this to an abnormal degree: he knew nothing of Fanny Robin’s circumstances or whereabouts, he knew nothing of Troy’s possibilities, yet that was what he said.
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XXXIV
Consider the power of the novel, that in the space of half a thousand pages, it can bless us readers with characters to ponder over half a hundred years, or longer. Anna Karenina, from her eponymous novel, is endlessly fascinating! Consider, too, the power of reams of text to launch simpler characters toward ruin, then provide a kind of forensic meteorology on the gusting winds of their fate. In this book, Boldwood’s ship is about to splinter on the rocks of Troy’s cunning, a sad end with which we readers will soon be intimately familiar.
Farmer Boldwood is perhaps the most broadly drawn of the main characters in Far from the Madding Crowd, but the tragedy of his love for Bathsheba Everdene is the most keenly illustrated. This passage, which comes from Boldwood’s useless interview with Troy in order to get Troy to marry Fanny Robin and leave him the open road to Bathsheba’s heart, shows just how desperation, even desperate love, can be the saddest emotion of them all.
The contrast between the grand force of love and its all-too-narrow focus is something that also comes up (viewed from the other end of the telescope) in one of my favorite lines of modern poetry, from “Why Regret?” by Galway Kinnell.
Or when Casanova threw the linguine in squid ink
out the window, telling his startled companion,
“The perfected lover does not eat”?
Another week passed. The oat-harvest began, and all the men were a-field under a monochromatic Lammas sky, amid the trembling air and short shadows of noon. Indoors nothing was to be heard save the droning of blue-bottle flies; out-of-doors the whetting of scythes and the hiss of tressy oat-ears rubbing together as their perpendicular stalks of amber-yellow fell heavily to each swath. Every drop of moisture not in the men’s bottles and flagons in the form of cider was raining as perspiration from their foreheads and cheeks. Drought was everywhere else.
—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XXXIII
Lammas is August 1st, the festival of the first harvest of wheat. I love how Hardy whips up some synesthesia in only a couple lines: it’s not “the hiss of tressy oat-ears” that I hear but the hay fields behind my grandparents’ old house in Maine that I see.
Photo is from the Library of Congress collection; I found it on flickr.