Published in 1874 as an anonymous serial in a literary magazine, this was not Hardy's first novel, but it was the one whose success enabled him to pursue a full-time writing career. It is also the first book to take place in Hardy's imaginary county of Wessex, somewhere in the southwest of England. Its tale of a five-sided love triangle in a pastoral setting gave English lit some of its most enduring characters, and they apparently served as a template for the celebrated characters in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. It is a novel whose poetic diction and psychological depth qualify it as a great work of literature. Yet at the same time, its vivid depiction of setting and people, its dry humor and eye-moistening melodrama, its hints of classic tragedy and its daringly sympathetic depiction of a strong woman ahead of her time, and the agonizingly delayed fulfillment of the romantic promise hinted at in the first few pages, make it so much fun to read that you won't be put off by its literary merit.
Who are the sides of the love-pentangle I mentioned above? The most important two are Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak. We first meet them when the former is a beautiful, vain, strong-minded maid of 20 years, living with her aunt without a penny to her name; while the latter is a 28-year-old shepherd, just getting started as an independent farmer. After the girl saves the shepherd from being stifled to death, Farmer Oak decides to ask her to marry him. In one of the most uncomfortable scenes ever written, Bathsheba turns him down on the grounds that she is too wild, too independent, and never wants to be subject to a husband if she can help it. Oak accepts this with a good-natured stoicism that will surely go to your heart.
After some further reversals, Oak finds himself working as a shepherd on the farm inherited by Bathsheba. Now she is the independent one, and he is only a hired laborer. A lesser man would be embittered by this, but Oak proves himself one of the strongest, kindest, and most selflessly faithful heroes in ink. And this is in spite of Bathsheba being courted by a taciturn neighboring farmer named Boldwood (side 3), previously a confirmed bachelor whose peaceful existence is upended by a facetious valentine Bathsheba impulsively sends him. Boldwood conceives a passion for Bathsheba, a passion in every sense of the word: tormenting the man, body and soul, until it builds to an obsession and, inevitably, wreaks great destruction.
Side 4 of the love pentagon is a young sergeant in the army named Francis Troy, whose dashing looks and spirits captivate Bathsheba in a way no other man does. He, meanwhile, is so taken by her beauty that he jilts the love of his life (Side 5), a servant girl in Bathsheba's household named Fanny Robin. Actually you don't see a great deal of Fanny in the book, but she comes to the most pathetic end, and her death serves as the trigger for everything that happens in the final act of the book. The Troys' marriage falls apart. Her husband's presumed (but unproven) death leaves Bathsheba in miserable uncertainty. Boldwood's importunity becomes unbearable, forcing Bathsheba into a dilemma from which there seems to be no escape. Jealousy, rage, violence, and insanity complete the tragic tableau. And yet, all along, Gabriel Oak's self-denying faithfulness remains a constant. Or does it? One last test remains before the end.
The drama of all this is so compelling, and the way the people and places are described is so vivid and beautiful, that this does not seem at all like a long book. In fact, the characters—both major and minor—are drawn with such clarity that you may feel you know them personally, and care about them, and miss them when you close the book. It's the stuff that addictions are made of. So if you follow my recommendation and enjoy this book, you may feel a craving for more Hardy. To help you choose what to read next, other popular titles by this author include: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure.
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Recommended Age: 13+
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