Rhapsody in Penguins II — Fourth Movement: Far From the Madding Crowd

(Sorry if this is a rambling piece… I envisioned this as my most heartfelt piece but turns out I’m a mess when I do heartfelt.)

Far From the Madding Crowd (1874)
by Thomas Hardy
edited by Rosemarie Morgan

I’ve just taken a look at the calendar and discovered a coincidence: the day of publishing comes on this year’s Qixi Festival, the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day. To any of my foreign readers (yeah, I was surprised that they exist too), it’s a story of forbidden love, of two constellations personified who love each other but can only meet once a year, when they tread onto a bridge of flying magpies, manoeuvred there by the gods, to get to each other.

You may notice that the Chinese are not extremely good at imagery, but nevertheless, this is a story that everyone loves and longs to have: an immortal couple whose love is so great that deities will go out of their way to enable such a connection. But dramatic events like these happen few and far between, and without the adequate stimulation, the characters in “Far From the Madding Crowd” take what they have and boy, do they RUN with it.

The effects of sentiments running wild are best encapsulated in a sentence in which Boldwood is busy justifying himself for going after Bathsheba:

It has been observed more than once that the causes of love are chiefly subjective, and Boldwood was a living testimony to the truth of the proposition.

Now, it’s been generally agreed upon that humans should have subjective feelings, the key thing being that you know how to manage them. But Boldwood’s “insulated” himself against feelings for the majority of his adult life — starving himself of affection, resisting all contact with the fairer sex. (Maybe he’s also autistic.) In any case, he takes this quite badly.

There was a change in Boldwood’s exterior from its former impassibleness; and his face showed that he was now living outside his defences for the first time, and with a fearful sense of exposure. It is the usual experience of strong natures when they love.

Boldwood’s about-face here is astonishing, and to the casual observer, actually quite laughable. Somebody sending you a valentine is just a gesture. If cards were actually things to go by, elementary schools would be having orgies every Valentine’s Day. But Hardy has constructed a character who cannot comprehend the idea of a “meaningless” gesture: Boldwood has never done anything not worth doing, and he doesn’t really know what to do upon seeing such an event unfold. What he does do, though is mistake this empty gesture for one of real love. When Hardy tells us how Boldwood feels about the incident, there are a LOT of side references to how he’s taking it a bit too subjectively, hints that he’s jumping to conclusions… and that is what you take away from that chapter, rather than “Boldwood is in love”. Because as you read, you discover that the latter cannot possibly be true.

Let me go all scholarly for a while to explain this (cue reader facepalm and derision). The word “love” appears in that chapter a total of two times, and even in those restrained days that would have not been enough to set hearts aflutter. Boldwood’s response is more akin to a defence mechanism than love: he thinks he loves her only because Bathsheba’s come in like a wrecking ball and shattered his dignity, and in a panic he’s taken the far-too-obvious conclusion for granted. In return, Boldwood himself performs a series of actions that really don’t mean anything in terms of love either: first asking for her hand in marriage (“will you marry me” is never a great conversational opener, especially if YOU’VE NEVER SPOKEN TO EACH OTHER BEFORE) and then, when she seems in danger of loving somebody else, tries to bribe his rival. All instead of actively trying to prove himself worthy of her affection… no wonder he was a hopeless case.

And now we move on to the perpetrator, because if we’re completely honest, Bathsheba also suffers from a slight problem of mistaking overblown gestures for heartfelt ones too. Everybody who has a rudimentary grasp of the book should have heard of the swordsmanship scene where Sergeant Troy waggles his sword around Bathsheba (damn it, Sigmund Freud, ruining every single work of art since 1899) and comes quite close to killing her. But despite Bathsheba’s initial fear, something else attracts her, something that Hardy spells out:

In an instant the atmosphere was transformed to Bathsheba’s eyes. Beams of light caught from the low sun’s rays, above, around, in front of her, well-nigh shut out earth and heaven — all emitted in the marvellous evolutions of Troy’s reflecting blade, which seemed everywhere at once, and yet nowhere specially.

Sigh. If only I could have that effect on my romantic interest… and there’s the clincher. What is it about this scene that entrances me, besides all the naughty double entendres? Perhaps it’s the imagery. In a few sentences, Hardy describes how this normal, earthbound spectacle slowly turns into something bigger, expanding evermore to enclose Bathsheba’s perception of the entire universe. There is no denying that Sergeant Troy’s sword skills are good. But I doubt you would describe it as something akin to a celestial extravaganza. Unless of course “sword” is a euphemism. (BTW, this entire scene is seriously erotic. I couldn’t stop grinning while I read that in the office.)

But Bathsheba sees it as something more special than it really should be. And why is that? It’s the spectacle of the entire show that literally blinds her to its hollow nature — as it expands to fill up her perceptions, she becomes too bewildered to think anything else. A quick peck on the lips is enough for her to nudge her towards the all too obvious answer: Troy loves her. Alas, as with carelessly written valentines, these things are all too easily given away, and Bathsheba, like her own conquest before her, falls prey to the empty gesture. As Thomas Hardy says, rather unflatteringly, “of love as a spectacle, Bathsheba had a fair knowledge, of love subjectively, Bathsheba knew nothing”. Say what you like about Bathsheba’s many strengths, she has about as much clue of mature romance as Boldwood does.

In “Far From the Madding Crowd”, then, it would seem that everyone is all too susceptible to the trap of hollow gestures. But there is a beacon of sanity in all of this: I give you Mr. Gabriel Oak.

To be honest, Gabriel is not a perfect character. He doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut at the right time, for example. And he yawns during sermon. But he does have a few characteristics to his credit: he’s always by Bathsheba’s side and ready to provide help (when it’s needed), and his bigmouthed periods are mainly because he delivers uncomfortable truths. He is recognizably not the exciting guy you prefer for a date, but he’s the safe, dependable choice who always knows how to stand by you without being overbearing. (I’m writing this at three in the morning.) His style is not flashy or amazing, but he’s genuine in the things he does, and it’s this quality that leads Bathsheba to ultimately recognize him as her friend — indeed, her only dependable friend throughout everything.

When I started this series last year, I wanted to suggest how the classics taught us to become better people. And as love is one of the most important things in life, I suppose this book, with its words on how to (and how not to) become better lovers, does the job pretty well. Those people who rushed to throw themselves at Bathsheba’s feet ended up showing her how they didn’t really know what they were doing, they just ended up with various degrees of pathetic. Gabriel, with his slow, steady devotion, is triumphant only because he keeps to his word, and remains steadfastly loyal throughout.

As a person who has yet to find a girlfriend (the benefits of Asperger’s, y’all), I recognize I am not qualified to be lecturing on matters of the heart. But I have my share of knowledge upon the matter, and I believe I can say with confidence that amazing showmanship is not the entire story when it comes to love. Oh, of course it’s nice, even sweet, to give your partner gives us the surprise of his/her life. But that is only one part of romantic life — and as we all know, life is never an endless chain of bombastic events. (If yours is, please notify me immediately. I want some of that.) From what I can see, it’s the little things in between: companionship, support, facing troubles together, that I think matters and shows that you really love somebody — and somebody really loves you.

I leave you with that. Happy Qixi Festival, everyone.

Next time: By sheer coincidence, next Friday is also another traditional Chinese festival — but sadly, there are no happy lovers to be commemorated. Instead, it’s the much gloomier Ghost Festival, and the atmosphere can only be appropriate as we head into war-torn Amsterdam and read “The Diary of a Young Girl”.

(Quotations from the Penguin Classics edition of “Far From the Madding Crowd”, edited by Rosemarie Morgan with an introduction by Lucasta Miller, published 2004, featured photo from cover of said book.)

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