Enter a hero.
There is a way some men have, rural and urban alike -- for which the mind is more responsible than flesh or sinew -- a way of curtailing their dimensions by their manner of showing them; and from a quiet modesty that would have become a vestal, which seemed continually to impress upon him that he had no great claim on the world's room, Oak walked unassumingly, and with a faintly perceptible bend, quite distinct from a bowing of the shoulders. (4)
Enter a heroine.
The girl, who wore no riding-habit, looked around for a moment as if to assure herself that all humanity was out of view, then dexterously dropped backwards flat upon the pony's back, her head over its tail, her feet against its shoulder and her eyes to the sky. The rapidity of her glide into this position was that of a kingfisher -- its noiselessness that of a hawk: Gabriel Oak's eyes had scarcely been able to follow her. (15)
This girl, headstrong and independent Bathsheba Everdeen, inherits her late uncle’s farm in Weatherbury, England, at age twenty-eight, and attracts the attention of three men—a shepherd, a farmer, and a lustful, irresponsible soldier. By twists of fate and ill-made decisions, Bathsheba finds herself in states of acceptance and rejection of each of these men. The tale's conclusion seems inevitable, however, and, yes, it might have been worse; she marries the constant and wise shepherd, Gabriel Oak, who by the end of the story has become her friend and confidant. Farmer Boldwood, a dark, hidden man, nearing middle age and previously contented in his bachelorhood, is left without Bathsheba to calm his newfound passions for the female sex; Sargent Troy has been killed in cold blood and buried with his first love, Fanny Robin, (and their illigitemate child).
There. I’ve just spoiled the story for you. Or maybe you already knew. Anyway, friends, I am a vessel of mixed feelings this Sunday: I am tired, overwhelmed, frustrated and lonely. Maybe it’s the cold, or the gray of January, or maybe it’s this book, Far From the Madding Crowd, that has drawn me back into a state of remembrance and reflection. This is a love story. It’s about Love in many of its forms, a story of its failures and reparations, and a few of its triumphs.
I finished the book last night at 12:09 a.m., and I set it aside, grateful to be done. But I hadn't been moved. Tiredness, perhaps, was a larger truth in that moment.
The last words of the book, “it might have been worse, and I feel my thanks accordingly,” actually make me laugh.
Because obviously they're speaking toward the characters in the story--Bathsheba's with Gabriel, and yep, it coulda been worse. But what did they mean for me? Dang. I made it though! And I s'pose it coulda been worse. (Almost makes me wonder whether Thomas Hardy read that last line over to himself, "it could have been worse, it could have been worse," and thought, my God, isn’t that the truth. And then perhaps he rolled his eyes, put his quill down and went on a walk. Who knows. The man must have been exhausted, writing this book. It was exhausting to read it!)
But Thomas Hardy is a master of plot, and if I’d not seen the film adaptation (starring Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts), I’d have been hurting to follow along with the action. I made friends with my dictionary and thesaurus. Can't even count the number of references to Greek mythology and Old-English phrases I skipped; there are thirty-six pages of notes at the back, thirteen pages in the glossary, and five appendices. That was all too much. I had no time for it. Not in the span of a week.
Well, anyway. It is snowing just now, in my corner of Indiana. I’m looking out a large set of windows, upon a pond, and beyond that to a border of white pines and tamaracks. Through a gap in these trees is a view of the cornfield just past them. And at the edge of the field, a road.
All this seems quite far off from the imagined green slopes of southern England, where beech trees and ferns stand high against wheat fields, where sheep graze on hills and horses clack noisily on muddied cobblestone streets, driving into towns full of inns and churches, houses with surgeons and merchants. I like reading stories of “old England.” Why? Maybe because it seems so very different from our own reality here in the United States. But there's a similar quietude in this world and in this book: this ghost of a notion that in some part of memory, everything stays the same.
This house I am in has gone quiet. That is, except for my father, snoring in his wingback chair, and the ticking of the cuckoo clock behind me to my left, and the snap of my fingers on the keys. The fire in the wood stove has gone out and the fan is turned off—that fan with its incessant whir, its high-pitched drone that permeates the floorboards to the room where I sleep, exactly below it. Still, this main room is warm, and the speed of the snow falling sideways to the right makes everything feel quite soft, as though somehow my heart were being held, cradled. The snow drifts past tree trunks, down to the ground, and I think it must be time that is now half-frozen, half-asleep, waiting for me to blink.
Peace, good thoughts, happy reading.