Study Questions for Far from the Madding Crowd
Far from the Madding Crowd was Hardy's fourth published novel, but it was also his first big success. The first edition of 1,000 copies sold out within two months, and a second printing of 500 was immediately ordered (at the time, these were very respectable sales figures for a relatively unknown author). How do we account for the measured success of the novel? From a readerly perspective, what are its strong points, its mechanisms for engaging our interest? And, importantly, how does the appeal of the novel compare to the appeals of Dickens's novels, especially his early efforts? (On this score, you might compare the way that Dickens moves his plots along briskly with Hardy's technique, and think in both cases about character development within the constraints of plot.)
Not all reviewers appreciated the novel, of course. Henry James famously wrote: "Everything human in the book strikes us as factitious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs." James's criticism opens an interesting line of analysis: in this early novel, does Hardy do a better job of describing the natural world than the human one? If you think so, where are some of the places in the tale where Hardy seems particularly adept at representing Dorset? If you think not, which of the Dorset characters does Hardy develop in complexly human ways?
How does Hardy use dialect speech to help flesh out his characters? Is language in the novel connected to class status?
And speaking of class, there seems to be a fair amount of social mobility in the novel. Consider Gabriel's fall and subsequent rise, Bathsheba's rise and near fall, Troy's rise through marriage, and so on. In exploring class status, does Hardy articulate a particular view or critique of the assumptions about social rank and privilege in his time?
And let's not forget about gender. In his novels, Hardy spent a great deal of imaginative effort in creating women who were unconventional. Hardy's heroine here is to a large extent assertive beyond the traditional sphere of female activity, and Hardy goes to great lengths to show Bathsheba as participating in male rituals. Does Bathsheba manage to retain the independent spirit she begins with throughout the novel? Where does Hardy seem to stand on the question of her independence?
Hardy wrote to his publisher that he composed the last chapters of the novel "at a gallop" because of his rapidly approaching marriage. Do you detect any change in narration in those chapters?
Far from the Madding Crowd was first published serially in the Cornhill Magazine, and each instalment in that venue was accompanied by an illustration. Biographical evidence suggests that Hardy thought very highly of these images. If your book reprints some of these illustrations, or if you find some of them in the library or on the web, how do they work with the text? What is it that Hardy might have admired in them?
The title of Hardy's novel comes from Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751), certainly in Hardy's day one of the most well known poems in the English language. Gray's "Elegy" is readily available online and in poetry collections available at the library. Given the overall tenor of the poem, why might Hardy have wanted to allude to it, to establish it as a comparison text in the minds of his readers?