Thomas Hardy has many masterpieces in his oeuvre (Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure are other strong contenders among Hardy’s best), but Far From the Madding Crowd stands out as his most accurate depiction of an attractive woman’s struggle with power. The heroine of the story, Bathsheba Everdene, is confident, proud and very well-aware of the effect she has on men. Over the course of the narrative, she encounters three ardent suitors: Gabriel Oak, William Boldwood and Francis “Frank” Troy.
The first man she meets is Gabriel, a modest farmer who lives in the town of Norcombe Hill, where he has purchased a sheep farm of his own. As he sees her riding into town on her way to her Aunt Hurst’s, he immediately cites that the greatest of Bathsheba’s faults is her vanity. As Hardy puts it, “She simply observed herself as a fair product of Nature in the feminine kind, in which men would play a part–vistas of probable triumphs–the smiles being of a phase suggesting that hearts were imagined as lost and won.” And yet, Gabriel can’t help but be in love with her, both as a result of her beauty and her unique willfulness. Fascinated by her aura and movements, Gabriel often observes her unnoticed (it’s romantic, not creepy, when told in the Hardyan way). His enamor of her is fortified after she saves him from dying of smoke inhalation upon falling asleep in his shepherd’s hut with the hearth still lit. Even so, she still refuses to tell him her name in the wake of her heroic act. After going to the source–her aunt–to find out the details of the girl he learns is Bathsheba Everdene, he asks for her hand in marriage. Bathsheba declines him repeatedly during the exchange, and yet, Gabriel vows to love her for all time in spite of her dismissive treatment.
When next they meet, Bathsheba’s haughtiness has gained even more traction as she has inherited the farm and estate of her wealthy uncle in a nearby town called Weatherbury. Gabriel, on the other hand, has lost his entire flock of sheep thanks to an untrained dog that led them off of a cliff. At risk of pennilessness, Gabriel sells everything he owns just to break even from his losses. He unexpectedly learns of Bathsheba’s new station in life upon helping her farmhands put out a fire as he’s passing through in search of work. When a veiled Bathsheba comes to thank him for his good deed, they are both momentarily caught off guard, but Bathsheba is the first to regain her stoic air and accept him as an employee on the farm.
Bathsheba has little time to worry over Gabriel’s opinion of her between establishing herself as a worthy heir to the farm and dealing with meeting local farmer William Boldwood, an impenetrable man in his forties who is known for his perpetual state of bachelorhood. He comes to visit Bathsheba for the first time to inquire after one of her servants, Fanny Robin, who recently ran away, as he used to look after her when she was younger. Based on Boldwood’s lack of acknowledgement of her “specialness” at a subsequent meeting at the local market, Bathsheba agrees to her confidante and servant Liddy’s playful suggestion to fill out a valentine to Boldwood, in which she inscribes “Marry Me,” assuming it will have no effect on Boldwood’s seemingly apathetic demeanor. In contrast, Boldwood falls in love with Bathsheba upon learning from Gabriel that it is her handwriting. Indeed, this is the most succinct case of Bathsheba’s carelessness with the hearts of men, merely because she is so aware of how desirable she is, and that, in short, she has her pick of any of them. Again, Hardy puts Bathsheba in her place by noting, “Women are never tired of bewailing a man’s fickleness in love, but they only seem to snub his constancy.”
It is not until the third suitor in her life, Sergeant Troy, comes to town that she is given a taste of her own painful medicine. Hesitant to fall for someone so clearly roguish, it is precisely because of this that “Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance. When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the occasion. She has never had practice in making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.”
It is, in fact, this sort of dichotomy in the archetypal powerful female personality that makes Bathsheba one of the most interesting characters in literature. She knows she has been made weak against her better judgment, and that the one thing men found truly attractive about her–her strength–is now cut down to size due to the folly of her formerly excessive self-confidence. Her emotional decimation, however, gives her a new form of courage, a toughness that makes her appeal more than ever to the one man who has ever truly loved her from a pure and non-motive laden place.