1. Troy tells Bathsheba that her beauty “may do more harm than good in the world.” Because “a hundred men” will love her for her beauty, and because only one can marry her, the others will be ruined. Is Troy correct in essence? Bathsheba’s guilt over Boldwood is strong, and she feels pangs even over Oak’s love. To what degree is she culpable for what happens to the men who love her?
Some readers may agree with Troy that Bathsheba, by merely being beautiful, harms the men around her. But most will see this claim as a manipulative speech aimed, whether romantically or reprehensibly, at persuading Bathsheba to favor Troy. But insofar as Troy is correct about the influence of Bathsheba’s beauty, the question is in fact who is responsible for a man who drinks, mopes, or stalks her. Boldwood does indeed wreck his life for love of Bathsheba, whose beauty, once he finally notices it, so dazzles him. She feels deeply to blame, yet she explains herself maturely, accepts the guilt for sending the valentine, apologizes sincerely, and declares herself not open to his proposal. It seems harsh to call her responsible for Boldwood’s descent into obsession. Indeed, he tells Oak that she made no promises and is not to blame for Boldwood’s shattered state. This suggests that his frequent reminders that she “owes” him marriage for having suggested the possibility by sending the valentine are on a par with Troy’s flirtatious banter: manipulative and selfish. Oak, by contrast, though he is also a disappointed suitor, stoops to none of these tricks. Nor does he let his life go to ruin over Bathsheba. It seems clear, then, that Bathsheba’s sense of culpability is overwrought.
2. Many of Hardy’s novels concern the inescapable power of fate, chance, or destiny over individuals’ lives. List three instances in which fate, rather than a character’s intent or choice, drives the plot. In the end, what is more responsible for the tragedies that occur—fate, or people’s actions?
Most of the events that happen in the novel, particularly those that drive the important plot points, occur because a character chose to do, or not to do, something. Fanny chose to walk to the garrison to find Troy; Troy chose to walk away from her in disgust outside the church. Bathsheba chose to drive all night to Bath, ostensibly to warn Troy about Boldwood’s threats but really to see him again, and she chose to marry him there, secretly. The list of the good and not-so-good choices in the novel is long, and characters, Bathsheba in particular, often act in full knowledge that others have reasons to fear the results of their actions.
However, at a few points, fate intervenes, usually with negative results. For instance, Fanny’s confusion of All Souls’ and All Saints’ is an act of fate, as is Troy’s leaving the church just as Fanny finally arrives. Certainly, the way in which Bathsheba and Troy meet, when her dress snags on the path and he stops to untangle it from his spur, of all things, seems fateful. And Troy and Bathsheba happen to be on the road when Fanny, weak to death and heavily pregnant, passes them, setting the stage for the terrible revelations. Other plot points, too, seem governed by fate.
The question, then, is whether the power of fate overwhelms the characters. Some readers might agree to this premise. However, following each of the coincidences, characters must respond. Bathsheba does not have to seek out Troy’s company again; Troy certainly did not have to scorn poor Fanny in the churchyard and leave her, pregnant with his child. In fact, it could be argued that fate’s outcome is positive as often as it is negative. Had Bathsheba’s sheep not wandered into the early clover and fallen ill, she might have had no reason to beg Oak to return, for example. It seems that fate intervenes, but then characters must respond to that intervention.
3. What is the role of the “rustics” in the novel? Hardy depicts the villagers as dwelling in an old country that is somewhat sanitized. Literary critics have pointed out that no one is hungry in Weatherbury or dissatisfied with the hard work that is the lot of the laborers. Hardy presents the rustics in this way for a particular reason. What does Hardy accomplish in his depiction of the rustics?
For readers in his time, Hardy provided a comforting, nostalgic view of old country England—very much like a bucolic story set on a Kansas farm would be for American readers. Erased are the conflicts inherent in a rapidly industrializing, urbanizing country; present are “the good old days,” whether these actually existed at any time. In addition, the villagers are presented humorously; they provide comic relief. Whether presented with Joseph Poorgrass’s drunken double-vision or Henery Fray’s dour pronouncements, readers are intended to chuckle over the villagers. They are sometimes presented as inept; Oak must come in and salvage their errors. Hardy avoids the temptation to treat the rustics as mere stereotypes, however. Though they are only minor characters, they develop. For example, at first they are deeply suspicious of Bathsheba’s intent to run the farm herself, predicting that they will all be ruined. Over time, however, they come to respect Bathsheba’s abilities and become her fierce defenders—this despite the unconventional role she has taken up, for a woman at that time and place. They are also capable of deep pity for Fanny and of true friendship for Oak, the newcomer that they easily could have resented. They provide a chorus, to take the Greek dramatic term, that comments on the doings of the major characters, providing readers with extra insight into the main characters and the novel’s themes.
4. In Chapter 22, Hardy writes a long and loving description of the great barn on Bathsheba’s farm. Discuss two questions that the passage suggests: First, to what does Hardy compare the barn? Second, what does this passage suggest about the importance of the continuity between past and present?
Readers may find this type of description old-fashioned; it’s not as common for today’s writers to spend many paragraphs describing a place in such detail. It may be easier for readers to think like a movie director instead, allowing time for the cameras to linger on a building in order to set a mood. The description of the barn does set a mood, both of reverence and of continuity. The barn is “spacious,” like the “nave and chancel” of a church, and has “buttresses” and pointed stone arches. Its floors are “as rich in hue as the state-room floors of an Elizabethan mansion,” suggesting that it is at the spiritual and economic heart of the community. The parts of the barn, and the people in it, contribute to a “harmony” that permeates the building. Throughout the passage, moreover, the narrator speaks of how the barn, which is four hundred years old (in the time of the novel) and still functioning as it ever did, connects past and present. It “embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time” so that “the spirit of the ancient builders was at one with the spirit of the modern beholder.” Looking at it, the villagers feel grateful, proud, and full of “the permanence of the idea which had heaped it up.” Perhaps Hardy presents this description to his urban readers, living in fast-moving, industrialized cities, as a nostalgic, lovely image of an England that still existed, a little way out in the country.
5. Interspersed throughout the novel are poetic descriptions of the natural world, often as it is perceived by Gabriel Oak, who is remarkably attuned to nature. How is the natural world characterized in these descriptions—as friend to humans or their enemy, as beautiful or terrible? Why does the narrator revel in these descriptive passages, at the risk of interrupting the plot’s motion?
Nature is all of these things—friend, enemy, beautiful inspirer, terrifying threat—during the course of the novel. In Chapter 2, the narrator describes a night sky so vast, so pierced by stars, that to lie on one’s back and gaze into it is to experience “the roll of the world eastward” as “almost a palpable movement.” After such a sight, it is “hard to get back to earth, and to believe that the consciousness of such majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human frame.” The writer who describes the night sky in this way has no doubt experienced these impressions, and readers can easily believe that something of Hardy is in Gabriel Oak’s attuned perceptions of nature. From the small—the behavior of a frog that bespeaks a coming storm—to the massive—the lightning bolts dancing like skeletons in air—nature is instructive to those who can read it and punishing to those who ignore it. Thus, Oak reads the signs and acts to save the crops, while Boldwood, wrapped up in his fantasies, disregards the signs and loses his crops.
Readers may argue that Hardy lingers of the descriptions of the natural world because in these he has the opportunity to write poetically—he was, after all, a poet first—and because he himself had a deep appreciation for nature, having grown up in the country. Yet more is going on that personal preference. Like fate, nature has a hand in human existence, one that is largely beyond the control of “tiny human frames.” Natural events give the characters the opportunity to act, to choose, to respond—or to passively accept the hand nature deals them, as Troy does when he walks away from Fanny’s flooded grave. Bathsheba and Oak do not walk away. They act to repair the grave; they prepare for the next rain by having the drainage repaired. How the characters respond to nature thus provides a criterion by which to understand and judge them.