Structurally, Far from the Madding Crowd is about a fickle young Englishwoman trying to do two things for which she is unqualified: run a farm and juggle suitors.
Bathsheba Everdeen, a poor but beautiful maiden, inherits her uncle’s farm shortly after refusing a marriage proposal from Gabriel Oaks, a good-hearted and highly capable sheep farmer. When disaster forces him to become one of her employees, he suffers as she toys with the emotions of William Boldwood, a wealthy neighbor and eventually falls under the spell of Frank Troy, an army sergeant. From there the reader can imagine the ultimate outcome. Romance literature is full of love triangles and dramatic turns involving mis-sent letters and characters who disappear for a while, only to return at critical moments.
What makes this novel special is the setting and Thomas Hardy’s cast of supporting characters. We get a rich sense of nineteenth-century farm life in his pastoral scenes. Sheep herding can be treacherous when your own dog chases two hundred of your flock over a cliff to their deaths.
With colorful dialogue, Hardy develops Bathsheba’s farm characters as they gather in a tavern to needle each other and gossip about their mistress’s ancestry and her efforts to take over her uncle’s affairs. Most enjoyable is an amusing scene in which Cain Ball tries to describe a meeting between Bathsheba and Troy but keeps digressing to describe other attractions on his visit to a nearby town. The farm characters serve as a Greek chorus, simple but insightful in affairs of the heart.
Though out of her depth romantically, Bathsheba is well-meaning, fair to her workers, and determined to keep the farm going. The fate of every subordinate depends on her success, such that her personal problems keep them, and the reader, in suspense.
To modern readers, Far from the Madding Crowd can be a bit challenging at times due to its idiomatic dialogue and Hardy’s often leisurely narration. Yet, one can see his influence in the work of contemporary authors. Even for those who don’t care for romantic stories, it’s a worthwhile indulgence.