Obsession is prevalent as a theme in Far from the Madding Crowd. Obsession carries the plot and creates action between the characters. In this essay, I will examine how the characters advance the plot through their obsessive behaviour towards each other. Far from the Madding Crowd is by Thomas Hardy and was first published in a series in the Cornhill Magazine in 1873. This can be seen by the large amount of short chapters, often with titles that make the reader wonder what the chapter contains, such as ‘The Following March – “Bathsheba Boldwood”’.
It can also be seen in the cliff-hangers they often end with, encouraging the reader to buy the next magazine to read it. The title comes from ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ a poem by Thomas Gray, a favourite of Hardy’s poets. The complete line seventy-three reads: ‘Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’, describing how life in towns is full of petty conflicts, whereas life in the countryside is more simple and therefore, better.
Although the novel does often describe the beauty of the countryside, a part of England Hardy believed to be disappearing because of the industrial revolution, it may also be ironic, because the emotional turmoil, often caused by obsession, that the main characters go through is certainly not calm. The novel starts with Oak as he sees ‘an ornamental spring waggon’ with Bathsheba inside. She unwraps a ‘small swing looking-glass’ and gazes at herself, without showing any ‘necessity whatever’ for looking. Oak comments that ‘the greatest of [her faults]’ is she is obsessed with her own beauty.
This vanity is continued for the majority of the book. An example of this is when Bathsheba has learnt sheep ‘have broken fence’ and eaten young clover. Hardy mentions that she was wearing a ‘rather dashing velvet dress’, which was ‘carefully put on before a glass’. It is this negative characteristic of Bathsheba which will cause her such misfortune later in the novel. Bathsheba’s obsession with herself drives her to ‘direct [a] missive to Boldwood’. This is because she feels piqued after Liddy tells he ‘didn’t turn his head’ in church that day, despite ‘his pew [being] exactly opposite [Bathsheba’s]’.
Boldwood’s ‘nervous excitability’ about the fact that someone may want to marry him makes him first obsessed with finding the writer of the note, and then Bathsheba herself. This is reflected in the sunrise described the day after Boldwood receives the valentine. It symbolizes a strong new feeling in Boldwood of love, which Hardy likens to ‘a red and flameless fire’. The more she tells him she has ‘not fallen in love with’ him, the more he desires her. His true ‘mental derangement’ is revealed towards the end of the novel, when an ‘extraordinary collection’ of packages is found, ‘labelled “Bathsheba Boldwood”’.
Boldwood’s character shows obsession, in his case with Bathsheba, to be unhealthy and a trait of a crazed person. Bathsheba’s infatuation with Troy is another important obsession in Far from the Madding Crowd. Her name also hints at her potentiality to be tempted, the Bathsheba in the Bible being tempted to commit adultery by David. She confesses her feelings to Liddy, telling her she loves Troy ‘to very distractions and misery and agony’. However, Hardy describes Troy as ‘moderately truthful towards men but to women lied like a Cretan’.
Therefore the reader knows the relationship is doomed from the start, being built on untruthfulness and obsession. This is hinted at through the song that Bathsheba sings before Troy comes to Weatherbury: On the banks of Allan Water. It tells of a soldier’s love of a miller’s daughter, which is found to be untrue. Like the soldier in the song, Troy’s love is false too. After marrying Bathsheba, Troy develops an obsession with gambling. Although the one obsession that does not move the plot along, it instead shows the mistake that Bathsheba made by giving in to her obsession to marry him.
She calls their marriage a ‘mistake’ and laments that her once ‘independent and spirited’ self has ‘come to this’. The start of the chapter takes place on ‘Yalbury Hill’, a ‘steep long ascent’. This may denote the uphill struggle the couple were going through at that point. Troy’s shallow nature is also shown through is lack of care for Fanny, the girl who Troy breaks promise with to marry despite impregnating her. He does not want her when she is alive, but is obsessed with her when she is dead.
His lack of care is shown when Fanny asks him ‘when shall [they] be married’, and after she is gone, Troy and his fellow soldiers mock her with a ‘low peal of laughter’, demonstrating his disregard for Fanny’s wants. This is shown by Fanny being described as a ‘little spot’; a mild annoyance to Troy. Troy is shown to be insensitive, Hardy often referring to him as ‘the wall’ rather than ‘Troy’ when he speaks. The wall is described as being blacker ‘than the sky’. Hardy compares him to the wall to show the reader he is a ‘bad, black-hearted man’, which Troy admits to, much later in the novel.
In comparison, when Troy sees Fanny’s corpse for the first time, he feels an ‘indefinable union of remorse and reverence’ and declares she is his ‘very, very wife’. His full obsession is shown the next day, when he is told to be ‘almost oblivious of’ Bathsheba and to not think ‘there was any element of absurdity’ in spending the whole day tending to Fanny’s grave. Like Boldwood, his obsession has caused him to become temporally mentally deranged. The consequences of the characters’ obsessions come to a climax in Chapter 53.
Boldwood’s and Troy’s behaviours result in tragic fates, Boldwood having ‘cocked’ and ‘discharged’ a gun at Troy, while Boldwood being sentenced to ‘life imprisonment’ after being shown to not be ‘morally responsible’ for his actions. Their fortunes are because of their dangerous obsessions with women they cannot have: Boldwood with Bathsheba who does not love him and Troy with Fanny after she has died. The results of giving into obsessions are reflected in the natural events which occur throughout the novel. An example of this is when Bathsheba’s flock ‘[get] into a field of young clover’.
Here, they are giving into their impulses, before paying the consequences by ‘getting blasted’: being so bloated their stomachs expand which causes death. This is a mirroring of Bathsheba’s decision to give in to her obsession and marry Troy, despite Gabriel Oak’s heeding. Later in the novel, we see the disastrous consequences. Throughout the novel, the only character that remains above these obsessions is Gabriel Oak. Hardy illustrates this through his name: Gabriel, an angel, often said to be the spirit of truth, and Oak, a strong and sturdy tree, not often affected by weather around it.
After Bathsheba tells Oak she ‘[does] not love [him]’, he resolves to ‘give his days and nights’ to Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes states that ‘everything is meaningless’, and this belief that Gabriel takes on is shown in his ability to move on quickly from distressing events. For example, when Bathsheba demands him to leave her farm. In this situation, Oak does not protest but says ‘calmly’: ‘Very well’. It may be argued that Oak is obsessed with Bathsheba because he loves her strongly. Hardy describes Oak’s desire of Bathsheba as a ‘beautiful thread’ that he did not want to break, rather than a ‘chain’ which was impossible to.
However, his ability to control his desires separates him from Boldwood’s obsessive behaviour. This is shown when Bathsheba finally gives in to Boldwood’s harassing and agrees to ‘marry [Boldwood] in six years’, despite ‘burst[ing] out crying’. Here, Boldwood lets his obsessive love of Bathsheba stop her from being happy, whereas Oak would rather Bathsheba was happy without him rather than her being unhappy and with him. Because of this, he is rewarded by having a ‘private, secret, plainest wedding’ with Bathsheba. Bathsheba’s character also changes.
This is epitomized at the end of the book, when ‘Bathsheba [smiles]’ rather than ‘laughed readily’ at one of the villager’s jokes. This shows she has learnt from her experiences that it is not a good idea to get carried away with your emotions, fuelled by obsession. So to conclude, obsession can be found throughout Far from the Madding Crowd, in the characters, the plot and even the landscape. It is a main cause of the drama in the story by impelling the character’s conflicts. Obsession is an essential theme in Far from the Madding Crowd.