Far From The Maddening Crowd. Thomas Hardy. 1874.
I don’t want to make a terrible pun but it really was maddening to attempt to read this book. As it was written in archaic english with run on sentences and period references, I often lost the flow of the story and failed to connect with the characters. The main protagonist, Bethesda, was an independent, strong-willed woman with whom I should have empathized but I found myself disliking her and caring little about her love interests.
Mostly the story just made me feel sad. It was filled with heartbreak, regret and bad luck. It made clear a terrible truth in life – love makes you reckless and can transform you until you’ve lost yourself. Due to the overwhelming power of love, Bethesda let herself get swept away and lost sight of her own interests. This once self-confident, intelligent woman was driven to jealous rage and self-sacrificing guilt because of a false, unhealthy love.
What upset me most was that I saw myself in her during her worst moments. Perhaps that was part of why I disliked her so. We never want to be reminded of our own short comings. I witnessed my own mistakes of falling recklessly, completely in love with someone. I relived the soul destroying pain that comes from finding out that person cannot be trusted with you heart.
And what of the ending? She has her heart ripped out by passionate love and after many years of lonely repair, she marries her friend. What am I to take away from this conclusion? That passionate love destroys you, best to settle for steady friendship? That a love based on friendship, trust, and mutual acceptance outweighs the terrible ecstasy of all-consuming, one-in-a-million love? That is both unbelieveably sad and yet ever so slightly comforting.
What struck me most deeply was that her passionate lover left her and used her happiness as an excuse. He claimed ‘He would be doing Bethesda a generous turn to leave the country, he thought grimly. His absence would be to her benefit as his presence might be to her ruin.’ In the story, the reader is clearly meant to feel that he was leaving for selfish reasons and when he again returns he does so with malicious, self-serving intentions. This pattern is one to which I can personally relate and I’m troubled by how it eventually unfolds. It is not until he is killed and thus permanently removed from her life that she can let go of his ghost and heal her heart. But in the end, was she happy? I don’t know. Will I be? Only time will tell.