Exploring Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd
Exploring Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd

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5 Religion

Thomas Hardy was a religious sceptic, but Far From the Madding Crowd has references to the Bible on practically every page. That is because of the influence the church had at the time. While such references might seem esoteric now and have many of us modern readers turning to notes in the backs of our editions for explanations, they would have been familiar to the church-going rural society Hardy writes about, and to his contemporary readers. Interestingly such references don’t signify piety or religious devotion, but instead testify to the community’s shared heritage.

Chapter XIII is no exception. We have already considered the title ‘Sortes sanctorum’, using the Holy Scriptures for fortune telling. The ‘old quarto Bible, bound in leather’ that Liddy and Bathsheba use is fundamental to the action in this chapter, and the use the bible is put to is far from spiritual! The narrator describes its pages as ‘drab with age’, and comments that in places it is ‘quite worn away at much-read verses by the forefingers of unpractised readers in former days where they were moved along under the line as an aid to vision’. That description conveys a hazy impression of those who owned the book in the past; it has been handed down through generations, not of scholars but ordinary people, not all of whom were fluent readers.

Box 4 The Bible as a ‘quarto’

The description of the Bible as ‘quarto’ is a reference to the number of times the pages were folded: it indicates the size of the book. Later the valentine is described as a ‘gorgeously illuminated and embossed design in post octavo’. Again, this refers to the way the paper has been folded and thus the size of the card.

There’s something touching about the way their marks are inscribed on the pages, reminding us of their existence. And when Bathsheba finds a rusty mark in the place she’s looking for, she knows and we know that she is not the first to use an old key to find out who she will marry. In this way narrator conveys a sense of history and tradition to using the bible in this way.

Box 5 Focalisation

‘… a species of Daniel’ is a Biblical reference. Bathsheba is piqued because unlike everyone else in church, Boldwood has not even glanced at her. So the narrator compares him to the Biblical Daniel in the Old Testament (Daniel, chap. 6 v.16): who refused to observe King Darius’s decree and insisted on facing Jerusalem when he prayed. In church, Boldwood continues to face east and the altar, ‘when reason and common sense said that he might just as well follow suit with the rest and afford [Bathsheba] the official glance of admiration’. This is not what the narrator really thinks, but is a way of expressing Bathsheba’s annoyance at Boldwood ignoring her. The technique is known as ‘focalisation’ and it happens when a third-person narrator goes into a character’s mind to tell us what they think, without explicitly saying that’s what they’re doing. We have to read carefully to notice shifts like this one.

Hardy expects his readers to know exactly which verse he means when he tells us Bathsheba searches for the ‘special verse’ whereas you might have had to look it up: the ‘sublime words’ that she reads are from the Book of Ruth chap. 1, verse 16. Interestingly enough, Ruth is speaking to her future mother-in-law, not Boaz whom she is to marry: ‘Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go: and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God’. Nevertheless, the verses are about love, and they convey absolute sincerity.

The narrator uses an image from the Book of Daniel to describe the ‘troublesome image’ Boldwood ignoring her presents to Bathsheba, but did you notice just how many other references there are to religion or religious observances in this short chapter? First, the action takes place on a Sunday, so certain practices are frowned upon. Liddy is anxious that indulging in Biblical fortune-telling is wrong on a Sunday. Bathsheba, capable of independent practical thought dismisses it: ‘What’s right week days is right Sundays’.

Boldwood has ignored Bathsheba in church, throughout the whole service. We can infer that everyone goes to church because ‘everybody else’ does notice her. That she attracts interest is inevitable, she is new to the village of Weatherbury, she is unusual in that she is a woman who has taken over management of a farm, and she is also single and very attractive. Church on Sunday then serves as an opportunity for the community to give her a once-over; an instance of religious observance used as a social, rather than (or possibly as well as) a spiritual event.

From the evidence of this chapter it can be suggested that, although we know that Hardy himself had little or no religious faith, his fiction reflects the influence of the Church on the daily lives of the community he depicts.

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