Far From the Madding Crowd – An Analysis of Death in Thomas Hardy’s Novel

Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd is a nineteenth-century novel set in a provincial society. The subject of death in the narrative is represented by the murder of Sergeant Troy and the tragic end of his lover Fanny Robin. This article looks at the death of Fanny, exploring various narrative techniques and literary devices Hardy employs, as well as assessing certain genres the novel could be considered to belong.

Far from the Madding Crowd initially appears to be a typical nineteenth-century realist novel. However a deeper analysis would reveal the multitude of genres subtly incorporated into its carefully constructed framework. It is this considered combination of popular literary forms, such as the pastoral tale, classical tragedy and comic romance, which contribute largely to the novel’s enduring appeal, undermining any dismissive categorization of realist fiction. Consequently it is difficult to determine exactly to which genre Hardy’s novel might potentially belong.

One of the literary devices Hardy utilizes most frequently is imagery. Far from the Madding Crowd is a novel rich in intensely descriptive detail, a feature that isn’t merely arbitrary but instead forms part of a formidable pictorial design, drawing extensively from the visual arts. Most of the chapters in the story are of a distinctly episodic nature, partially implied through each of them being named. ‘On Casterbridge Highway’ details Fanny Robin’s lonely trek to the workhouse where she subsequently passes away. As with numerous others, this chapter functions as a sort of set piece, with Fanny’s arduous journey being framed almost as if it were a scene from a painting, with the author’s prose style occasionally alluding to the academic vernacular of pictorial art.

This painterly language manifests itself in a variety of guises, the first in this chapter being the description of Casterbridge Highway, which the reader is informed of as being “now indistinct amid the penumbra of night” (XL, p.258). The use of the word ‘penumbra’ is typical of Hardy’s artistic sensibility, where various effects of light and gradations of colour are employed to delineate certain characters and objects, alongside the use of elaborate framing and shifting perspectives, all of this creating a complex visual choreography. Contrast is also apparent in the description of the town of Casterbridge as a “luminosity appearing the brighter” in relation to the “circumscribing darkness” of the “moonless and starless night” (XL, p.258).

Hardy’s imagistic design has much in common with the impressionist painting contemporary of his day, and is perhaps most notably evinced in this particular scene when Fanny catches a glimpse of a woman in a passing carriage. Although Fanny only saw her face momentarily, it is still described in close detail: “the general contours were flexuous and childlike but the finer lineaments had begun to be sharp and thin” (XL, p.258). What impressionist painting and Hardy’s prose seem to share is a quality of perception that suggests a fleeting apprehension of a certain object or event rather than a studied and settled account.

The nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin believed that poets and painters habitually colour their landscapes with subjective moods and emotions, referring to this as ‘the pathetic fallacy’. In light of his imagistic design, this concept seems especially applicable to Hardy’s fiction, and is apparent in the Casterbridge chapter. The vocabulary employed, with descriptive details such as “black concave”, “remote shade” and “far depths of shadow”, effectively creates a gloomy atmosphere of isolation and despair reflective of Fanny’s predicament. This impression is augmented through the role of sound in the narrative – the manor-house clock striking the hour in a “small, attenuated tone” (XL, p.258). The sound of a bell is a recurring motif during Fanny’s demise, occurring again during the scene where her coffin is released from the workhouse.

Hardy incorporates a range of genres into his depiction of the dead Fanny Robin, such as the Gothic, the sensationalist, and melodrama. All three of these stylistic devices are evoked during the scene where Bathsheba looks inside Fanny’s coffin. As with many of the locations in Far from the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba’s residence has been vividly described. The reader is aware that it is a “hoary building of the early stage of Classic Renaissance” with “some coped gables with finials and like features still retaining traces of their Gothic extraction” (IX, p.73), a fitting location for Bathsheba’s morbid curiosity that suggests the crumbling old castles of eighteenth-century Gothic literature. At night and by candlelight Bathsheba’s dreadful suspicions – “O I hope, hope it is not true that there are two of you” (XLIII, p.288) – are confirmed when she is greeted with Fanny’s body and that of the young maid’s dead baby, a gruesome sight redolent of sensationalist fiction. The narrative invokes the nature of melodrama when, as if on cue, Sergeant Troy enters the house: “the front door opened and closed, steps crossed the hall, and her husband appeared at the entrance to the room” (XLIII, p.291), consolidated by the somewhat theatrical dialogue between the two characters. The employment of these devices undermines any potential realist construct, and by drawing attention to his novel’s artifice, Hardy’s writing often seems to question the very notion of realism itself.

The controversial aspects of Far from the Madding Crowd are imparted through a highly organized imagistic design that incorporates a wide range of genres, such as the pastoral tale, Gothic literature, sensationalist fiction and theatrical melodrama.

Source by Ben H Wright

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