Far from the Madding Crowd | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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Far from the Madding Crowd | Chapters 1–3 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1: Description of Farmer Oak—An Incident

Gabriel Oak, initially introduced as Farmer Oak, is depicted at length. His character appears middle of the road, a kind of "pepper-and-salt mixture." A 28-year-old bachelor, he carries with him a watch that works incorrectly. He sees a wagon filled with household goods, and atop them, a woman. The wagon has lost its tailboard, and Gabriel watches the young woman as the waggoner goes back after the fallen piece. Gabriel watches the young woman open a package, take out a looking glass, and study herself. She smiles and blushes at her observation.

After the waggoner returns, they approach the gate, and she disputes the toll of two pence. Gabriel steps up and pays it. Her response is to look at him and tell the driver to continue on.

Chapter 2: Night—The Flock—An Interior—Another Interior

Gabriel Oak is playing his flute in the seemingly silent and solitary night in his simple hut. He retrieves a newly born lamb from his flock and takes it to his hut briefly. When it is warm and bleating, he returns it to its mother. In studying the sky, he discovers that what he had mistaken as a low star is actually a light. He follows it and finds two women and two cows in a shed. In listening to them, he learns that the younger woman—the woman from the wagon—has lost her hat. He returns to his flock.

Chapter 3: A Girl on Horseback—Conversation

Gabriel Oak ponders returning the woman's hat the next day, but he is initially struck watching her ride in a way that is atypical for women: she is not only astride rather than side-saddle, but she also reclines on the horse to go under low hanging boughs. He finally catches up to her and returns the hat. They then exchange several conversations. In a short time, she rescues him after he falls asleep in his hut with the slides closed, trapping smoke from his fire inside. He awakens resting with his head in her lap and introduces himself, but she refuses to give him her name. They flirt lightly, and the chapter closes with her telling him to figure out her name.

Analysis

These chapters are written for a serial audience. Hardy was trying to convey character and setting in a rich way that is typical of novels of the Victorian era. The descriptions of the characters in these first chapters, and of later characters, reflect that style.

From the details provided, Gabriel is clearly a steady man. He has been a bailiff and a shepherd, and when the novel opens, he is in debt for sheep he is raising. As he is very hands-on, his career leaves him alone in nature often, and he is depicted as appreciative of open space and not prone to being overly wordy. This penchant for quietness appears when he speaks with Bathsheba: "he would as soon have thought of carrying an odor in a net as of attempting to convey the intangibilities of his feeling in the course meshes of language. So he remained silent."

In contrast to his steadiness and caretaker persona, Bathsheba is more unrestrained. She rides not as women typically do (sidesaddle), and not even simply as men do, but with an ease as if she belongs in nature. This vibrant personality continues throughout the novel. She also has a caring side: she rescues Gabriel from death. Interestingly, her actions—being the rescuer and not the rescued—do not discourage Gabriel's affection. He is not embarrassed or put off by her independence.

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