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Far from the Madding Crowd | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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Far from the Madding Crowd | Themes


Unrequited Love

The theme of unrequited love exists in most of the romantic relationships in Far from the Madding Crowd. Gabriel Oak's first proposal of marriage to Bathsheba Everdene is greeted with refusal. When she refuses, telling him that it's "no use" and that she doesn't love him, he replies with "I shall do one thing in this life—one thing certain—that is, love you, and long for you, and keep wanting you till I die." In the course of the novel, Gabriel keeps this promise. Despite her refusal, he becomes her shepherd. He returns after she fires him, and he offers her his friendship, advice, and support. This loyalty remains when she is expected to marry Boldwood, when she does marry Troy, and when again she might marry Boldwood (after Troy is presumed dead). Gabriel defends her when others speak ill of her, works steadfastly to support her farm and her well-being, and he does so despite her mistreatment of him. His love, unlike the others, is rewarded ultimately. Eventually, Bathsheba returns his love. The final chapter of the novel sees them married.

William Boldwood's love for Bathsheba is in vain, and its consequences are tragic. His first proposal to Bathsheba is rejected summarily: "I can't marry you, much as I respect you. You are too dignified for me to suit you, sir." He attempts to convince her, and he is—by all standards—a desirable man. Despite all of the logical reasons to marry him, Bathsheba refuses. The narrator informs us: "She said in the same breath that it would be ungenerous not to marry Boldwood, and that she couldn't do it to save her life." After Sergeant Troy is thought to be dead, Boldwood again pursues Bathsheba. His unrequited love for Bathsheba leads him to obsession and even murder, and subsequently, Boldwood loses his freedom and nearly loses his life.

Fanny Robin also experiences unrequited love. Sergeant Troy has treated her poorly. She is left without resources, poor, alone, and—as the reader learns after her death—an unwed mother. Her letter to Gabriel indicates that she expects that her love will lead to happiness. She writes, "All has ended well, and I am happy to say I am going to be married to the young man who has courted me for some time." In fact, Fanny expects to "surprise Weatherbury by coming there soon as husband and wife." However, there is no wedding. Troy's affection for her does lead him to go after her to offer her money when he sees her on the road, but by then it is too late. He has carried a curl of her hair with him, and he spends what money he has (money he has received from his wife, Bathsheba) to purchase a grave marker for Fanny. That stone eventually becomes his marker as well, when Bathsheba has him interred with Fanny. The love between Troy and Bathsheba may not be unrequited, but it is destructive. Fanny's love for Troy leads to her destruction; his after-the-fact love for her leads to his marital strife and departure.

Marriage as a Trap

The theme of marriage is also prevalent in Far from the Madding Crowd. As in many pastoral novels, love and matrimony are central concerns. In this case, marriage is a trap. When Bathsheba receives her first proposal (from Gabriel Oak), she notes, "I shouldn't mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband." She knows that marrying would mean ceding many of her legal rights to her husband. The narrator points out that "Bathsheba was no schemer for marriage, nor was she deliberately a trifler with the affections of men." Her refusals of the proposals from Gabriel Oak and from William Boldwood, and her intent to end her relationship with Sergeant Troy, all support this claim.

Bathsheba and Troy both appear to get caught in a trap that pulls them to the altar. When Troy meets her in the field, their second meeting, his initial insincerity gives way to something genuine: "her alluring beauty bore out so fully the epithets he had bestowed upon it that he was quite startled at his temerity in advancing them as false." This new passion pushes him to court her in earnest, and he appeals to her vanity. On the events precipitating her marriage, Bathsheba admits that Troy had told her that he'd seen a woman more beautiful than her. Troy's clever trap works, as she explains: "And then, between jealousy and distraction, I married him!" After the marriage, Troy's demeanor changes, and she begins to learn his true character. She quickly comes to regret having married in haste.

More broadly, love is described as a labyrinthine trap. When Gabriel learns that Bathsheba has left, the narrator expresses that "It may have been observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in." The implication therein is that marriage cures people of love. That is certainly true in the case of Bathsheba and Francis Troy's marriage. They have affection and fascination between them prior to marriage, but after they wed, they have discord. Additionally, many of the characters express similar skepticism about marital bliss. Henery Fray says, "I don't see why a maid should take a husband when she's bold enough to fight her own battles, and don't want a home." Likewise, Pennyways tells Troy, "A good wife is good, but the best wife is not so good as no wife at all." Further, Jan Coggan remains unmarried; this is noted pointedly in that he has served as best man repeatedly. William Boldwood, at 40, has been a bachelor and successful in his career. His decline comes with his pursuit of marriage. Laban Tall is something of a caricature: his wife answers for him when he is asked about work, and she is repeatedly represented as domineering. In fact, he is called "Susan Tall's husband" on nine separate occasions.

Women's Independence

The story of Far from the Madding Crowd concerns issues of women's independence, which is both a strength of the novel and a source of some of its early criticism. Bathsheba Everdene, like many of Hardy's female protagonists, is not a passive woman. When Gabriel Oak first sees her, she is objecting to paying a toll. His next encounter with her is merely watching her as she breaks from the accepted forms for a woman rider. The narrator describes how she "dexterously dropped backwards flat upon the pony's back, her head over its tail, her feet against its shoulders, and her eyes to the sky." Gabriel also sees that Bathsheba does not ride sidesaddle, nor does she ride poorly in her seat. When there are no witnesses, she rides with the sort of grace that Gabriel compares to graceful creatures of nature. Her circumspections show that she is aware that she is not following the dictates of behavior for women. She checks for witnesses before she proceeds: "satisfying herself that nobody was in sight, she seated herself in the manner demanded by the saddle, though hardly expected of the woman, and trotted off."

Likewise when Bathsheba speaks to her employees, she is overt in her statements that she knows that there will be doubts because she is a woman: "Don't any unfair ones among you (if there are any such, but I hope not) suppose that because I'm a woman I don't understand the difference between bad goings-on and good." She pays them more than they are accustomed, which is a clever move, and she tells them that she will set an example, that she will work hard, and that she will "astonish" them.

At the market, the talk of her independence is dismissive, minimizing her capabilities and focusing the commentary on her appearance. Her desire to handle her farm independently is belittled as being "headstrong," but the men turn to her positive traits in their estimation: she is "shapely." Her business skills are expected to be lacking, but she is beautiful. This is all the men at the market expect of her. Unnamed men in the market comment upon her: "But we ought to be proud of her here—she lightens up the old place. 'Tis such a shapely maid, however, that she'll soon get picked up." Bathsheba must face this stereotype about women throughout the novel—and Hardy faced the same from his critics.

Not content to be merely an object of affection or a prize to be won, Bathsheba insists on exploring the freedom of her peculiar station. Beyond her stated objection to marriage—the overt legal restrictions that a woman in the 19th century would undoubtedly face—she values the unusual enjoyment of independence. The narrator explains: "Bathsheba's position as absolute mistress of a farm and house was a novel one, and the novelty had not yet begun to wear off." Bathsheba exercises her rights and allows herself some pleasure in the knowledge of it.

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