In a nutshell, Far from the Madding Crowd is about the beautiful, mercurial feminist Bathsheba Everdene and her three stalkers.
The story starts with the humble shepherd Gabriel Oak, giving the reader the false impression that he is the main character. Because his name is Oak we know right away that he’s solid and steadfast and wholesome like a great oak tree. He sees the beautiful Bathsheba from afar, and immediately pegs her for proud because she’s practicing her smile in a mirror. Nevertheless he also immediately falls in love with her. Because she’s beautiful, in case I didn’t mention.
Bathsheba, meanwhile, is incredibly independent, has no intention of ever getting married, and is portrayed as a bit heartless and shallow. She teases Gabriel with the possibility of becoming sweethearts, but when he then (again immediately) asks her to marry him, she reacts the way any normal human being would, and says no. She barely knows the guy, much less loves him. She only encouraged the flirtation because the attention flattered her vanity.
Not long after this Bathsheba disappears, in order for Gabriel to be the main character some more. His new sheepdog kills his flock, plunging him into bankruptcy, which he only gets out of by selling all he has and becoming a hobo. Whilst out hobo-ing* he helps save another farm only to be hired by the new mistress of said farm…Bathsheba. Yeah. Awkward.
I said there were three stalkers. Gabriel is the best kind, almost an Arthurian knight who serves the lady he loves selflessly and from afar.
Meanwhile Bathsheba hasn’t gotten over her penchant for acting impetuously, and decides to send a Valentine to the town’s confirmed bachelor, farmer William Boldwood. This of course makes him fall wildly in love with her. The reader begins to wonder whether there are actually any other women aside from Bathsheba in this town. This time around Bathsheba doesn’t emerge from her flirtation unscathed: the sad truth is, no matter how gently she tries to break it to him, Boldwood just won’t accept that she has no feelings for him. He proposes to her, and he literally won’t take “no” for an answer, only accepting a “I’ll think it over and answer you in a year.” He then leaves her alone to think it over.
Enter the third stalker, a regular cad worthy of Jane Austen’s Wickham. Frank Troy is an army sergeant whose idea of flirting is stepping on a lady’s skirt and groping her in the dark, and whose conception of an awesome second date is meeting a lady alone in the forest and using her as a fencing dummy. Now, this wouldn’t work on me, but apparently it was effective enough to melt the icy heart of Bathsheba and make her fall madly in love with him. Go figure.
I have no intention of spoiling the ending. Unlike Pride and Prejudice to which I previously alluded, or the works of Hardy’s contemporary Charles Dickens, I get the sense that most people are not aware of the plot of Far from the Madding Crowd. I know I didn’t myself, even after four years of studying English Lit (and copious amounts of reading in high school). That’s partly why I read it: to be surprised. What with our spoileriffic internet, it’s hard not to know the conclusion of any story without a conscious decision not to look it up on Sparknotes. But at the same time, it’s important for our own imaginations to be startled out of always knowing how everything will work out.
*Which should be a verb, if it isn’t already.