Far From the Madding Crowd: A Feminist Text

The newly adapted Thomas Hardy novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, came to theaters two months ago. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg and starring Carey Mulligan (Bathsheba Everdene), Matthias Schoenaerts (Mr. Gabriel Oak), and Tom Sturridge (Sergeant Francis Troy).

Written in 1874, this book exemplifies a feminist text with a strong female protagonist who is in a unique position of owning a business, estate, life and all without a husband by her side. Three different men vie for her attention. As a Victorian woman, she is able to choose a romantic attachment without anyone's opinion. Her father and any living male relative has passed away and her choices are entirely her own.

  1. Where did this film take me? To a romantic and rustic country side. Unlike Jane Austen's novels which used the countryside as a stark contrast to a bustling London city and the gossipers at bath, this film is truly a breath of fresh air. No mention of the city, no gossip, just pure small time England living. What makes this film particularly unique is that the protagonist is not only female, but she is in control of her choices, mind, and life. Uninfluenced by any male character, and willing to stand up for her beliefs, Bathesheda (Carry) inherits a farm and builds a stable business. As an entrepreneur she forces the county to accept and respect her as an equal individual. She challenges male authority without overstepping her feminine boundaries and carefully navigates her way into a position of respect.
  2. How did this make me feel? There were moments of sadness, happiness, romance, and humour. The film was paced in a way that balanced all the emotions together. If you are familiar with Thomas Hardy's work, you can emotionally prepare yourself for a story filled with unrequited love, blossoming friendships, love triangles, and couples that get together at the very last second. Most Hardy stories are also difficult to swallow at times. In Far From the Madding Crowd, the primary example that sticks out is the death of all the sheep at the beginning. Mr. Oak, saddened by the loss of his fortune, herd, potential eligibility to marry Bathesheda, and livelihood, shoots the dog responsible for sending the sheep over the cliff. At the same time, Bathesheda loses her uncle and inherits a fortune. The tables have turned completely. Once a poor farm girl, though charming and beautiful and educated, now she an heiress and eligible to make a solid match in the country. Mr. Oak's chances of marriage plumate and he becomes her shepard, unable to buy her the piano she wanted. Hardy is also good at writing in realistic characters that are both frustrating, and prone to erroring. However, the usual male judgement that is present in most Victorian novels and stories was absent. "I know I did something I thought I would never do. I married a red coat and I believe I made a mistake. And I don't want your opinion," Bathesheda to Gabriel Oak in observation of her drunk husband. The protagonist is able to discover her feelings in an unadulterated world. Jane Austen's Anne Elliot (Persuasion, 1814) made two impactful errors in her early twenties: one is allowing someone to give her an opinion, and the other  was to take the advice of her friend and ignore her true feelings. Gabriel Oak wanted to leave the farm much earlier, but stuck to Bathesheda's side out of protection of her estate and fortune when she married. She did not ask or want his judgement, knowing full well she had chosen a poor match. BUT it was clear how grateful she was of his attachment. This made me feel that finally I can relate to a woman in a lead position who is strong, educated, and NORMAL. Thank you Vinterberg for preserving this uniqueness in a Hardy text.

  3. Did it help me understand a new world better? It was not so much a new world, but a way of life I believe in was finally realized on screen. A world that exists but is constantly ignored or romanticized on screen. Far From the Madding Crowd is a normal female fantasy come true: a woman decides her own destiny and supports her own life. This does not mean she is without a heart or feelings, and that she is not interested in marriage. It just means she doesn't "have" to get married to make something of herself. 

  4. Did the movie deliver fun and surprises? The biggest surprise and gratification came in the scriptwriting and Carry Mulligan's exception performance. One part in particular really epitomizes this film for me at the forefront of feminism and celebrating strong females onscreen. When Bathesheda visits WIlliam Boldwood (Michael Sean) for the second time to hear his marriage proposal, he demands that she chose what she feels for him at that moment.

"Well is it respect or like?" William Boldwood. "It is hard to express myself in language constructed by men to express their emotions," Bathesheda.

She asserts her dominance and equality and sets the stakes high. She will not be defined or controlled. She even tells Mr. Oak at the beginning he would never be able to tame her. She is an uncontrollable force. This was the biggest surprise and the most fun and enjoyment I have had at a movie in a long time.

5.    Did the characters have a transformative experience and / or did I? I think the main character has a very simple transformative experience.  She finally realizes her true feelings and is able to express them. The film is after all an outward expression of an inner self. What is said through dialogue becomes less important than what is NOT said. Bathesheda tells Mr. Oak her issues but clarifies by saying, "And I don't want your opinion." We never hear what Mr. Oak actually has to say and this is the tension that mounts and builds throughout the narrative. We are never even truly relieved of this tension at the end as Bathesheda still dictates the drama. 

Overall I think this film is unique, strongly feminist while honouring the historical drama genre. The adaptation of Hardy's novel was extremely well done and had me smiling throughout. IF you have NOT read a Hardy text you are in for a treat. Do not fret, for things do seem unbearably bleak at the best of times. Hardy always pulls through and gives you the satisfaction you deserve. Also a good read: The Guardian: Far From the Madding Crowd.

- Jenn