Far From the Madding Crowd, page 1, paragraph 1. We meet Gabriel Oak and his broad smile: “the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”
Bathsheba Everdene arrives in her “waggon” two pages later. Momentarily stopped, and believing she’s unobserved, she unwraps the looking-glass packed among the rest of her belongings, surveys herself, and smiles, and again the light arrives (recalling Gabriel’s rudimentary sketch?): “It was a fine morning, and the sun lighted up to scarlet glow the crimson jacket she wore, and painted a soft lustre upon her bright face and dark hair.”
Five pages later, Hardy is describing the light of the twinkling stars, the color of the stars, the “sovereign brilliancy of Sirius” that “pierced the eye with a steely glitter, the star called Capella was yellow, Aldebaran and Betelgueux shone with a fiery red.”
It was around then I began to notice that, whatever the prominence of Gabriel, Bathsheba, Sargeant Troy, Mr. Boldwood, and the other human characters of Hardy’s tale, light is the true protagonist of Far From the Madding Crowd.
Once I started noticing it, light was everywhere. It streamed through a knot-hole in a folding door, “a dim light, yellow as saffron”. It rose and faded, appeared and disappeared, flapped “over the scene, as if it reflected from phosphorescent wings crossing the sky.” It shone pale-y, and brilliantly. It was scarlet and orange and yellow and white. It glittered and bristled, obscured and revealed. It cast shadows in strange places and illuminated where shadows normally are.
It came as sun light, moon light, star light, candle light, lantern light, fire light, hearth light, lightning.
At Gabriel’s lowest moment, when he realizes his entire flock of sheep—his livelihood, all he possesses—is lost over a cliff’s edge, he surveys the scene and Hardy describes not Oak’s posture, face, or feelings, but the light:
Over [an oval pond] hung the attenuated skeleton of a chrome-yellow moon, which had only a few days to last—the morning star dogging her on the left hand. The pool glittered like a dead man’s eye, and as the world awoke a breeze blew, shaking and elongating the reflection of the moon without breaking it, and turning the image of the star to a phosphoric streak upon the water. All of this Oak saw and remembered.”
Later, imminent tragedy (the loss of a season’s harvest) is averted when Gabriel notices “on his left hand an unusual light,” a glow that indicated that somewhere, not far away in that dark Wessex night, something was on fire.
Later still, June 1, sheep-shearing day and everyone who matters has gathered at The Great Barn to shear the sheep (oh, you must read at least the start of this chapter!). And then, when the work is done and they’ve all assembled at the long table for a celebration meal, the sun is going down, and it is “still the beaming time of evening…the western lines of light raking the earth without alighting upon it to any extent.” A gentle caress of light, a tender almost-touch as the light leaves the day: “the shearers’ lower parts becoming steeped in embrowning twilight, whilst their heads and shoulders were still enjoying the day, touched with a yellow of self-sustained brilliancy that seemed inherent rather than acquired.”
Can you read that and not picture the moment, feel the sun on your own shoulders, feel the tiredness and glow of day’s end when good work is behind you and the air is cooling?
Over and over, light kept stopping me. I no longer really cared what would happen to the other characters, though I assumed, this being Hardy, it would all end in tears.
Not so. I won’t spoil the ending for you if you haven’t read it, but this is an early Hardy novel. It ends with a glow, with a raised lantern whose “rays fell upon a group of male figures gathered upon the gravel in front, who…set up a loud ‘Hurrah!”
As I write this, I’m sitting in a strange-to-me room and the light is strange, too. It’s coming in at angles I’m not used to, bouncing off of neighboring houses and in through unfamiliar windows. And it’s slithering over my hands as if to hold them, tug them, pull them away from the keyboard and out into the world.
But I can’t stop thinking of the light in Far From the Madding Crowd. The light fashioned by words alone, in paragraphs and broken lines. The light that sparkles on the ocean. The light filtering through the trees to the ferns on the forest floor. The light of headlights sweeping across the yard as the car pulls in to the driveway. The light flickering on a white screen in a darkened room. The light through venetian blinds, lying like glowing bars on a wooden floor.
The light of the morning. And the dimming of the day.
Our books for month 5:
We’d love to know what you read this month. Please leave a comment telling us about it!
The category for the coming month is:
We’ll see you back here on July 11!
This post is part of our multi-year reading challenge. We’d love to have you join us for the whole challenge or any portion. Take a look at the checklist to see the current category (in green). We’ll announce the next category on the 9th of each month.