This is a strange entry in our Fuckboys of Classic Literature category because the fuckboy of this book isn’t a character…but the author himself. I thought about inducting the soldier, Frank Troy, but ultimately decided he was more of an asshole than a fuckboy as his mistreatment of Bathsheba is rooted in his own failed, tragic love rather than a generalized view of women as existing for him alone.
On a related note though: fuck Frank Troy.
No, the fuckboy of this story is Thomas Hardy, which is some kind of achievement. Good job, buddy? Hardy has earned his place by writing an entire book about a woman who is a paragon of independence, strength, and intelligence then completely undermining all of her achievements by making her character’s greatest failing that she’s shallow.
In the first chapter of Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy takes the point of his novel and slams it against the reader with about as much subtly as setting an airhorn off right in your ear.
Upon meeting Bathsheba for first time, Gabriel Oak observes her and, with a passing glance, understands her completely. He falls in love with her, assumedly, but as Bathsheba departs makes a wry observation that foreshadows the entire plot of Madding Crowd.
“That’s a handsome maid,” he said to Oak.
“But she has her faults,” said Gabriel.
“And the greatest of them is—well, what it is always…Vanity.”
I fully allow that maybe Hardy didn’t mean that the greatest fault of women is vanity. Hardy could mean that the greatest fault of people is vanity, though with a similar subtlety to the quoted dialogue, Bathsheba is given a passage detailing the manner in which she admires herself in a mirror right before Oak’s comment. This action isn’t even utilitarian—Hardy makes sure to note that Bathsheba doesn’t adjust her clothing or hair, she merely wants to admire herself. I’ve seen enough paintings of women staring in mirrors with various titles alluding to vanity to not dodge this thrown brick of symbolism. I’m not sure Oak owns a mirror and if he does, he sure wouldn’t pause to admire himself in it because he’s not obsessed with himself (obviously).
Regardless, it’s still exhausting to read an entire book devoted to showing how a woman who doesn’t flinch in the fear of entering traditionally male spaces in both leisure activities (not riding side saddle), and business (going herself to seal deals on the trade floor) is brought to ruin because she meets a man that flatters her vanity.
For all that Bathsheba haughtily scoffs at like Boldwood’s attempt to woo her with wealth and comfort, she falls quickly to the flattering seduction of Troy. For a woman who seems determined to assert her independence and claims of never being tamed, all Troy has to do is swing his sword around and she falls apart with a gusty sigh. This is both not a euphemism and a euphemism.
Hardy teased me with having Bathsheba avoid the trope of being the Gold-digger™. Alas, he swerved and instead served up Vanity™. A trait, it’s worth mentioning, that Hardy identifies as being worse than “beating people down,” which is actually perplexing because between the two options, I’d choose to keep company with the vain person.
Bathsheba is humbled through Far from the Madding Crowd, and her humbling is strictly tied to her vanity. When her vanity is cured, what is her reward? To marry the man who pointed out she needed to be humbled in the first place and has steadfastly stood at her side all the while despite her, at times, cruel treatment of him. Wait…or is this Oak’s reward for being faithful, humble, and consistently Good™? It’s almost like the book, as much as it claims to be about Bathsheba is instead about a wild woman being tamed for the Good Guy™.
Darn it though, Oak is a good guy. Out of the context of this story he might be one of the best natured men in classic literature I’ve encountered aside from Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Bathsheba doesn’t even save herself from the tangled web of ruin her vanity has caused—instead, a man solves the problem for her. As soon as Troy shows up, Bathsheba loses all capability for action and becomes passive, a reward for the men to fight over. Her ability to act as an agent is a thing of the past. Not like that feisty woman at the beginning of the book who marched into the men’s trading hall with her head held high, scorning societal norms could do anything about her difficult situation!
It would have been a vastly better book if Bathsheba had blown Troy away with the shotgun herself, is all I’m saying…
…and maybe I wouldn’t have to call Thomas Hardy a fuckboy.