Part of Bathsheba’s struggle in deciding whom to marry and how to establish herself stems from her uncertain socioeconomic status throughout the novel. At the beginning, Bathsheba and her aunt don’t have much money, and yet Bathsheba is clearly not a peasant—she is well-educated and seems to occupy a position much above her actual income. Oak, meanwhile, seems to be on his way to reaching the rural middle class before the disaster of his sheep flock sends him back to fragility and insecurity and forces him to become a farmer’s hand rather than a small landowner. His language, nonetheless, distinguishes him from the other farm hands, whose country slang places them onto a low social and economic rung from which they presumably may never ascend. Thus, the characters of Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak suggest that, while class defines opportunity and perception in rural England, it is not impossible for people—particularly smart, ambitious, and educated ones—to transcend it.
Part of Bathsheba’s attraction to Troy, meanwhile, is the glamor of his position as soldier: while he doesn’t make a high income, he seems in many ways to be outside the closely-watched and finely-differentiated layers of rural economic positioning. Troy’s situation suggests the desirability of being liberated from the petty and consuming class posturing that vexes the characters (like Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak) who are more enmeshed in the social fabric. Troy’s literal mobility, however, also allows him to hide his sins, including impregnating Fanny Robbins. Thus, the social fabric can be both oppressive and protective—had Troy been more firmly rooted in society, Fanny and Bathsheba might have known, through his reputation, to stay away from him. Fanny, in turn, is perhaps the most vulnerable character in the novel: her lack of class power ultimately condemns her to death. In some ways, Bathsheba’s own class privilege makes her exempt from such a fate as Fanny’s, but the pairing of these two women underlines how powerful the intersection of class and gender can be in the novel. While Fanny is doubly condemned as a lower-class woman, Bathsheba too suffers from being taken advantage of—by Troy, for instance—as a result of her own wealth, coupled with sexual manipulation. Class, then, is shown to be a complex and powerful social category that is unevenly restrictive and has the potential to condemn people in some circumstances and save them in others. Class, in other words, is a social force, with all the complexities and contradictions that characterize human society.
The negotiation of power and privilege is at the center of Far From the Madding Crowd, and the trajectories of the characters suggest a social landscape marked by class divisions that are deep and defining but, nevertheless, malleable. However, Hardy’s characterization of the central characters complicates the novel’s apparent optimism about class transcendence. When it was published, Far From the Madding Crowd was criticized for its portrayal of rural people as being “above” their actual class, and this rings somewhat true in light of the fact that Gabriel and Bathsheba seem to have resources (like education) and characteristics (like middle class speech patterns and a sense of agency and confidence) that would not typically be available to the rural poor. There’s a sense, then, that Hardy believes in class transcendence for those characters who seem to naturally fit more with the middle class than the poor class in to which they were born. Conversely, class mobility seems unavailable to those characters, like the farmhands, whose characteristics seem to make them stereotypically poor. Likely unintentionally, then, Hardy gives readers the sense that class distinctions are not arbitrary cultural categories that shape and limit those who are born into them, but rather categories that reflect natural distinctions between people’s individual natures. The way Hardy writes about them, it seems that Gabriel and Bathsheba are able to enjoy social mobility not because they are defying an arbitrary category, but because they are shown to naturally belong to a category other than the one into which they were born. This essentialism about class (or the idea that our class identification comes from nature rather than nurture) may seem backwards to a modern reader, and, since Far From the Madding Crowd is, in many ways, a novel defiant about class, this idea may have seemed backwards to Hardy, too. The stubborn persistence of class essentialism in a novel that attempts to be optimistic about class mobility is therefore a fault line in the novel, and one that shows just how powerful the idea of class was in Victorian England. In a sense, then, class distinctions are shown to be vexed not simply in the world of the novel, but also in the author’s own mind.
Class Status and Mobility ThemeTracker
Class Status and Mobility Quotes in Far From the Madding Crowd
The sheep were not insured. –All the savings of a frugal life had been dispersed at a blow: his hopes of being an independent farmer were laid low—possibly for ever. Gabriel’s energies patience and industry had been so severely taxed, during the years of his life between eighteen and eight and twenty, to reach his present stage of progress that no more seemed to be left in him.
In every point of view ranging from politic to solicitous it was desirable that she, a lonely girl, should marry, and marry this earnest, well to do, and respected man. He was close to her doors: his standing was sufficient: his qualities were even supererogatory. Had she felt, which she did not, any wish whatever for the married state in the abstract, she could not reasonably have rejected him as a woman who frequently appealed to her understanding for deliverance from her whims.