Just as Bathsheba has to struggle against unfriendly natural forces, she also has to navigate a world that is made largely by and for men. This is particularly true once she takes over her uncle’s farm as its mistress and owner. The attitudes of the novel’s characters towards their new female supervisor range from admiring to condescending, and even the novel itself can indulge in stereotyped analysis of specifically “womanly” attributes. What is unmistakable, however, is that it is quite rare in the novel’s world for a woman to be a farmer—or to be in a position of authority at all. From the beginning of Far From The Madding Crowd, nonetheless, we are given to expect that Bathsheba is not like other women. She is headstrong and confident; while many women would happily accept a marriage proposal from someone like Gabriel Oak, she refuses almost unthinkingly.
Oak and Boldwood, perhaps because they fall in love with Bathsheba, don’t seem to mind her position of female authority (although Oak does think that Bathsheba wouldn’t be able to run the farm without him). Others, though, feel differently. At the markets, for instance, people look askance at Bathsheba weighing seed and chatting with clients just “like a man” with mingled respect, suspicion, and scorn. Meanwhile, the “Greek chorus” of farm hands continually discusses her every move. As a woman Bathsheba is subject to increased scrutiny and judgment and is held to a far higher standard than men—a scrutiny that holds for the other women in the novel, like Fanny Robbin, while the actions of someone like Troy are simply laughed off. Bathsheba recognizes and fears this level of judgment: it’s one of the reasons that she relies so much on her servant Liddy, whom she thinks of as a fellow woman she can trust.
Despite Hardy’s radical attempt to portray Bathsheba as a confident and capable woman, the novel often slips into characterizations of her stereotypically female weaknesses. Such judgments might strike a contemporary reader as frustratingly old-fashioned. Ultimately, though, Bathsheba does prove herself able to manage a farm on her own. This portrayal of a successful female business owner is a challenge to Victorian assumptions about the role of women in public life.
Women in a Man’s World ThemeTracker
Women in a Man’s World Quotes in Far From the Madding Crowd
“What I meant to tell you was only this,” she said eagerly, and yet half-conscious of the absurdity of the position she had made for herself: “that nobody has got me yet as a sweetheart, instead of my having a dozen as my aunt said; I hate to be thought men’s property in that way—though possibly I shall be to be had some day.”
Among these heavy yeomen a feminine figure glided—the single one of her sex that the room contained. She moved between them as a chaise between carts, was heard after them as a romance after sermons, and was felt among them like a breeze among furnaces. It had required a little determination—far more than she had at first imagined—to take up a position here, for at her first entry the lumbering dialogues had ceased, nearly every face had been turned towards her, and those that were already turned rigidly fixed there.
“Our mis’ess will bring us all to the bad,” said Henery. “Ye may depend on that—with her new farming ways. And her ignorance is terrible to hear. Why only yesterday she cut a rasher of bacon the longways of the flitch!”
“Ho-ho-ho!” said the assembly, the maltster’s feeble note being heard amid the rest as that of a different instrument: “heu-heu-heu!”
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.
He had been known to observe casually that in dealing with womankind the only alternative to flattery was cursing and swearing. There was no third method. “Treat them fairly and you are a lost man,” he would say.
Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance. When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.
“You are taking too much upon yourself!” she said vehemently. “Everybody is upon me—everybody. It is unmanly to attack a woman so! I have nobody in the world to fight my battles for me, but no mercy is shown. Yet if a thousand of you sneer and say things against me, I will not be put down!”
Her pride was indeed brought low by this despairing perception of spoliation by marriage with a less pure nature than her own. She chafed to and fro in rebelliousness, like a caged leopard, her whole soul was in arms, and the blood fired her face. Until she had met Troy Bathsheba had been proud of her position as a woman; it had been a glory to her to know that her lips had been touched by no man’s on earth, that her waist had never been encircled by a lover’s arm. She hated herself now.
The one feat alone—that of dying—by which a mean condition could be resolved into a grand one, Fanny had achieved. And to that had destiny subjoined this reencounter to-night, which had, in Bathsheba’s wild imagining, turned her companion’s failure to success, her humiliation to triumph, her lucklessness to ascendancy; it had thrown over herself a garish light of mockery, and set upon all things about her an ironical smile. But even Bathsheba’s heated fancy failed to endow that innocent white countenance with any triumphant consciousness of the pain she was retaliating for her pain with all the merciless rigour of the Mosaic law: “Burning for burning; wound for wound; strife for strife.”
The household convulsion had made her herself again. The temporary coma had ceased, and activity had come with the necessity for it. Deeds of endurance which seem ordinary in philosophy are rare in conduct: and Bathsheba was astonishing all around her now, for her philosophy was her conduct, and she seldom thought practicable what she did not practise. She was the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made.