WAS THOMAS HARDY REALLY A FEMINIST?
By Tara Sallaba
Many have lauded Thomas Hardy as one of the first feminists in the Victorian era, famous for his portrayal of women in his literary works such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure and Far From the Madding Crowd. However, this reputation seems problematic in the context of Far From the Madding Crowd. Indeed, although it has many merits to name, such as the excellent use of perspective, the literary language and somewhat speedy pacing for a Victorian novel (although still rather too laborious for my taste), the blatant sexism in this work overshadows everything else.
The initial problem is that it is uncertain if the plot actually supports Bathsheba taking on her own farm, and therefore the idea of "the women in the role of responsibility" that she represents. She is portrayed as, unusually for the time, a woman independent from the authority of men, by owning a farm. This ownership was given to her, not earned, through her uncle's will, which means that Bathsheba's use of this power is even more important. If she had bought the farm herself, and then failed, at least some merit would be given to her for being able to make the money to buy the farm in the first place. But here, she is simply being given an opportunity on a platter, and as it is clear to see, she squanders it. She almost lets all her sheep die from an illness, simply due to pride, and she spends the entire novel being swept away by various men than tending to her farm.
It is as if Bathsheba is incompetent; Every time she checked the farm at night, Gabriel "almost constantly preceded her in this tour every evening, watching her affairs". Whilst this may be attributed to devotion, there is also a sense of her lack of skill. As if Gabriel is also following her just in case she misses something, because that is what was expected of women. What is more, when Bathsheba is at the marketplace, instead of focusing on her work, Hardy portrays her as being purely vain and concerned that there is a "black sheep among the flock" because one man was not looking at her. It is this scene where Bathsheba had a chance to assert herself in an all-male environment, and yet instead Hardy chooses to portray her as wasting her time, despite all the power and opportunity she has been given.
Even if that interpretation is wrong, the narrator is still highly sexist, making claims like: "women are never tired of bewailing man's fickleness in love, but they only seem to snub his constancy", or how she was a "novelty among women- one who finished a thought before beginning the sentence which was to convey it" and also "the numerous evidences of her power to attract were only thrown into greater relief by a marked exception. Women seem to have eyes in ribbons for such matters as these". It could be argued that the narrator does not reflect Hardy's true feelings: that these harsh, sweeping generalisations are what Hardy expects the public want to hear. But this does not make sense. Nowhere else in the novel does the narrator explicitly express an opinion, or pass judgement in this outright manner. Therefore the narrator is not a character, which means that the things they say are assumed to be true. Thus one cannot assume that Hardy included this bias consciously, and therefore that he was, at this point in his writing, still not the feminist that he is lauded as being today (which seems granted given Tess of the D’Ubervilles’ message), in light of the casually sexist narrator and Bathsheba's failure to handle the responsibility she has be given- which is normally only given to a man- thus suggesting that women as a group were incapable of doing anything that was not domestically related.