Unrequited love is a theme in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, but what I most love about it is the powerful, steadfast devotion of Gabriel Oaks. The mild-mannered sheep farmer proposes to the neighboring farm girl, Bathsheba Everdeen, only for her to reject him. She doesn’t love him and uses his station (as an independent farmer, he is above her) as an excuse. But their circumstances change when she inherits her uncle’s farm.

When a tragedy claims his prospects, Gabriel searches for a new position and winds up as her head man. He is a quiet, steadfast voice of common sense in her life, though she does not appreciate his advice. When she sends an anonymous valentine as a joke to Mr. Blackmoor, a wealthy neighbor, Gabriel says it is beneath her to tease him. And when she falls for the rake Sergeant Troy, he warns her off him as a “bad sort.” But Bathsheba never listens… and makes one foolish mistake after another when it comes to love.

It’s rare to find such a passionate story of unrequited love. Gabriel loves Bathsheba, despite her rebukes and insults. Mr. Blackmoor falls hopelessly in love with her, to his determent; he becomes unhinged as his emotions become obsessive. The peasant girl Fanny loves Troy, and perishes with his baby in her arms. Jilted by Fanny at the altar (or so he thought), Troy chose to punish her by pursuing Bathsheba for her money. He still loves Fanny, while Bathsheba is jealously in love with him.

The story revolves around Gabriel as its moral center, and Bathsheba as every man’s worst nightmare, a woman who strings along the men in her life. She seems to want them, but not without sacrificing her liberty to do it. “I would like to be a bride,” she says, “if I did not have to have a husband. […] I am too wild for you. You could never tame me.”

Thomas Hardy often wrote harsh criticisms of Victorian morality. Here, his two main characters find an uncharacteristic (for him) happy ending when Bathsheba realizes she loves Gabriel and asks him to stay on the farm. Bathsheba is a harsh characterization of a woman – her determination to be independent, have her own way, and run her own farm is admirable, but comes at the cost of her ability to understand men, to appreciate their deeper passions, or make rational choices when she falls in love.

Gabriel is the true focus of the story, a man whose love may be unrequited for much of the tale, but who continues that love out of sheer devotion and persistence, who pushes Bathsheba to become a better woman, who stands up to her and forces her to be civil, who demands her respect and earns her hard-won affection over many years. It is only when she might lose him that she realizes how much she wants him.

The story resonates with me because of the foolish decisions we make when we push away what is good for ourselves in favor of emotional whims. Sometimes, women chase dashing sergeants instead of quiet, temperate farmers because they are more exciting, and they make our blood pulse… but the man who saves the barn and covers the wheat in a storm is worth more than the finest swordsman. Our hearts yearn for something our minds do not, and gradual maturity helps us recognize the greater prize.

Bathsheba’s affections for Troy were superficial, and built on lust. Hardy contrasts them with Gabriel’s more mature affections. She sees what she wants to see, and refuses to listen to any detractors, where he never sees her for anything other than what she is. His love is unbiased, because he has no illusions about her; he loves her despite herself.

As a Christian, I see agape (unconditional) love in Gabriel’s treatment of Bathsheba. She makes countless mistakes, spurns him several times, rants at him, tries to banish him from her farm, and comes crawling to him when she needs help… and he is always there for her, ready to help, sometimes judgmental over her poor decisions but never unkind. She runs from him because he is too safe, too secure, and she yearns for excitement; but he is what she has needed all along. I identify with that. There is a wild thing in me that thinks I must do it all on my own terms, and I do not need a divine father to guide me, who ignores him except when I send up frantic prayers, and who has come, over the years, to realize how much I need Him.

This is a participation post in the It’s So Classic Blog Party. 🙂