Far from the Madding Crowd: Hardy’s Rustic Chorus By Leslie Albiston
Hardy shares with Shakespeare a genius for presenting “ordinary,” everyday people in his stories in a way which challenges our prejudices about them. Shakespeare grew up surrounded by artisans and everyday workers and we discover them in all their vitality in his plays. Consider the Gloucestershire scenes in Henry IV part II or the opening scene of Julius Caesar. The people we meet are not mere examples of the anonymous “lumpen” masses, but sharply defined individuals with their own inner lives which inform their actions and their speech. In his novels, Hardy presents the rural inhabitants of Dorset with exactly the same imaginative sympathy. He invites his urban and urbane readership to reconsider their commonly held opinion that the natives and dwellers of rural areas are hardly distinguishable one from the other, the contemptuous generic term “Hodge” being used to define them all.
In Far From the Madding Crowd Hardy gives his rural characters a significant role in the novel. They do of course provide comic relief, as do such figures as the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and they do express themselves in ways which are designed to make us smile. But if we make the effort to avoid the usual complacent dismissal of their ideas and concerns because of the quaint way they express them, and take the time to ponder upon what they discuss, we discover that in fact, their preoccupations are the very concerns of humanity. They function as a kind of “Rustic Chorus” whose origins are in Greek tragedy. So often they consider and discuss the most critical moments of our lives- birth, the search for love, the struggle to stay alive, to fend off suffering and sickness, old age and death, the search for our place and our role within the communities that contain and shape us. Obviously their direct and intimate contact with Nature and the processes which drive it make them acutely aware of the forces which shape all life. Their desire, during the rare moments of repose between the rigorous physical demands of their existence and the oblivion of exhausted sleep, is to make sense of it all. This they do in moments of communal ritual, often in public places where such behavior is codified, fostered and enshrined- the village pub being a prime example.
The recourse to stories which by repetition have become lore, the celebration of critical moments in the community’s history, the constant gossip and comment, the recurring rituals of belief and superstition, the sharing of food and drink, all create a rhythm of life which gives Life its structure and its meaning. Of course the weekly call to worship at the local church also offers its own structure and meaning, as well as a moral code by which to live, but the Church is an institution superimposed upon village life, not one which has grown out of it, and it is hardly surprising that belief in such rural areas so remote from urban centres should contain so much that is pagan.
In his novels, Hardy celebrates such abiding community values and practices, even as he fears their gradual erosion through encroaching industrialisation and urbanisation. Ever the realist, Hardy never sentimentalises rural life. He realizes that the strict rules of conduct that narrowly self-contained communities may impose upon their members can be stultifying, cruel, and positively harmful. Witness the mortal effect the skimmity ride has on Lucetta in The Mayor of Casterbridge, the guilt that Tess suffers as she tries to hide her “shameful” past in “Tess of the Durbervilles,” or the miserable end that Fanny Robin must endure as a consequence of her forbidden and failed relationship with Sergeant Troy.
Hardy has sufficient understanding of and respect for the “rustic chorus” to avoid sentimental indulgence which would merely be patronising, yet another type of urban contempt. In Hardy’s novels, the Chorus is made up not of types but of individuals. Henry Fray, Joseph Poorgrass, Mark Clark, Jan Coggan, Billy Smallbury, Laban Tall, communicate to each other and to the reader common values and concerns, but each does so with his own voice and each speaks from his own lived experience. Such is their importance in the novel that Hardy gives them the last word. When all the drama of this story is over and harmony seems once more to have been restored it is Joseph Poorgrass who will conclude the novel with his homespun but personal philosophy, born of years of experience and reflection. The Rustic Chorus has done more than merely commenting upon the fortunes and misfortunes of the great and the good and providing us with moments of light relief from the dramas lived by their “betters.” In the course of the novel, they have demonstrated to us that their lives are lived as intensely as any who might have the arrogance to consider themselves their social superiors. Hodge is “not typical of anyone but himself…He has become disintegrated into a number of dissimilar fellow-creatures, men of many minds, infinite in difference; some happy, many serene, a few depressed; some clever even to genius, some stupid, some wanton, some austere; some mutely Miltonic, some Cromwellian” (here we appreciate the allusion to the poem which gave his novel its title2) “into men who have private views of each other, who applaud or condemn each other; amuse or sadden themselves by the contemplation of each other’s foibles or vices; and each of whom walks in his own way the road to dusty death.1” Thanks to Hardy’s Wessex novels, which began with Far From the Madding Crowd, “Dick the carter, Bob the shepherd and Sam the ploughman, are, it is true, alike in the narrowness of their means and their general open-air life; but they cannot be rolled together again into.. a Hodge..1”
1All quotations are taken from Thomas Hardy’s The Dorsetshire Labourer, an article which appeared in Longman’s Magazine, July 1883.
2 The title of the novel is taken from stanza 19 of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard first published in 1751, a poem which Hardy learned by heart.
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.