Far from the Madding Crowd: Novel Summary: Chapter 16 – Chapter 20

Ch. 16: All Saints’ and All Souls’It’s a weekday morning in a little church called All Saints’ in the garrison town, and women and girls are praying at the close of the morning service. A sergeant enters, his spurs clinking, at stands still and silent to the altar, where the curate has been conducting the service. The women sit down, expecting to see a wedding. After a bit, though, they begin to giggle. Where is the bride? Has she jilted her groom? Troy feels their eyes on him but does not react. The striking clock announces the passing of time till Troy finally turns on his heel and leaves the church. As he strides away, he comes across Fanny, who is trembling and frantic. She went to another little church, All Souls’, and has just realized her mistake. She says that they will have to wait till tomorrow to marry now. Troy refuses, though, saying “I don’t want to go through that experience again for some time.” Calling Fanny a “fool, for so fooling me,” he maintains that she went to the wrong church on purpose and stalks away. When she asks when they can be married, he replies merely, “Ah, when? God knows!”

Analysis        Something of both characters is revealed in this brief chapter. Fanny seems ill-equipped to manage her life on her own; her dependence on Troy is complete, and when she mistakes the venue, she nearly collapses in her panic. Troy, to give him credit, did show up at the right place and right time to do right by his lover, but he refuses to give Fanny the benefit of the doubt and assumes that the simple girl played him for a fool. He was clearly not committed to the idea of marrying Fanny since, with “a light irony,” he walks out of her life.

Ch. 17: In the Market-placeOn Saturday Boldwood is conducting business at the Casterbridge market when “the disturber of his dreams” enters. For the first time, he looks closely at Bathsheba and discovers that she is beautiful. He’s puzzled: If a romance is really underway, how could he not have known? His pulse quickens; he’s in uncharted waters. Why did Bathsheba send the valentine—and anonymously, at that? When she speaks with a handsome young farmer, he feels a surge of jealousy. He hardly recognizes these emotions in himself. Bathsheba becomes aware that he is, at last, taking notice of her, which pleases her. Yet she suddenly regrets having trifled with his feelings by sending the valentine. What possessed her, she wonders, “to disturb the placidity of a man she respected too highly to deliberately tease?” She considers apologizing to him but doesn’t know whether an apology would offend him or encourage him.

Analysis        So much of the action in this chapter is interior. Words and actions have little to do; thoughts and feelings move the plot along. Boldwood can hardly put names to his suddenly strong emotions; this man, near the age of forty, is experiencing infatuation for the first time. Bathsheba’s  emotions are easy to name: She feels guilt and shame when she considers her immature actions and the response they have provoked in Boldwood. Yet her vanity is still on stage—she is glad that Boldwood has finally acknowledged her beauty.

Ch. 18: Boldwood in Meditation—RegretBoldwood, the narrator tells us, owns Little Weatherbury Farm and is “the nearest approach to aristocracy around.” The farm is well appointed and boasts excellent stables that serve also as Boldwood’s “almonry and cloister in one.” There he likes to walk and think while seeing to the horses. Boldwood’s solid pace and square features contribute to the sense of calm he exudes, but the calm is in fact “the perfect balance of enormous antagonistic forces,” forces that Bathsheba’s valentine have now thrown out of balance. People don’t know that Boldwood, when he feels an emotion, is “in extremity at once”; he is “a man who read all the dramas of life seriously.”Spring has come, with its resurgence of growth, and looking across the fields one day, Boldwood sees Bathsheba, Oak, and Cainy working with the sheep. “Surcharged with . . . genuine love’s love,” he decides to walk over and speak to her. She looks up and blushes at his approach, which Oak notes and takes to mean that she intends to flirt with Boldwood. At the last minute, Boldwood feels an “overwhelming sensation of ignorance, shyness, and doubt” and pretends that he was just passing by, but Bathsheba is not fooled. Rather, she is “troubled . . . to see what a great flame a little wildfire was likely to kindle.” Full of regret, she decides “never again, by look or by sign, to interrupt the steady flow of this man’s life.” Too late, the narrator comments—the damage has already been done.Analysis        Readers may feel pity or compassion or at least sympathy for Boldwood, who is caught up in a painful infatuation so strong that it prevents this otherwise capable and mature man from even finding the words to say. Readers may also note that, by hiding their thoughts, Bathsheba, Boldwood, and Oak all contribute to misunderstandings that threaten the happiness of all three.

Ch. 19: The Sheep-Washing—The OfferOver the coming days, Boldwood calls on Bathsheba, but she is not in. He sees her from afar, from his fields to hers, and gradually develops an idealized vision of her. By the end of May, he feels that he must act. He finds her, dressed in an elegant riding-habit, at the sheep-washing pool, overseeing Oak and the laborers. When she sees Boldwood approaching, she tries to withdraw, but he follows her. She trembles as he says, “I have come to speak to you without preface” and proposes. When she stammers that she cannot accept, he implores her: “My life is a burden without you . . . I want you to let me say I love again and again!” Bathsheba is mute with the recognition that this passionate declaration is the result of her deception. Boldwood explains that he would never have proposed “had I not been led to hope.” Finally Bathsheba confesses that sending the valentine was a mistake, “a wanton thing which no woman with any self respect should have done.” He brushes aside her apology with his own interpretation of the event as “a sort of prophetic instinct” that she will come to love him. He promises her care, ease, wealth, anything she may want; and as he makes his case, she feels “sympathy for the deep-natured man who spoke so simply.” She begs him to stop, to “be neutral,” not to press her. She says that she cannot answer now or give him hope for the future. Boldwood, finding encouragement where there is none, agrees to wait for her decision.

AnalysisBoldwood’s passionate confession of love shocks Bathsheba, who over the months had assumed that his infatuation would wane naturally. She brings herself to admit the wrong she has done him, but she cannot bring herself to say, loudly and clearly and definitely, the word “No.” All she does is to put off the moment of reckoning. Though she is capable and independent, Bathsheba is, in matters of love, inexperienced and indecisive.

Ch. 20: Perplexity—Grinding the Shears—A QuarrelBathsheba thinks that Boldwood’s offer is kind and realizes what a “desirable” match he is; most women would not think twice before marrying him. Yet the narrator calls Boldwood’s proposal an ungenerous “self-indulgence.” Bathsheba muses over the proposal; she “esteemed and liked” the farmer, but she does not want him. Nevertheless, she reasons, she started this chain of events, so perhaps she should accept the consequences.The next day Bathsheba encounters Gabriel Oak in the garden, where he is sharpening shears to prepare for sheep-shearing. She sends Cainy away so that she can talk with Oak and then asks what people are saying about her and Farmer Boldwood. Oak says that the villagers assume that a marriage is planned. Bathsheba says that she won’t marry Boldwood and that she doesn’t want his opinion on the matter, when in fact the only opinion she cares about is Oak’s. His discretion and affection for his mistress prevents him from arguing against Boldwood’s suit, yet he and Bathsheba quarrel. He says that he’s long ago given up on her loving him, and she finds to her surprise that his comment stings. He scolds her for “playing pranks” on Boldwood; she won’t tolerate his criticism of her “private conduct.” She fires him, which is fine, he says, because he’d rather work elsewhere anyway. Oak leaves “with placid dignity, as Moses left the presence of Pharaoh.”Analysis        The quarrel that results in Oak’s departure is remarkably like a lovers’ quarrel, and its result is to remove the one person about whose opinions Bathsheba does care, and the one person who can wisely advise her, from her world—at least for a while.