Role of Chance and Fate in Hardy’s novel
Hardy himself classed “Far From the Madding Crowd” among his ‘Novels of Character and Environment’. It recreates the English countryside of the early 19th c. in which Hardy grew up. Weatherbury is an English village before the coming of railways – a village where life has gone on unchanged for hundreds of years, carrying on its old traditions not only in farming but in social traditions in dress, local habits, and superstitions.
Hardy shares the immense creative energy of the great Victorians, but his imaginative world is entirely his own. His vision is almost wholly tragic. The Victorian critics and public attracted him continually for his pessimism. Hardy replied that he held no pessimistic philosophy, a novel was not an argument but ‘simply an endeavour to give shape and coherence to a series of seemings or personal impressions.’ With his dark vision goes a deep human sympathy.
Many Victorian authors used the technique of chance and coincidence as a means of furthering the plot but Hardy moulds it in a form that affects the lives of the characters. Bathsheba Everdene, his heroine, is a capable but wilful and egotistical young woman, who owes her farm. Her faithful lover is Gabriel Oak, who has lost his flock of sheep by a stroke of fate and is engaged by her as her bailiff. She involves herself first by her folly with farmer Boldwood, a middle-aged neighbor whom she cares nothing about, but later falls in love with the swagging Sergeant Troy, the illegitimate son of one of the ‘gentry’. He has seduced and promised marriage to Fanny Robin, one of Bathsheba’s servant girls, but he forsakes her and marries Bathsheba. The marriage proves disastrous. By accident, Bathsheba discovers Troy’s treatment of Fanny, who has died in childbirth. He leaves Weatherbury and is believed to be drowned. Bathsheba makes a half – promise to marry Boldwood if her husband doesn’t return in seven years. A little over a year later, Boldwood is giving a Christmas party when Troy breaks in to claim his wife. Boldwood shoots him and tries to shoot himself. He is declared insane and condemned to life imprisonment. This leaves the way open for a quiet union between Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak.
“Far From the Madding Crowd” is the only one of the Wessex novels which is allowed a happy ending. Yet the tragic elements outweigh the final reconciliation. Like tragedy, it leaves us face to face with the mystery of human evils and sufferings. As Hardy sees it, the personal fate of the individual is largely at the mercy of impersonal forces over which he has no control, or at the mercy of minor mistakes which prove to have incalculable major consequences. The innocent and guilty alike are struck down by these forces and errors. Fanny Robin mistakes the church where she is to meet Troy for their wedding. He is so angry that he postpones the date. Meanwhile, he meets Bathsheba and deserts Fanny that leads to the death of Fanny and her child and the ultimate ruin of Bathsheba’s marriage. Bathsheba sends a silly valentine to Boldwood, in a moment of thoughtless bad taste and the chain of events set up that leads to the murder of Troy and the imprisonment of Boldwood.
The development of Hardy’s plots depicts the frequent use of chance and circumstances. When one reflects on Hardy’s fatalistic view of life, it is seen to be fluctuating between fatalism and determinism. On the one hand, fatalism is a view of life that one acknowledges being controlled by fate which is a great, impersonal, primitive force existing through all eternity, absolutely independent of human wills and superior to any god created by man. On the other hand, determinism acknowledges that the human will is not free and human beings have no control over their destiny.
Hardy portrays his attitude towards the individuals caught in the baffling circumstances which are deeply humane and compassionate. What he emphasizes as the most remarkable quality in men are his courage and dignity. His heroes and heroines, though so often defeated, are never abject, they go on fighting. We see it in the symbolic picture of Fanny Robin, the simple, ignorant farm servant, seduced and deserted by her lover. Alone and penniless, she drags herself, mile by mile and finally yards by the yard, along the road to the workhouse. Nobody supports her but sheer determination helps her to reach a shelter.
A struggle between men and an omnipotent and indifferent fate is Hardy’s interpretation of the human situation. It imposes a pattern on his picture of human scenes. It determines the character of his novels. Man and woman in Hardy’s novel are ranged against impersonal forces. His characters are not aware of this. Bathsheba looks at Troy as the author of her misfortunes. In Hardy’s scheme, chance plays a hide and seek game with the characters. Hardy himself says ‘When two persons make a program, Fate is the invisible third partner.’
It is clear that everything is not under the control of individuals by exploring the moral choices faced by various characters and the consequences of those choices. Fate rules many of the characters and they seem unable to escape from certain experiences or events. At the start of the novel, Gabriel Oak has made all the right decisions to advance his career but he loses everything through a single ill-fated event. Reversals of fate are also experienced by Bathsheba, as she goes from being financially destitute to being a wealthy heiress. The characters are brought together by various chance encounters such as the accidental meetings of Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba, and Bathsheba and Troy. Fate suggests that human lives play out amidst larger forces that they cannot control or predict.
Hardy sees life as a struggle against the circumstantial forces. For example, an incident plays a vital role in causing joy or pain, and often an act of behavior that is not careful or polite and that might cause embarrassment or offense in early youth which can wreck one’s chances for happiness. Fateful incidents, for example, overheard conversations and undelivered letters are the forces against a mere man in his efforts to control his destiny. Additionally, Fate is endowed with varying moods that affect the lives of the characters when it appears in the form of nature. In Hardy’s novel, fate appears in a great variety of forms – chance and coincidence, nature, time, woman, and convention. All of these are manifestations of the Immanent Will and not the fate itself.