‘In laughter there are more dreadful phases than in tears’ –Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

The only signs of the terrible sorrow Boldwood had been combating through the night, and was combating now, were the want of colour in his well-defined face, the enlarged appearance of the veins in his forehead and temples, and the sharper lines about his mouth. The horse bore him away, and the very step of the animal seemed significant of dogged despair. Gabriel [Oak], for a minute, rose above his own grief in noticing Boldwood’s. He saw the square figure sitting erect upon the horse, the head turned to neither side, the elbows steady by the hips, the brim of the hat level and undisturbed in its onward glide, until the keen edges of Boldwood’s shape sank by degrees over the hill. To one who knew the man and his story there was something more striking in this immobility than in a collapse. The clash of discord between mood and matter here was forced painfully home to the heart; and, as in laughter there are more dreadful phases than in tears, so was there in the steadiness of this agonized man an expression deeper than a cry.

 —Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XXXV
There are a million ways to describe grief, yet this particular one comes out as newly fresh. Part of the excitement of reading, that keeps me posting more quotes and comments about the books I’m reading, is the ability to stop on a paragraph and point out just how great a gift the classics give to us by continually reconfiguring those hoary old emotions—love, fear, anger, grief—into new forms for us readers’ enrichment.
Boldwood is crushed by the news of Bathsheba Everdene’s recent marriage to Troy. Gabriel Oak’s own feelings to the nuptials are rather sensitive as well, but he has been protecting his feelings by estranging himself and his heart from Bathsheba for most of the book.
Hardy shows us Boldwood’s brittle nature through paradox. We’ve seen this technique before; the author explains something in some detail, then with a grand gesture says, “Aha! this actually means the complete opposite.” Hardy does set it up for us here, as we have been privy to the details of Boldwood’s tragedy over the last couple chapters, as Boldwood sees Bathsheba’s love drifting out of his reach. It is we readers that he is addressing in “to one who knew the man and his story.…”
So really, the perspective that Boldwood’s fate brings to us disinterested readers, the perspective that Hardy has spent most of the novel creating, is that here is a man who is so committed to rectitude and keeping up appearances that it is only someone like us readers or our surrogate, Oak, who have followed the trace of Boldwood’s tragedy, who can actually discern that tragedy while he yet maintains his bearing.
The erosion of that bearing, however, will be the story of the remaining chapters.
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‘There is a breadth of vision in the free man which in the lover we vainly seek.’ –Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

In making this statement Boldwood’s voice revealed only too clearly a consciousness of the weakness of his position, his aims, and his method. His manner had lapsed quite from that of the firm and dignified Boldwood of former times; and such a scheme as he had now engaged in he would have condemned as childishly imbecile only a few months ago. We discern a grand force in the lover which he lacks whilst a free man; but there is a breadth of vision in the free man which in the lover we vainly seek. Where there is much bias there must be some narrowness, and love, though added emotion, is subtracted capacity. Boldwood exemplified this to an abnormal degree: he knew nothing of Fanny Robin’s circumstances or whereabouts, he knew nothing of Troy’s possibilities, yet that was what he said.

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XXXIV

Consider the power of the novel, that in the space of half a thousand pages, it can bless us readers with characters to ponder over half a hundred years, or longer. Anna Karenina, from her eponymous novel, is endlessly fascinating! Consider, too, the power of reams of text to launch simpler characters toward ruin, then provide a kind of forensic meteorology on the gusting winds of their fate. In this book, Boldwood’s ship is about to splinter on the rocks of Troy’s cunning, a sad end with which we readers will soon be intimately familiar.

Farmer Boldwood is perhaps the most broadly drawn of the main characters in Far from the Madding Crowd, but the tragedy of his love for Bathsheba Everdene is the most keenly illustrated. This passage, which comes from Boldwood’s useless interview with Troy in order to get Troy to marry Fanny Robin and leave him the open road to Bathsheba’s heart, shows just how desperation, even desperate love, can be the saddest emotion of them all.

The contrast between the grand force of love and its all-too-narrow focus is something that also comes up (viewed from the other end of the telescope) in one of my favorite lines of modern poetry, from “Why Regret?” by Galway Kinnell.

Or when Casanova threw the linguine in squid ink
out the window, telling his startled companion,
“The perfected lover does not eat”?

‘Kiss my foot, sir; my face is for mouths of consequence.’ Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

‘Did anybody ever want to marry you, miss?’ Liddy ventured to ask when they were again alone. ‘Lots of ‘em, I daresay.’

 Bathsheba paused, as if about to refuse a reply but the temptation to say yes, since it was irresistible by aspiring virginity, in spite of her spleen at having been published as old.

 ‘A man wanted to once,’ she said, in a highly experienced tone and the image of Gabriel Oak, as the farmer, rose before her.

 ‘How nice it must seem!’ said Liddy, with the fixed features of mental realization. ‘And you wouldn’t have him?’

 ‘He wasn’t quite good enough for me.’

 ‘How sweet to be able to do disdain, when most of us are glad to say, “Thank you!” I seem I hear it. “No sir—I’m your better” or, “Kiss my foot, sir; my face is for mouths of consequence.” And did you love him, miss?’

 ‘Oh no. But I rather liked him.’

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter IX
Hot on the arrival and departure of Farmer Boldwood, Bathsheba’s maid
Liddy interrogates her mistress on her romantic past.
Kiss my foot, indeed! That’s the tag line for today’s installment, but
the previous sentence, “How sweet to be able to do disdain, when most
of us are glad to say, ‘Thank you!’ ” has its own charms as well.
Being able to reject a suitor is one of the perquisites of the gentry,

‘there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in’ – Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

It may have been observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in. Some people look upon marriage as a short cut that way, but it has been known to fail. Separation, which was the means that chance offered to Gabriel Oak by Bathsheba’s disappearance, though effectual with people of certain humours is apt to idealize the removed object with others—notably those whose affection, placid and regular as it may be, flows deep and long. Oak belonged to the even-tempered order of humanity, and felt the secret fusion of himself in Bathsheba to be burning with a finer flame now that she was gone—that was all.

Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter V
Start with the pith of the aphorism, and then flip it around so that
it actually becomes a keen insight into human nature, and then (as if
those two achievements weren’t enough, in a single paragraph, no
less!) in the fourth sentence apply it all to one of your immortal
characters so exactly that you create an immediate secret fusion of
your reader in the character of Gabriel Oak. How breathtakingly easy
Hardy makes it look, but consider just how many lesser novels must you
trawl through for an insight into humanity—or love—that shines as
brightly as this one would even after years of refraction through your
memory’s multiple lenses.

‘He would as soon as thought of carrying an odour in a net’ -Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd


‘Yes, I suppose I should,’ said Oak, absently. He was endeavoring to catch and appreciate the sensation of being thus with her, his head upon her dress, before the event passed on into the heap of bygone things. He wished she knew his impressions; but he would as soon as thought of carrying an odour in a net as of attempting to convey the intangibilities of his feeling in the coarse meshes of language. So he remained silent.

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter III
Gabriel Oak has just been saved from carbon-monoxide poisoning in his
shepherd’s hut by Bathsheba Everdene. I love the simple metaphor of
“carrying an odour in a net.” It shows a deep appreciation for the
role of language and figure. It is such a simple metaphor, but it is
obliged to be, because it is standing for this simple feeling that he
cannot adequately describe in words. And odors, well, just reading the
book brings all kinds of wonderful country scents to mind.
In another touch of genius, Hardy plots to combine a near-death
experience, which naturally inspires a certain amount of reflection in
the participant, with the overwhelming time-stood-still sensation of
love at first sight. Gabriel hesitates with his head on Bathsheba’s
lap not only for the intimacy it portends, but for the catastrophe he
has narrowly averted.


That glance means a great deal,’ she thought. ‘That glance shows the beginning of indifference.’ —Anna Karenina

“On the day before there had been almost a quarrel between Vronsky and
Anna over this proposed expedition [to the district elections]. It was
the very dullest autumn weather, which is so dreary in the country,
and so, preparing himself for a struggle, Vronsky, with a hard and
cold expression, informed Anna of his departure as he had never spoken
to her before. But, to his surprise, Anna accepted the information
with great composure, and merely asked when he would be back. He
looked intently at her, at a loss to explain this composure. She
smiled at his look. He knew that way she had of withdrawing into
herself, and knew that it only happened when she had determined upon
something without letting him know her plans. He was afraid of this;
but he was so anxious to avoid a scene that he kept up appearances,
and half sincerely believed in what he longed to believe in—her
“ ‘I hope you won’t be dull?’
“ ‘I hope not,’ said Anna. ‘I got a box of books yesterday from
Gautier’s. No, I shan’t be dull.’
“ ‘She’s trying to take that tone, and so much the better,’ he
thought, ‘or else it would be the same thing over and over again.’
“ ‘And he set off for the elections without appealing to her for a
candid explanation. It was the first time since the beginning of their
intimacy that he had parted from her without a full explanation. From
one point of view this troubled him, but on the other side he felt
that it was better so. ‘At first there will be, as this time,
something undefined kept back, and then she will get used to it. In
any case I can give up anything for her, but not my masculine
independence,’ he thought.”

Anna Karenina, Part Six, Chapter 25

“In solitude afterwards, thinking over that glance which had expressed
his right to freedom, she came, as she always did, to the same
point—the sense of her own humiliation.[…]’What has he done, though?…
He looked at me with a cold, severe expression. Of course that is
something indefinable, impalpable, but it has never been so before,
and that glance means a great deal,’ she thought. ‘That glance shows
the beginning of indifference.’

Anna Karenina, Part Six, Chapter 32
It’s an argument! It’s not an argument! No matter which side of this
meta-argument you take, it is hard to imagine a better rendering of
the way that misunderstandings can escalate into conflicts within the
context of a relationship. There’s Vronsky’s desire for masculine
independence (whatever that might be defined as), there’s Vronsky’s
perception of Anna’s smile as bullheaded concealment, there’s Anna’s
sense of being trapped in a unfulfilling relationship with Vronsky
(because of her inability to get a divorce from her husband), and
there’s Anna’s perception of Vronsky’s glance as fraught with
indifference. For a couple that began with such a direct, intimate
connection, they have come to a point where they are complete
strangers to each other.
The patient iteration of their relationship through the hundreds of
pages that it takes for Tolstoy to arrive at this point is what makes
the book into literature. Everyone has had a futile, unfulfilling
relationship; everyone has had a relationship that was a minefield of
misunderstanding. Back to the Chapter 32 quote: everyone, especially
in the relationship-saturated world of today, can understand how a
single glance can convey the “beginning of indifference.”


‘She loved him as a woman can love when love has outweighed for her all the good things of life’—‘Anna Karenina’

How often he [Vronsky] had told himself that her love was
happiness; and now she loved him as a woman can love when love has
outweighed for her all the good things of life—and he was much further
from happiness than when he had followed her from Moscow. Then he had
thought himself unhappy, but happiness was before him; now he felt
that the best happiness was already left behind. She was utterly
unlike what she had been when he first saw her. Both morally and
physically she had changed for the worse.…He looked at her as a man
looks at a faded flower he has gathered, with difficulty recognizing
in it the beauty for which he picked and ruined it. And in spite of
this he felt that then when his love was stronger, he could if he had
greatly wished it, have torn that love out of his heart; but now, when
as at that moment it seemed to him he felt no love for her, he knew
that what bound him to her could not be broken.

This quote, from Chapter 3 of Part IV of Anna Karenina, is set
as Vronsky and Anna are responding individually to her revelation of
her affair to her husband, Alexey Alexandrovitch.

 Vronsky’s has surrendered utterly: not to love, not to affection, but
to the unbreakable bonds of his human alliance in misfortune with
Anna. Calling this emotion ‘love,’ and this story a ‘love story’ is
completely understating the obvious, that love is just a short band of
the range of emotional frequencies on which human beings relate.
Tolstoy uses Anna and Vronsky’s terrifying and doomed love, as
contrasted with the paralleling sedate and constructive love of Levin
and Kitty, to explore human emotions at the point where they are
rubbed raw. It takes careful and deliberate writing to get the novel
to such a point, the point at which we know Anna and Vronsky’s tragedy
on many different levels and can see how it has affected their entire
society: a couple pages earlier Anna is even described as “a real
heroine of romance” in conversation with her friend Betsy Tverskaya.
If she could only know how true that epithet has proven to be.

She repeated continually, ‘My God! my God!’ But neither ‘God’ nor ‘my’ had any meaning to her. –Anna Karenina

“She repeated continually, ‘My God! my God!’ But neither
‘God’ nor ‘my’ had any meaning to her. The idea of seeking help in her
difficulty in religion was as remote from her as seeking help from
Alexey Alexandrovitch [her husband] himself, although she had never
had doubts of the faith in which she had been brought up. She knew
that the support of religion was possible only upon condition of
renouncing what made up for her the whole meaning of life. She was not
simply miserable, she began to feel alarm at the new spiritual
condition, never experienced before, in which she found

Anna here is confronting her plight. She has confessed to her lover
Vronsky that she is pregnant and to her husband that she is having an
affair. Now what to do?

 This is where I as a reader sit up and drop my jaw in awe at Tolstoy’s
creation. He neatly fillets the earthly love of which Anna has been
protagonist for the last 700 pages or so from the religious concept of
love, in three sentences. If Anna’s doomed love affair with Vronsky
was the kind of love affair that religion could indeed salve, why
would it hold our attention so tightly? As I learned from the late
Arnold Weinstein, extravagance is truth. We readers live vicariously
through Anna’s story because it is such an incredible, extravagant
adventure, full of intricate and delicately realized gestures, words
and emotions. It’s the extravagance that resonates with our own lives:
how many breaths have you taken during which love—earthy, Earthly
love—composed the entire meaning of your life?

‘There was nothing in the sky in the least like a shell,’ Anna Karenina Part III: Levin sees Kitty again

“He could not be mistaken. There were no other eyes like
those in the world. There was only one creature in the world that
could concentrate for him all the brightness and the meaning of life.
It was she.…And everything that had been stirring Levin during that
sleepless night, all the resolutions he had made, all vanished at
once. He recalled with horror his dreams of marrying a peasant
girl.…He glanced at the sky, expecting to find there the cloud shell
he had been admiring and taking as the symbol of the ideas and
feelings of that night. There was nothing in the sky in the least like
a shell.”

Anna Karenina, Part III, Chapter 12

 Kostya Levin has been delighting in melding his scientific approach to
farming with the earthy pleasures of working the land, culminating in
a day spent mowing the hay with a scythe. He has spent the last
hundred pages recovering from his rejection at Kitty’s hands through a
diligent program of agricultural improvements and monastic solitude
down on his farm. All good intentions, however, come to nothing in the
presence of a young woman rattling down the road in a carriage.

‘Anna Karenina’ and the anti-Valentine

The anti-Valentine is always more persuasive and more appealing than
the Valentine. Reading about a romantic train wreck satisfies the
jilted’s urge for amorous schadenfreude and the committed’s urge for
amorous self-aggrandizement. What Tolstoy gets right in Anna
is that the vessel of every relationship, even the most
apparently secure, is taking on water and listing hard to port.

 I was in Group Process class a couple years back and this one
participant, I’ll call her Monika, explained the secret to her happy
marriage: she and her spouse had agreed that they would reserve all
talk of complaints and dissatisfactions with each other for each
other. They would be each other’s closest confidants. No more spilling
the beans on marital troubles to Mom or best friend. What was most
admirable about this was not the idea in itself, which seemed either
completely essential or completely impossible, but Monika’s commitment
to that ideal. She would have the perfect marriage, damn it! Nobody
would know the pain she was enduring except her very torturer, her

 (The end of the story, of course, as you have guessed is that I’ve
fallen out of touch with Monika. Like the antiheroine of some baroque
Mafia saga, she had apparently found it easier to eliminate all
witnesses to her oath than to cleave to the oath itself.)

 As I approach Chapter 9 of Part Two of Anna Karenina, Anna’s
husband, Alexey Alexandrovitch, has decided to put the spotlight on
Anna’s apparent flirtation with Vronsky. Being an enlightened sort of
husband, he feels that the base emotion of jealousy is beneath him and
he therefore couches his argument for Anna to desist in her attentions
to Vronsky in terms of propriety: it doesn’t look right to others.

 Tolstoy quickly limns the snare through which Alexey Alexandrovitch
falls: although “he saw that the inmost recesses of her soul, that had
always hitherto lain open before him, were closed against him,” he
chooses to complain instead that “through thoughtlessness and lack of
caution you may cause yourself to be talked about in society.” She
then perceives this reasoned approach as further evidence of his
passionless feeling for her (“Love? Can he love? If he hadn’t heard
there was such a thing as love, he would never have used the word.”),
and when Alexey Alexandrovitch starts to mewl about his true feelings
(“But if you are conscious yourself of even the smallest foundation
for them [his earlier words of reproach], then I beg you to think a
little, and if your heart prompts you, to speak out to me…”) he finds
himself, as Tolstoy drily notes, “unconsciously saying something
utterly unlike what he had prepared.”

 I couldn’t help thinking of Monika and her perfect hermetic marriage
as I read this. This is the kind of trouble we get into when we
petition our faithless lovers for pardon, or convict them for their
obvious trespasses. All the best arguments prove themselves
insufficient and we fall back on the once-reliable appeal to the
emotions. Of course, as in the Karenins’ case, the lover’s soul has
now closed against us and our entreaties mean nothing.