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.