Twenty-eight-year-old Gabriel Oak was surveying his fields one mild December morning. From behind a hedge, he watched a yellow wagon come down the highway, the wagoner walking beside it. When the wagoner retraced his path to retrieve a lost tailboard, the horses halted. This delay permitted Oak to view the wagon's motley array of household goods, complete with plants and pots. Enthroned atop everything sat a pretty, dark-haired young woman in a crimson jacket. Looking to make sure the wagoner was out of sight, she took out a mirror. Her smile, tentative at first, widened at her satisfying reflection. She flushed as "she simply observed herself as a fair product of Nature in the feminine kind." Hearing the wagoner return, she replaced the glass.
After the two resumed their journey, Gabriel left his "point of espial" and followed them down the road. At the tollgate, the wagon was stopped. Unimpressed by the wagoner's protest that the girl refused to pay an additional two pence, the gatekeeper would not let the wagon pass. Stepping forward, Gabriel handed two pence to the keeper, saying, "Let the young woman pass." The girl glanced carelessly at him. "She might have looked her thanks to Gabriel on a minute scale, but she did not speak them; more probably, she felt none."
Gabriel did not disagree with the gamekeeper's comment on the attractiveness of the retreating girl. But, perhaps irked by her snub, he maintained that she had her faults, the greatest of them being "what it is always . . . Vanity."
"Far from the madding crowd" was how Thomas Hardy wished us to view his beloved native country and the types who inhabited it. Thus isolation furnished both the theme and the title of the novel. Far from the Madding Crowd might well entitle his whole series of Wessex novels.
In the first paragraph, the friendly face of Gabriel Oak smiles at us. His features are average, his clothes ordinary, and his "moral color was a kind of pepper-and-salt mixture." Even his idiosyncrasy is a mild one: He wears a large watch with a faulty hour hand. Undismayed, he checks the time by peering into neighbors' windows or by referring to the position of the stars. Unconcerned with time's passing, he leisurely continues to do what he thinks is right. He cares for his fellow beings and is capable of judging them.
Hardy, with the eye of the artist, loved the color and line of the landscape. Thus he personalized nature. His horses were "sensible," his cat "with half-closed eyes" viewed birds "affectionately." His delineation of people was part caricature, as with Gabriel, and part portraiture, as with the young woman whom Hardy shows through Gabriel's eyes. Hardy's first picture of these two young people will be counterbalanced by a well-illuminated, mellowed portrait in the final chapter, when both have matured.
Critics credit Hardy's first profession, that of architecture, with responsibility for his sense of form, both literary and aesthetic. This, his first successful novel, was designed to appear serially; one result of this is the inclusion of a bit of suspense at the close of each installment to keep the reader eager for the next one.