Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Love Is Friendship On Fire

Once upon a time, I fell in love with a book.

I was 18 when we were first introduced. I had to find a novel to read for my AP English class, and it had to be written before the 20th century. I looked and looked, but I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t dense and boring. Then, my dad suggested I read Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. It was love at first sight. I was addicted to this book. Over the years I’ve read it dozens of times, and I’m not usually one to reread books.
In one of the earliest chapters, there is a line that I continue to find breathtakingly beautiful. I have since committed it to memory:
The sky was clear, remarkably clear, and the twinkling of all the stars seemed to be but throbs of one body, timed by a common pulse.
The imagery of that line continues to amaze and entrance me. When I read it, I am suddenly thrust into the scene, gazing up at the stars in awe. The idea that the night sky had a pulse, and was therefore alive somehow, struck something deep inside of me. To this day I continue to find a simple joy in gazing up at the stars on a clear night and trying to find that “common pulse.”

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Hardy’s background as a poet really shines through in this particular line of prose. The meter of the sentence makes it sound almost like a poem or a sonnet. I find it rather difficult now not to read the line aloud, because it seems to lose some of its beauty when kept in silence. The sounds of the words themselves seem to flow together, with Hardy’s use of open, round vowel sounds and fluid consonants like “l” and “m” and “s.”

The narrator’s tone throughout the entire novel is one that reminds me of a grandfather telling a story to his grandchildren. The language, though very descriptive and poetic, has elements of humor tossed in. The novel feels very friendly and easy to relate to. For instance, when the main character, Gabriel Oak, is falling asleep, Hardy describes it this way: "In about the time a person unaccustomed to bodily labor would have decided upon which side to lie, Farmer Oak was asleep."

To me, this line made Gabriel Oak a very relatable character and poked fun at the upper class. Those people “unaccustomed to bodily labor” are so picky, deciding which side to lie on to fall asleep at night. Gabriel, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care in the slightest, and falls asleep very quickly. I feel connected to him somehow through this description of him, because I, too, have come home after a long day of work and fallen asleep almost instantly. I know through my connection to the character that he is a hard-working young man, and I admire him for that.

Hardy’s choice of names for each of his main characters intrigues me. Our leading man is called Gabriel, a Biblical name that isn’t uncommon. Gabriel is the name of an angel, and I can’t help but apply that imagery to the character in Far From the Madding Crowd. Gabriel Oak is kind, considerate, patient, watchful, spiritual, and almost angelic himself. His name lends to that image. Then there’s the leading lady of the story, Bathsheba Everdene. I’ve often had friends giggle at the sound of her name, because they remember the lady from the Bible with that same name, who seduced King David by bathing on the roof and ended up losing her husband because of it. Bathsheba, like her Biblical counterpart, is very beautiful, and even leads along several characters in the novel with that beauty. She, too, loses her husband to a jealous suitor. Her story is tragic, but she is redeemed in the end, and that’s one of the reasons I love this book so much.

The love story in Far From the Madding Crowd is one that I place above all other love stories because of the message it sends. I grew up with all of the Disney stories, where the heroine, be it Ariel or Cinderella or Snow White, fell head-over-heels in love with a handsome prince, and was whisked away to a castle to live happily ever after. In Far From the Madding Crowd, however, the story is far more complex and meaningful. Bathsheba originally rejects Gabriel’s proposal of marriage because “he isn’t good enough.” One of her suitors, Farmer Boldwood, makes the “a fatal omission…that he never once told her she was beautiful.” Bathsheba expects the man of her dreams to flatter her, and she does find someone who does that, but their marriage is a terrible one.

I love that Hardy sends this message that infatuation is not love throughout the entire novel. When Bathsheba professes her love of Sargent Troy, the man who flattered her, she says “Love is misery for women always.” I always wondered why it was that Hardy had Bathsheba say such a thing. She was supposed to be blissfully in love, wasn’t she? Why would she say that she is miserable and in the same breath say that she was in love with Troy? It didn’t seem to make any sense. But now, after reading this novel several times over, I find that she says this because her idea of love does cause misery. Infatuation without real love does eventually lead to misery. 

My favorite part of the entire novel is the end, when Bathsheba realizes that Gabriel is the only person who has been there through all of her trials, and falls in love with him. At the end of the novel, Hardy explains the necessity of camaraderie and fellowship in a relationship: 
Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death – that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.
The word “evanescent,” means “temporary” or “short-lived.” I think that imagery and choice of words is absolutely beautiful. Hardy is saying that true love is not temporary passion, it is based out of deep, abiding friendship. It’s a beautiful message to send to people everywhere, and I think it is the main reason that I keep coming back to this novel.


  1. I've got opinions on "the nice guy" syndrome that could be applied to Gabriel's always being there for Bathsheba, but as I've not read the book and there's no mention of him expecting a reward from her for being a friend to her, it seems like an actually healthy relationship and that's pretty great. (Also besides the point and I'm rusty on what the actual verses are, but did Bathsheba really seduce David or was David just being a perv who happened to have kingly authority? hmmm :/ )

  2. Also the throbbing stars line, wow, I'd love to hear that out loud by a voice dripping with ache and...sultriness is the only word I can think of-- like, slow and drawn out and breathy.

    1. As for the subject of "Love is Friendship on Fire," I have wondered about that very much. I tell my sister Raquel all the time that I've never felt "love at first sight" for men, though I have felt it for books, dresses, an on rare occasions shoes. Why? After hearing account after account of peers and seniors affirming they had "love at first sight," I've always wondered if that phrase is what Ezra Pound uses to describe poetry--the :most written, yet least understood" of the literary genres (though in this case "literary genre" is replaced by "human emotions.")

      Is LAFS ("Love at first sight") a phenomenon I do not recognize because I have not experienced it? Possibly. Though I've felt spontaneous combustion of LAFS when meting certain boys, though the feelings were unrequited. Does LAFS then only spring into existence when it is mutual?

      Then there is the existential route. Is LAFS something constructed as an accepted motif in society we bend to adhere to? Or rather, is it passed onto us by the fairy tales that nurse us since infancy? Do we as an American, Anglo-Saxon populace accept this idea and maneuver our affections to fit this mold? If this sounds cynical, I don't mean it to be. I believe fairy tales are essential for a culture's moral compass, a sort of root laying the foundation for our societal and individual hopes and dreams to further sprout. That being said, perhaps I am admitting albeit indirectly that LAFS is an ideal Americans need to figure out what Love really is.

      Then, there is the spiritual explanation. If LAFS is the mutual recognition between souls of the eternal companionship about to blossom, or in other words recognizing in mortality someone promised to you in immortality.

      Love is altogether indefinable, yet describable by its fruits of goodwill, affection, selfless action, sacrifice, gentleness, and peacable things. Friendship includes everything in this list, though for every friend I do not feel fire. Every once in a while "ire," but that chispa, that spark, that passionate flame of that what transmogrifies Love into Romance? Certainly there is Romance without Love, just as thunder may sound with no lightning. But lightning is what electrifies the stars.

      But I digress.

      Love at first sight, Friendship on Fire, I can only think about these eternal paradoxes before my mind begins to melt into the ashes of my finite understanding.

      But as for Gabriel and Bathsheba---glad it worked out for them.

    2. That is really interesting. As I pointed out in our conversation on Facebook, I don't think that Bathsheba and Gabriel had a love at first sight. True, Gabriel did fall in love with Bathsheba soon after he met her, but that initial relationship didn't reach fruition because Bathsheba rejected his advances. Gabriel continues to love Bathsheba in the sense that he cares about her, but the infatuation isn't as present. And it isn't until after Bathsheba and Gabriel become very close friends that their relationship goes somewhere.