|Thomas Hardy never smiled |
He just wasn't that kind of guy.
The young, beautiful, early twenty-something Bathsheba Everdene [BE] arrives at her aunt’s modest farm with no prospects, and no back story either, come to think of it. She’s got a dash of education but no money. She meets a shepherd, Gabriel Oak, she flirts, and he prematurely--and it's premature even by the conventions of Victorian novels—proposes marriage to her. She declines, for several reasons including one that troubles most modern readers [except bdsm types]: she tells him that she needs a man "to tame" her. Then BE inherits a fine farm and disappears from the novel just long enough for Oak to lose his entire, heavily-mortgaged flock of sheep, who all jump over a cliff, misled by a very dumb herding god. Now a poor vagrant, he seeks work and coincidentally ends up at BE’s farm. She hires him. Oak represents the stable, loyal friend.
Still obviously in love with BE, Oak settles in to his role as her employee. Meanwhile, BE flirts with an older, rich neighboring farmer, Mr. Boldwood. He proposes also: flirting packed a way more powerful punch then than now. Mr. Boldwood represents the practical and wise choice, but he's dull and vaguely obsessive, and his obsessiveness, over time, gets creepy. Stalker creepy.
Meanwhile again, a rakish soldier--Sargent Troy--comes to town. The reader knows he’s a complete cad, foul--excuse me here--dickwad--who’s knocked up BE’s servant and then left her at the altar. Troy represents the hot and sexy choice; desire trumps all, and BE elopes with Troy. The marriage goes downhill quickly. Troy gambles lots of her money away. The knocked up servant shows up again, but now dead and with dead baby. His secret revealed and filled with remorse, Troy seems to commit suicide by drowning but no body ever washes us, leaving BE in marital limbo. Boldwood pesters the beejeesus out of BE. Oak quietly remains her friend and supporter.
Fearing that Boldwood will go postal if she refuses, BE consents to marry him six years down the road, if and when Troy is declared legally dead. At his huge Xmas eve party, Boldwood privately gives Bathsheba an engagement ring that he wants her to wear secretly. Moments later, Troy appears at the Xmas eve party. Boldwood kills Troy, then goes to jail for life. Oak takes over Boldwood’s farm, but keeps an emotional distance from BE because there's gossip that he--Oak--is looking to marry BE for her money. Just as Oak is about to emigrate abroad, BE proposes to him. They have a quiet marriage. We see BE and Oak by the fireside. The end.
I'd like to go on record and say, it's not a hugely happy ending, right? Servant girl and baby: dead. Troy: dead. Boldwood: life in prison. The narrator tells us that BE and Oak shared a "substantial" love, but that while she smiled, BE "rarely laughed anymore."
Nonetheless, FFMC ends with a marriage and the hope of happily ever after. Tra la la sorta. The marriage ends the narrative of one plucky woman, three men, and a whole goddamn lotta sheep.