Though it may be a bit premature to dedicate a space to reflective writing after having read only a single chapter of Far From the Madding Crowd, I must. I suspect that Professor Jenkins had more in mind than it merely being an earlier Hardy novel when she suggested we add this novel to our reading list (seeing as though she knows my peculiar interests in reading Hardy). My suspicions of this grow out of the first page alone. The first character Hardy introduces to us is Gabriel Oak, but he is introduced first as Farmer Oak. Almost as an aside or afterthought, Hardy mentions that his Christian name is Gabriel. But it’s significant to me that we know him first as Farmer Oak. Both words farmer and oak immediately bring to mind visions of rural life with a strong drift toward pagan roots, the oak being such a sacred and important symbol in pre-Christian Albion, Caledonia, and Hibernia. His dress is immediately characterized as would suit a natural laborer: there is no urban pretense, even on Sunday. Gabriel Oak is a man of the land, and the clothes he wears reflects that. Even his wrist-clock—accurate to the minute but broken to the hour—suggests his affinity with nature seeing as though he can tell the hour by the passing of the sun and the stars. I would even go so far as to suggest that we associate the passing of the hour with the Church with its bells signaling the top of each hour throughout the day. So Hardy has already established a friction zone between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the pagan tradition in the name of the first character to whom we’re introduced and symbols in that name. I’m already reminded of the moment in Tess when Hardy reveals the name of Tess’ ancient D’Urberville: Sir Pagan D’Urberville. These names cannot be mere coincidences. Rather, it’s further confirmation to me that I’m on to something that deserves more scholarly attention. At this point, I can only speculate the degree of tension Hardy is going to push throughout the novel here, but I’m fairly certain that my thesis and I are in for quite a treat.
Aside from this, I’ve already noticed some other peculiar points of interest in Gabriel Oak: judging by what Hardy has revealed to us so far, Gabriel Oak is a man who in a variety of ways exists in a world between worlds (and not just between Pagan and Christian worlds, but I’m certain this parallel is no accident). He’s neither a young man nor an old man but caught somewhere between youth and old age. He is religiously indifferent. From the public’s point of view, he is morally ambiguous (if the public is in a good mood, they project a good sense of morality on Gabriel; if the public is in a bad mood, then they see evil in Gabriel). Not only does this position Gabriel as morally ambiguous from the perspective of the public, it also illustrates how the public defines Gabriel’s morality by means of public opinion rather than by Gabriel’s own moral character. As soon as Hardy described Gabriel Oak as a man rather like an Oak—well built in dimension yet having a way of carrying himself mindfully and “unassumingly” so as to diminish his stature—I immediately began to identify with him (4). Oak is close to my age, and both of us have entered that stage of life when our intellects and emotions are quite separate aspects of our consciousness. And—yes—I also see myself in the ambiguous middle ground between the beauty of Saint John and the ugliness of Judas (but I sure don’t look like Alan Bates…) (5). My own name is parallel to Gabriel Oak’s: Jeremiah is a traditional Hebrew name straight from the Old Testament, and Henry, as a surname, taken back far enough, is pre-Christian Irish (Ó hInneirghe). Of course this is something significant only to me, but Gabriel / Jeremiah || Oak / Ó hInneirghe has a special sort of charm for me as a reader. Knowing this is a Hardy novel has me a bit worried though. I hope things turn out well for him.