‘I’m sorry but she so totally did not deserve him!’
This was my friend’s immediate comment as the final scene of Far From the Madding Crowd closed with the hero and heroine strolling arm in arm into the West Country sunset. I had to admit she had a point. The heroine Bathsheba is not really a character you find yourself rooting for throughout the film. First she laughingly rejects a handsome and charming shepherd (the solidly named Gabriel Oak) who proposes marriage with the sweetest image of their future married life; “And at home by the fire, whenever you look up there I shall be— and whenever I look up, there will be you.’ She then goes on to inherit a farm and money (giving her the opportunity to showcase an array stunning dresses in various pastoral scenes), have two other men fall in love with her (a rich but boring older man named Boldwood and a dashing but dangerous young soldier Troy) whilst all the time the dependable Gabriel Oak is in the background loving her with an earthy pragmatism by trying to keep her from financial and moral ruin.
Despite the fact that Far From the Madding Crowd was written by a man you could be forgiven for thinking that such a narrative is a narcissistic woman’s dream. I mean this girl has not one but three men after her! Granted two turn out to be duds, but the final one is so amazingly manly, wise and loyal that you really think ‘there’s no one like this surely.’ However reflecting on the good shepherd Gabriel put me in mind of another Good Shepherd.
Now I should clarify that novel’s author Hardy was an agnostic who probably never intended his work to be a Christian allegory, however I believe that wittingly or not this story can shed light on our interior lives.
God’s faithful love
It’s unlikely that most of us will experience the kind of “love square” that Bathsheba finds herself in however, we who know the Good Shepherd Christ often find ourselves rejecting His love in favour of more ‘exciting’ or ‘safer’ options as we perceive them to be. Because when we stray from God who, like Gabriel in his marriage proposal, offers us intimacy and dignity, we don’t just fall prey to the ‘glamour of evil’ we also can be tempted to sell ourselves short into an unchallenging but comfortable existence. The temptation that Bathsheba feels in relation to the soldier Troy is the kind we feel in relation to our passions. Sometimes we totally lose our cool and get swept off in a direction we never intended and after the party’s over all we have is the massive hangover. Bathsheba is dazzled by Troy’s charms but the day after the wedding she is left feeling miserable with a man who is using her for his own ends. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the temptation to become stagnant and surround ourselves with material goods like the man in the parable who stores all his wealth in his barns. Bathsheba feels tempted to sell her body and soul over to Boldwood, whom she does not love, in return for material possessions and social prestige.
All the while Bathsheba’s heart is being torn between these two temptations, Gabriel is meeting out sound advice which is not, on the whole, favourably received by Bathsheba. In fact Bathsheba ends up sacking Gabriel after he gives his honest opinion on Troy and again, to her dismay, he is straightforwardly honest about the morality of her behaviour towards Boldwood whom she is leading on. In the novel Hardy writes that when Gabriel confronts her about her Boldwood he ‘saw her in the cold morning light of open-shuttered disillusion.’
I think this is what makes Gabriel’s character so God-like. He is gentle, totally respectful of Bathsheba’s freedom and completely in love with her. Yet, he also is not afraid to expose the illusions she creates for herself, even if this hurts her in the short term- ultimately he knows that this pain will lead to her redemption.
So does Bathsheba deserve Gabriel? Probably not. But then neither do we deserve God’s faithful, patient love for us. The good news is however that we have it.