Henry James famously remarked of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd that “[e]verything human in the book strikes us as factitious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs.” This comment is generally taken as a simple putdown, but it can also lead us to consider more seriously the implications of a novel in which the most memorable characters, arguably, walk on four legs. What does it mean to read Far from the Madding Crowd nonanthropocentrically, to take the measure of its creatureliness? I do so here by returning to the old question of Hardy's status as a “pastoral” author. “Pastoral” is a major concept in contemporary theory because of Michel Foucault's arguments about the emergence of this form of power as one of the basic elements of Western modernity, but it can be easy to forget how directly Foucault links pastoral power to its origins in the literal occupation of shepherds. For Foucault, much of the specificity of our Judeo-Christian inheritance may be traced to the vocation of the sheepherder and his ability to turn cross-species pity or empathy into the action of protective care and governance. Far from the Madding Crowd can be understood as an extended thinking through of these very topics. Hardy's novel, written at a moment at which long-standing distinctions between the human and the animal body were breaking down, represents the sheep fold as a zone of species indistinction where sheep, dogs, and human beings overlap, co-influence, and sometimes even seem to merge. The novel teaches its readers to pity the sheep and to push beyond an exclusively human-centered perspective.
Ivan Kreilkamp; Pitying the Sheep in Far from the Madding Crowd. Novel 1 November 2009; 42 (3): 474–481. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2009-044
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