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The Return of the Native
Thomas Hardy



In a neglected, wild area of the English countryside, bonfires are being lit to mark the coming of winter. As the country folk celebrate this ancient custom, we learn that the emotional lives of several people are in turmoil. Thomasin Yeobright, niece of the highly respectable Mrs. Yeobright, has been stood up on her wedding day. Disgraced, she has returned home. Wildeve, the man she was engaged to, (against her aunt's wishes), is a handsome lady-killer who has failed as an engineer and now runs an inn and tavern named The Quiet Woman. He still pledges to marry Thomasin, but secretly he is torn between her and Eustacia Vye, a strange and beautiful young woman who lives with her grandfather, a retired sea captain. The Vyes' lonely cottage is situated in the middle of Egdon Heath, a great wasteland that is the center of the novel's action.

For some weeks, Wildeve cannot make up his mind. Thomasin, for the sake of appearances, wants to marry him, even though she is now well aware of his weakness. Eustacia, who has been passionately attracted to him for a year, sees him as the only pleasure in her dull life in a part of the country she hates. A curious character, Diggory Venn, hangs around watching developments. He once proposed to Thomasin and was turned down, but he still hopes that she may give him another chance. Because Thomasin rejected him, he gave up a comfortable life on a dairy farm and has taken up the trade of reddlemaking. This occupation dyes his skin red, making him a social outcast.

As Christmas nears, word comes that Mrs. Yeobright's son, Clym, is returning from Paris for a visit. Eustacia has never met him, but the tales of his success in the diamond business arouse her interest. Here may be the heroic figure she's been waiting for all her life. He becomes a glamorous fantasy for her. To meet him, she disguises herself as a boy and performs in a Christmas play at his mother's house. They meet and find each other fascinating, although he does not yet learn her true identity.

Caring only for Thomasin's happiness, Diggory asks Eustacia to give up her hold on Wildeve. Since Clym has arrived, she is bored with Wildeve, so she writes him a rejection letter. Stunned, he immediately asks Thomasin once again to marry him. He gets her consent moments before Diggory arrives at her door, hoping to propose to her himself.

Eustacia disguises herself and appears at the wedding. When she is asked, as a "stranger," to act as an official witness, she triumphantly shows her face to Wildeve. He thought his marriage would hurt her, despite what she had written to him. It is, however, just what she wants to happen- at the moment.

Soon, Clym and Eustacia begin meeting each other on the heath. The countryside is coming into flower, and their love begins to blossom. Worried, Mrs. Yeobright warns her son against Eustacia as an idle creature. Clym is already in love, however, and mother and son quarrel bitterly. Eventually, he leaves her house for good, setting up in a small cottage six miles away. After a passionate nighttime encounter, Eustacia and Clym decide to marry immediately. He plans to remain in the Egdon area and become a schoolmaster, a decision that disturbs both Mrs. Yeobright and Eustacia. The young woman is convinced, however, that he will soon change his mind. She dreams of nothing more than escape to the excitement of Clym's Parisian life.

On the night of their wedding there is a terrible misunderstanding. Mrs. Yeobright hopes to be reconciled with her son by sending a wedding gift, his share of the inheritance from his father. An equal amount of money is due Thomasin. Christian Cantle, a simple-minded fellow, is supposed to take both sums to the wedding party. On the way, however, he stops by The Quiet Woman where he wins a raffle. His luck makes him think that fortune is on his side. Soon after, he loses all the Yeobrights' money by playing dice with Wildeve. Diggory immediately appears and wins the money back. Believing the whole sum is Thomasin's, he gives it to her without explanation.

Mrs. Yeobright decides, on the basis of Christian's version of these events, that Wildeve must still have both Clym and Thomasin's shares of the money. She suspects he has given Clym's share to Eustacia. She asks her daughter-in-law, who angrily decides that Mrs. Yeobright is implying an improper relationship between Eustacia and Wildeve. An argument cuts off all hope of friendship between the two headstrong women.

Almost immediately, Eustacia and Clym's marriage begins to founder. He has been studying too hard for his new occupation and develops eye trouble. He is reduced to making a living by gathering wood on the heath, just like one of the country folk. Eustacia becomes depressed, realizing that she has made a horrible mistake and may never escape Egdon. The conflict with his mother preys upon Clym's mind.

To cheer herself up, Eustacia goes off alone to a night of dancing in a nearby village. There, she and Wildeve meet accidentally and dance with abandon. They recall their former passion longingly. Diggory, who sees them together, worries that the affair may be starting again. When Wildeve begins to walk by the Yeobrights' cottage every night, Diggory harasses him from the darkness. Wildeve decides that it is safer to visit Eustacia by daylight.

On an incredibly hot summer day, Mrs. Yeobright decides to walk over to her son's cottage to try to make peace. Just before she arrives, Clym comes in from the fields and falls asleep, exhausted. Wildeve shows up to see Eustacia. When Mrs. Yeobright knocks on the door, Eustacia flees with Wildeve to the garden, thinking that Clym will awaken and let his mother in. In fact, Clym is fast asleep and the door is never opened. But Mrs. Yeobright has seen Eustacia's face at a window and assumes that Clym and his wife have purposely refused to let her in. Fatigued and angered, she starts back homeward.

As Mrs. Yeobright struggles in the afternoon heat, a little boy, Johnny Nunsuch, comes upon her; she tells him that she has been abandoned by her son. That night, Clym decides to go to his mother and ask forgiveness. On the way, he finds her collapsed and unconscious on the heath. He carries her to shelter and calls the villagers for help. She has been bitten by a snake, but when the doctor arrives, he says that it is exertion that is the real trouble. Mrs. Yeobright dies. Johnny relates what the woman told him about her son abandoning her, and Clym decides that he is guilty of his mother's death.

After weeks of delirium, Clym finally calms down. Eustacia is miserable, sure that her role in Mrs. Yeobright's death will be discovered, but she says nothing. By chance, Clym learns from Diggory that his mother had intended to visit the day she died. He asks Johnny for more information and learns that Mrs. Yeobright had indeed knocked on the door but was turned away. He also learns that Eustacia was in the house with an unidentified man.

Furious, Clym accuses Eustacia of killing his mother. He wants to know what happened and the name of the man. Eustacia refuses to talk. After a wild argument, she leaves Clym. He is distraught but he cannot forgive her. Ironically, Thomasin has just had Wildeve's baby and named her Eustacia Clementine, after her cousin and his wife.

Back at her grandfather's cottage, Eustacia contemplates suicide. Charley, the hired boy, who idolizes her, prevents her from doing so. Soon, Wildeve visits. He has inherited a large sum of money and can now travel the world. He offers to help her, hoping she will become his mistress and leave Egdon with him. Eustacia cannot make up her mind.

Partly under Thomasin's influence, Clym decides to tell Eustacia that he wants her back. He writes a letter but waits before sending it. Meanwhile, Eustacia signals Wildeve that she will leave with him at midnight. Clym's letter finally arrives, but it is not delivered to her, since she has pretended to go to bed. As a terrible storm begins to savage the heath, she slips out of the house to meet Wildeve. On the way, however, she realizes that escape with him is no solution. Losing all hope, she begins to wander away.

Meanwhile, her grandfather has gone searching for her and goes to alert Clym. Thomasin is also out in the storm, with her baby, urging Clym to prevent Wildeve from eloping with Eustacia. In the raging storm, Clym does indeed meet up with Wildeve, just as the sound of a body falling into a pond is heard. The two men rush over to try to save Eustacia from a swirling whirlpool. Diggory comes upon the struggle at the pond; he dives in and pulls out the unconscious bodies of Clym and Wildeve. With help that arrives, he finds Eustacia, too. Clym recovers, but the former lovers are dead. Clym now thinks himself guilty of the deaths of two women.

A year and a half after the tragedy, Diggory has given up reddlemaking and become a dairy farmer. At a Maypole celebration, he pretends to be in love with an unknown girl who has lost a glove. When Thomasin discovers that the glove is hers, she realizes that she now loves Diggory. They are married, as the villagers celebrate. Clym, who has renewed his studies, becomes a traveling preacher. His message is that we should all love one another. He is respected for his ideas and also for the sorrows that he has endured.

[The Return of the Native Contents]



    Is Eustacia really a superior being, or does she merely think she is? Are her passions deeper than other people's, or is she simply greedy? Is she doomed by fate or by her own selfishness? Few readers have ever been able to decide for certain. That is the genius of Hardy's portrayal. If you are like most readers, you will find this beautiful young woman fascinating one moment, exasperating the next. Even the other characters of the novel find her unpredictable, and their reactions to her vary widely. Is she a goddess or a witch?

    Hardy skillfully avoids simple answers by showing us many sides of this complex character. At times, he seems sympathetic to her frustrations with her narrow life, yet he does not shrink from showing her at her worst. She is capable of deception, and she has a killing temper. She can be disloyal, she can wound with a perfectly aimed insult, and she can exploit other people's good nature.

    Why, then, does the reader simply not turn away from her? Perhaps because almost everyone can feel pity for her at moments, such as before her death when she cries out, "How I have tried and tried to be a splendid woman, and how destiny has been against me!... I do not deserve my lot!" If she had been able to live in a great city, perhaps she would have been splendid. If she had found a society that appreciated her rare qualities, rather than fearing or scorning them as the people of Egdon do, she might have achieved great things.

    Hardy's point, of course, is that those possibilities are not available. Like all of us, Eustacia must make do with the situation that faces her: she must either accept or change her fate. Her tragedy is that she refuses to accept it but fails to change it.

    Usually, Hardy describes Eustacia in contrasts, to stress the divided nature of her soul, the conflicts that torture her. Early in the novel, he writes, "As far as social ethics were concerned Eustacia approached the savage state, though in emotion she was all the while an epicure. She had advanced to the secret recesses of sensuousness, yet had hardly crossed the threshold of conventionality." He is saying that, on the positive side she is a nonconformist, an independent spirit; but on the negative side, emotion, passion, the heart's needs have become an obsession with her. She lives solely for romance. "To be loved to madness- such was her great desire."

    One side of her nature, however, all too poignantly recognizes that love itself is evanescent: she is terrified of time. Think of her first appearance in the novel, eagerly searching with her telescope for Damon. She is the very picture of a desperate woman searching for experience. She carries with her an hourglass, even though, as Hardy takes pains to point out, she does have a modern watch. It is as if she actually wants to see time, her dreaded enemy, as it dribbles away. At the moment which should be her most blissful, when she and Clym decide to marry, she gazes toward the eclipsed moon and warns, "See how our time is slipping, slipping, slipping!" She confides to her lover the deep (and perceptive) fear that their love will not last.

    Though she lives by certain illusions, another side of Eustacia is ruthlessly realistic. Perhaps her most attractive quality is this inability to lie to herself about herself. Basically, she knows her own faults; she's intelligent, perceptive, and honest. When she first meets Clym, she explains to him that she is depressed by life. It's a simple statement, but it may well sum up all her difficulties. Life itself is somehow too much for her unusually sensitive and demanding nature. Life doesn't give her what she wants. Life, as she experiences it, is a prison.

    Not surprisingly, readers disagree on many aspects of this puzzling, ambiguous character. Her actions can be seen from many different perspectives. For example, some say that she sincerely loves Clym; yet surely she also has a selfish motive in agreeing to marry him: in her mind, the marriage is associated with an escape to Paris. Throughout the book, her mixed motives often lead to troubling actions.

    No matter how many times you read this novel, you will probably never be certain just how you feel about Eustacia Vye. She is too contradictory; she is too special and rare. Hardy himself is most eloquent when he describes her in symbolic terms, as when he writes that she and Damon, walking together under the full moon, "appeared amid the expanse like two pearls on a table of ebony." Equally doomed, these two passionate beings shine brightly in a dark world only to be extinguished.


    Romantic Wildeve is a striking contrast to Hardy's plain, honest country folk. His past is shady. He has failed at his career as an engineer, perhaps because of laziness; he seems never to have failed with women, however. More than anyone else in the novel, he cares about money and is usually strangely lucky in getting it. This man has never had to work hard for anything.

    Thoughtless, handsome, eager for what he cannot have, Damon Wildeve is not a strong or a likeable character. He seems to have no friends and no family connections, although he is sexually irresistible to many young women. He seems unusually sophisticated for the wilds of Egdon- much like Eustacia. The crucial difference between them is his overriding weakness. He does not have her high standards or her depth of feeling. In fact, Hardy often shows Wildeve taking rash steps almost frivolously, like someone gambling with life. He just can't take other people's needs too seriously. He isn't evil, but he is so self- centered that other people suffer.

    What Wildeve wants most is comfort and pleasure, a life of ease. Even Eustacia, who partly shares these desires, knows that he is really not very substantial; she's quickly diverted from him when Clym arrives, and only returns to Wildeve when Clym disappoints her. When Wildeve dies, he is not mourned long. His only legacy, a daughter, is ironically the product of a marriage to Thomasin that he really wanted to avoid.

    Yet perhaps we can feel sorry for Wildeve, caught up in the tragic web of circumstances, too weak to resist the fate that sweeps him along. Is Wildeve a villain- a liar, gambler, and seducer? Or is he simply a shallow man who has blundered into a more tumultuous world than he was meant for? Consider both possibilities as you read the novel.


    Countrified and inexperienced, Thomasin seems to be less complex and interesting than the other major characters. So far as we can tell, she is not as passionate as Eustacia, as intellectually profound as Clym, as sophisticated as Wildeve, or as intuitively insightful as Mrs. Yeobright. Hardy likens her to a bird, and she often flits through a scene, scattering good cheer but not pausing to alight. And yet, it is Thomasin who gets (and perhaps deserves, in Hardy's view) a happy life, in conventional terms. As the novel comes to a close, Thomasin feels fulfilled, as a loving mother and beloved wife. The more ambitious characters have exposed themselves too openly to fate; she is content with her lot, rooted to the heath where she has grown up, comfortable with the simple life of the Egdon area. She belongs. There is no conflict between what she is and where she is.

    Perhaps, in that sense, she is the most fortunate character in the novel. Unhappiness does come to her, but only when some element intrudes that rubs against the grain of ordinary Egdon life- Wildeve's attraction, Eustacia's rivalry, even Clym's return from Paris. Although she is drawn to Wildeve, he does not belong on Egdon Heath, and ultimately she cannot be happy with someone who is so foreign to (and contemptuous of) the ideas, people, and land that her life is tied to. Diggory, on the other hand- who actually lives on the open heath- is a good match for her.

    Uncomplicated as she may be, however, Thomasin is no fool. She marries Wildeve with her eyes open; she has a pretty good idea of his faults. Without being told or shown, she recognizes when his passion for Eustacia comes back to life. Eventually, when she is free, she comes to appreciate Diggory's deep, slow, and silent commitment to her.

    Perhaps more important than what she sees, however, is what she wants to see. For example, when Clym and his mother are not speaking, she tries to act the role of peacemaker. When Clym is estranged from Eustacia, again Thomasin urges reconciliation. She does not like conflict. Perhaps Hardy, who doesn't support traditional Christian ideas in this novel, nonetheless believes somewhat in the New Testament idea, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Thomasin is good because she is concerned for the good of others. She is in harmony with her world; she wants to share that harmony.

    Alone among the major characters, Thomasin represents the continuity of human life. Clym cannot bring himself to marry again, but she can. Motherhood is important to her; she won't even let the hired nurse carry her child. Why is she finally attracted to Diggory? He is a dairy farmer and has been a reddleman- in both cases, working with the basics of sustaining life. These two are meant for each other; for example, on the stormy night when Wildeve and Eustacia drown, Thomasin lets Diggory carry her child. She shows no one else this basic form of trust.

    Oddly, Thomasin has little personal history on the page before us- no parents, no siblings, no close personal friends. Who is she? Who or what has influenced her most? In some ways, she resembles Mrs. Yeobright; also, she is clearly affected by Clym's opinions. Finally, though, it may be best to see her, as Hardy does, as a birdlike creature who finds Egdon Heath her native habitat. She flourishes there. To understand her, we would have to understand the mysterious heath itself.


    Well-meaning, intelligent in certain ways, Clym Yeobright is not suited to life in the real world of his day. He dislikes city life as "effeminate," but when he returns to Egdon, no one understands his ambition to teach school. His ideas come from books rather than from direct experience with people. Unfortunately, he does not really know himself, either. He thinks he is rational and controlled; but love for Eustacia causes him to act rashly. He thinks he is morally right; but this leads him to be cruel to others, whom he believes to be in the wrong.

    Like his cousin Thomasin, Clym loves Egdon Heath, and the people there love him for his pure nature. The most important influence in his life is his home, especially his mother, Mrs. Yeobright. Temporarily, he leaves her to marry Eustacia, but in the end, even after her death, her influence on him remains strong.

    Hardy suggests that Clym is too sensitive. His constant thinking almost seems to weaken him physically; his studying literally makes him an invalid for a while. His high ideas are not very practical. In day-to-day experiences with other people, he often has little or no idea what they want, or what they are thinking. Yet this does not make him ridiculous. We have to respect him because he is struggling to find the truth of life. Though he is sometimes obtuse, he is never thoughtless. Perhaps he lacks the sense of self that is necessary to survive. If Wildeve is too selfish, then Clym in contrast is too unselfish.

    In the end, Clym dedicates himself to others, hoping to spread truth and comfort and to teach all men to love each other. Ironically, he himself has failed with his mother and with Eustacia, the two people he loved most. He is more successful at loving all mankind than at being a son or husband.


    Clym's mother has definite limitations. She is snobbish, even though her own social position would not be very high outside Egdon. She is stubborn and likes to get her own way; she interferes, with disastrous consequences. On the other hand, her judgments about people turn out to be remarkably accurate. Also, her deep love for Clym and for Thomasin always wins out over her temper, and she is willing to forgive. She has a strong sense of fairness; for example, she does her best to be polite to Wildeve.

    Like her son and niece, Mrs. Yeobright feels at home in Egdon. Her life there is simple and unpretentious, in tune with the community. She is part of an older generation, so perhaps we can forgive her for trying to manipulate the young people. What chiefly motivates her is love for Clym. She wants him to be successful financially, married to someone who will be devoted to him. And yet, without knowing it consciously, she also probably wants to keep him for herself.

    In addition to being a strong central character, Mrs. Yeobright is also a kind of symbol. She is the last representative of her generation. Even at Egdon, change is on the way. For Hardy, she may well embody both the faults and virtues of a particular time and place that's rapidly passing away.


    Strong and silent, Diggory Venn is not what he seems to be. At night, he looks like a demon, but he has the morals of an angel. People think he is low on the social scale, but he can at any time return to being a successful farmer. He is also "artful," able to disguise his true feelings, when he is courting the one love of his life, Thomasin.

    Diggory is, of course, almost too good to be true. To many readers, he almost appears to be a supernatural being. He arrives in the nick of time, when ever Thomasin seems to be in danger. He can move swiftly across the heath at night; he can beat the lucky gambler Wildeve, even with Wildeve's own dice. It seems Diggory can almost read men's minds. Capable, insightful, loyal, he performs the role of a guardian angel.

    It is easy to see why Hardy originally thought that Diggory should simply disappear at the end of the novel, instead of settling down with Thomasin. Diggory is too fantastic a creation to fit easily into an ordinary homelife. However, he says he has entered this strange life as a reddleman only because Thomasin rejected him; to marry her, then, he returns to normal society.

    Though his actions seem magical, Diggory's heart is totally human. It is part of his appeal that Diggory steadfastly loves Thomasin. She is not clever or sophisticated, and she has been foolish. She is generous, however, and her heart is in the right place. Diggory unlike Clym and Wildeve, falls in love for reasons that may cause love to last. He combines Clym's sense of justice with a practical understanding of how men and women actually live their lives.

[The Return of the Native Contents]



Huge, forbidding, strange- the wasteland of Egdon Heath is like a stage set for the action of this novel. It offers wide spaces for movement, but it also has hiding-places for intimate scenes. Its many different faces reflect or heighten the many different moods of the story. One can believe that the Heath has many secrets, and has witnessed all possible varieties of human experience. It is a place of long life and of sudden death, of fertile spring and short, vivid summer. No matter what feeling Hardy wants to express at any particular point, the heath can offer it up.

Something about Egdon Heath depresses the restless, adventure-seeking characters of the novel, Eustacia and Wildeve. But it is a comforting presence to unselfish people like Clym and Thomasin. As you read, notice each character's reaction to the heath; it may say something about his or her inner nature. The less intellectual country folk simply take the place for granted, just as they take their own souls for granted.

Does Egdon Heath represent life? Time? The supernatural? Destiny? Readers have suggested these and other possibilities. Perhaps it is not a symbol for anything, but merely a background, a small universe, having no meaning, offering no answers. Part of the mysterious appeal of this novel is that Hardy makes the heath seem so significant, but then never specifically explains his purposes. We must use our own imaginations to try to understand and feel what the heath finally means.



    The only sustained happiness in the novel may come at the end, in Thomasin's and Diggory's marriage, and Hardy had originally planned a less happy ending even for them. The lives of the other major characters all end in tragic death, like Eustacia and Wildeve, or continue in sadness like Clym. There are moments of ecstasy, from time to time, but they pass quickly away. Hardy's message seems to be that people cannot expect to experience joy; they are fortunate if they can at least avoid great pain.


    Often, characters, in the novel try to control the future. They try to arrange for their own happiness and for that of others. Just as often, fate comes between a character and his or her best-laid plans. Is Hardy saying that fate is ruled by evil intent? No. In this novel, fate seems simply not to care about human beings. It intervenes just as often to thwart well-meaning plans as to upset wicked ones. Fate is more powerful than the desires of individuals.


    Egdon's colorful dialect, seasonal celebrations, superstitious folk beliefs- these were disappearing even as Hardy wrote the novel. He loved his native countryside and tried to re-create both the land and the people. But he is a faithful historian, and so he shows the bad with the good. He is not blind to the faults of uneducated, unsophisticated country folk, he knows they can be cruelly prejudiced, as well as loyal. They can be foolishly ignorant, as well as dependable. Like Clym, though, Hardy clearly prefers life in the country to life in the cities. In spite of his realistic portrayals, a nostalgia colors the rustic scenes, for Hardy is sorry to see the changes that progress will bring to the villages of his youth.


    Hardy's main characters are not much in the eyes of the world: an innkeeper, a curate's daughter, a self-taught traveling preacher, a dissatisfied young girl. He believes, however, that obscure people have lives just as important and troubling as the lives of famous people; that's why he brings in references to classical and historical figures, to add a heroic dimension to the lives of these ordinary people. They feel as deeply as great heroes do; their mistakes are as tragic; their deaths are no less (and no more) significant. Writers in other periods had written about great kings or mythical heroes. Hardy wanted to portray the intensity of life among ordinary people.


    For Hardy, romantic passion can be dangerous. Another kind of passion, uncontrolled anger, can also have unfortunate consequences. The only feelings which can be trusted are moderate, like Thomasin's kindness and desire for people to be at peace with each other. Relationships between people are best not when they are violent and sudden, but when they have a long history and have endured much, like the love between Diggory and Thomasin. Love at first sight, as Eustacia and Clym find out, is likely to be a mistake. Hot-tempered reactions are generally a mistake, as well. Hardy understands that passion is fundamental to human nature- and he portrays passion so well that we cannot help but respond to it in characters like Eustacia. But he stresses that we must try to act in the light of reason. We may fail- as Clym does- but we must try. Moderation is the goal.


    Well meaning if sometimes mistaken, Clym is Hardy's central character, the returning native of the novel's title. He does not find happiness, but he does find a kind of wisdom through his suffering. In the beginning, he is stubborn and proud. When he discovers that he can cause tragedy for others, he learns humility. Hardy wants the reader to learn what Clym learns. We cannot always get what we want in life, but neither can anyone else. Human beings should love one another and try not to cause each other pain.


    Often, Hardy pulls back from his story to talk about the past. He refers frequently to famous characters in classical myths, the Bible, or history, perhaps to show that people in all civilizations have had much the same problems and have probably had the same questions about existence. Ancient peoples have been forgotten, and so will we. Egdon Heath is a symbol of this timelessness; throughout its seasons and cycles, it remains essentially the same. There are storms, and there are bright summer days, but the true nature of the heath never really alters. Human life, too, has its storms and bright days, but its essential nature never changes, either.


    For Hardy, nature could have many moods. He uses natural descriptions in several ways: to reflect a character's inner emotions, to symbolize the conflicts of human life, to show the comparative insignificance of human beings. Sometimes nature seems to help mankind; sometimes nature seems to turn against us. It is as mysterious as fate. In this novel, Hardy investigates these and other aspects of nature; but he also takes obvious delight in describing various kinds of natural beauty for their own sake. Anyone with unusual skill likes to exercise that skill, and Hardy enjoys writing his famous descriptions: the romantic loveliness and excitement of the heath by moonlight, the burning heat of the afternoon Mrs. Yeobright dies, or the terror of the storm the night of Eustacia's death. Some characters, like Thomasin, are in harmony with this beauty; others, like Eustacia, struggle against it. By making it a powerful presence in this novel, Hardy shows us that nature is a force to be reckoned with.


    Is chance the same thing as fate? Different readers disagree on this question. Perhaps it is cruel, deliberate fate that Eustacia, for instance, has been set down to live on the heath she loathes. It may be mere capricious chance, however, that Mrs. Yeobright decides to visit on the very afternoon that Wildeve also decides to come to Eustacia's cottage. In other words, fate seems to rule events according to some vast pattern which is beyond human control. Chance seems to intervene in smaller, random ways, when human beings are trying to act on their own. Many readers, however, feel that chance and fate are the same thing in this novel. Things "just happen," without rhyme or reason, and that in itself is the pattern of the universe.


    This novel, written early in his long career, shows Hardy trying out different writing styles. He is always ambitious, but he is not always successful. Occasionally, his poetic descriptions are pretentious and long winded; they become top heavy. In other passages, he tries to record the earthy folk dialect of the Egdon area, and sometimes his attempts to be accurate can become awkward; the dialect gets in the way.

    But the achievements of his style far outweigh the few failures. His best descriptions are not simple pictures; they're dramas of life. His most believable conversations have the force, the contradiction, the illogic of actual conversations. He has also created a successful voice in which he can speak directly to the reader. Sometimes it sounds a little formal, but generally it is a useful way to guide us along, as he moves easily from discussions of philosophy, for example, to a portrayal of a simple country scene.

    Does Hardy's writing move slowly? Perhaps it does, for us today, conditioned as we are by thirty- second television commercials and three-minute pop songs. In Hardy's own day, however, readers expected to spend long hours every evening in reading a novel, taking plenty of time to think about what was happening. When a novel was published serially, in a magazine, as Hardy's novels first appeared, the experience of reading a novel might go on for months. The pace of Hardy's long, complex sentences is a reflection of the pace of the times.

    You can look one by one at the elements of Hardy's prose- the use of dialect vocabulary, the vigorous verbs, the careful explanations- and still not find the secret of his best work. Many readers will recall a favorite scene as brilliantly written. But when they return to the book, the actual words used may not live up to the impression they made. Hardy's gift is to summon up powerful images that take on a life of their own, quite beyond style.


    Hardy frequently interrupts his story to tell us what it means- but does he really tell us? One can not always be certain that this author is explaining himself fully, even when he seems to be doing so. It's not that he attempts to deceive the reader; rather, he wants to make it clear that life is unclear. He wants to emphasize the mystery of existence. He doesn't believe that life offers simple, clear-cut answers, nor does he imagine that human beings, or his characters, can be judged as either completely good or completely bad.

    His point of view, then, could rightly be called "ambiguous." He may directly criticize Wildeve in one passage, for example, but then his narrative suggests that Wildeve is not responsible for everything that happens to him and Eustacia. He may number all of Eustacia's worst faults, but somehow most readers still feel that Hardy is, like Clym, fascinated with her.

    He shows that life is filled with disasters and tragedies, but he says that new life will continually spring up to replace the old.

    Although Hardy frequently shows a sense of humor, many readers have felt that he puts too much emphasis on the unhappy aspects of life. He would argue against that charge, saying that he simply reported life as it is, and the true report just happens to be filled with unhappiness. Is that the thinking of an objective observer, or a pessimist? As you read this novel, form your own opinion of where Hardy really stands.


    The Return of the Native looks at first like a typical nineteenth-century novel: long, with several plots, and set in a wide landscape. But this tale is really very compact. The major action takes place in a year's time. All of the characters live in the Egdon area, and the outside world does not intrude (we do not hear, for example, about the national problems of England).

    All of the major characters are bound together in a dense knot of relationships. The structure of this book is concentrated, to reflect the tight organization of the action. Book First, the longest book, sets the stage and introduces the characters. Book Second brings Clym and Eustacia together and sees the marriage of Thomasin and Wildeve. Book Third shows the split between Clym and his mother and his marriage to Eustacia. Book Fourth tells of the terrible accidents that lead to Mrs. Yeobright's death. Book Fifth sees Clym and Eustacia separate, bringing about the tragic deaths that end the main action. Book Sixth, a kind of epilogue, shows the marriage of Thomasin and Diggory.

    The action is organized around seasonal celebrations, beginning and ending with the autumn bonfires, as if to emphasize the dramatic changes that can take place in such short periods of time. The story is told in straight chronological order, without the use of flashbacks or other devices. (This may underscore the story's sense of the straightforward, irresistible movement of time itself.) Regularly, our concentration upon the major characters is broken by the appearance of the country folk, as if for comic relief, to stress the need for the reader to step back and consider the meaning of the tale.



    ECC [The Return of the Native Contents] []

    © Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
    Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
    Further distribution without the written consent of, Inc. is prohibited.

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