Hardy: The Return of the Native

March 13, 2021

The Return of the Native
Thomas Hardy
(Modern Library, 1950) [1878]
507 p.

In his previous novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, Hardy had explored the complexities of finding a suitable match in marriage, and the unruliness of passion. Many of the same themes arise in The Return of the Native, though masterfully etched in darker hues, for whereas in the earlier novel a happy marriage was still the telos of the tale, here marriage is portrayed as an impediment to happiness and an occasion for hypocrisy, deception, and betrayal.

The story circles around Eustacia Vye, a young woman of exceptional beauty and allure whose very presence inflames the destructive passions of the men around her, like a goddess of tragic love shedding discord in hearts as she moves through the world. Hardy, in fact, portrays her, in a remarkable, extended portrait, as a pagan goddess:

Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnight; her moods recalled lotus-eaters and the march in Athalie; her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola. In a dim light, and with a slight rearrangement of her hair, her general figure might have stood for that of either of the higher female deities. The new moon behind her head, an old helmet upon it, a diadem of accidental dewdrops round her brow, would have been adjuncts sufficient to strike the note of Artemis, Athena, or Hera respectively, with as close an approximation to the antique as that which passes muster on many respected canvases.

But celestial imperiousness, love, wrath, and fervour had proved to be somewhat thrown away on netherward Egdon. Her power was limited, and the consciousness of this limitation had biassed her development. Egdon was her Hades, and since coming there she had imbibed much of what was dark in its tone, though inwardly and eternally unreconciled thereto. Her appearance accorded well with this smouldering rebelliousness, and the shady splendour of her beauty was the real surface of the sad and stifled warmth within her. A true Tartarean dignity sat upon her brow, and not factitiously or with marks of constraint, for it had grown in her with years. (I, 7)

Paired with her, as a foil, in the village on Egdon Heath, is the sensible and good-natured Thomasin, who exerts a quite different and healthier kind of influence on the eligible young men. Chief among the latter are two: Wildeve, a man whose name is no accident, and Yeobright, an Egdon native — in fact, the native of the novel’s title — who has returned after a sojourn of some years in Paris to take up a life among his own friends and neighbours once more. His return disturbs the status quo in Egdon, setting in motion the events that eventually lead — this is a Hardy novel — to disaster.

This disaster is caused, in part, by a particular act of Yeobright, understandable and defensible in itself, but done in anger and soon regretted, and I was struck by his words when the consequences of his act were finally evident: “My great regret is that for what I have done no man or law can punish me!” Here again we meet, as we did recently in Heywood’s play, the human need to atone for wrongdoing, and the paradoxical burden that is imposed on the soul by freedom from punishment.

I remarked in my notes on Far From the Madding Crowd that Hardy’s prose had a consistent tendency to objectify his characters, to describe them in impersonal, scientific terms, and that this, though disturbing in itself, produced an effective minor-key harmonization with his grim fatalism. It was interesting to discover that this tendency is not noticeably present in The Return of the Native, and has been replaced instead with a subtle and dark supernaturalism that is, however, at least as effective a conveyance for the dark forces riding roughshod through this world of Egdon Heath. I’ve already illustrated the way in which he uses pagan imagery to describe his characters; the Heath itself is a quasi-pagan setting, desolate and wild, with no church as far as I could tell; the main festivities celebrated here involve burning pyres atop hillocks. In one startling scene a character actually utters a curse — “It was a strange jargon—the Lord’s Prayer repeated backwards—the incantation usual in proceedings for obtaining unhallowed assistance against an enemy” — that, on a straightforward reading, is directly effective. Reading a bit of commentary on the novel I find that Hardy intentionally structured it in five acts, observing the classical unities of time and place, to make of his book something like a novelization of a classical tragedy, all of which is as interesting, formally, as unexpected.

This classical structure is less evident than it might be because Hardy, in a concession to the publishers, added a sixth section in which the tragic peroration with which he had originally planned to end the novel was succeeded by an epilogue in which the two most likeable characters were granted a happy ending. He apparently came to regret this, and he had a point; from this distance, whatever commercial interests might have been involved can only seem an intrusion upon artistic integrity. Not that I minded the happy ending myself.

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