Book review: The Return of the Native

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. Recommended.

In Egdon Heath, Thomas Hardy creates an otherworld consisting of the elements earth, wind, fire, and water, populated by a witch condemned by a pious woman’s spell, a Christian ruled by pagan beliefs, an assortment of other odd characters, and the native of the title whose return precipitates a series of tragic events.

The Return of the Native is centered around Eustacia Vye, a beautiful outsider wrenched from the society she craves by orphanhood and exiled to live on Egdon Heath with her maternal grandfather. Spoiled, vain, fickle, and selfish, Eustacia is not a sympathetic heroine. Although she claims to belong to Damon Wildeve (“body and soul” in one uncensored version), she really belongs to whomever can grant her what she desires and, in her mind, deserves. While Wildeve is a step above the local rabble, Eustacia can never fully commit herself to him. Each time she considers it, she is held back by the thought that even he lacks something and that surely she can do better. “He’s not great enough for me to give myself to — he does not suffice for my desire! . . . If he had been a Saul or a Bonaparte — ah! But to break my marriage vow for him — it is too poor a luxury!”

In another place, like the Paris Eustacia longs for, she would have become a mistress or a courtesan — the consort of a powerful man or men. On Egdon Heath, however, there are neither powerful men nor courtesans. There is only Damon, an equally fickle young man who hotly desires that which he cannot have — sometimes Eustacia, sometimes the naïve Thomasin Yeobright. To complicate matters, Thomasin’s cousin Clym returns from Paris, where he has a financially rewarding and spiritually stifling career. In Eustacia’s eyes (blinded to what she doesn’t want to see, just as Clym’s sight becomes literally blurred to that which he does want to see), Clym appears to be the ideal replacement for Wildeve.

In his introduction to the “standard edition,” John Paterson, talks about the censorship of The Return of the Native and its anti-Christianity elements. The novel, at least in this form, appears to be more anti-Christian than anti-Christianity. Eustacia, with her beauty; aloof and lonely snobbishness; hold over men such as Wildeve and Clym and boys such as “the little slave” Johnny Nunsuch and the adolescent Charley; and habit of haunting Rainbarrow at all hours of the night, can easily appear to fit the role of the Egdon Heath witch. Yet it is the churchgoing Susan Nunsuch who falls prey to superstition, believing that Eustacia has afflicted her son with illness. She stabs Eustacia with a needle during one of the young lady’s rare church appearances. Ironically, in the end Susan is the witch, fashioning a likeness of Eustacia and practicing a homegrown form of obeah upon it.

Susan’s male counterpart, the ironically named Christian, is no better. Simple-minded, naïve, and condemned to perpetual bachelorhood, Christian is pious not for love of God but for fear of life. He is ruled by superstition, and it requires little effort for Wildeve to convince him he is lucky and that he should gamble (as it turns out, with money that isn’t his, adding theft to his sins).

Like Egdon Heath itself (“oozing lumps of fleshy fungi . . . like the rotten liver and lungs of some colossal animal”), the remainder of its inhabitants — the ones from whom Eustacia wishes to escape — are unflinchingly, unchangingly pagan, with Christian’s own reprobate father, Granfer Cantle, setting the example. They avoid inconveniences like church; they gleefully celebrate Guy Fawkes Day with fire and dance; they gossip without undue concern for good or bad. These are the folks from whom Mrs. Yeobright and the stoic pagan Diggory Venn (the reddleman) wish to save Thomasin’s reputation — as though it matters to them.

These are also the people among whom Eustacia is a queen. When she says, “How I have tried and tried to be a splendid woman and how destiny has been against me!” the reader is hard pressed to find Eustacia’s efforts to better herself, other than trying to determine which man will best launch her into society. With his Paris connections, Clym is the obvious choice, yet it is Wildeve who turns out to have better prospects — and the will to take advantage of them.

Queen among the heathens of the heath, Eustacia is blissfully unaware of the probability that, in the Parisian society she aspires to, she would be one among many and might find herself unable to compete with the elite courtesans, mistresses, and wives of Paris. “I was capable of much,” she claims. Hardy, however, never makes clear what this “much” might be exactly, as Eustacia’s intelligence, learning, and wit are incompletely and imperfectly portrayed, and one does not make a splash in society based on looks and pride alone. Eustacia hasn’t “tried and tried”; and her youthful, ambitious impatience has led her to miss the clues that Clym is not going to “try and try,” either. Perhaps she, like Sue in Jude the Obscure, represents the dilemma of the intelligent woman in the 1800s, who can shape her own destiny only through attachment to the right man in a socially acceptable way. When that fails (Eustacia), or if an alternative means is attempted (Sue), tragedy is inevitable.

While not Hardy’s best, The Return of the Native is a must read for his readers, incorporating a grim yet objective setting, memorable characters, and a tragic plot driven by human failings more so than the destiny at which Eustacia rails. Ignore the awkward, unconvincing happy ending, as Hardy’s censors forced him to tack it on.

31 October 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf


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