Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I’m not sure Thomas Hardy knows what love is. Or maybe I don’t know what love is. Does anyone know what love is? Haddaway has been zero help, by the way.
If I was worried I’ve been ploughing through Hardy’s novels too fast, I shouldn’t be: my last review was over a year ago! Time to rectify that! It’s also a nice break from the YA/SF-heavy binge I’ve been on (and to which I will likely return shortly!).
The Return of the Native is firmly in the middle of Hardy’s career as a novelist, and it shows. The novel opens with an exhaustive description of the picturesque Egdon Heath and its bucolic pre–Industrial Revolution furze-cutters and reddlemen. Hardy wants you to understand that this is the most beautiful green place in all the beautiful green places in England—and unlike the rest of England, in Wessex it only rains when Hardy needs pathetic fallacy. It also exists in a kind of bubble, with only the barest of interruptions—all of Wessex is like that, of course, but Egdon Heath seems isolated even from wider Wessex itself. There is something so profanely ironic about Hardy setting such unabashed tragedies within these idyllic pseudo-utopian worlds.
So this book has the same environmental sensations as the earlier Under the Greenwood Tree and, like Far from the Madding Crowd, it flirts with the theme that loving “wrongly” leads to disaster. Hardy’s fascination with Greek and Shakespearean modes of tragedy is on full display here. While the characters’ downfalls are rooted in their personalities, arguably the tragedies that befall them are also an indictment of contemporary norms around love and relationships. This is a proving ground for Hardy’s cynicism, much more fully explored in his later novels and poems, about the influence of class, wealth, and misguided moralism on people’s happiness. As such, The Return of the Native might be simultaneously one of Hardy’s best and worst novels, for it has such deep, abiding passion yet also suffers from rough edges.
I was not feeling this novel at first! It wasn’t just the seemingly-endless pages of description of the heath. None of the characters seemed remotely likeable or even sympathetic. Wildeve is a cad; Mrs Yeobright is stuck up on her high horse; Thomasin might as well be a washboard for all the personality she has; and Eustacia, while fuller in character, has a massive chip on her shoulder (to the point where I was starting to agree with Mrs Yeobright’s evaluation of her, and that made me feel weird). Even as the novel progresses and the actual plot emerges (this takes too long), I couldn’t bring myself to care. I didn’t find myself wanting any of these people to be happy.
I criticize Hardy for it above, and I’m only half-joking: the word love gets tossed around very lightly. I don’t really think this is Hardy’s fault; however, it does make the characters seem more like players in a melodrama than actual people. Eustacia convinces herself she is “in love” with Clym after about a night of spying on him. It’s pretty clear that this is wishful thinking on her part, a psychological duplicity visited upon herself because Clym, the eponymous native, is an enigmatic unknown to Eustacia who holds the possibility of rescuing her from her benighted existence on the heath. She falls out of love just as easily when—surprise, surprise—no such extraction to even greener pastures emerges.
With this failure on Clym’s part to abandon his stupid schooling plan take Eustacia to Paris—or even Budmouth!—Hardy makes some genuinely interesting observations about our propensity for deceiving ourselves about others. Eustacia is convinced that, despite Clym being very upfront about his intentions prior to marrying her, the marriage itself will somehow help her change his mind. So, I mean, I can be critical of the ease with which Eustacia or Wildeve keep falling in/out of love with each other and other people. But real human follies lie at the heart of all these relationships.
So we might summarize Hardy’s position as being, “Everyone is an idiot, so why does society punish us for it?” He acknowledges that people are making bad, rash decisions about things like marriage. But it seems self-defeating, and even cruel, for our society to make it so difficult to make amends. The Return of the Native is set in the 1840s, a decade prior to England’s first stab at proper divorce proceedings. Once hitched, our couples have but two choices: live together in discontent, or separate in semi-scandal.
Hardy explores the former state with the Wildeves. It’s not so much that Thomasin doesn’t love Wildeve as I suspect she’s the type of person who doesn’t love any of these characters in a romantic way. Rather, my reading of Hardy’s subtext is that Thomasin represents the type of woman who loves being courted. Hence her excitement and breathlessness at Wildeve’s pursuit, particularly when his suit was forbidden by her aunt and guardian. Deep down, Thomasin knows—and rebels against—the pressure in English society to make a “respectable” marriage. Hardy, as is typical of his somewhat proto-feminist writings, deftly illustrates how women of any class had few options beyond marriage; once married, even the rustic women who populate the Wessex countryside are judged more harshly than their menfolk if they stray. Thinking about it now, I’m actually getting angry about this: Wildeve knocks up Thomasin, and then while she is at home nursing their kid, he has the luxury of debating whether or not to run away with Eustacia.
(I’m angry in part because of how Wildeve treats his wife and child, but also because a hundred years on, this kind of double standard still exists.)
With the Yeobright–Vye marriage, on the other hand, Hardy gives us two people are just so ill-matched for one another, and everyone except them sees it from the beginning. Eustacia seems more classically suited to the judgement I passed on Thomasin above. She certainly loves the attention Wildeve pays her. But I think that’s more a symptom of her general boredom from life on the heath. And whether or not Eustacia really is suited for town life, she definitely thinks she is. She doesn’t love Clym so much as the idea of everything Clym represents, the possibility of escape from Egdon Heath. Throughout the novel, she remains remarkably consistent in this goal—hence, when Wildeve eventually presents her with the escape route, she seizes upon it immediately and fatally. Like Eustacia, Clym is a very driven individual; however, he allows himself to be seduced by the simplicity of furze-cutting life.
There is a rich dramatic symmetry to the fates of the characters as well, once again hearkening back to classical tragedies. Eustacia wants to leave the heath, so she dies in the river—symbolically, she is now part of the heath forever. Wildeve is punished for wanting to leave his wife to follow Eustacia by being allowed to follow her in the universe’s ironically macabre way. Clym gets to live—but he essentially abandons his project of intellectual enlightenment in favour of moral enlightenment, because he recognizes that the universe has been punishing him for his hubris. Thomasin’s fate, even altered by the final chapter Hardy added at the end to appease serial readers, is a type of “punishment.” Venn loves her more than she loves him (again, see above, I don’t think she loves anyone). She essentially agrees to marry him because she doesn’t want to be a widow or dependent on her cousin. Hardy once more uses her to show the pragmatic attitude women often had to take towards marriage. The book’s original ending would have been Clym’s words:
Do what you think right, dear. I am only too glad that you se your way clear to happiness again. My sex owes you every amends for the treatment you received in days gone by.
Clym totes wouldn’t have been tweeting using #notallmen; he gets it!
Hardy still manages to conclude the story with a focus on Clym (part of me wonders if Clym’s fate as revealed in “Aftercourses” is a kind of rebuke or “f u” to the magazine/readers who demanded a happy ending). His epilogue is a philosophical return to the physical descriptions visited upon us by the opening of the book: Hardy disdains organized religions or philosophies and prefers instead simpler wisdom, simpler times. Typical Hardy.
See, this is why I write reviews. Actually reading The Return of the Native was not as energizing as some of Hardy’s other books. There were certainly parts that I liked, moments that made me gasp or groan as I anticipated what was to come—everything that makes Hardy a great writer is here, on display, in one way or another. But it doesn’t have that central protagonist present in some of Hardy greater works, or that sublime plotting of The Woodlanders. In writing this review, however, I have had to grapple more intensely with the book’s meanings, and my appreciation has deepened as a result. There is plenty to talk about here, with this one volume, even without attempting to converse about it in the context of Hardy’s wider works.
The Return of the Native is never going to vie with some of Hardy’s other novels as my favourite, nor would I consider it his “best.” I definitely see its appeal more now than I did when I began reading it, and I suspect any other Hardy fan will as well.
I would like to conclude with a shout-out to my man Hardy for his mad naming schemes. Far From the Madding Crowd gave us Bathsheba Everdeen, and now here we have Eustacia Vye, Thomasin Yeobright, and Damon Wildeve. Hardy is a master of unusual naming, and it oddly makes these books that much more delightful to a modern audience.
N.B.: I re-read this book in 2019, but I did not see the need to substantially amend or add to this review.