Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Wessex. Imaginary English region that was the setting for Hardy’s major fiction. Born in Dorsetshire, one of five counties in southern England, Hardy re-created this region in his novels as “Wessex.” This unsophisticated rural area is never entirely absent in his fiction or poetry. Late in his life, Hardy returned to Dorset and a new home for himself and his wife.
Egdon Heath. Gloomy wasteland in southern England. Against this majestic but solemn, brooding background a small group of people work out their tragic drama in the impersonal presence of nature. The heath’s grim face, its twisted topography—hills, valleys, rivers, ponds, paths, and open wasteland, a composite of several heaths—is a dominant symbol of primitive, timeless, and uncultivated nature. In this untamed place, nature’s four basic elements—earth, air, fire, and water—control this microcosm of a completely indifferent land. Earth is unalterable. Humans grow nothing; they only harvest the land’s natural furze. At times, even humans appear no more distinguishable from the landscape than “the green caterpillar from the leaf it feeds on.”
To the heath itself, people seem to be just another crop growth. Earthen paths serve as roads for constant travel around and back and forth over the nearly circular heath. Air, in the form of constantly blowing winds, whirls and buffets humans and assaults their ears...
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The Victorian Age
Today, Victorianism is thought of as another word for sexual repression. Yet the Victorian Age (1839–1901) was also a period of profound social commentary and social developments. The literature of the time addressed such significant issues as the growth of English democracy, the education of the masses, and the impact of industrialization on the working class.
One constant of the Victorian Era was that it was a time of an increased sense of social responsibility. In her early days on the throne, Victoria was viewed as liberal in her beliefs. A marked change came in 1840, when she married Albert, her mother’s nephew and prince of Saxe-Colburg Gotha. Albert was conservative, moralistic, and prudish; Victoria adopted similar attitudes. After his death in 1861 she reigned for another forty years and never remarried. Her personality influenced all of society and set the tone for the age. In a way it provided a moral compass that provided a sense of constancy in a turbulent time.
Politically, the era was characterized by a prolonged economic boom. England reigned as a prosperous and dominant world superpower. In 1853, England, the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and France fought a military conflict against Russia, in what was known as the Crimean War. It was fought to keep Russia from widening their influence in the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. The conflict ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed...
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Point of View
This novel is told from the third-person point of view, which means that the narrator is a disembodied voice, referring to each character as “he” or “she.” However, the narrative is not omniscient. This means that the narrator looks at the story unfolding from different points of view, but when it settles on any particular viewpoint it stays consistent, if only for a short amount of time. When new information is introduced into the story, that information is initially understood only in terms of the narrator’s point of view at the time.
For instance, when Wildeve first appears, readers are not told who he is; his character is revealed by what he says. Clym is a mystery for Eustacia to fantasize about long before his thoughts are related. In fact, even when they do talk outside of the Christmas party, the narrative shifts from her perspective to his then back to hers. Giving readers access to just one person’s experience at a time is called “limited omniscience.”
By limiting the flow of information to the reader, Hardy is able to create a sense of mystery in the story. This is accomplished because the motivations and intentions of the characters are not always immediately clear. When Hardy wants to convey theories and opinions, he frequently presents a scene in which several of the local characters are gathered together and talking while doing something else. This occurs in the bonfire scene in the...
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Venn and Thomasin's wedding resolves the love plot and permits Hardy to move Clym forward into a career as an open-air preacher on progressive subjects, both social and religious. In his 1912 definitive edition of the novel, however, Hardy added this somewhat irascible postscript to the third chapter of "Aftercourses": "the writer may state here that the original conception of the story did not design a marriage between Thomasin and Venn. He was to have retained his isolated and weird character to the last, and to have disappeared mysteriously from the heath, nobody knowing whither—Thomasin remaining a widow." The author continues that serial publication circumstances prompted the effort at a happy ending, but makes his own artistic preference clear. He cautions that readers possessing an "austere artistic code can assume the more consistent conclusion to be the true one." Carl Weber elaborates on this matter by reminding us that Hardy offered the novel to two prestigious British journals, only to be rejected by each. He eventually found a publisher in Belgravia, a somewhat less respected publication, but the editorial staff there found the denouement too sad, whereas the editor of Cornhill magazine had found the relationship among Eustacia, Clym, Wildeve, and Thomasin somewhat too risqué for a family publication. Rather than insist on his own gloomy denouement, Hardy wrote the four chapters that conclude the novel to appease the popular desire for a...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
In The Return of the Native Hardy examines the process of England's movement from an agrarian to an urban civilization, and from a community of faith to a blend of rural superstition and general doubt.
1. Any conversation about The Return of the Native inevitably turns on the character and power of Eustacia Vye. This study has focused on her evolution from the witch/temptress figure to the complex woman Hardy created. Readers might well examine their own responses to this character. Is her wish for a more glamorous life unreasonable? Is she willful to a fault? Does her restlessness justify her pursuit of Clym as a man who can lead her out of Egdon? Is it possible that she convinces herself that she does love Clym out of her own desperate need to find a way out of Egdon Heath? How much, if any, of Vye's character is lost in the film version? Are these losses, if they exist, the result of limitations in the medium, or screenwriting and casting decisions?
2. To what degree is pride the key ingredient in this narrative of frustrated ambitions and hopes?
3. Is Diggory Venn convincing as a character, or does Hardy manipulate him too much? Are you content with his transformation in the "Aftercourses" section?
4. How do you feel about Hardy's decision( s) to add the "Aftercourses" section, then repudiate but not rescind it?
5. Can you explain Thomasin's or Eustacia's attraction to Damon Wildeve? Hardy...
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With his sixth published novel, Thomas Hardy transformed himself from a gifted apprentice writer to one whose individual genius as well as his thematic and social concerns were clearly established. Earlier novels like Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) hinted at the original perspective Hardy was developing on the declining years of Victorian England and the evolution of modernist sensibilities in art as well as in social and philosophical theory. But, with The Return of the Native Hardy established his voice as one that would criticize the inevitable process of England's movement from an agrarian to an urban civilization, and from a community of faith to a paradoxical blend of rural superstition and general doubt. Although he was reared in a very religious household, and although his biographers agree that Hardy once seriously considered a vocation as a pastor, his novels from The Return of the Native forward would characterize doubt or religious indifference as the prevailing social mode. Thus a central social concern of The Return of the Native and subsequent novels through Jude the Obscure (1895, see separate entry) is the displacement of relatively universal faith by doubt, cynicism, and superstition. A central nexus in his diagnosis of the decline of faith as well as the uniquely "modern" pessimism and deterministic theory lies in the importation of continental and urban ideas to more rural civilizations.
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Compare and Contrast
1840s: Milk production in dairy farming is all done by hand.
1878: The first commercial milking machines are produced in Auburn, New York.
Today: Dairy farming is automated. Cows are kept in small enclosures that allow no room to move and seldom come into contact with humans.
1840s: The typewriter is a new invention. Patented in 1843, it uses the concept of the moving carriage to make letters strike evenly.
1878: The typewriter is greatly improved when the Remington Arms Company added a shift key that would allow the same document to include lower—and upper—case characters.
Today: Typewriters are practically obsolete. Word processing makes any desktop system capable of professional-quality graphics.
1840s: The first rail lines are just beginning to connect major urban areas, with passenger train travel starting in the 1830s. The only transportation available to inhabitants of Egdon Heath is primitive, such as horse-drawn carriages.
1878: Railways are common across the English countryside. They link cities and allow travel to even isolated areas.
Today: With automobiles providing convenient personal transportation, travel to any point in England is quick and easy.
1840s: Human behavior is a matter for speculation by philosophers and fiction writers.
1878: The first...
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Topics for Further Study
The events of this story take place in the 1840s. Determine how rural England changed between that time and the time of the book’s publication in 1878. What factors account for such a change?
At the beginning of the book, Thomasin and her aunt are worried about her reputation when she comes home unmarried. Investigate Victorian social customs. Discuss how things have changed since Victorian times. In your opinion, have they changed for the better or for the worse?
The legendary figures of the American West, including Jesse James and Billy the Kid, were active in 1878 when this book was published. Explain the relationship between the wilderness of Egdon Heath and the wilderness of the West as fictional settings.
Some of the people of Egdon Heath consider Eustacia Vye to be a witch because of her exotic looks and behavior. Research other women in history who have been charged with witchcraft, and draw comparisons between them and Eustacia.
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Although the novel lends itself to cinematic representation, especially the early scenes on Guy Fawkes Day, comparatively few efforts have been made to capture The Return of the Native cinematically. The novel was dramatized for staging in 1920 by the Dorchester Players, an amateur group. Biographer Michael Millgate notes that Hardy took intense pleasure in the adaptation, though he had little to do with the actual script. In 1998, a Hallmark Hall of Fame production, perhaps influenced by the moderately successful feature film versions of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, featured a strong cast and offered a generally satisfactory rendering of Hardy's text. The cinematography was exceptionally effective. Much of the film was shot in location in southwest England, and the visual effects of the heath create a powerful image of the beautiful countryside Clym so loves, and the hard, austere country Eustacia Vye so passionately despises.
As is often the case with film adaptations of great novels, however, the depth of Eustacia's character is completely lost in the film. Catherine Zeta-Jones captures the stunning beauty that so bewitches three men in the novel; Zeta-Jones ably conveys on the screen the corporal body of Eustacia Vye, but not her powerful spirit. Hampered by an uninspired screenplay by Robert W. Lenski and to a degree by the medium of film itself, Zeta-Jones's Eustacia lacks the depth, the passion, and...
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Return of the Native was adapted as a television presentation for the Hallmark Hall of Fame series in 1994, starring Clive Owen, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Joan Plowright. The television movie was directed by Jack Gold and released as a video in 1999 by Hallmark Home Entertainment.
Audio Partners Publishing Company has an unabridged, 12-tape edition of actor Alan Rickman reading the novel which was produced in 1999.
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What Do I Read Next?
All of Hardy’s other novels are well-respected, but Tess of the D’Urbervilles, published in 1891, is particularly like Return of the Native in theme and setting.
One of the greatest novelists of Hardy’s time was George Meredith, an author known for his psychological insights. His Diana of the Crossways (1885) is about a woman who has an affair and is accused of giving away secrets to her lover.
Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 romance set during the Civil War, Gone With the Wind, is an epic story about longing and survival. The protagonist of the novel, Scarlett O’Hara, possesses many of the same traits as Eustacia Vye: she is proud, ambitious, restless, and driven by love.
George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) wrote similar stories about life in rural England. The Mill on the Floss was published in 1860 and it concerns the trials of a sensitive young woman, facing rejection by her family.
The definitive biography of Thomas Hardy is Martin Seymour-Smith’s Hardy (1994), which includes exhaustive detail and comprehensive insight.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Adams, Francis, Review of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in The Fortnightly Review, Vol. LII, No. CCVII, July 1891, pp. 19–22.
Carpenter, Richard, Thomas Hardy, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1964.
Eliot, T. S., After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, Harcourt & Brace, 1934.
Hawkins, Desmond, “The Native Returns 1876–1878,” Barnes & Noble Books, 1976, p. 76.
Henley, W. E., Review, in The Academy, Vol. XIV, No. 343, November 30, 1878, p. 517.
Page, Norman O., “The Return of the Native,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Review, in The Athenaeum, November 23, 1878, p. 654.
Taylor, Richard, “Thomas Hardy: A Reader’s Guide,” in Thomas Hardy: The Writer and His Background, St. Martin’s Press, 1980, pp. 219–58.
For Further Study
Brooks, Jean R., “The Return of the Native: A Novel of Environment,” in Modern Critical Views: Thomas Hardy, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 55–72. Analyzes the novel’s most conspicuous literary theme.
Davidson, Donald, “The Traditional Basis of Thomas Hardy’s Fiction,” in Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Albert J. Guerard, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 10–23. Identifies elements of the oral...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Hardy’s “The Return of the Native.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Introduction addresses the relation of Arthur Schopenhauer and Percy Bysshe Shelley to Hardy, then discusses the “transformation” of Eustacia. Contains essays Brooks calls the “best modern interpretations” written by Lawrence, Howe, Brooks, Eggenschwiler, Meisel, Gregor, Fleishman, and Johnson.
Gindin, James, ed. Thomas Hardy: “The Return of the Native.” New York: W. W. Norton, 1969. Contains the novel, twelve of Hardy’s poems and the portion of his autobiography related to the novel, five contemporary criticisms, and fourteen later critiques on the characters, themes, and techniques of the novel. Ends with a selected bibliography.
Jewell, John. “Hardy’s The Return of the Native.” The Explicator 49, no. 3 (Spring, 1991): 159-162. Focuses on Hardy’s symbolic use of red through his use of the reddle. Concludes that, because of the red dye’s location on the ewe, the “reddle functions as a kind of scarlet letter.” Explores the character of Diggory Venn as a symbol of evil.
Lawrence, D. H. “Study of Thomas Hardy.” In Selected Literary Criticism, edited by Anthony Beal. New York: Viking Press, 1956. Published after Lawrence’s death. Provides an early psychological...
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