Critics and general readers often associate Thomas Hardy's vision with "naturalism" or "determinism," variations on the conviction that an indifferent or malevolent fate controls human life and that we are helpless to change our destiny. This theme is central to novels like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, neatly summarized in its despairing conclusion, "the President of the Immortals, in the Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess." Moreover, in the great lyric poem "Hap," the speaker contemplates his preference for being victimized by a hostile god rather than by an indifferent one because he could "bear it,... Steeled by a sense of ire unmerited." The discovery central to that poem, however, is that mere chance, not will, causes human suffering, which is therefore compounded by its own meaninglessness.
Yet it would be an oversimplification to apply uncritically to each work Hardy wrote the deterministic vision he often shares with writers as diverse as Emile Zola and Frank Norris. Whereas "Hap" laments the lack of a purposive enemy, in the later poem "Channel Firing," God makes a little joke about how history will work out according to his malevolent design. Confrontation with a hostile or indifferent "other,"—be it god, fate, or necessity—is at the core of the tragic idea, and Hardy's expressed goal in The Return of the Native was to write a modern tragedy, as he implied in his allusion to Leir/Lear in the prefatory note of 1895....
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The role of time and the effect of its passage are major themes in the novel. As the story spans eighteen months, the landscape of the heath remains unchanged—that consistency is reflected in the people who live on the heath for generation after generation. They are creatures of tradition, following the same wedding rituals, the same harvest rituals, the same holiday traditions and the same folk remedies (such as the traditional cure for an adder’s bite) that has been handed down to them. Sometimes traditional beliefs lead to hostility, like the fear of Eustacia Vye being a witch.
The characters who encounter difficulty are the ones who are not content to live in rhythm with country life. Most notably, Eustacia is impatient with life on the heath, wishing for the “bustle” of Paris. Wildeve is also bored with life on the heath. When he inherits a large sum of money, he plans to tour the world. Clym is the most divided character in the novel; Eustacia assumes that he is too worldly to settle down in the country, but he is able to appreciate the beauty of the land’s timelessness.
[W]hen he looked from the heights on his way he could not help indulging in a barbarous satisfaction at observing that, in some of the attempts at reclamation from waste, tillage, after holding on for a year or two, had receded again in despair, the ferns and furze-tufts stubbornly reasserting themselves.
(The entire section is 748 words.)