illustration of Eustacia standing in the forest

The Return of the Native

by Thomas Hardy

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Many readers have noted the formal classical structure of The Return of the Native as well as the similarities of the characters to such powerful mythic figures as Oedipus and Prometheus. It is, however, the brooding Egdon Heath itself that becomes the more significant structuring principle. In fact, as many have noted, the heath is one of the principal actors in the drama, for the actions of all the characters are reactions in some way to the indifference that the heath represents. Egdon Heath is the landscape from which God has departed. In its barrenness, it seems like some giant prehistoric monster lying dormant but ready to swallow up anyone who tries to escape its grasp.

As in other Hardy rural idylls, there is a chorus of rustic characters in The Return of the Native. They belong on the heath because of their ignorance of the incongruity between the human longing for meaning and the intractable indifference of the external world symbolized by the heath. They still maintain a mythic, superstitious belief in a pagan animism and fatalistically accept the nature of things as they are. The Druidical rites of the fires that open the novel, the insignificance of Christian religion, the voodoo doll of Susan Nonesuch—all these characterize the pagan fatalism of the rustics.

The main characters in the novel are not merely rustic, and they make something other than a fatalistic response to the heath. All of them are characterized by their various reactions to the heath’s indifference. Mrs. Yeobright is said to have the very solitude of the heath concentrated in her face. Although she knows she no longer has hope of escape, she focuses all of her attention on seeing that her son Clym does. Damon Wildeve is an outsider, the mysterious stranger who seems detached from the heath but who ultimately must answer to its indifference. Tomasin Yeobright aligns herself with the natural world because of her innocence and therefore sees no discrepancy between human wishes and the blindness of the natural world. Diggory Venn, the most puzzling character in the novel, is an outcast, wandering the heath as both a rustic and a demoniac figure.

The most towering figures in the novel, however, are Clym Yeobright, the native of the title who returns to the heath, and Eustacia Vye, the powerful, rebellious figure who yearns to escape its bleakness. As is typical of cultural values of the period, Eustacia’s only real hope of leaving the crushing suffocation of the heath is by being “loved to madness”; thus her rebellion is often manifested as coquetry. Clym, on the other hand, wishes to remain on the heath, seeing only friendliness written on its face. Having spent some time in the intellectual ferment of the social world, he now wishes to escape the disease of thought and teach the rustics what they intuitively know: that the only life is the life of fatalistic acceptance.

Clym is the disillusioned intellectual trying to return to the mythic simplicity of the natural world; he would prefer not to grapple with the incongruities he has seen. He is indeed blind, as his mother tells him, in thinking that he can teach the peasants the view that life is something “to be put up with” when they have always known and fatalistically accepted that fact. He furthermore reveals his blindness by marrying Eustacia, thinking she will remain with him on the heath, while Eustacia reveals that she is similarly misdirected by idealizing him and thinking that he will take her away. Both characters search for a meaning and a basis for...

(This entire section contains 986 words.)

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value, but both are trapped by the irrationality of love and vain hopes in a basically irrational world.

After the two marry and Eustacia, in one of Hardy’s typical examples of human misunderstandings and the mischance of events, turns Clym’s mother away from her door to die on the heath, Clym blames her for his mother’s death and drives her away. Eustacia’s trip across the heath is one in which the natural world seems inimical to her, for she stumbles over roots and “oozing lumps of fleshy fungi” that impede her path like the organs of some giant prehistoric animal. At the end of the novel, Eustacia’s suicidal leap into the pool is less a capitulation to the forces around her than it is a heroic rebellion, for it is an assertion of the absurdity of human hopes by a romantic temperament that refuses to live by such absurdity.

The Return of the Native is probably the most debated of all Hardy’s novels, having been called a masterpiece by some critics and a failure by others. Some readers have seen it to be primarily the story of Clym Yeobright’s spiritual odyssey, while others have declared as central Eustacia’s struggle with the heath. Eustacia herself is one of Hardy’s most puzzling creations. While one reader claims that her story is a realistic case history, another calls it a supernatural myth; while one sees her as a tragic heroine, another calls her the parody of a heroine. Even Diggory Venn has been the subject of much debate and argument, being interpreted as both a peasant laborer and a demonic visitant, while Damon Wildeve is seen alternately as a romantic adventurer and Eustacia’s demonic familiar. Moreover, the accidents and coincidences that dominate the plot have been the source of much critical disagreement, called both the fault of weaknesses in the characters and the result of Hardy’s philosophic determinism, while the framework of magic and superstition that surrounds the action of the work has been termed both grotesque parody and animistic gratuitousness. It is because the novel hovers between realism and romanticism, between the real world and the dynamic world of myth, that both its characters and its actions are so much a subject of critical controversy.