Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1096
Thomas Hardy was born in Dorset, England, on June 2, 1840. Although he attended several grammar schools and studied French at King’s College London, Hardy had little formal education. Later, however, he read extensively in the Bible, the classics, and recent scientific publications. He was an architect’s apprentice from 1856 to 1874 and later an ecclesiastical architect. During this time, he wrote poetry, which was not published until after he was a well-known novelist. His first novel, Desperate Remedies, was published in 1871. In 1872, he married Emma Gifford; after her death in 1912, he married Florence Dugdale. When storms of protest arose over the pessimism and the violation of strict Victorian sexual mores in his novels Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895), Hardy gave up writing long fiction but continued to write poetry. He died on January 11, 1928, and his ashes were placed in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. Among his best works are Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) and The Return of the Native.
In The Return of the Native, there is a strong conflict between nature or fate, represented by Egdon Heath, and human nature, represented by the characters in the novel, especially Eustacia. The title of the first chapter, “A Face on Which Time Makes but Little Impression,” establishes the heath’s role as much more significant than merely a setting for the action. The word “face” suggests that the heath assumes anthropomorphic proportions and becomes, in essence, a major character in the novel; somber and dark, “the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend.” While the characters struggle and become tired and disillusioned—or die—the heath remains indifferent and unchanged. The heath is a formidable foe; in fact, those who struggle against it—Eustacia, Wildeve, and Mrs. Yeobright—eventually die.
The heath, then, becomes a symbol of permanence. Other aspects of the setting become symbolic, and they also intensify the somber tone of the novel. Light and dark imagery is significant in that the dominance of dark imagery adds to the novel’s pessimism. The bonfires on the heath provide small areas of light in the blackness of the night, yet the furze burns quickly and is soon extinguished, like the momentary happiness of Eustacia and Clym and the wild passion of Eustacia and Wildeve. The moon’s eclipse on the night Clym proposes to Eustacia foreshadows the eclipse of their love. On the night of Eustacia’s death, a violent storm echoes her violent emotions as she cries out against her fate.
Like his character Eustacia, Hardy often seems to blame fate for many of the catastrophes of life. Many critics believe that in this novel fate is completely dominant and that the characters are helpless victims of its malevolence. Such a view, however, seems inadequate. Admittedly, fate does play a significant role; for example, Eustacia accidentally meets Wildeve at the gypsy dance. Mrs. Yeobright just happens to choose an extremely hot day to visit Clym, just happens to arrive when Wildeve is there, and just happens to be bitten by an adder when she collapses from fatigue. Eustacia does not receive Clym’s letter because her grandfather believes she is asleep. Much of the novel’s tragedy, however, can be traced to the characters’ motivations, decisions, and actions.
Mrs. Yeobright may seem victimized by Eustacia’s failure to open the door to her, but one must remember that Mrs. Yeobright never accepts Eustacia and attempts to turn Clym against her. She feels socially superior to Eustacia, distrusts her because she is a free spirit, calls her lazy and irresponsible, and hints that she is behaving indiscreetly with Wildeve. In general, Mrs. Yeobright is jealous of Eustacia because she wants to keep Clym to herself. She refuses to attend Clym and Eustacia’s wedding and later treats Eustacia in a condescending manner. She then harbors her grudge and keeps away from her son and his wife long enough for the gulf between them to widen greatly.
Clym, too, brings much of his trouble on himself. He is flattered by Eustacia’s attention and passion for him but never really sees her as an individual totally different from himself. Without regard for her hatred of the heath and her longing for the excitement of Paris, he assumes that she will be a vital part of his teaching mission. After their marriage, he ignores her and devotes his time to his studies, which, perhaps, helps to bring about the physical blindness that becomes symbolic of his blindness to reality. Martyring himself as a furze cutter, he intensifies Eustacia’s hatred for the heath and fails to see that his physical fatigue and his degrading work deal a crushing blow to his marriage. Even his desire to teach is selfish and unrealistic; he tries to escape from life’s conflicts into an abstraction of truth, and he desires to impose his views on others. Clym’s position at the end of the novel is ironic; as an itinerant preacher “less than thirty-three,” he may suggest a Christ figure, but in his self-righteousness he fails to find the meaning of love.
Eustacia, who blames fate for her tragedy, is the novel’s most ambiguous character; even the author seems to have ambivalent feelings toward her. She is an exciting, passionate “queen of the night” whose romanticism makes her long to be “loved to madness” by a man great enough to embody her dreams. Allowing her imagination to convince her that Clym can master this role, she marries him, hoping to manipulate him as she had manipulated Wildeve, and thus get to Paris. After her marriage, however, her liaison with Wildeve is at first innocent; only after Clym banishes her from his house does she agree to accept Wildeve’s offer to help her leave the heath. Despite her desperation, Eustacia refuses to be humbled. Realizing that a lack of money will cause her to lose her honor for a man who is “not great enough” to meet her desires, she drowns herself to avoid humiliation. It is more believable that she dies willingly than that her death is an accident, because only in death does she seem to find peace.
Although Eustacia loses in her battle with the heath, her struggle proves that she is a strong, defiant character who is defeated partly by forces beyond her control and partly by her own refusal to give up her dream. Despite her selfishness and hauteur, her lively spirit gives life to the novel and makes her, in the end, its tragic but unforgettable heroine.