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...
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