illustration of Eustacia standing in the forest

The Return of the Native

by Thomas Hardy

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The Timelessness of Egdon Heath

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Upon delving into any number of essays focused on Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, one is almost certain to come across a few important issues. The first issue is the character of the setting, Egdon Heath, which Hardy establishes in that long, lovely description in the first chapter and then comes back to throughout the book. More than most novels, even the bulk of Victorian romances, this book uses the setting as a character, a living presence, and not just as a buffer to linger over in between scenes. It seldom fails to impress. Critics who do not think much of Hardy’s attributes as a novelist will usually point out, to soften the tone of their criticism, how he brings Egdon Heath to life— it’s their way of paying homage to the man whose literary reputation is firmly established. Similarly, critics often point out his greatest weakness as a fiction writer: that he often stretched credibility too far by expecting his readers to believe that awkward twists in the plot happened because of coincidence.

These two outstanding aspects of The Return of the Native, though often mentioned just in passing and almost always separately, are in fact supports bracing one another—wedges of the same frame that Hardy used to present a unified worldview. The timelessness of the heath, and the unlikely confluence of the events that go on there, blend to create a unique place where nature itself is unnatural.

Stories, of course, have to happen somewhere; moreover, the stories that are the most artistically sound use their settings to manifest what is happening to the characters. Some novels, especially if they are set in the present and under familiar circumstances, can take their settings for granted, offering up names of towns and streets and occasional descriptions of the surroundings. When the location will probably be unfamiliar—most notably in science fiction or fantasy or historical fiction—the writer is obliged to paint a fuller landscape. What is notable about The Return of the Native is that Hardy could have effectively set the scene with far less detail than he did in fact use. It is a desolate area; the people there live as their ancestors did; the railroad has not arrived yet. That covers all that needs to be covered.

Instead, he opens the book with a haunting description that extends from sky to ground, from dark to light, and from the present to the past. Other novels occur in settings that have evolved in ways corresponding to the laws of history, but the rules of physics don’t apply to Egdon Heath.

In his study of Hardy’s career, Richard Carpenter cites John Patterson as identifying the heath as Limbo or the Cimmeron of Homer—places that are balanced between this world and Hades—not miserable but certainly not places of life. Hardy writes that the heath has the ability to “retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause and dread.” The character of this place is so crucial to telling this story that it is expanded across six pages, which is an incredible amount of space for a novelist to spend on a description of anything. Also telling is the fact that it is situated first in the book, establishing its importance before any specific human characters are introduced.

Carpenter describes this setting as more than an image: it is a convenient narrative tool, allowing Hardy’s characters to summon one another across miles with signal fires and also to bump into each other unexpectedly...

(This entire section contains 1891 words.)

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as they wander the twisted paths through the furze. “By confining nearly all of his action to its terrain,” he writes, Hardy “achieves a unity of place which markedly aids in the creation of dramatic effects.” It is a handy set- brought together in order to make the story work, but it is in no way a superbly successful one. If Egdon Heath were flawless in drawing readers into the novel’s magical spell, the reader would be left feeling completely satisfied about the reality and inevitability of what he or she is told goes on there. Instead, the reader is left conscious of the hand of the author as coincidences abound, apparently there only for his storytelling convenience.

Stories always depend on coincidental events. Hardy appears to not have recognized the boundary that separates “did not anticipate” from “could not anticipate”—and that line, wide as the Mississippi River, separates tragedy from potboiler. A turn of events like Clym Yeobright’s semi-blindness, for example, seems to materialize pretty quickly in the story, but it follows naturally from Clym’s sudden dedication to be a great educator, which follows from his impulsive high-minded character, and is therefore grounded in the story.

Diggory Venn always shows up unexpectedly and fortuitously, so the reader can accept him as either a supernatural presence or an extremely prepared guardian. Eustacia and Wildeve are drawn together by a similar restlessness, so it is no wonder that their internal clocks would direct them both to the East Egdon “gipsying” at the same time. The adder that bites Mrs. Yeobright is the natural result of life on the heath. Eustacia is devious enough to loiter outside of the chapel when Wildeve is marrying, so there is no stretch of reality in her being the wedding’s witness.

Even the event that starts the whole novel into motion—the canceled marriage between Thomasin and Wildeve—seems only to be a matter of coincidence to the people in the book. Readers recognize this as one of those psychological nonaccidents, reflecting the fact that one of these two subconsciously wanted the ceremony abandoned— although it is unclear whether the hesitant party is Thomasin, who changed towns suddenly at the last moment, or Wildeve, who forgot to change the license.

These coincidences can all be explained, and they even afford readers some fun in recognizing that life in the novel can be as unruly and unpredictable as it is in the world. Other coincidences are harder to swallow. Readers who can get past the idea that Mrs. Yeobright and Wildeve and Johnny Nunsuch all arrive at the cottage at the same time still have to accept the fact that Clym would happen to choose that particular night, after months, to visit his estranged mother’s house. Wildeve’s fortune arrives out of nowhere, just in time for Eustacia to notice him again. The strangest of all, perhaps, is Fairway showing up late the night Eustacia is leaving, almost as an afterthought, with Clym’s letter: it is hard enough to believe that he would happen to write when she happens to be leaving, but having a very minor character show up and say he had forgotten the letter until the drama is mounting shows a truly half-hearted effort on the part of the writer to simulate reality.

All readers of conscience are left to wonder how much the heath’s wonderful, unique character can be allowed to account for the gaps in the story’s credibility. To some extent, a lot: the otherworldliness that is so richly established allows Egdon Heath to excuse itself from any standards of behavior that are generally expected. If the laws of evolution are suspended there, then the laws of chance must be so too, since the one leads to the other. The same glitch that has left the heath unaltered for a thousand years also makes it possible for money to rain down unexpectedly from a previously unknown source, or for Diggory Venn to show up whenever his appearance would help the story.

In fact, Hardy not only flaunts the fact that chance rules, but he actually uses the readers’ diminished expectations as part of the story’s fabric. The characters who have any sense of the outside world become impatient with the slow, staid pace at Egdon Heath and they try taking fate into their own hands, creating tragedy. These characters include Eustacia and Clym, who has lived in Paris, the capital of the civilized world. Wildeve, an educated man, is able to sense a world beyond the heath, but he lacks the fortitude to do anything about it. When he inherits a lot of money later in the novel, he makes plans to break free of the heath and traverse the globe, but this hope is what leads to the tragedy at the book’s end. Wildeve and Eustacia find out that the law of the heath is not outside of nature, that it is their nature.

Trying to change is what causes trouble in an environment where change is the one thing that cannot happen; and, because their energies cannot produce the results that were intended, the force expended careens off into the void and then bounces back in ways not expected. Readers who accept the fact that time has passed the heath by do not have to strain too hard to see that the same mysterious force that stops time is not universal—that the realworld passions of Eustacia and Yeobright and Wildeve will bring loose energy into the place and create chaos.

The question at the center of all of this is whether Thomas Hardy is the force that made the heath, or if the novel’s unique elements can be accounted for naturally. One thing that is certain is that Hardy felt that the Egdon Heath he presented was a description, not a creation. Photographs and the testimony of other writers who came after him seem to bear out this idea, that the place before the arrival of technology was just as it had been for thousands of years. In old pictures, it looks just as desolate as the moon would look if it grew weeds. However, the old photos were shot with the theme of desolation in mind, thanks to Hardy: he observed the land and then added the idea that it willed itself to not change. Today, that area in the south of England is plenty inhabited, as cultivated as any other, proving, if such is necessary, that it had no magic aura that sealed it. Thomas Hardy, like any good novelist, saw a unique situation and took advantage of that opportunity to create his own mythology.

Much as I try, I cannot find causes for the strikingly bold “coincidences” I have mentioned, but I do feel that they belong in the novel. The same property that made Egdon Heath unique also allows characters in the book to stroll up with letters sent long ago, or to all decide at once to go to the same place. Like early physicists, the readers’ job might be to identify the unseen currents and principles that make actions lead to unexpected results in this one field; or, like early theologians, the reader might just have to accept the fact that all that occurs is related. The degree to which Hardy’s surprises are or are not believable goes beyond the events themselves and depends on how much one believes in the author and his world.

Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Kelly is an instructor of Creative Writing and Literature at Oakton Community College in Illinois.

The Buried Giant of Egdon Heath: An Archeology of Folklore in The Return of the Native

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One would search long for a commentator on The Return of the Native who has failed to locate the story of Clym Yeobright and Eustacia Vye in the elaborated space of its landscape. Still it may be said that Egdon Heath has not been recognized as a figure in its own right—in both narrative senses of “figure,” as person and as trope. One of the clos- est observers of the novel, John Paterson, has listed [in his essay “The ‘Poetics’ of The Return of the Native”] some of the heath’s associations: “ . . . it is a stage grand enough to bear the weight of gods and heroes; more specifically still, it is the prisonhouse of Prometheus, the fire-bearing benefactor of mankind.” Paterson and others have supported such identifications by quoting the novel’s repeated attribution of Promethean characteristics to the major characters. Hardy is never one to make his classical allusions evasively; the demonic rebelliousness of Eustacia and the bonded martyrdom of Clym are steadily projected upon the heath in the mode of scenic amplification. Yet the felt connection between the human actors and their inanimate setting exceeds the scope of metonymic associations like the scene-act ratio of Kenneth Burke. The ruling passions of the protagonists in The Return and the awesome powers of the heath need to be treated as forces of a like nature—the heath manifesting the same impulses as do the fictional characters.

To return to the setting of Hardy’s first major novel is to seize his imagination at an originative position, where his sense of the past and his complex feelings about modern life intersected at a place with which he identified himself. Throughout his career, Hardy was inclined to express his strong response to the history-laden landscape of his shire in images of a special kind—special, that is, when compared with those of other Victorian novelists but commonplace in the tradition of local observers with a bent for narrative explanation. He was born, it will be recalled, in a cottage on the edge of the fourteen miles or so of high ground that has come to be identified with Egdon Heath, and he built his home, Max Gate, near its southwest flank five years after writing The Return. In 1878, the year the novel was published, the Folk-Lore Society was founded in London, and at about this date Hardy joined the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club. To the latter he also delivered a paper on “Some Romano-British Relics Found at Max Gate, Dorchester”—found, that is, during the digging of foundations for his house. These delvings in the earth encouraged Hardy in a long series of reflections on the presence underfoot of a manylayered past: beginning as early as the passage in The Return on Clym’s attendance at the opening of a barrow (book III, chapter iii); continuing with the account of unearthed Roman skeletons in The Mayor of Casterbridge (chapter xi); and developing a fine blend of fascination and detachment in poems like “The Roman Gravemounds” and “The Clasped Skeletons.”

The sense of the past, it has been abundantly demonstrated, touches Hardy’s work at innumerable points, but one may be isolated for the present discussion: his adumbration of an animate (or onceanimate) being dormant in the earth, whether in the form of a buried skeleton incarnating the ghosts of the past, or of a quasi-human figure underlying or constituting certain topographical features (usually hills), or of a genius loci residing not in an aerial or other evanescent medium but in the soil of the place itself. It will be seen that some such preternatural beliefs are at work amid the rationalist skepticism which Hardy tried to maintain and that, while his own beliefs are not to be equated with those of the peasants in his tales, his absorption in them resembles the intellectual sympathy which modern anthropologists and folklorists have been recommending.

The prime instances of buried figures in the Hardy country are, quite naturally, those associated with a number of massive formations which surpass anything comparable in the southwest—the region of England perhaps most densely populated by ancient remains. Foremost is Maiden Castle, a Celtic hillfort a few miles south of Dorchester, which Hardy described as “an enormous manylimbed organism of an antediluvian time . . . lying lifeless, and covered with a thin green cloth, which hides its substance, while revealing its contour.” Comparable in fame and grandeur is the Cerne Abbas giant, with his club and explicit phallus, on a hill seven miles north of Dorchester in a region Hardy favored for his rambles; it is mentioned in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and other writings, most saliently when described by the local peasantry in The Dynasts as a malevolent ogre, comparable to Napoleon.

Besides those and other gigantic erections in the vicinity, like Stonehenge, additional outcroppings of the land contour Hardy’s writings. In a poem titled “The Moth-Signal,” specifically set on Egdon Heath and reminiscent of an incident in The Return, the waywardness of modern domestic life is seen from the perspective of a dweller in the earth:

Then grinned the Ancient Briton From the tumulus treed with pine: “So, hearts are thwartly smitten In these days as in mine!”

Hardy takes up the point of view of an inhabitant of the heath in a more personal way in another poem, “A Meeting with Despair” (noted in the manuscript as set on Egdon Heath):

As evening shaped I found me on a moor Sight shunned to entertain: The black lean land, of featureless contour, Was like a tract in pain. “This scene, like my own life,” I said, “is one Where many glooms abide; Toned by its fortune to a deadly dun— Lightless on every side.” . . . . Against the horizon’s dim-discerned wheel A form rose, strange of mould: That he was hideous, hopeless, I could feel Rather than could behold.

Although Hardy metaphorically identifies the pattern and tone of his life with the heath’s, he resists the insinuations of the apparition—named “Despair” in the title but referred to only as “the Thing” in the poem itself—so as to argue that the glowing sunset portends better prospects for the future. In a voice we recognize as that of the stupid giant of fairy tales, his interlocutor replies, “Yea— but await awhile! . . . Ho-ho!— / Now look aloft and see!” More striking, perhaps, than either the poem’s finale (with the loss of light and portent of defeat) or the similarities between its treatment of Egdon Heath and the novel’s is the encounter with an abiding presence there—the black lean land, featureless, in pain, from which a hideous, hopeless form arises.

These poems call to mind others in which one of the most familiar features of Hardy’s style, personification, is employed in its mode of gigantism. The best-known instance of this trope is found in “The Darkling Thrush”: “The land’s sharp features seemed to be / The Century’s corpse outleant. . . .” In the periodical publication of the poem, its original title emphasized this figure rather than the thrush: “By the Century’s Deathbed” enforces the idea not simply of a localized spirit but of the entire earth as a body suffering a secular decline. A more sharply focused version of this image occurs in the poem “By the Earth’s Corpse” (from the same volume as “The Darkling Thrush”), in which Time and “the Lord” conduct a dialogue on the themes of guilt and repetition, while placed like mourners near “this globe, now cold / As lunar land and sea,” at some future time “when flesh / And herb but fossils be, / And, all extinct, their piteous dust / Revolves obliviously. . . . ”

The most highly developed vision of the earth as an organic, vaguely human being is, however, that of The Dynasts. A stage direction of the “Fore Scene” is justly famous for its panoramic sweep, anticipating (but still surpassing) the movement of the camera eye in epically scaled movies: The nether sky opens, and Europe is disclosed as a prone and emaciated figure, the Alps shaping like a backbone, and the branching mountain-chains like ribs, the peninsular plateau of Spain forming a head.

. . . The point of view then sinks downwards through space, and draws near to the surface of the perturbed countries, where the peoples, distressed by events which they did not cause, are seen writhing, crawling, heaving, and vibrating in their various cities and nationalities.

With the return to this vision in the “After Scene,” Europe is “beheld again as a prone and emaciated figure. . . . The lowlands look like a greygreen garment half-thrown off, and the sea around like a disturbed bed on which the figure lies.” In this instance, human forms in the mass join with geographical features to create the image of a total organism: the earth itself (or its European portion) as a giant, going through the stages of awakening, struggle, and exhaustion—a composite being living out the disturbances and sufferings of humankind.

Is it this (or a related) giant who confronts the reader from the title of the opening chapter of The Return: “A Face on which Time makes but Little Impression”? The rhetoric of the so-called pathetic fallacy suggests that it is a creature on the scale of the earth: it “wore the appearance of an instalment of night” and, reciprocally, “the face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening.” Not only are vital reflexes, human apparel, and personal physiognomy suggested, but the sustained comparison of Egdon Heath and mankind is raised from mere analogy to essential identity:

It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man’s nature—neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly: neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have long lived apart, solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.

It is on the basis of this profound identity that the epithets used for the heath come to resonate like personal designations: “Haggard Egdon,” “the untameable, Ishmaelitish thing that Egdon now was,” “the people changed, yet Egdon remained.” In the most pathetic of these characterizations, the place is defined in relation to other natural forces in a style usually reserved for romantic fiction: “Then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend.” But the role hardly suits a figure that has emerged as not merely humanized but on a larger-than-individual scale: “singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony.” Such a colossus can be a hero only of a special sort.

In inventing the name itself, Hardy seems to have had in mind not a place-name but a personal one. Its closest analogue is a forename: Egbert, from Old English ecg (“sword”) and bryght (“bright”)—the latter term also appearing in the chief surname used in the novel. Egdon would be its derivable opposite: the second syllable is equivalent to dun, the word used since Anglo-Saxon times to describe the natural shades of landscape, animals, and atmosphere in a dull, brown grey range. (But compare the Celtic name of Maiden Castle: mai dun [“strong hill”].) Etymology resolves nothing, but this name goes beyond the expansive suggestiveness of well-wrought placenames in fiction, encouraging instead the identification of a personal presence by a favored technique of characterization.

If these two processes are indeed comparable— if a somewhat amorphous terrain is presented here in the manner in which fictional characters are conventionally introduced—we shall have to revise our expectations of the role of landscape in this novel more radically than we may be prepared to do. Landscape is not satisfied to act in The Return of the Native as a background, with human subjects in the foreground (although some positioning of people against a background of natural elements is at work, e.g., in the chapter entitled “The Figure against the Sky”). Instead, Egdon Heath becomes one of the principal agents of the action, a protagonist in the classical sense of the dramatic actor, and probably the most memorable figure to emerge from the events. The title of the novel has been given some new turns in recent criticism, so as to widen its reference beyond the donnée of Clym’s return to Wessex. If its individual implications are taken seriously, the title refers somewhat sardonically to Clym’s return to the native state in the course of the action; it also suggests more broadly the heath’s renewed prominence in the life of the characters and of the modern age generally. “The Return of the Native” would name, then, a story about Egdon Heath.

The operation of these narrative traits makes the term “personification” no longer adequate to describe the process by which Egdon Heath is generated by the text. When natural categories are fixed, one may speak about the ascription of human characteristics to inanimate beings or about the representation of an abstract or other impersonal entity in human terms. But Egdon is not so clear-cut: it is never given as entirely on one side of the animate/inanimate polarity before being assimilated to the other. Even in the opening chapter, the metaphoric expressions by which it is rendered human are immediately posited as literal (or as leading to literal statements about the heath’s role in human psychology): “Then [in storms, etc.] it became the home of strange phantoms; and it was found to be the hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flight and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream till revived by scenes like this.” Without drawing conclusions about Hardy’s version of the unconscious, we find his prose moving from the metaphoric level (movement of storms / movement of phantoms), to statements that posit the heath as the original model of dream landscapes, to a final suggestion of its function as a permanent index of the unconscious “regions” of the mind itself. So steadily cumulative is this assimilation of the heath to the animate level that toward the close of the novel, as intensity of style mounts in tempo with intensity of action, we are prepared to take in stride such passages as this: “Skirting the pool [Eustacia] followed the path towards Rainbarrow, occasionally stumbling over twisted furze-roots, tufts of rushes, or oozing lumps of fleshy fungi, which at this season lay scattered about the heath like the rotten liver and lungs of some colossal animal.” While it is Eustacia who is stumbling toward her death, it is the heath that is seen here as a dismembered giant—neither clearly human nor, as Lawrence thought, merely bestial but a “colossal animal” who is martyred and distributed in a spectacular way.

While the interconnections of the animate and the inanimate must be deduced from the rhetorical modes of the opening chapter, later passages state their inherent identity in the heath with some urgency. The chief of these occurs in the first description of Eustacia Vye:

There the form stood, motionless as the hill beneath. Above the plain rose the hill, above the hill rose the barrow, and above the barrow rose the figure. Above the figure was nothing that could be mapped elsewhere than on a celestial globe.

Such a perfect, delicate, and necessary finish did the figure give to the dark pile of hills that it seemed to be the only obvious justification of their outline. Without it, there was the dome without the lantern; with it the architectural demands of the mass were satisfied. The scene was strangely homogeneous, in that the value, the upland, the barrow, and the figure above it amounted only to unity. Looking at this or that member of the group was not observing a complete thing, but a fraction of a thing.

Hardy employs the term “organic” in the next sentence to describe the internal relations of the “entire motionless structure”; we may apply it equally to the tenor of his thinking in this passage.

Although the human figure is to be regarded esthetically as a “necessary finish” and a satisfaction of an “architectural” demand, it is more fundamentally a “fraction” of a larger “unity.” Nor is the heath complete without the person: it needs it as its “obvious justification,” to become a “homogeneous” being in its own right. The text speaks of this organic unity of the human and the nonhuman “members” of Egdon Heath as “a thing” and elsewhere adds, “a thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity.”

Although Eustacia is most striking in her unwilling assimilation into Egdon Heath, other characters exhibit a spectrum of possible relations to it, ranging from identification to detachment. Although the gigantic “thing” takes in both human beings and the heath, there are a number of possible modes of integration, which various characters explore. The peasants live in wary observance of the land and its seasons, but their limited mentalities are none too gently satirized in Hardy’s folkish chapters. The reddleman, Diggory Venn, shows himself adroit not only in the world of commercial and (eventually) erotic competition but is especially competent among the highways and byways of the heath. (It is noteworthy that he gets no particular credit for this intimacy with the heath, as measured by the conventions of heroic stature; given Hardy’s view of him as an “isolated and weird character”— in the “Author’s Note” of 1912—he is scarcely ennobled by his numerous displays of omnicompetence.) It is Clym who displays the most complex relation to the heath, being the one who exercises a series of considered choices in the matter. In his first characterization, his constitution or generation by the place is stressed: “If any one knew the heath well it was Clym. He was permeated with its scenes, with its substance, and with its odours. He might be said to be its product.” At the end of his series of ideological shifts and personal misfortunes, he stands before the heath in an alien position, as of one face impervious to another: “. . . there was only the imperturbable countenance of the heath, which, having defied the cataclysmal onsets of centuries, reduced to insignificance by its seamed and antique features the wildest turmoil of a single man.” But the most extreme separation from the heath—indistinguishable from a kind of rationalistic stupidity—is represented by the pragmatic objectivity of Thomasin Yeobright: “. . . Egdon in the mass was no monster whatever, but impersonal open ground. Her fears of the place were rational, her dislikes of its worst moods reasonable.”

Despite their differences, the characters have a common connection with the heath, a unity of fate that is consistently figured in allusions to Prometheus: “Every night [the heath’s] Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis—the final overthrow.” The iconography of Prometheus chained to a mountain in the Caucasus is strikingly transmuted in this and similar passages: the scene of suffering becomes the sufferer (Egdon is not Caucasian but Titanic), while at least part of the demigod’s character is ascribed to the land itself in its “unmoved” martyrdom. Yet the myth’s primary orientation toward apocalypse (the final overthrow of Zeus) is, as we shall see, fully employed in The Return.

The heath’s Promethean, long-suffering form of resistance is picked up in the characterization of the human actors but is resourcefully applied as a differentiating factor. The peasants’ lighting of fires to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, although localized as a modern British survival of the ritual death and rebirth of the year, is seen as the expression of a universal need: “Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.” Here humans, heath, and Titans are seen on the same side, resisting—or at least protesting—an imposition from without, the fiat of a being or realm representing black chaos, winter, and death. Humanity joins with the land itself in “Promethean rebelliousness,” and it is with one voice that they register their counterfiat; theirs is the voice of the “fettered gods” or Titans, which proclaims light— a biblical equivalent for the Promethean fire that is the subject of this passage.

The chief characters are, however, subtly distinguished in their articulations of this rebellion and thus in their associations with the band of “fettered gods.” Eustacia is described from the first in terms derived from the preceding passage: “Egdon was her Hades, and since coming there she had imbibed much of what was dark in its tone, though inwardly and eternally unreconciled thereto. Her appearance accorded well with this smouldering rebelliousness. . . . A true Tartarean dignity sat upon her brow . . .” The term found in both passages, “rebelliousness,” is linked to its consequences of banishment or living burial, whether of humans in Hades or of Titans in Tartarus (the variability of mythological traditions is exploited here to make these roughly equivalent terms for confinement in the earth). It is notable that this passage begins by emphasizing Eustacia’s unwilling bondage in Egdon, the setting of her unsatisfactory station in life, but it gradually identifies her with the heath insofar as the latter, too, is unreconciled to its bound condition under the fiat of the ruling gods.

Precisely the opposite shift occurs in the course of Clym’s characterization: beginning as one fully at home on the heath—“its product”—he becomes so thoroughly acclimated in his return to the soil that he renounces rebelliousness: “Now, don’t you suppose, my inexperienced girl, that I cannot rebel, in high Promethean fashion, against the gods and fate as well as you. I have felt more steam and smoke of that sort than you have ever heard of. But the more I see of life the more do I perceive that there is nothing particularly great in its greatest walks, and therefore nothing particularly small in mine of furzecutting.” Clym’s liberal renunciation of the Promethean stance is part of an explicit cultural theme in the novel, concerned with the vulnerability of the modern mind by virtue of its skeptical intelligence, its loss of traditional, organizing mythologies (a loss and a vulnerability in which Hardy felt himself implicated). But Clym’s career also involves a break with the creaturely tendency to rebellion against earthbound suffering, a separation from the Titanic “fettered gods” with whom Eustacia, involuntarily, associates herself. And it is this loss of Promethean vision that is his true undoing, for he sees “nothing particularly great in [life’s] greatest walks” or, by the same token, in the heath’s.

Source: Avrom Fleishman, “The Buried Giant of Egdon Heath: An Archeology of Folklore in The Return of the Native,” in Fiction and the Ways of Knowing: Essays on British Novelists, University of Texas Press, 1978, pp. 110–22.

On a Darkling Plain: The Art and Thought of Thomas Hardy

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The Return of the Native is the most pessimistic of [Hardy’s] early novels. From the first description of Egdon Heath until the close of the story, this dreary and unfertile waste seems to symbolize the indifference with which Nature views the pathetic fate of human beings. Occasionally the reader is likely to look upon the long-enduring barrenness and apparent purposelessness of the heath as a sign of its kinship to man, to feel that it is like man, slighted and enduring. More frequently, its somber beauty, which, Hardy tells us, is the only kind of beauty that thinking mankind can any longer appreciate, reminds us that man is of no more significance than an insect against its far-extending barrenness. It is the unsympathetic background for the human scene. What happens to man is not its concern. Like the forces of Nature, it has participated passively in man’s slow and unhappy progress through disillusive centuries, unconcerned with the joys or sorrows of petty humankind.

What the dreary atmosphere of Egdon Heath makes us feel, the author’s interpolations emphasize. The modern facial expression portrays a “view of life as a thing to be put up with.” A long train of disillusive centuries have shown the defects of natural law and the quandary in which their operation has placed man. Life causes one to set aside the vision of what ought to be and induces a listless making the best of the world as it is.

More than in any other Hardy novel, we feel the power of the forces that control man’s destiny. Heartless Circumstance, this time not viewed as an environment that can be contended against, has placed Eustacia Vye in a situation in which her gifts are a plague rather than a blessing. Natural law leads man from one mistake to another. Chance, in the shape of accident and coincidence, joins itself with these other unsympathetic powers to assure man’s unhappiness. . . . Undoubtedly Hardy believes that there is nothing actively malign in Egdon Heath, in natural law, or in the play of Circumstance or accident; but the very indifference of these forces to the fate of human beings results in such unhappiness that we are likely to assume that sinister gods control the action.

Against the somber atmosphere of an indifferent and Chance-guided universe, the characters move in accordance with natural law. Eustacia’s physical attractiveness compels the love of Charley, Clym, and Wildeve. By a similar force Eustacia is drawn to Wildeve and Clym. None of them is fitted for each other, but their imaginations cause them to believe that their ideas of each other are real. Disillusionment and pain result.

Source: Harvey Curtis Webster, in On a Darkling Plain: The Art and Thought of Thomas Hardy, University of Chicago Press, 1947, pp. 120–21.

The Technique of Thomas Hardy

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[With] The Return of the Native, Hardy has taken up a theme which involves a clear-cut issue in the minds of the leading characters, and especially in the mind of Eustacia, which is the main stage of the drama. It is her stifled longing for spiritual expansion which leads her to play with the love of Wildeve, which causes her later to throw him over for the greater promise of Clym, which leads her back again to Wildeve, and at last—with the loss of all hope—to suicide. In every case it requires but the smallest outlay of incident to provoke the most lively play of feeling; and the play of feeling— the opposition of desires—is embodied here, in true dramatic fashion, in talk rather than in acts. It takes nothing more than the return of Thomasin from town unwed to set going the whole series of dialogues which make up the substance of the first book, dialogues in which Wildeve and Mrs. Yeobright, Venn and Eustacia, Eustacia and Wildeve do nothing more than fence with one another, each maneuvering for position in a breathless game of wellmatched antagonists. These are scenes in the true dramatic sense, not in the popular sense that calls for violence and surprising action.

In the third book the main thing that happens is a quarrel between Clym and his mother over Eustacia. The wedding itself is not presented, having no dramatic value. The dramatic value of the book is indicated in its caption, “The Fascination,” the drama lying in the resistless attraction to one another of two persons so far apart in mind.

Never before in Hardy had the machinery of action been so masked and subordinated. Never again perhaps was it to occupy a place of so little prominence in his work. It is only once or twice in Meredith, and more generally in the later novels of James, that we find so great a volume of emotional energy released by events of so little objective importance. Only in them is found a greater economy of incident; and many more readers will testify to the dramatic intensity of The Native than to that of The Egoist or The Golden Bowl.

The whole course of the story was conceived by the author in terms suggestive of physics and dynamics. Each step in the plot represents the balance and reaction of forces expressible almost in algebraic formulas. Many readers have been impressed with the strong scientific coloring of Hardy’s mind: with his tendency to view both external nature and the human heart with the sharpness and hard precision of a naturalist, and to record the phenomena observed with some of the abstractness of the summarizing philosopher.

The division of a novel into parts is always a significant indication of an author’s interest in the logical massing of his material, in the larger architectonics of his work. It is very little used by novelists like Dickens; very much used by novelists like George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Henry James, and . . . Mr. Walpole. It generally implies a bias for the “dramatic,” in so far as it involves the grouping of the subject-matter around certain characters or great moments in the action, as that of a play is grouped in the several acts. In The Native this is especially notable.

These five books are like the five acts of a classic play. And in each book the scenes are largely grouped around certain points in time so as to suggest the classic continuity within the several acts.

What we are concerned with here is the unity of tone—the steadiness with which the heath makes us feel its dark and overshadowing presence, so that men and women are but slight figures in a giant landscape, the insect-fauna of its somber flora. Mr. Hardy was bold enough to begin this grave history with an entire chapter devoted to a description of the heath at twilight; and his choice of a title for the second chapter but serves to signalize the littleness and frailty of man upon the great stage of inhospitable nature: “Humanity appears upon the scene, hand in hand with trouble.” It is very quietly and without word or gesture that humanity makes its appearance, like a slow-moving shadow.

It is thus that Egdon takes its place as the dominating force of the tragedy, as well as its appropriate and impressive setting. So that the unity of place, in itself an artistic value, is but the counterpart of a unity of action rooted and bedded in a precious oneness of theme. Instead of being, as in Far from the Madding Crowd, brought together arbitrarily to make out the prescribed materials of a novel, plot and setting here are one, growing equally and simultaneously out of the dramatic idea expressed in the title. For the first—and almost for the last—time in the work of Hardy, the discriminating reader is delighted with the complete absence of mechanical contrivance. Contrivance there is as never before in his work, the loving contrivance of an artist bent on making everything right in an orderly composition; the long-range contrivance of an architect concerned to have every part in place in an edifice that shall stand well based and well proportioned, with meaning in every line.

The determinist may be equally impressed with the helplessness of man in the grip of strange forces, physical and psychical. But he is distinguished from the fatalist by his concern with the causes that are the links in the chain of necessity. Determinism is the scientific counterpart of fatalism, and throws more light on destiny by virtue of its diligence in the searching out of natural law. Mr. Hardy is rather a determinist than a fatalist. When he speaks most directly and unmistakably for himself, it is to insist on the universal working of the laws of cause and effect.

The point in which determinism and fatalism agree is the helplessness of the individual will against the will in things. Only the determinist conceives the will in things as the sum of the natural forces with which we have to cope, whereas the fatalist tends to a more religious interpretation of that will as truly and literally a will, an arbitrary power, a personal force like our own. Sometimes Mr. Hardy allows his characters the bitter comfort of that personal interpretation.

What gives rise to such notions is the ironic discrepancy between what we seek and what we secure, between what we do and what follows from it. We have control of so very few of the factors that go to determine our fortunes that we can hardly help imagining behind the scene a capricious and malignant contriver of contretemps.

Source: Joseph Warren Beach, in The Technique of Thomas Hardy, University of Chicago Press, 1922, pp. 93–4, 96–7, 101, 105, 228–9.


Critical Overview