illustration of Eustacia standing in the forest

The Return of the Native

by Thomas Hardy

Start Free Trial

Places Discussed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Wessex. Imaginary English region that was the setting for Hardy’s major fiction. Born in Dorsetshire, one of five counties in southern England, Hardy re-created this region in his novels as “Wessex.” This unsophisticated rural area is never entirely absent in his fiction or poetry. Late in his life, Hardy returned to Dorset and a new home for himself and his wife.

Egdon Heath

Egdon Heath. Gloomy wasteland in southern England. Against this majestic but solemn, brooding background a small group of people work out their tragic drama in the impersonal presence of nature. The heath’s grim face, its twisted topography—hills, valleys, rivers, ponds, paths, and open wasteland, a composite of several heaths—is a dominant symbol of primitive, timeless, and uncultivated nature. In this untamed place, nature’s four basic elements—earth, air, fire, and water—control this microcosm of a completely indifferent land. Earth is unalterable. Humans grow nothing; they only harvest the land’s natural furze. At times, even humans appear no more distinguishable from the landscape than “the green caterpillar from the leaf it feeds on.”

To the heath itself, people seem to be just another crop growth. Earthen paths serve as roads for constant travel around and back and forth over the nearly circular heath. Air, in the form of constantly blowing winds, whirls and buffets humans and assaults their ears with eerie sounds. Fire, a symbol of human passion, appears in ceremonial bonfires, signal fires, a black magic fire, and the summer sun’s fiery blazes. Rains flooding Shadwater Weir reveal the dual life/death aspects of the water symbol for humans or other creatures caught in the rapidly revolving whirlpool.

In death, humans finally become part of the heath, as the ancient tumulus or burial mounds testify. These elements, humans, and heath creatures share Egdon’s alternating faces of fall, winter, spring, and summer. Here, nature seems impervious to human or animal conflicts; only seasonal changes matter.


Rainbarrow. Hill that is the symbolic center and heart of Egdon Heath. Its name suggestively foreshadows water deaths. Near the beginning, a rebellious figure stands, ironically, “like an organic part” of the ancient grave mound at the hill’s apex. At the novel’s equally ironic ending, the returned native, surviving tragedy, stands harmoniously and indifferently on top of the same mound, symbolically almost as indistinguishable as an erect furze bush, surrounded by heathmen and women.

Quiet Woman

Quiet Woman. Inn on Egdon Heath that is the home of Damon Wildeve and his bride Thomasin. Hardy took the inn’s name, along with its sign and legend of a headless woman carrying her head, from a real inn northwest of the fictional one. Moreover, the inn’s name projects a contrasting view of the two young women in the tale, who symbolize the conflict between two value systems: the narrow provincial rules versus the new city freedoms and moralities. The victims of Shadwater Weir are brought to the inn along with the rescuers.


Blooms-End. The Yeobright house is filled with a lifetime of things, treasured objects and furniture, which the unsophisticated culture of the area accepts as a social birthright. The home’s place name, however, suggests that value systems and lifestyles are undergoing changes; the blooms of tradition are ending.


Alderworth. Temporary first home for Clym and his wife, six miles from Blooms-End, that is the setting for the crucial blunder that sets the final actions in motion.

East Egdon

East Egdon. Village near Alderworth which has a local festival with games and dancing. Eustacia watches the dancers moving in a rapidly rotating, whirling circular motion from the outer edge to the center of the...

(This entire section contains 756 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

circle. She realizes that the circular, whirling movement of the dance repeats the premonition of disaster that she has dreamed. This circular movement also repeats the winds’ circular efforts on Egdon Heath and foreshadows the final whirlpool deaths in Shadwater Weir.

Shadwater Weir

Shadwater Weir. Pool of water formed by a small dam where, on a windy night, the final struggle in this conflict of value systems occurs. The circular, rotational action of the weir’s whirlpool repeats again the foreshadowed movements at the dance and the winds buffeting of walkers on the heath.

Mistover Knap

Mistover Knap. Home of retired Captain Vye, which resembles a ship in harbor. Unlike any other house in the area, it stands as a symbol of the differences between local practices and values and outside codes and values that have appeared in Egdon Heath.

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Victorian Age
Today, Victorianism is thought of as another word for sexual repression. Yet the Victorian Age (1839–1901) was also a period of profound social commentary and social developments. The literature of the time addressed such significant issues as the growth of English democracy, the education of the masses, and the impact of industrialization on the working class.

One constant of the Victorian Era was that it was a time of an increased sense of social responsibility. In her early days on the throne, Victoria was viewed as liberal in her beliefs. A marked change came in 1840, when she married Albert, her mother’s nephew and prince of Saxe-Colburg Gotha. Albert was conservative, moralistic, and prudish; Victoria adopted similar attitudes. After his death in 1861 she reigned for another forty years and never remarried. Her personality influenced all of society and set the tone for the age. In a way it provided a moral compass that provided a sense of constancy in a turbulent time.

Politically, the era was characterized by a prolonged economic boom. England reigned as a prosperous and dominant world superpower. In 1853, England, the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and France fought a military conflict against Russia, in what was known as the Crimean War. It was fought to keep Russia from widening their influence in the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. The conflict ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed on March 30, 1856.

The novelist most commonly associated with the Victorian Age is Charles Dickens (1812–1870), whose books were modest about sexual relations; yet, they are aggressive in portraying the wretched social conditions of urban life. Thomas Hardy is also associated with the era, even though his works were considered controversial and even prurient according to Victorian standards. Hardy’s sexual openness in portraying Eustacia’s and Wildeve’s lust for each other even when they are married to others was viewed as shocking. It certainly violated the sensibilities of the time, and earned Hardy a legion of detractors who looked on his works as a form of pornography.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Point of View
This novel is told from the third-person point of view, which means that the narrator is a disembodied voice, referring to each character as “he” or “she.” However, the narrative is not omniscient. This means that the narrator looks at the story unfolding from different points of view, but when it settles on any particular viewpoint it stays consistent, if only for a short amount of time. When new information is introduced into the story, that information is initially understood only in terms of the narrator’s point of view at the time.

For instance, when Wildeve first appears, readers are not told who he is; his character is revealed by what he says. Clym is a mystery for Eustacia to fantasize about long before his thoughts are related. In fact, even when they do talk outside of the Christmas party, the narrative shifts from her perspective to his then back to hers. Giving readers access to just one person’s experience at a time is called “limited omniscience.”

By limiting the flow of information to the reader, Hardy is able to create a sense of mystery in the story. This is accomplished because the motivations and intentions of the characters are not always immediately clear. When Hardy wants to convey theories and opinions, he frequently presents a scene in which several of the local characters are gathered together and talking while doing something else. This occurs in the bonfire scene in the chapter called “The Custom of the Country” and in the later chapter where people gather and discuss the best way to deal with a snakebite. A contrast to this is the scene of hauling the bucket out of the well: general knowledge of the subject of bucket retrieval is conveyed directly from the narrator to the reader here, rather than through the conversation of the locals.

This book was written for magazine serialization, and this is reflected in its structure. Actions occur within specific episodes, and future developments in the story are foreshadowed. Chapters end with lines that are meant to raise curiosity, a technique that is effective to keep readers of novels turning the pages. Moreover, it was meant to inspire excitement so the reader would buy the next month’s installment.

A good example of this technique is when Thomasin returns unmarried from Angelbury. The chapter ends with her aunt asking, “Now Thomasin . . . what’s the meaning of this disgraceful performance?” Readers know that the explanation will follow, but it does not follow right away. Viewers of television—where shows are regularly scheduled in weekly installments—are very familiar with this technique.

Critics have also contended that this book is structured like a Shakespearean drama. Most of Shakespeare’s plays were organized in five acts, with a climactic conclusion in the last act. Although The Return of the Native is presented in six books, most critics agree that its artistic structure only requires five—the sixth was added to please general audiences that wanted to see everything turn out all right in the end. A clue to the book’s debt to Shakespeare is the reference to King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, in the introduction.

The names of Thomas Hardy’s characters are almost always symbolic of their functions within his novels, and the names in The Return of the Native are no exception. “Wildeve” suggests someone on the verge, or eve, of wildness, while his first name, Damon, is commonplace enough to suggest that he will never break out of the mold.

Eustacia is derived from the word “eustacy,” which means a change in the level of the sea all around the world, indicating the immense changes that she is set to bring into the lives of the people on the heath and beyond. It also rings of the prefix “eu-,” which has an Latin meaning of “good” and an Old Norse meaning “to want,” and from “ecstasy.” Her last name, “Vye,” indicates the character’s combative stance toward the world.

Clym’s last name, “Yeobright,” combines the word “yeoman” which indicates a servant or underling with the indication of his natural intelligence, or brightness. There are minor characters here also given names that are common words that appear in dictionaries, such as “Nunsuch” (normally spelled “nonesuch”), “Christian,” and “Fairway.”

The sweeping topographical and historical description of Egdon Heath that opens this book is considered to be one of the finest extended descriptions in all of English literature. The importance of this setting to the events of the novel cannot be overemphasized. It is the land’s flatness and barrenness that has made it useless for development, which means that the civilized world has passed it by. The residents of the heath are isolated and possess their own distinct culture, separate from the rest of the world.

Eustacia is feared by the ordinary people and alluring to Wildeve and Clym for the same reason, because she keeps herself separate from the ordinary people; she is treated as if she has supernatural powers, as if she can transcend the land’s hard demands. Clym is treated as an almost mystical personage because he has been to Paris, even though there is no indication that in Paris he was treated as anything more than a jeweler’s clerk. The only way for people of the heath to gain wealth is to inherit it from far away, as Wildeve does, or to earn it in other places, as Diggory Venn does.

Literary Techniques

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Venn and Thomasin's wedding resolves the love plot and permits Hardy to move Clym forward into a career as an open-air preacher on progressive subjects, both social and religious. In his 1912 definitive edition of the novel, however, Hardy added this somewhat irascible postscript to the third chapter of "Aftercourses": "the writer may state here that the original conception of the story did not design a marriage between Thomasin and Venn. He was to have retained his isolated and weird character to the last, and to have disappeared mysteriously from the heath, nobody knowing whither—Thomasin remaining a widow." The author continues that serial publication circumstances prompted the effort at a happy ending, but makes his own artistic preference clear. He cautions that readers possessing an "austere artistic code can assume the more consistent conclusion to be the true one." Carl Weber elaborates on this matter by reminding us that Hardy offered the novel to two prestigious British journals, only to be rejected by each. He eventually found a publisher in Belgravia, a somewhat less respected publication, but the editorial staff there found the denouement too sad, whereas the editor of Cornhill magazine had found the relationship among Eustacia, Clym, Wildeve, and Thomasin somewhat too risqué for a family publication. Rather than insist on his own gloomy denouement, Hardy wrote the four chapters that conclude the novel to appease the popular desire for a happy ending, an artistic compromise he regretted bitterly more than two decades later. As Weber points out, these were serious, not trivial, artistic compromises. Hardy planned to emulate the five-act organization of Renaissance tragedy by building his narrative around five books; moreover, limiting the action to one year and one day was a deliberate adaptation of the unity of time Aristotle observed in classical Greek tragedy. Finally, many readers find Clym's vocation as an open-air preacher anticlimactic and the marriage of Venn and Thomasin antithetical to the overall tragic and solemn character of the story. It seems tacked on because it is.

The concession, which troubled Hardy enough to complain in the Wessex edition but not enough to persuade him to rescind the happy ending chapters, points to the fundamental conflict between the popular desire for soothing fictions and the artist's obligation to follow through on his or her own vision, wherever that may lead. Hardy regretted the compromises his public forced upon him, and, while he never again capitulated in just this way, he was consistently thin-skinned about reviewers who took him to task for the darkness of his fundamental vision. Within two decades, this tension would take a more definitive form. Hardy would not knuckle under to the pressures of editors or reviewers again; but at the height of his artistic power, he concluded his career as a novelist with his masterwork, Jude the Obscure, and returned to his original literary loyalty, poetry, for the remaining thirty years of his life. While posterity gained a poet of great power and genius with this decision, it also lost more work from a novelist of the very highest order of importance.

Experimental technique, beyond those matters of ending and tragic construction, is not a strong suite for Hardy. He dexterously manipulates the standard Victorian omniscient technique with firm control, occasionally interjecting a judgmental lyric voice. His descriptions are at times magnificent, carrying the sense of antiquity and force of the Wessex landscape through the very language with which he represents it. Often, readers and critics think of the heath as itself a character, at times benign and often malevolent, in The Return of the Native.

By far, the most impressive technical feature of the novel is the handling of the catastrophe scene. To convey suspense and build the mood of gathering doom in that episode, the author abandons temporarily the omniscient narrative that has been the primary vehicle of the novel to create a series of contemporaneous vignettes, following several characters to the moment of crisis. The enables Hardy to convey an empathic view of each, and to restore sympathy for Eustacia as she meets her fate, fear for Thomasin and her daughter as they wander on the heath, a share in Venn's frustration as saving Eustacia becomes less likely, and sympathy with Clym as the inevitable approaches. The technique skillfully avoids the melodrama to which the situation lends itself. Moreover, it deepens our understanding of each character, heightens the suspense, and maintains realism.

Ideas for Group Discussions

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In The Return of the Native Hardy examines the process of England's movement from an agrarian to an urban civilization, and from a community of faith to a blend of rural superstition and general doubt.

1. Any conversation about The Return of the Native inevitably turns on the character and power of Eustacia Vye. This study has focused on her evolution from the witch/temptress figure to the complex woman Hardy created. Readers might well examine their own responses to this character. Is her wish for a more glamorous life unreasonable? Is she willful to a fault? Does her restlessness justify her pursuit of Clym as a man who can lead her out of Egdon? Is it possible that she convinces herself that she does love Clym out of her own desperate need to find a way out of Egdon Heath? How much, if any, of Vye's character is lost in the film version? Are these losses, if they exist, the result of limitations in the medium, or screenwriting and casting decisions?

2. To what degree is pride the key ingredient in this narrative of frustrated ambitions and hopes?

3. Is Diggory Venn convincing as a character, or does Hardy manipulate him too much? Are you content with his transformation in the "Aftercourses" section?

4. How do you feel about Hardy's decision( s) to add the "Aftercourses" section, then repudiate but not rescind it?

5. Can you explain Thomasin's or Eustacia's attraction to Damon Wildeve? Hardy describes him as a man in whom "no man would have seen anything to admire," but "no woman would have seen anything to dislike." Is this simply a sexist observation, or are aspects of Wildeve's character central to the narrative's credibility implied here or elsewhere in the book?

6. Is Clym to blame for assuming that the spirited Eustacia will find happiness in following his dream, becoming a schoolmistress and the helpmate in his great enterprise? Is concern about her feelings a modern sensibility reading Hardy from a twenty-first century perspective, or is it something built into this text? In short, if we choose to criticize Clym's behavior, are we operating within the parameters of Hardy's text, or are we imposing our "modern" view of women's rights on a Victorian novel where they may not belong?

7. Many readers find the scene in which Venn wins Thomasin's and Clym's legacy from Wildeve somewhat silly. Do you? If so, does the scene detract from the overall power of the novel?

8. Can you sympathize with Eustacia's predicament in the powerful chapter, "The Closed Door," in which she refuses to answer Mrs. Yeobright's knock? Clym and Mrs. Yeobright clearly feel that she has done something horrible. How do you feel about it?

9. Do you feel that Clym ever comes to a state of personal awareness of his role in the suffering of his mother and himself? In short, does he learn from his sorrow, as the heroes of Shakespeare's tragedies, on which the novel was modeled, generally do? What did he learn?

10. What do you think of Hardy's decision to transform Clym into an open-air preacher in the "Aftercourses" section? Readers familiar with Hardy's other masterpieces might recall ministerial roles or aspirations among characters as diverse as Jude Fawley (Jude the Obscure) and both Alex d'Urberville and Angel Clare (Tess of the d'Urbervilles). Does this role adequately resolve Clym's suffering and his reformist aspirations, or, if we recall Hardy's long-standing quarrel with organized religion, is there a hint of irony in Clym's final choice?

Social Concerns

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

With his sixth published novel, Thomas Hardy transformed himself from a gifted apprentice writer to one whose individual genius as well as his thematic and social concerns were clearly established. Earlier novels like Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) hinted at the original perspective Hardy was developing on the declining years of Victorian England and the evolution of modernist sensibilities in art as well as in social and philosophical theory. But, with The Return of the Native Hardy established his voice as one that would criticize the inevitable process of England's movement from an agrarian to an urban civilization, and from a community of faith to a paradoxical blend of rural superstition and general doubt. Although he was reared in a very religious household, and although his biographers agree that Hardy once seriously considered a vocation as a pastor, his novels from The Return of the Native forward would characterize doubt or religious indifference as the prevailing social mode. Thus a central social concern of The Return of the Native and subsequent novels through Jude the Obscure (1895, see separate entry) is the displacement of relatively universal faith by doubt, cynicism, and superstition. A central nexus in his diagnosis of the decline of faith as well as the uniquely "modern" pessimism and deterministic theory lies in the importation of continental and urban ideas to more rural civilizations.

In addition to its impact as social criticism, The Return of the Native is one of Hardy's several vaguely autobiographical novels, perhaps the most distinctively so before Jude the Obscure. Like the title character, Clym Yeobright, Hardy returned to the Wessex of his childhood after a brief career in a major European cultural center. He served as an apprentice architect in Dorchester for six years, then moved to London to assist an ecclesiastical architect there. While in the capital, Hardy became acquainted with many radical thinkers, among them proponents of the "Higher Criticism," a theory that encouraged reading sacred texts like the Bible as literary or cultural documents rather than as the inspired word of God. In the 1860s, this was indeed radical thinking. He also began his career as a poet and essayist during his London years. Among the subjects of these early poems are the contrasts between rural and urban life, often etched in bitter irony. In one of the best, "The Ruined Maid" (1866), two sisters meet by chance in a city, presumably London. One is shocked at the other's newfound sophistication in dress, manners, and speech. Amelia, the one who has moved to the city, sardonically attributes her grace to being "ruined"; in the final stanza the unnamed country sister wishes for the fine things and manners her sister has acquired, but Hardy implies that the way to this newer, better life is through moral compromise. If the country sister wants what Amelia has, she will have to earn it by toiling in the world's oldest profession.

In the late 1860s, Hardy returned to his native Dorsetshire, where he began an earnest career as a novelist and eventually settled into a disastrous marriage. As biographer Michael Millgate points out, however, the Hardys settled near, but not within, the land of the writer's childhood. Thus the several residences, most importantly Max Gate where Hardy chose to live, were contiguous to, but not part of, the homeland of the writer's youth.

Like his creator, Clym enacts a ritual return to his roots, but unlike Hardy, Clym tries to settle in the house and landscape of his childhood. Like the hero of Thomas Wolfe's famous novel of half a century later, he finds out that You Can't Go Home Again. Clym has lived in Paris as well as London, and for several inhabitants of Hardy's fictional Egdon Heath, this city represents the epitome of culture and civilization. The woman Yeobright will marry, Eustacia Vye, dreams about Paris as the ideal escape from the dreariness of what she considers her Egdon prison. In fact, her campaign to marry Clym begins with the rumor rather than the person. She thinks of him as a "man returning from Heaven." Before she has even laid eyes on him, she identifies with his cosmopolitan sophistication; much of her early interest in Clym is based on the assumption that he plans to return to Paris. She refers to the heath as her "Hades" and speaks of having to live with her grandfather there in melodramatic rhetoric: "my cross, shame, death." The other man in Eustacia's life, Damon Wildeve, also dreams of a more sophisticated life in the city. Although he keeps an inn on the heath, he identifies himself as an engineer who has had a taste of the good life. When he inherits a substantial sum from an American uncle, he immediately makes plans to move himself and his family to the city.

In one crude way, then, Hardy's dynamic representation of a changing culture can be reduced to a simple paradigm: the restless, hungering characters associate the "good life" with cosmopolitan and modern settings, whereas the more stable characters, with whom Hardy leads the reader to sympathize, prefer the traditional, rural culture of the heath. Clym tells the peasant crowd that he repudiates his earlier disdain for rural life, and that the French capital no longer holds any charm from him. With this sentiment the peasants eagerly agree. Hardy has, however, manipulated his personal history of return in the contrast between Clym's Paris vocation and his planned project on the heath. Whereas Hardy was an architect in London, engaged like his alter ego Jude Fawley (Jude the Obscure) in church restoration, a vocation that combines the aesthetic, the antiquary, the material, and perhaps even the spiritual, Yeobright managed a diamond merchant's shop in France. Clym's repudiation of that trade makes perfect sense because the business of selling diamonds is readily associated with vanity, elitism, and runaway capitalism, all part of the darker side of late Victorian culture. While Eustacia and the peasants see this as a glamorous business, Clym recognizes that the trade placed him directly in the service of an elite, exploitative class whose interest in diamonds was a form of vanity. He (and Hardy) put it hyperbolically: "My business was the idlest, vainest, most effeminate business that ever a man could be put to."

Upon returning, Clym decides to do something that reflects a service ideal central to the best part of late Victorian culture. He proposes to open a school that will train the youth of the heath in the sciences and skills necessary to prosper and serve mankind in a changing culture. His satellite goal is to introduce sophisticated, novel, experimental forms of teaching, of which he is aware because of his wider exposure to the progressive metropolitan centers as well as his latent superior intelligence. Hardy implicitly approves Clym's plan to replace an outmoded system that primarily supports status quo values. Thus Clym would practice elitism, but not the kind of economic elitism he despised in the diamond trade. This is an elitism of the intellect. He would return to the heath to educate its best and brightest children. Although his goal includes an elitist perspective, it also manifests a public service ideal that is one of the nobler aspects of Victorian highbrow culture, manifested in scientists, explorers, and the like. On a somewhat less imposing scale, his cousin Thomasin voices similar feelings about Egdon, but her feelings are grounded in loyalty rather than principle. She is anxious about her husband's decision to move to the port city of Budmouth when he becomes wealthy. A rich widow after Wildeve's death, she rules out moving to the city, proclaiming that the heath, although "ridiculous," is a nurturing environment.

Reflecting his own choice to return to Dorset, Hardy omnisciently judges the conservative position, which favors traditional rural culture over modern cosmopolitan culture, to be correct. Yet the basis for this judgment seems somewhat arbitrary, as if the writer were imposing rather than dramatizing his preferences. Critics often observe the brooding, ominous presence of the heath in Hardy's fiction, particularly The Return of the Native, as if it were a character or a manifestation of some ominous force. Indeed little about Hardy's heath, either as physical or as cultural environment, is appealing in this narrative. Hardy generally portrays it as harsh, difficult, and barren: the "storm was its lover, and the wind was its friend." Its most contented inhabitants are "heath-croppers," or wild ponies that graze on its furze, and peasants, whose cognitive lives are not far beyond the ponies' on a crude evolutionary scale. The chief work is agriculture, which is far less important as an evolving technology in this novel than in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) or The Mayor of Casterbridge(1886; see separate entry). One of two principal businesses in this novel is turf-cutting, or the harvesting of peat as a fire source; the other is the mysterious Diggory Venn's trade as a "reddleman," or extracting ochre for use in the agricultural industry. Moreover, the extreme temperatures of Egdon are inhospitable. Mrs. Yeobright dies of heatstroke, compounded by an adder's bite, after a relatively short but extremely distressing walking journey to and from her son's home. Wildeve and Eustacia drown after getting lost in a sudden storm, and all that saves Thomasin and her infant daughter from a potentially similar fate is their good fortune in stumbling upon Venn's wagon when Thomasin loses the path in the same storm. Hardy privileges those who prefer the heath over the city, but the objective picture of Egdon gives little support for the thesis that this is a better life.

A more compelling case for the sense of "root" Hardy attributes to Egdon is its antiquity. As he does in the later novels, especially Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891; see separate entry), Hardy often reminds his readers that the heath itself recalls a pre- Roman antiquity. He appended a note to the 1895 edition of The Return of the Native associating his imaginative Egdon Heath with that of the "traditionary King of Wessex," Leir (whom Shakespeare transformed to Lear), the single most tragic figure in English literature. In a wonderful sketch-map Hardy drew for the 1878 edition, the antiquity of a Roman road neatly bisects the heath. Even with minor images, like the primitive arrowheads the love-struck youth Charley brings to distract Eustacia from her melancholy or the "druid stone" that fascinates Clym when he observes the opening of a barrow on the heath, Hardy reinforces his theme of the transiency of individual suffering and cultural changes. At one point he explicitly states that the tragic setting, the heath with its antiquity, "reduces to insignificance" Clym's angst over the degree to which his actions and negligence caused his mother to suffer. Near the end of the book, Hardy's narrator invokes that same sense of antiquity, the suffering of those "forgotten Celtic tribes" who lived and died on this same spot to dramatize a cosmic context for Clym's own suffering.

Much of the heath's ominous charm relates to its antiquity, which in turn creates a tone of foreboding for the events of the novel. It simultaneously reminds readers of the higher tragedy of past cultures, while establishing a historical perspective on the struggles of an England in transition as both an industrial country and as a world empire. Hardy also contextualizes the suffering of his "modern" tragic figures by reminding his readers of the sheer antiquity of the place and of the nobility classical British and Attic cultures attributed to suffering when the gods become cruel or indifferent, a theme central to many of Hardy's finest lyric poems, such as "Hap" (1866), "The Subalterns" (1898) or "Channel Firing" (1914).

In contrast to his investing the heath with noble antiquity, Hardy represents the peasantry as a degeneration of the traditional peasant British class. Like their predecessors in British literature, the peasant class in The Return of the Native live essentially parasitic lives, drawing on the activities of their "betters" as the source of meaning in their own lives. They rehearse assiduously to entertain the Yeobrights at their annual Christmas season open house, itself a mummers' tradition that has its roots in British, if not Celtic, antiquity; moreover, they eagerly anticipate Clym's return to Egdon as an important event in their own lives; finally, they express surprise and satisfaction at rumors of his decision not to return to Paris. Their deference is charming, but it also has overtones of servility, a condition Hardy's contemporaries—socialists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles—had described eloquently during the writer's youth. The class assumptions in the novel seem to be governed by nineteenth-century orthodoxies: that class is hierarchical and that there is no contradiction in the peasants' living vicariously and the general indifference or commidification of peasants practiced by Mrs. Yeobright or the open contempt both Eustacia and Wildeve feel toward the peasants. Some of their customs, such as waxing and feathering the bed clothes for a bride and groom, in this case Venn and Thomasin at the novel's end, anticipate the cruel "Skimmity-Ride" that expresses peasant resentment of class structure in The Mayor of Casterbridge. But like the mummers' convention at Christmas season, or the celebrations of Guy Fawkes Day that begin and end The Return of the Native, these rituals have their origins in folk custom.

Moreover, in his effort to render the peasant class charming, Hardy often portrays individuals as garrulous, fatuous, occasionally boring, and sometimes cruel. Grandfer Cantle boasts constantly about his old times as a military man. (Significantly, despite the novel's omniscient point of view, Hardy offers no verification that he was in fact a soldier in 1804, and even if he was, the possibility exists that his stories magnify his past exploits by bragging about them). He also drones on about his past reputation as a singer. His grandson Christian is a cowardly, stupid, man. Introduced rather amusingly as a man no woman would marry, Christian quickly becomes an emblem of a dying sturdy peasantry replaced by weak and simpleminded people. He quakes in fear of everything on the heath, and often admits his cowardice openly in public gatherings, as if he were not even ashamed of the pusillanimity of his character. Entrusted with an errand involving one hundred guineas by Mrs. Yeobright, Christian is easily fooled into risking, then losing, both Clym's and Thomasin's money after he wins the first few throws of the dice and Wildeve persuades him he is born "lucky."

Other members of the peasantry are portrayed in similarly negative ways. The walls of the Quiet Woman Inn are carved with initials of "illustrious drunkards of past days," the tone suggesting, as Hardy makes explicit in The Mayor of Casterbridge, that much of the time not devoted to working or living vicariously through their class superiors, is spent getting drunk. Christian Cantle wonders if the raffle at the Quiet Woman will be like "cudgel-playing or other forms of sportful bloodshed," again suggesting a brutal and voyeuristic underside to the play among members of this class, subtly enhanced by Hardy's placing this bloodthirsty attitude in the mouth of the least courageous character in the book. Other members of the peasant class are docile and dependent, none more so than Charley, a youth who bargains with Eustacia for a quarter of an hour holding her hand, then ministers to her after her marriage to Clym falls apart. His grief at Eustacia's death is the sorrow of a young man who has accepted his underling status and the fact that his beloved is unattainable because of class systems.

By far the most mendacious portrait of the peasant class, however, is Susan Nunsuch, a bitter and superstitious self-appointed guardian of Egdon against the alien and distant Eustacia Vye. Susan's son Johnny does occasional errands for Vye, and his mother uses these contacts to explain her son's illness. Christian Cantle reports that in church—and the novel is replete with reminders that organized religion no longer forms a center of community life among the peasants—Susan Nunsuch jabbed a needle in Eustacia's arm to prove she is a witch. Just before the catastrophic scenes of Eustacia and Wildeve's attempt to flee, Nunsuch carefully fashions a wax effigy of Vye, penetrates it with several pins, and melts it in a fireplace. Hardy leaves it to the reader to decide whether this piece of witchcraft and superstition contributed to Eustacia's death, but the malice and wickedness of her act are indisputable, as is the hypocrisy of her accusing Eustacia of being a witch then practicing black magic, whether effectual or not, against her.

As petty as the peasants are as persons, however, Hardy suggests amused fondness for certain peasant customs. An elaborate effort is made to catch, kill, and fry adders as a poultice for Mrs. Yeobright's snakebite, and the physician, when he arrives, indicates that the remedy did no harm. The reader moreover assumes it is better for Clym and the others attending at Mrs. Yeobright's death to do something ineffective but harmless rather than to do nothing and watch helplessly while the old woman dies. Similarly, the "hartshorn" folk remedy revives Clym after the drownings. In his omniscient voice, Hardy applauds the temporary "paganism ... revived in their hearts" when youth from the two villages gather for an annual August dance called a "gipsying." Finally, Hardy's narrator overtly celebrates the maypole customs as a viable peasant tradition in which "the instincts of merry old England lingered on ... with exceptional vitality."

Thus Hardy describes the peasantry as part of the connectedness of the heath to its past and as part of a transition to the future. As a group, the peasants of Egdon have a certain rustic charm, but individually they seem to be affected by the mendacity and pusillanimity of modern culture. Moreover, the caste systems which define certain individuals as peasants and others as aristocrats linger in even the most intellectually liberated character in The Return of the Native. After the catastrophes have taken place, Clym wonders if he should do the "honorable" thing and marry his cousin Thomasin, not out of erotic love, but out of a sense of duty to her and her child, as well as a homage to his mother's expressed wish that Clym and Thomasin might eventually wed. Now that they are widow and widower, Clym considers fulfilling his mother's stated wish. It is, of course, a very Victorian sense of duty; however, his heart is not in it. He is doing his duty to his cousin and her child and working out his guilt over his mother's suffering and death. When he learns that Thomasin is considering a proposal from Diggory Venn, that mysterious character who has been a "reddleman" throughout the book but has recently become a dairy farmer, his response is less relieved and enthusiastic than one might expect. He does not really want to marry his cousin, or anyone else; moreover, he realizes Venn is "clever," "honest," and "astute." Clym's objection, that Venn is a member of the yeoman rather than the professional or monied class, indicates how very calcified attitudes relating to caste and class remain in Hardy's Egdon as Victoria's century entered its final quarter.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1840s: Milk production in dairy farming is all done by hand.

1878: The first commercial milking machines are produced in Auburn, New York.

Today: Dairy farming is automated. Cows are kept in small enclosures that allow no room to move and seldom come into contact with humans.

1840s: The typewriter is a new invention. Patented in 1843, it uses the concept of the moving carriage to make letters strike evenly.

1878: The typewriter is greatly improved when the Remington Arms Company added a shift key that would allow the same document to include lower—and upper—case characters.

Today: Typewriters are practically obsolete. Word processing makes any desktop system capable of professional-quality graphics.

1840s: The first rail lines are just beginning to connect major urban areas, with passenger train travel starting in the 1830s. The only transportation available to inhabitants of Egdon Heath is primitive, such as horse-drawn carriages.

1878: Railways are common across the English countryside. They link cities and allow travel to even isolated areas.

Today: With automobiles providing convenient personal transportation, travel to any point in England is quick and easy.

1840s: Human behavior is a matter for speculation by philosophers and fiction writers.

1878: The first laboratory for experimental psychology is opened by Wilhelm Max Wundt, making a science out of the study of the mind.

Today: The latest developments in psychology have been in the area of treating depressions and violent behavior with mood-altering drugs.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Although the novel lends itself to cinematic representation, especially the early scenes on Guy Fawkes Day, comparatively few efforts have been made to capture The Return of the Native cinematically. The novel was dramatized for staging in 1920 by the Dorchester Players, an amateur group. Biographer Michael Millgate notes that Hardy took intense pleasure in the adaptation, though he had little to do with the actual script. In 1998, a Hallmark Hall of Fame production, perhaps influenced by the moderately successful feature film versions of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, featured a strong cast and offered a generally satisfactory rendering of Hardy's text. The cinematography was exceptionally effective. Much of the film was shot in location in southwest England, and the visual effects of the heath create a powerful image of the beautiful countryside Clym so loves, and the hard, austere country Eustacia Vye so passionately despises.

As is often the case with film adaptations of great novels, however, the depth of Eustacia's character is completely lost in the film. Catherine Zeta-Jones captures the stunning beauty that so bewitches three men in the novel; Zeta-Jones ably conveys on the screen the corporal body of Eustacia Vye, but not her powerful spirit. Hampered by an uninspired screenplay by Robert W. Lenski and to a degree by the medium of film itself, Zeta-Jones's Eustacia lacks the depth, the passion, and especially the self-awareness of Hardy's creation. For instance, the film cannot convey the internal conflicts that are part of Eustacia's decision to escape with Wildeve, during which she weighs the compromise of making a commitment to a man she knows is unworthy of her against the prospect of remaining on the dreaded heath, spurned even by her disappointing husband. Moreover, the screenplay implies that Eustacia's death is a suicide, an issue which is often debated when Hardy's novel is analyzed. Captain Vye removes loaded pistols from the wall because of the way his granddaughter is staring at them, a particularly effective moment in the film, but one that makes suicide seem a certainty, whereas Hardy depicted Eustacia's death offstage, leaving room for speculation. Zeta-Jones's character lacks that brooding passion, that level of self-awareness, that makes Hardy's heroine special. Whether the result of Zeta- Jones's decision or that of director Jack Gold, this Eustacia is a flirt, whereas Hardy's heroine is a subtle manipulator. In a modification of an important scene from the novel, she tries to influence Venn (played by Steven Mackintosh), but is unsuccessful and seems unsure how to deal with a man she cannot influence sexually.

Although Hallmark Hall of Fame productions are among the most distinguished in American television history, they are, after all, part of a popular culture enterprise. It comes as no surprise that the film emphasizes the one element of the narrative Hardy himself regretted, the "happy ending" with the marriage between Venn and Thomasin. The film has the event follow shortly after Eustacia's and Wildeve's deaths, with a silliness that only Hollywood could countenance serving as deus ex machina. Although the novel makes clear that Venn's complexion is deeply ingrained because of the "reddle" in which he deals, and it requires an entire winter and spring for the reddlman's complexion to return to normal, in the film the red is literally washed from Venn's face during the storm, after he has rescued Eustacia's and Wildeve's bodies and saved Clym, as if the plunge into the rushing waters (not a deep pool, as in the novel) were baptismal and transformative. Moreover, Hardy's prim Victorian, Thomasin, undergoes a mourning period of eighteen months before she will even consider a proposal from her dutiful lover and protector. Finally, the film introduces an ectoplasmic Zeta-Jones/ Eustacia while Clym is giving one of his open-air classrooms (not, as in "Aftercourses," a sermon), as a trite Hollywood style effort to represent the lasting effect of Eustacia's permanence in Clym's memory, sadly dumbed down to her sexual allure, not her force of character.

In addition to a magnificent sense of the physical space of Hardy's novel, the Hall of Fame production captures the mendacity and cruelty of the Egdon peasants beautifully. The single element of the film, which will instruct the novice in Hardy studies and delight the expert, is Joan Plowright's brilliant performance as Mrs. Yeobright. Plowright perfectly brings to life and death the pride, imperiousness, and ultimate vulnerability of this character who affects so many others' happiness both in her life and her death. While none of the performances by other actors is particularly memorable, Plowright brings a dimension to the screen that perfectly captures Hardy's enigmatic creation.

All in all, the production generally follows Hardy's narrative faithfully, leaving out some subplots, until the end when Hollywood cliches substitute for Hardy's pessimism. Plowright's performance, the representation of the peasants, and the magnificent sense of Egdon heath as a beautiful and terrible place enrich visually the power of Hardy's written text, but even they cannot in the final analysis take its place.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Return of the Native was adapted as a television presentation for the Hallmark Hall of Fame series in 1994, starring Clive Owen, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Joan Plowright. The television movie was directed by Jack Gold and released as a video in 1999 by Hallmark Home Entertainment.

Audio Partners Publishing Company has an unabridged, 12-tape edition of actor Alan Rickman reading the novel which was produced in 1999.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Adams, Francis, Review of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in The Fortnightly Review, Vol. LII, No. CCVII, July 1891, pp. 19–22.

Carpenter, Richard, Thomas Hardy, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1964.

Eliot, T. S., After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, Harcourt & Brace, 1934.

Hawkins, Desmond, “The Native Returns 1876–1878,” Barnes & Noble Books, 1976, p. 76.

Henley, W. E., Review, in The Academy, Vol. XIV, No. 343, November 30, 1878, p. 517.

Page, Norman O., “The Return of the Native,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.

Review, in The Athenaeum, November 23, 1878, p. 654.

Taylor, Richard, “Thomas Hardy: A Reader’s Guide,” in Thomas Hardy: The Writer and His Background, St. Martin’s Press, 1980, pp. 219–58.

For Further Study
Brooks, Jean R., “The Return of the Native: A Novel of Environment,” in Modern Critical Views: Thomas Hardy, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 55–72. Analyzes the novel’s most conspicuous literary theme.

Davidson, Donald, “The Traditional Basis of Thomas Hardy’s Fiction,” in Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Albert J. Guerard, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 10–23. Identifies elements of the oral tradition of rural England in The Return of the Native and other works.

Hands, Timothy, “’Yea, Great and Good, Thee, Thee we hail’: Hardy and the Ideas of his Time,” in Thomas Hardy, St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Traces the philosophical movements of the late nineteenth century and evaluates their influences in Hardy’s works.

Hawkins, Desmond, Hardy the Novelist, David & Charles, 1965. This respected analysis offers a strong background to students who are becoming acquainted with Hardy’s fiction.

Hillis Miller, J., “The Dance of Desire,” in Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970, pp. 144–75. Considers the themes of desire and longing in Hardy’s novel.

Hornback, Bert G., The Metaphor of Chance: Vision and Technique in the Work of Thomas Hardy, Ohio University Press, 1971. Exploration of Hardy’s narrative technique.

Mickelson, Anne Z., “The Marriage Trap,” in Thomas Hardy’s Women and Men: The Defeat of Nature, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1976. A feminist reading of Eustacia Vye.

Sumner, Rosemary, Thomas Hardy: Psychological Novelist, St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Discusses the treatment of psychological issues in Hardy’s work.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Hardy’s “The Return of the Native.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Introduction addresses the relation of Arthur Schopenhauer and Percy Bysshe Shelley to Hardy, then discusses the “transformation” of Eustacia. Contains essays Brooks calls the “best modern interpretations” written by Lawrence, Howe, Brooks, Eggenschwiler, Meisel, Gregor, Fleishman, and Johnson.

Gindin, James, ed. Thomas Hardy: “The Return of the Native.” New York: W. W. Norton, 1969. Contains the novel, twelve of Hardy’s poems and the portion of his autobiography related to the novel, five contemporary criticisms, and fourteen later critiques on the characters, themes, and techniques of the novel. Ends with a selected bibliography.

Jewell, John. “Hardy’s The Return of the Native.” The Explicator 49, no. 3 (Spring, 1991): 159-162. Focuses on Hardy’s symbolic use of red through his use of the reddle. Concludes that, because of the red dye’s location on the ewe, the “reddle functions as a kind of scarlet letter.” Explores the character of Diggory Venn as a symbol of evil.

Lawrence, D. H. “Study of Thomas Hardy.” In Selected Literary Criticism, edited by Anthony Beal. New York: Viking Press, 1956. Published after Lawrence’s death. Provides an early psychological study of Hardy’s characters, focusing on what Clym and Eustacia desire. Explains why The Return of the Native is the “first tragic and important novel.” Probes into the tragic effects of the heath on its inhabitants.

Tighe, Mary Ann. “The Return of the Native: Self-Improvement Leads to Literary Judgment.” English Journal 70, no. 5 (September, 1981): 30-32. A teacher describes her success with having her students role-play three predicaments, later studying Hardy’s portrayal of the same conflicts, the theme of fate, and Greek tragedy traditions.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide