illustration of Eustacia standing in the forest

The Return of the Native

by Thomas Hardy

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How do the rustics in The Return of the Native contribute to the plot's action?

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The idea of the "rustic" in Return of the Native is central to the novel's theme of man's relationship to nature. Nature, in the form of Egdon Heath, is separate from human life: it's not that it is inhospitable, but rather that it is inscrutable, in the sense that the yearning for meaning and fulfillment characters like Eustacia endure simply has no effect on it. The heath is the great central fact of the novel, and the existence of humans is simply irrelevant to it.

The importance of the rustic characters in the book lie in showing how one is to exist in the face of this irrelevance. Clym and Eustacia are drawn to each other because of their fixation on the heath; Clym's "return" to the wild to escape the superficiality of civilization, along with Eustacia's determination to escape the heath and find fulfillment in the city, are two sides of the same coin. Each assigns a value to the heath, which is a projection of their desires and has no basis in the reality of place. The rustics, like Diggory, point to the only way of existing on the heath, which is to recognize the insignificance of their personal lives and to "put up" with the bleak nature of life on the heath.

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Your question could be interpreted in a couple of ways; so I've listed below examples of those interpretations below.

Rustics (in reference to rustic elements): In Native, Hardy devotes much of the first section of the novel to describing the rustic heath upon which life for Eustacia, Wildeve, and so many other characters centers. The heath, especially the lighting of the fires, represents not only the countryside way of life and traditions, but it also symbolizes Eustacia's isolation from the urbane life she so desires.  In that sense, the rustics are all-important to the novel's plot because Eustacia's longing to alienate herself from the traditions and manners of the heath is the novel's main conflict.

Rustics (in reference to specific characters)--While Hardy does include several rustic characters in the novel, none is more important to the plot than Diggory Venn, the reddleman.  Diggory is a commoner who longs for Thomasin's love.  Because of his love-from-afar, he is involved in and advance most of the novel's subplots and affects its main plot. He tries to foil Eustacia's relationship with Wildeve (Thomasin's husband); he observes much of the novel's actions and uses his observations to influence the actions of other characters, and in the end, he "saves" Thomasin.

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