Critics and general readers often associate Thomas Hardy's vision with "naturalism" or "determinism," variations on the conviction that an indifferent or malevolent fate controls human life and that we are helpless to change our destiny. This theme is central to novels like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, neatly summarized in its despairing conclusion, "the President of the Immortals, in the Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess." Moreover, in the great lyric poem "Hap," the speaker contemplates his preference for being victimized by a hostile god rather than by an indifferent one because he could "bear it,... Steeled by a sense of ire unmerited." The discovery central to that poem, however, is that mere chance, not will, causes human suffering, which is therefore compounded by its own meaninglessness.
Yet it would be an oversimplification to apply uncritically to each work Hardy wrote the deterministic vision he often shares with writers as diverse as Emile Zola and Frank Norris. Whereas "Hap" laments the lack of a purposive enemy, in the later poem "Channel Firing," God makes a little joke about how history will work out according to his malevolent design. Confrontation with a hostile or indifferent "other,"—be it god, fate, or necessity—is at the core of the tragic idea, and Hardy's expressed goal in The Return of the Native was to write a modern tragedy, as he implied in his allusion to Leir/Lear in the prefatory note of 1895. Additionally, within the text he articulates this intention via frequent allusions to historical sufferings in comparison with which Victorian angst seems puny. Moreover, the novel is composed of six books, the final one of which is "Aftercourses." It is by far the least extensive, and it is in many ways anticlimactic, wrapping up loose ends after the focal disaster toward which all the action has inevitably moved. The inference, widely accepted by critics and biographers alike, is that the author intended to mirror the five-act structure of Shakespearean tragedy with his five books plus what amounts to little more than a postscript. In large matters, such as framing Clym's modern grief against the greater suffering of Shakespeare's Lear, and in smaller ones, such as mentioning, but not introducing, the hero in the first scenes, Hardy reminds his readers that he is trying to build a late-Victorian tragedy on the Wessex heath.
This deliberate emulation of the Shakespearean tragic model bears directly on Hardy's handling of deterministic themes central to The Return of the Native. Although in his last novels he would lean toward the notion that a malevolent or indifferent Fate controls our lives and perhaps challenges our capacity to choose, in this overt effort to write tragedy Hardy was profoundly aware that the typical Shakespearean drama is not concerned exclusively with the power of fate, but rather with the degree to which individual choices, whether the result of ignorance, hubris, or malice, may set into motion patterns of events that may engulf the choosers. Thus, while Lear's two daughters are wicked and their cruelty is hidden behind flattering statements, it is Lear's pride that grants them power over his heart, and it is his own stubbornness that drives him onto the heath to confront an indifferent nature in the form of a violent storm that does not discriminate between king and peasant. It can be argued that Lear's character, containing the seeds of his vulnerability to flattery and rage, is not of his choosing—he is driven by his nature. But the play makes clear that its hero had the power to react differently, and that his suffering is intensified by his awareness of the great error that set him on Fortune's wheel. Similarly, while fate often intervenes in The Return of the Native, it is generally the characters' own decisions that propel events out of control. Three sets of circumstances illustrate the complex mixture of individual will and tragic destiny in this novel.
The first instance of a cruel fate frustrating human will brings an end to Clym's great plan to educate the youth of Egdon. It is a mark of Hardy's theme and his hero's tragic stature that Clym repudiates material success and social prestige to exert a positive influence on his contemporaries and their future. To accomplish his end, he sets out on an ambitious course of study, which involves reading for long hours with limited light to fill in the gaps in his own education, gaps the reader is led to perceive as self-diagnosed: every indication is that Clym was a precocious pupil, prized for his originality as well as his mastery of the information central to a British education. His hopes to master knowledge are dashed when he develops symptoms of progressive eye disease. It is, of course, his fate, perhaps we could say his DNA, to have a genetic predisposition to opthamalia, and it is his indomitable will to seek to perfect his own knowledge before presuming to teach others. His choices, both to do the noble thing and to impose on himself an unnecessarily rigorous course of preparation, compounded by a predisposition he could neither select nor control, lead inevitably to the frustration of his hopes and his subsequent despair.
An equally ominous fatalism surrounds Mrs. Yeobright's death, but upon examination it becomes clear that this event, too, occurs because of human will, including a fair portion of stubbornness and hubris, compounded by fate. She dies after an exhausting walk to Clym and Eustacia's cottage, where she was denied entry in the novel's most heart-wrenching scene. Heartbroken, Mrs. Yeobright begins the return journey only to collapse of what appears to be heat exhaustion, after being bitten by an adder. Self-dramatizing her predicament in a final conversation with the child Johnny Nunsuch, Mrs. Yeobright states that she has a "burden which is more than I can bear," obviously her son's perceived refusal to receive her in his new home. She confirms this when she sends Johnny for help, admonishing him to tell his mother he has seen a "brokenhearted woman cast off by her son," a phrase that haunts Clym after her death and confirms his feeling of responsibility for it. In the next paragraph, it remains questionable how much of the old lady's death, and its grave impact on all of Egdon Heath, results from a capricious or malevolent fate, and how much from human will.
As is true of most Shakespearean tragedy, fate works not to initiate disaster but to intensify the adverse effect of human choice. Mrs. Yeobright could not have chosen a more inopportune time to attempt reconciliation with her son, but she acts in ignorance of the complications that attend her choice (in...
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