illustration of Eustacia standing in the forest

The Return of the Native

by Thomas Hardy
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Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2729

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.

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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.

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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 his classic document on tragedy, the Poetics, Aristotle mentions that such catastrophes are often the result of deeds done in ignorance). Clym and his mother have been estranged since he married Eustacia against his mother's wishes; indeed, they have hardly spoken, and Mrs. Yeobright and Eustacia recently quarreled. Mrs. Yeobright unwisely trusts a considerable legacy to the foolish Christian Cantle, with the understanding that this should be divided equally between her son and her niece. Cantle chances to be carrying the money on an evening during which gambling is taking place at the Quiet Woman Inn; moreover, at this time Wildeve is especially annoyed with Mrs. Yeobright. In sport, he deceives Cantle into wagering the guineas Mrs. Yeobright entrusted to him, but while they gamble Cantle confesses the origins of the money he is losing. Wildeve's greed is fueled by bitterness that his mother- in-law does not trust him to know about the inheritance; Diggory Venn, overseeing the scamming of Cantle, wins the entire legacy back from Wildeve in the novel's most preposterous scene (they capture glowworms to get light to cast dice by). Aware only that it is Thomasin's legacy entrusted to Cantle, and influenced by his love for Thomasin and contempt for her husband, Venn returns the entire amount to her, a mistake Hardy omnisciently defines as "an error which afterwards helped to cause more misfortune than treble the loss of money could have done" [emphasis added]. Obviously, this is a an innocent mistake on Venn's part, in his effort to correct the cynical victimization of the stupid Cantle, which in turn could happen only because Mrs. Yeobright made the judgment error of trusting this peasant and because Cantle happened by when gaming was taking place.

As this detailed reconstruction shows, chance seems to compound the impact of human errors in judgment (Mrs. Yeobright) and fact (Venn). The exchange between Mrs. Yeobright and Eustacia results in their mutual bitterness being compounded by the mother's renewed suspicions about her daughter-in-law and Eustacia's ignorance of what money Mrs. Yeobright is talking about. After a series of conversations with Venn, who is suspicious about the increasing attention Wildeve pays Eustacia, Mrs. Yeobright decides to make the dreaded first move toward reconciliation—at, coincidentally, the same time Clym has decided to initiate a visit to his mother as a first step in resolving their differences. She arrives at the worst possible moment, on 31 August. Clym, exhausted from the heat and unfamiliar manual labor, has taken a nap; Wildeve, annoyed and increasingly threatened by Venn's interference, has decided to visit Eustacia by daylight. By chance he arrives just before Mrs. Yeobright, but shortly after Clym has fallen asleep, dreaming of his mother. Eustacia, painfully reminded of the consequences of her choice to marry Clym by the trig appearance and elegant manners of her former suitor, as well as of the unpleasant scene the last time she encountered Mrs. Yeobright, decides not to answer the door, on the assumption that the knocking will awaken Clym, whom she assumes Mrs. Yeobright wants to see anyway. She hopes that Wildeve's presence will not need to be explained at this awkward moment, to either Mrs. Yeobright or to her husband. When she realizes that Clym has not awakened, she reluctantly opens the door, but it is too late. Mrs. Yeobright carries away the sight of a woman's face in the window and Clym's tools near the gate, therefore inferring that Clym is at home (literally he is, but he is asleep) and therefore that he "lets her shut the door against me!" She draws the worst possible conclusion, but an eminently reasonable one, that Clym endorses his wife's inhospitality toward his own mother, from a set of circumstances that intensify the effect of choices made by proud people who have not resolved their differences amicably because each waited for the other to take the first step. When Mrs. Yeobright did so, circumstances conspired to transform an effort at reconciliation into tragic alienation.

The most obvious intervention of fate in the lives of the Yeobright extended family involves the sudden, harsh storm that occurs the night Eustacia and Wildeve run away to Budmouth (the decision had been made several days before, and the storm was unexpected even the evening of 6 November). During that evening, the wind in Clym's fireplace seems like "the prologue to some tragedy." The force of the storm causes the couple's flight to lead to disaster; yet it is their choice to be out in this storm. Moreover, Hardy indicates that, by the time Eustacia begins her journey, the imminent weather lies over the heath "like the rotten liver and lungs of some colossal animal," leading travelers to "dwell on nocturnal scenes of disaster." Their mutual decision, to escape to Budmouth, however, takes precedence over the storm. Therefore, it is not the storm that causes their disasters, but rather their unwise choice to follow through on their intention on a night during which travel is ill-advised.

Two complications, however, affect this argument. First, the plan to run away occurs because of a well-intentioned mistake by Charley, the love-struck peasant who tried to cheer Eustacia up after she and Clym parted. Knowing how pleased she was by Guy Fawkes Day bonfires the year before, Charley secretly prepares one to relieve her depression. He acts in good will and ignorance of the fact that the bonfire has been her signal to meet Wildeve. When Wildeve appears, responding to a summons that was not intentionally sent, she complains of the full extent of her disappointment. His ardor and sympathy competing for predominance, Damon Wildeve makes a commitment to assist her in escaping from Egdon. There is no explicit indication that he plans to abandon Thomasin, but most readers intuitively feel that this consequence is latent in his choice. Charley's good deed, done in ignorance, converts to the raw material of disaster.

Second, like Tess's letter to Angel Clare in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which remains unread because it slides beneath the carpet, Clym writes a conciliatory note to his wife, from whom he has been estranged since he became aware of the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Yeobright's death. He entrusts delivery of the letter to Michael Fairway, a peasant who simply forgot he had placed it in the lining of his clothing and therefore delivers it to Captain Vye's at ten o'clock in the evening. The Captain, drinking grog and thinking Eustacia has retired early, resolves to give it to her when she awakens the next morning. His daughter is, of course, resting for her journey, and we as readers can only conjecture whether she might have changed her mind about running away with Wildeve if she thought Clym wanted to attempt reconciliation. As in classical tragedy once more, fate works to heighten the effect of human pride. Clym has waited, out of pride and anger, for Eustacia to make the first move toward restoring their marriage, despite the fact that he virtually drove her from their home back to her father's dwelling. Although she and Wildeve have become involved in each other's lives since their accidental meeting at the "gipsying," after Mrs. Yeobright's death, she has turned once more to Wildeve in her disappointment that Clym has no plan to take her to Paris and her subsequent feeling of abandonment by her husband. Fate, in the form of Michael Fairway's poor memory and a sudden storm, has simply compounded the effect of human will. Although the storm blinds men and women to the dangers of the heath, and although a benevolent accident leads Thomasin, carrying her daughter, to Venn's van, it is clearly the decisions men and women make that lead to the tragedy of The Return of the Native. Hardy hints at the temptation to blame fate for the decisions we make when he describes Eustacia's attitude upon learning of Mrs. Yeobright's death: "instead of blaming herself for the issue she laid the fault upon the shoulders of some indistinct, colossal Prince of the World, who had framed her situation and ruled her lot." Clearly, the author adversely judges his character for taking what is the easy way out in the determinist's dilemma: if we can blame fate, by whatever personification we choose, for our bad acts, then we can avoid taking moral responsibility for them. And while Eustacia did not will Mrs. Yeobright's death, she was in her creator's view to blame for the bad decisions she made that led her mother-in-law to despair.

Like Shakespeare and Aeschylus whose strategies he emulates in this novel, Hardy looks at character as the prime determinant of our destinies. Of course, we cannot choose our character, and to that extent our fate is predetermined. In certain classical arguments against free will, if we cannot choose the predilection that frames our choices, we cannot be said to be free. This is consistent with the kind of social determinism practiced by writers as diverse as Emile Zola, John Dos Passos, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and, in several novels and many lyric poems, Thomas Hardy. In The Return of the Native, however, Hardy focuses on the theme of Shakespearean tragedy, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale both in terms of social hierarchy (Clym, though a smart and noble man, is no prince or general) and human passion. Like Shakespeare, Hardy asserts that we are fully accountable for the choices we make despite the fact that our susceptibility for error is something we cannot control. Moreover, when we touch the web of fate, a metaphor Robert Perm Warren explores beautifully in All the King's Men (1946) we set into motion forces powerful enough to destroy or chasten us.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

Time
The role of time and the effect of its passage are major themes in the novel. As the story spans eighteen months, the landscape of the heath remains unchanged—that consistency is reflected in the people who live on the heath for generation after generation. They are creatures of tradition, following the same wedding rituals, the same harvest rituals, the same holiday traditions and the same folk remedies (such as the traditional cure for an adder’s bite) that has been handed down to them. Sometimes traditional beliefs lead to hostility, like the fear of Eustacia Vye being a witch.

The characters who encounter difficulty are the ones who are not content to live in rhythm with country life. Most notably, Eustacia is impatient with life on the heath, wishing for the “bustle” of Paris. Wildeve is also bored with life on the heath. When he inherits a large sum of money, he plans to tour the world. Clym is the most divided character in the novel; Eustacia assumes that he is too worldly to settle down in the country, but he is able to appreciate the beauty of the land’s timelessness.

[W]hen he looked from the heights on his way he could not help indulging in a barbarous satisfaction at observing that, in some of the attempts at reclamation from waste, tillage, after holding on for a year or two, had receded again in despair, the ferns and furze-tufts stubbornly reasserting themselves.

Nature
Hardy introduces his readers to the landscape of Egdon Heath before introducing any characters. This emphasizes the important role that the natural landscape will play in the story. His description of the natural setting can be taken as symbolic of the people who live there—“neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly: neither commonplace, unmeaning nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring.” It can also be taken as a simple acknowledgment that people come to resemble the place where they live.

For instance, the extreme heat of the August day when Mrs. Yeobright is turned away from Clym’s cottage may be perceived as symbolic of her turmoil. Hardy addresses this issue directly when he has Eustacia wander out into a violent storm on the night of her greatest mental anguish: “Never was harmony more perfect than that between the chaos of her mind and the chaos of the world without.” If the people of Egdon Heath seem carefree, it is because they are comfortable in their surroundings.

The character who appears to be most in tune with nature’s mysteries is Diggory Venn. He does not look like a human because of the red dye that has seeped into his skin and hair, and he does not operate by the rules of human interaction, instead appearing and disappearing mysteriously at night. It is not surprising that in the end he becomes a dairy farmer—making his living with domesticated animals, in harmony with nature but not completely subject to its whims.

Conscience
The characters in The Return of the Native are motivated by their consciences more than any other driving force. Their attempts to avoid social confrontation are not guided by concern about what others will think, but by what harm they will do to others. This is evident in the opening chapters, with Thomasin’s return after her aborted attempt to be married; although eloping is considered shameful, Thomasin and Wildeve are unconcerned about that social stigma, which is quickly forgotten anyway. On the other hand, Wildeve is unwilling to go through with his wedding to Thomasin when he feels that he might end up regretting it and longing for Eustacia. When they do marry, it is not to satisfy the social requirement, but because of Wildeve’s failed romantic life. Diggory Venn is driven to assure Thomasin’s happiness, passing up opportunities that could benefit him in order to protect her. Telling her about Wildeve’s involvement with Eustacia might make her forget Wildeve— thereby clearing the way for him—but Venn cannot hurt her. So he keeps silent.

Late in the novel, when Eustacia realizes that Wildeve has become the rich, worldly husband that she always wanted, she does not run away with him because she cannot hurt Clym. At her house, he says that he could not abandon his wife either, but later, when Eustacia is leaving town, he is willing to run away with her, still making sure that Thomasin will receive half of his inheritance.

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