The Return of the Native Themes
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...
(The entire section is 3,477 words.)