The most irritating thing about cliches is that they are so often true. (This statement is also a cliche.) The old saw that kept popping into my head as I read The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy, was “Marry in haste. Repent at leisure.” The first half of this book is bad marriage after bad marriage. The second half contains the resulting tragedies.
I was drawn to The Return of the Native because of Eustacia Vye. Eustacia is often mentioned in the same breath as Hardy’s other great tragic heroines. Early in the novel, she is described thus, “She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman” (Part I, Chapter 7*). Unlike those heroines, Eustacia is not a good woman at heart. She feels trapped on Egdon Heath; she wants to live a rich life in a city. Unlike Tess, who works hard to eke out a living, Eustacia doesn’t want to work at all. Unlike Sue Bridehead, Eustacia is too selfish to love someone more than herself. And unlike Susan Henchard, all of Eustacia’s problems are chiefly of her own making.
At the beginning of the novel, Eustacia is toying with the affections of Damon Wildeve—who is actually engaged to another woman. After throwing him over, Eustacia ensnares Clym Yeobright. She does love him, but she mostly agrees to marry him because she things he’ll take her to Paris in spite of all his assertions that he wants to live a poor, quiet life on Egdon Heath. Wildeve and Eustacia still love each other and proceed to lead all the other characters down the road to tragedy. (Read the Wikipedia article for a more complete summary of the plot.)
Eustacia Vye puzzles me. She is so unlike anyone I’ve ever met. She’s the catalyst for the plot, but I find that I can’t understand her at all. How did she become the woman she is? What does she really want? What could possibly make her happy? I want to shake her until her teeth rattle and explain the facts of life to her. I had much more sympathy for Clym and his cousin, Thomasin Yeobright. Clym and Eustacia are a terrible match for each other. Thomasin and Damon Wildeve are almost as bad a match. And yet the Yeobrights seem helplessly dazzled by these rare birds. No one appears to see the reality of their chosen mates. To be honest, I think I want to shake the whole dramatis personae until their collective teeth rattle.
One thing that pleasantly surprised me about The Return of the Native was the snarky humor scattered throughout. This sense of humor disappears by the time Hardy wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge (I think), some of the characters in this book land some right zingers:
“Is there any use in saying what can do no good, Aunt?” [asked Thomasin.]
“Yes,” said her aunt, with some warmth. “To thoroughly fill the air with past misfortune, so that other girls may take warning and keep clear of it.” (Part II, Chapter 2)
The Return of the Native, at least in the first parts, had me laughing as other characters kept up a running commentary about the foolishness of the four protagonists. Even though this disrupts the overall tragic tone of the novel, I found that I rather enjoyed the company of the peanut gallery.
The Return of the Native came early in Hardy’s career. It was serialized in 1878. Having read some of his later books—Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure—it was clear to me that Hardy was still working out how to write his tragedies. In fact, the edition that I read (an 1895 edition reproduced on Project Gutenberg), had this note in the penultimate chapter:
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. But certain circumstances of serial publication led to a change of intent.
Readers therefore can choose between the endings, and those with an austere artistic code can assume the more consistent conclusion to be the true one. (Part VI, Chapter 3)
Reading The Return of the Native was, for me, a lot like reading Oliver Twist. Because I’d read the later work first, I could see missteps and awkwardnesses that other readers might not. Few of the characters have quite the complexity that later ones do—especially the overwrought Eustacia. On the other hand, Hardy has clearly mastered his dramatic descriptions of Wessex that he became famous for. He also displays his nostalgia for rural life and work and a sensitivity to the limitations placed on women in Victorian England. Still, I think I would recommend a later Hardy novel to a curious reader rather than this one.
* Quotes taken from the Project Gutenberg version.