The Return of the Native

In the opening scene of The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy uses his powerful prose to draw a picture of Egdon Heath, a place that is desolate and barren for strangers, but familiar, beautiful and welcoming for those who have lived there all their lives.

The untameable, Ishmaelitish thing that Egdon now was it always had been. Civilization was its enemy; and ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the same antique brown dress, the natural and invariable garment of the particular formation. In its venerable one coat lay a certain vein of satire on human vanity in clothes. A person on a heath in raiment of modern cut and colours has more or less an anomalous look. We seem to want the oldest and simplest human clothing where the clothing of the earth is so primitive.

This word “primitive,” especially set as it is against “civilization,” plays a strong role in Hardy’s account of the people who live on this heath. The first night of the book is the fifth of November, and people are building bonfires, a tradition that is ascribed to Guy Fawkes but that in fact goes back much farther. Hardy mentions other pagan traditions as the book goes along, from enchanting ones, like dancing around the Maypole, to frightening ones, like the scene in which a woman makes a voodoo doll out of beeswax and pierces it with pins. The residents of Edgon Heath don’t attend church, except to be married and buried. They are almost untouched by Christianizing, civilizing influences.

It’s against this backdrop of isolation, severity, and almost Druidical superstition that the events of The Return of the Native play out. The beautiful but impetuous Eustacia Vye, already entangled with Damon Wildeve at the opening of the book, impulsively decides to marry the returning “native,” Clym Yeobright. Wildeve, still yearning for Eustacia, marries Yeobright’s cousin Thomasin for lack of a better choice. These two ill-fated marriages struggle against notions of social class, vocation, honesty, and integrity before winding their way to their tragic conclusion. 

As in the other book I’ve read by Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd, there’s a play between reversals of fortune, temperament, and individual choice in this novel. Characters have bad things (or good things!) happen to them out of the blue: they go blind, they lose people they love, they inherit money. It’s temperament and choice that determine how they accept these changes. Do they struggle with their own innate characters, or do they flee? This seems to be part of Hardy’s theme — all of us inevitably encounter hardship, but the way we receive it determines our true fate. There’s a strong theme of blame and innocence in this book — characters blaming themselves for incidents that are not at all their fault — and it seems that real guilt lies only in that personal choice, not in original causes. By using the pagan theme I mentioned earlier, Hardy seems to be leaving even God out of it, and placing blame and innocence squarely on human shoulders.

I loved this book. The prose is so strong and beautiful that it pulled me along and I gulped it down in a matter of a couple of days. Hardy’s voice is so full of pathos, but also of humor — there are many, many funny scenes in this book, which I think get underestimated. (When was the last time you saw Hardy evaluated as a comic author?) His descriptive scenes, of the heath at midnight, at dawn, at sunset, are so lovely. I must thank Teresa for introducing me to Hardy — he’s her favorite author — and putting this pleasure in my way.

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29 Responses to The Return of the Native

  1. Some strong themes this book have. I’m interested in reading about the pagan traditions in this book. I’ve never read Hardy but I think I’ll try.

    • Jenny says:

      I would really recommend it! Teresa started me off with Far From the Madding Crowd, which she says is the easiest Hardy to like, and I really loved it. It might get you hooked.

  2. Tony says:

    Ah, as I mentioned in a recent guest post, Wuthering Heights has nothing on Egdon Heath in terms of wild and windy moors ;)

    • Jenny says:

      You are so right! Those descriptive passages were really beautiful and vivid. And since Hardy mentions Lear in his little foreword, I kept thinking of that, too.

  3. Deb says:

    I love, love, love Thomas Hardy and think it’s such a shame that he’s not read so much today–and, if he is, he’s considered such a pessimist, almost a nihilist; but that’s not how I see him at all. Yes, many of his characters encounter hardship–but, as you point out, it’s not the hardship but how the characters handle it that is the important part.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, no, I would never call Hardy a nihilist. He isn’t a happily-ever-after type, where the book ends with a marriage. Rather, like Eliot, the book starts with the marriage (or other big, life-changing event) and we see what happens from there. It’s a style I like very much.

  4. chris says:

    Excellent observations and review. This is one of my favorite Hardy novels just for the reasons you’be articulated. Well done! Cheers! Chris

  5. Helen says:

    I’m slowly working my way through Hardy’s novels but haven’t read this one yet. I’m looking forward to the funny scenes as there haven’t been many of those in the other books I’ve read!

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I’m not saying they’re knee-slappers or anything, but I do find Hardy quietly funny. Christian and his father are very amusing in this book, and Hardy is always making little asides that I find droll.

  6. Deb says:

    Does anyone but an old-timer like me remember the Monty Python sketch in which Thomas Hardy’s writing of the RETURN OF THE NATIVE was treated as a sporting event? I still remember the first sentence (“A Saturday afternoon was approaching the time of twilight…”) because of that skit.

  7. Teresa says:

    I am so pleased that you liked this! After I suggested it, I saw some negative reviews from others who do like some of Hardy’s other books, so I got nervous that I should have gone with Mayor of Casterbridge instead. I’ve read Native a few times, but not for several years, and I think it includes some of Hardy’s best descriptive writing. As Tony says, Egdon Heath is even more vivid than the moors of Wuthering Heights. (Hardy’s gift for description might explain why I’ve never felt the urge to visit his part of England, although I very much wanted to visit Haworth. I just feel like I’ve already been to “Wessex.”)

    I agree with you and Deb that he’s not nihilistic, although I do think he’s at times pessimistic. Not so much in the books that you’ve read, but in Tess and Jude. He’s also interested in guilt and injustice and chance. His work is so rich, and as dark as it often is, I think it’s sometimes too blithely dismissed as merely dark. (And I agree he can be funny.)

    • Jenny says:

      If it’s pessimistic to think that bad things almost always happen (whether to good or to bad people), then yes, he’s pessimistic. But then I am, too!

      I agree about the descriptive writing. It was so vivid. The bonfire scene is engraved in my mind.

  8. christopher lord says:

    I think you either like Hardy, or you don’t. And I love him. Haven’t read “Native” in about ten years, but this post makes me want to right away, but first I need to read “The Laodicean,” “Hand of Ethelberta,” and “The Well-Beloved.” Have read all of the others at least twice. Just finished a six week seminar on “Jude the Obscure” that vastly improved my understanding and appreciation of Hardy’s most difficult novel. Please don’t forget the poetry. Hardy’s spare, song-like, simple poetry made him one of the most influential poets for those writing in English who came after them. Read “The Oxen” at the holidays and you will be moved.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m not so sure about the notion that you either like Hardy or you don’t. I read Tess of the d’Urbervilles shortly after college and couldn’t stand it, then tried Hardy again years later (just recently, in fact, on Teresa’s urging) and loved it. I might have just had to mature as a reader.

      Thank you so much for the recommendation of the poetry!

  9. Jeanne says:

    We had to choose between seeing a Hardy moor in the south, or a Bronte one in the north this summer. Bronte won on proximity, since we’ll be in the lake country. Someday I would still like to see the setting for Hardy’s novels, though.

  10. JaneGS says:

    I read Return of the Native quite awhile ago, but the opening chapter has stuck with me so strongly–the bonfires lighting the darkness is such a strong image. I also loved all the pagan imagery, but I just found Eustacia and Damon so frustrating as characters–typical for Hardy! I absolutely loved Thomasin and wished the novel had actually been more about her than Eustacia.

    >His descriptive scenes, of the heath at midnight, at dawn, at sunset, are so lovely.

    Absolutely–well said :)

    • Jenny says:

      I agree — that bonfire scene is so vivid, with the grotesque faces all around it. I loved Eustacia, myself. She was frustrating, yes, but so well-drawn as a character. Marvelous!

  11. Kathleen says:

    I haven’t read this book for over 30 years. I remember loving it when I read it but little else. This is definitely going on my list to reread!

  12. rebeccareid says:

    This is the Hardy novel I have on my shelf. I’m so pleased to hear your positive thoughts on it. I haven’t read Hardy yet at all…

  13. Stefanie says:

    Haryd has been on my TBR list for ages but I have yet to read him. This sounds really wonderful and I am now a few very large steps closer to finally getting around to reading him!

  14. Melwyk says:

    I think Far from the Madding Crowd is the easiest to begin with as well – I do love it. But this one is special: I go on mental breaks to visit Egdon Heath sometimes, because it’s written in such a manner that it feels to me like I’ve really visited, like it’s a memory rather than something I’ve read. Hardy is a powerful writer!

    • Jenny says:

      He really is. Teresa kept telling me, but I had no idea. That heath is a real place. I kept expecting Lear to walk around the corner!

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