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.