Monday, October 8, 2018

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy was first published in 1878. The story takes place in the fictional Egdon Heath, a picturesque area of moorland in rural England. The tale centers around several characters and their romantic entanglements. The book also puts great focus upon Egdon Heath itself. Some have called this geographical area an additional character in the novel. 

The native of the title is Clym Yeobright. Clym, always known to be bright and different, has gone off to Paris, where he is pursuing a commercial career. When he returns home, presumably for a holiday, there is a lot going on in Egdon. Damon Wildeve is bouncing between two women:  Thomasin Yeobright, who is Clym’s cousin, and the mysterious and exotic beauty Eustacia Vye. After several near marriages, elopements and rejections, Wildeve eventually marries Thomasin. Clym and Eustacia are also attracted to one another and eventually wed.  Mrs. Yeobright is both Clym’s mother and Thomasin’s aunt. She opposes both of their marriages. Another character, Diggory Venn, known as “The Reddleman,” is both odd and virtuous.  He also wants to marry Thomasin and spends a lot of time wandering the heath at night trying to prevent the unscrupulous Eustacia and Wildeve from hurting and betraying others. 

To the dismay of everyone, Clym, who loves Egdon Heath, announces that he will not return to Paris but will instead stay in Egdon to start a school. This dismays Eustacia, who wants to escape Egdon and live a glamorous life in Paris. When an eye injury forces Clym to take on physical labor in the countryside, he actually embraces the work and takes it on with joy. This brings further consternation to Eustacia. 

The book is full of magnificent descriptions of nature. Egdon Heath, as well as animals, plants the moon, the stars, etc., are described in fantastic language.  Hardy also embodies nature with all sorts of human characteristics.  I love Hardy’s prose style. The opening description of the heath is famous but parts of it are worth quoting here. 

The most thoroughgoing ascetic could feel that he had a natural right to wander on Egdon— he was keeping within the line of legitimate indulgence when he laid himself open to influences such as these. Colours and beauties so far subdued were, at least, the birthright of all. Only in summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the level of gaiety. Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. Then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend. Then it became the home of strange phantoms; and it was found to be the hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flight and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream till revived by scenes like this.

And a little later, 

It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man's nature— neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have long lived apart, solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.

The above contains a suggestion of melancholy, mystery and profundity that typifies the heath throughout the novel.  It is both surprising and ironic that the heath is, in some ways, drab and subdued, a place that an ascetic would feel comfortable in,  yet at the same time lending itself to such powerful description.  As the passage indicates, the intensity of Egdon lies in its solemnity. The above is also full of connections and similarities between the heath and humanity. Both human life and Egdon are “lonely” and full of “tragical possibilities.”  The landscape is more connected to the shadowy aspects of the human psyche as the above references to phantoms and dreams indicate.  I quoted just two paragraphs of description and allusion. There is much more throughout the novel. 

So much has been written about Egdon Heath. I have read a little bit online, and the consensus of opinion is that the heath is a symbol for the universe, and that the book’s characters see it as they view the universe as a whole. These views ring true to me.

A little research on my part indicates that while such heaths do exist in England, at no time was there one as large as Egdon Heath seems to be. Thus, like the human characters in the book, Egdon is a plausible but fictional creation. I would also argue that, like a well-crafted human character, Egdon Heath is a complex creation. 

Many other characters in this book are complex and interesting. Eustacia is self-centered, fickle and dishonest. Yet she is not completely malevolent, and at times the reader genuinely feels empathy for her.

Clym is an impressive figure. Though he is virtuous, he also shows some flaws and makes some serious mistakes. The Reddleman, though not really complex, is interesting because of his unusualness. “Reddleman” refers to the fact that he is a seller of red chalk to farmers for their use in the marking of sheep. The Reddleman has taken on a red complexion due to overexposure to the substance that he peddles. His behavior, though honorable, at times borders on the bizarre as he interferes in the affairs of others during his night time expeditions. 

On a personal note, I grew in a rural area. When I was young, I spent a lot of time wandering around isolated places at night. Much of the narrative also involves characters doing the same. The atmosphere that these passages exude seems realistic and comforting to me. If I lived in Egdon, without a doubt I would also have loved the place, and I would have found a lot of enjoyment in nighttime forays. 

This book is worthy of its classic reputation. It has a compelling plot, and it is filled with superbly drawn characters. At the same time, this story and character development all take place under the grand backdrop of Egdon Heath. This amazing, fictional landscape, is one of literature’s greatest creations. 

32 comments:

mudpuddle said...

as a rule i'm not greatly fond of personification, particularly of landscapes, but Hardy in this book mostly (although it's been sixty years since i read it) uses his skills to create a living being out of the scenery, to the point that it takes on an almost surreal personality, like a supernumerary effigy looming over the puny events ascribed to the mere human beings... and it makes the action occupy a kind of timeless state, as if the happenings have already and are presently occurring all at the same time... difficult to describe, but i remember the affect it had on me quite well... great analysis... tx...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - I love the way that you describe Egdon Heath. The timeless thing if fascinating. If you recall, most of the novel took place exactly within a one year period. I think that is significant.

JacquiWine said...

Unfortunately, Hardy was ruined for me by the fact that I had to study The Mayor of Casterbridge at school - an exercise that is pretty much guaranteed to suck the life or enjoyment out of reading any classic novel. He is wonderful on landscape, though - I definitely agree with that!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui- A lot of folks tell me that a particular book or author was ruined for them because of a bad experience in school. It is a pity that some schools do such a terrible job.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, you do a wonderful job describing why Egdon Heath is so important to this novel. I would like to visit Egdon Heath but as you say it's fictional. In terms of settings I have developed a fascination with the moors of West Yorkshire thanks to the Brontes. I've never read Hardy and I'm thinking this would be a good book to start with.

Kat said...

A beautifully-written review, as usual. This is one of my favorite books, the first I ever read by Hardy. I am fascinated by Eustacia Vye and her clandestine meetings over bonfires on the heath. My image of the heath is doubtless wrong, since I have traveled little, but I would like to wander there--but not in November, when the book begins, if I remember right!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kat - I also have never visited a true Heath. Apparently no such Heath ever existed in England that was as large as it was portrayed in this work. I would also love to wander around the imaginary place.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy - I thought about The Brontes and thier novels as I was reading this. It would be so nice to visit a real Egdon Heath!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Great character analysis, Brian. I think that many of Hardy's characters in all of his books are "lonely" and full of "tragical possibilities."

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. As I hand now read this, Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Far From The Madding Crowd, I see the pattern of loneliness throughout his characters and books.

Whispering Gums said...

Oh, oh, oh, I love Hardy but haven't read all of him - and this is one I haven't read. It sounds Hardy-esque but different too. I love the names. Clym, Eustacia.

(I've read Tess, Far from the madding crowd, Jude the obscure, and The woodlanders, plus some of his poems. I think that's all the novels. Very fond of him.)

James said...

This was my introduction to Thomas Hardy when I was in High School. It was not assigned reading but I read it on my own and I fell in love with Hardy's prose, his characters (especially Clym Yeobright), and Wessex with its heath. Clym and Eustacia were the first of flawed Hardy heroes and heroines that I encountered that eventually included Tess and Jude and others. I have continued to read and reread Hardy to this day. His poetry, which was his sole focus after the critical failure of Jude the Obscure, is amazing
Your commentary was marvelous and I appreciated the personal touch.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WP - I have read Tess, and Far From The Madding Crowd besides this one. I think that you would like this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. Other then this book, I have only read Tess and Far From The Madding Crowd. But I agree with you. Hardy is a super writer. His prose are sublime. I must give his poetry a try.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I enjoyed this one as much or more than any of Hardy's novels. I read it as a species of fantasy novel. It is just on the edge of what we call fantasy know, with that crazy landscape full of old pagan rituals.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tom - In a way it was like a surrealistic fantasy. I should have touched on the pagan stuff in my commentary.

Julia Ergane said...

I am glad that this was the first book I read by Hardy over 50 years ago. The second, Jude the Obscure, completely put me off him as a writer, though I did read parts of Tess. I do enjoy having characters who are not perfect; however, his proclivity for killing people is a problem for me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Julia - I have not read Jude the Obscure. I have read Tess. That book, while I thought it was brilliant, was indeed grim.

HKatz said...

I love this description of the heath and when authors give a place character and make it seem like a living being. (Have you ever read the short story "The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood? He does something similar but in a terrifying way.)

Hardy is an author I know about but am unfamiliar with his works. I once started reading The Mayor of Casterbridge, but didn't finish it. I'm not sure why, as it wasn't poorly written... I just set it aside and had no further interest in it. Maybe I should jump into his body of work with this one.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - I also love it when authors personify natural features. I must read The Willows. I thought thaf EM Foster did some magnificent in A Passage to India. I have actually heard thaf The Mayor of Castlebridge was a little dull.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
I read your review a few days ago, but ran out of time to leave a comment. I'm a bit familiar with Egdon Heath and the idea of the landscape as a character, although I haven't read this classic Hardy novel. The descriptions of nature are essential and quite fantastic, as you note. Now that I'm older I notice and appreciate nature even more, so I think I'd enjoy reading this novel. Wonderful review, once again!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sure - I am also appreciating nature more and more as I get older. Hardy may have described nature better then any other writer who ever lived.

Marian H said...

Great review! I knew very little about this Hardy novel, but it sounds intriguing and perhaps not too depressing. I'm also a sucker for symbolism and atmosphere.

baili said...

I always be so impressed by your skills of commentary dear Brain!

so glad to have you here ,this is also a brilliant review

i know Thomas from my masters and absolutely got lost in his mesmerizing descriptions of nature and real characters that rightly seemed to be taken from actual life

loved most the egdon heath where he vowed the story so interestingly

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - I am glad to hear that you liked Hardy and that you liked this book. The descriptions of nature are magnificent.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Marian- It was definitely less depressing from Tess. Without giving too much away, some bad things happen to some characters. But some good things happen to others. Apparently later on, Hardy expressed regret about the positive aspects of the conclusion.

JaneGS said...

It's been awhile since I read this--pre-blog I believe--but I remember loving the opening so much, especially the bonfires of Nov 5. Egdon Heath is definitely a magical place for me. I remember disliking Eustacia so much and being frustrated by Clym. Even though they were the main characters, I found Thomasin's story so much more interesting. Definitely need to reread this one.

I also remember being fascinated by Reddleman.

Great review!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane - Magical is a good way to describe Egdon. Some of the characters were certainly flawed. Eustacia actually became less likable as the book progressed.

thecuecard said...

The landscape sounds quite enticing In Hardy's books -- and a bit similar in their tragic scope of entangled characters and what happens to them. It sounds like this one is high on your list of Hardy's books. Does it beat the others?

Sheree - Keeping Up With The Penguins said...

It's funny, despite the fact that it's obviously not, this one really sounds quite similar to a lot of Australian bush lit: very evocative descriptions of setting (to the point where it becomes a character in its own right), and plot developed and driven through interpersonal relationships... not to mention the bloke that runs off to the big city ;) A lot of parallels there! Cracking review Brian, as always, thank you for sharing!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - You ask a good question but a tough question. I liked this better then Far From The Madding Crowd. Tess seems like it was a stronger book, but that novel was so bleak. I guess I liked this one better, but I need to read more Hardy.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharee - It sounds as if I need to read some Australian bush literature. It sounds like it is full of things to love.