Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (1874)
This was one of the first nineteenth-century classics I ever encountered in school — in my high school freshman class on British lit, along with Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (a rather odd assortment, now that I come to think of it). But my memory of it was dim — I remembered the lengthy descriptions of the heath, and the funny names like Eustacia and Diggory, but not much else. Definitely time for a reread.
As you are probably aware, Hardy is known for his plots which range from mildly pessimistic to incredibly tragic. On a scale of depressing-ness of 1 to 10, I’d give Native about a 7. Some of the main characters are still alive and functional at the end, and two of them even get to marry each other (though in a note Hardy says this was done against his will, due to circumstances of serial publication).
But none of these characters ever really change or learn anything. They’re like mechanical figures, set in motion by Hardy only to march inevitably over the edge of a precipice, while the reader watches helplessly as they do the very things they obviously shouldn’t. It’s a frustrating experience; though life is no doubt often like this, I usually look to literature to give me more hope for human agency and capacity for transformation, even if it’s only a glimpse at the end of a tragedy (as in Hamlet, for example). And yet, there’s a strange fascination in watching the story unfold, and marching with these people to their doom.
The background against which they operate — the ageless landscape of the south-western English counties to which Hardy gives the ancient name of Wessex — is in some ways more lively than they are. Barely touched by civilization, it embodies the natural cycle of birth and growth, death and rebirth that continues to bring forth life and regeneration in our decadent modern age. Old customs like autumn bonfires, a mummer’s play, and singing to a new-married couple, and less benign superstitions like the creation of a wax figure, show how human beings over the years have evolved their own responses to these cycles of nature. All of this is depicted in thoroughly observed, lovingly described detail, so that the heath becomes almost a character in itself.
The conflict in the novel arises between characters who appreciate and value this cyclical existence, and those who rebel against it and want something more: chiefly Eustacia Vye, the proud, beautiful woman who was raised in a nearby watering place and finds the heath an unutterable bore. Given the limitations of being female in her place and time, though, the only way to escape seems to be through attaching herself to a man, vivifying herself with the emotion she calls “passionate love.”
This so-called love is merely a form of self-love; any slight impulse of care or concern for the men she brings under her spell is far overpowered by her own wish to get away to a brighter, more artificial life. When she marries the “native,” a local man who has returned from the dazzling city of Paris, she completely ignores his express wish to re-integrate himself into the rhythms of the heath, and only sees him as her ticket out of there — a willful self-delusion that leads to the inevitable disaster.
It’s not amiss for one of the other characters to call Eustacia a witch, for though she doesn’t technically practice witchcraft, her self-centered use of feminine power is a form of black magic. She has not consciously given into the lust for evil power over others, however, only failed to realize that unless she herself quells her pride and reaches out beyond her narrow self, she will be imprisoned in that self forever. And so she is herself a victim of this magic, rather than truly its agent. This is aptly symbolized when the other woman maliciously creates and destroys a wax figure representing Eustacia, an act that accompanies and corresponds to her downfall. The only way out for Eustacia is not a flight to Paris, but dissolution into death, and that’s what she receives.
And so the heath rolls on its ancient way, after these puny human creatures have played out their small drama, leaving us to ponder on questions of power and love, fate and freedom. Can we truly say that we would be able to march differently, once set in motion?
My Heritage Press edition features beautiful woodcuts by Agnes Miller Parker, some of which are shown above. For the source and more images click here.