Classics Club: The Return of the Native

Posted September 10, 2017 by Lory in reviews / 24 Comments

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?

Classics Club List #74

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.

Classics Club: The Return of the NativeThe Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
Published by Heritage Press in 1942 (originally 1874)
Format: Hardcover from Personal Collection

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24 responses to “Classics Club: The Return of the Native

  1. You have captured the complex nature of Eustacia beautifully, the heath is very much a character in its own right. I particularly loved the reddle man in The Return of the Native and that landscape which Hardy writes about so well. I love Hardy very much so glad you enjoyed this.

    • Hardy has a way with visuals — the reddleman against the dark heath is quite a picture and something I remembered from my first read long ago.

  2. Superb commentary on this book. I have not read this. I have read Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Far from the madding crowd. It sounds as if this book embodies many of the themes that those works contained. Based on the two books that I have read, and your commentary on this one, I want to get to this novel soon.

    • You should definitely read it; I think it has some of Hardy’s most striking depictions of the Wessex landscape and culture. I have Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd still to read, also in those lovely Heritage editions.

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed your reread. This isn’t one of my favourite Hardy novels, but I did still find a lot to love, particularly the atmospheric descriptions of the heath and the superstitions and customs of the people who live there.

  4. I have never read any Hardy. I haven’t dared yet! But I will try one title some day. If you have a recommendation or think The Return of the Native is a good place to start, let me know.

    It is interesting that you noted “none of these characters ever really change or learn anything”. I encounter that as a criticism in blog/vlog/goodreads reader reviews of modern/contemporary books all the time. But as your review of The Return of the Native indicates, this does not always make for a bad read and indeed might be reflective of real life. I recently listened to and then watched “The Tempest” and jokingly in thought “one star review because of the info-dumping and insta-love”. Ha ha.

    • In the introduction to my edition it says that Return of the Native may not be Hardy’s “best” book, but it’s perhaps his most typical and thus a good test of if one will like other books by the author. So yes, it’s probably not a bad place to start.

      Good point about contemporary vs. classic books. Insta-love is everywhere, actually! It shows how dangerous it is to make any universal rules — even a weakness can become a strength if the author does something interesting with it.

  5. This is on my list of classics that I want to read; I like Hardy, but you’re right, his books are often depressing. I still keep going back for more, though. 🙂

  6. I can’t tell you how often I started to read one of Hardy’s books and then abandoned it. But I have to say that what you have to say about Eustacia makes me want to give Hardy a try again soon.

    • Eustacia was one of those maddening characters where I wanted to shake her and say “Wake up!” But that’s precisely the point, I think.

  7. You’ve captured the essence of this book really well. There is indeed that idea of fate running through this book as with others of Hardy. His characters have a fatal flat which seems to dictate their lives. A modern version of the Shakespearian tragic flaw I suppose.

  8. Kat

    I very much enjoyed this post! Oh, The Return of the Native is so gloomy, but it is one of my favorites. It was my first Hardy, because Holden Caulfield recommended it in Catcher in the Rye. Your teacher had quite a reading list.

    • Her classes were the foundation of my study of literature, for sure — I also had a “great books” class with her senior year that introduced me to so many classics, and still lingers in my memory.

  9. “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?”- beautifully put! Great review!

  10. I love your wit! “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).” I read Far from the Madding Crowd earlier this year and was not really captivated by it. However I think Hardy has a real talent for bringing characters to life.

    • Thanks! If one didn’t laugh a little bit at Hardy, one would have to cry too much…but he is really good at piling on the tragedy.

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