Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Lovers on the Heath

The Return of the Native (Modern Library Classics)
The Return of the Native 


"To have lost is less disturbing than to wonder if we may possibly have won; and Eustacia could now, like other people at such a stage, take a standing-point outside herself, observe herself as a disinterested spectator, and think what a sport for Heaven this woman Eustacia was." 


I have enjoyed reading and rereading this novel since I was in my teens. In thinking about this I can only suggest that from the first reading I was impressed with Hardy's ability to create a complete believable setting where the characters interacted not just with one another but with the world in which they lived. That world was a rural Victorian one, but it resonated with my own somewhat rural experience even though it occurred more than one hundred years earlier.


What Thomas Hardy created was a tale of passion and tragedy on Egdon Heath located in his fictional Wessex. Egdon Heath itself is the first "character" introduced into the book. The heath proves physically and psychologically important throughout the novel: characters are defined by their relation to the heath. Among them is Eustacia Vye whose desire to lead a life elsewhere is dashed when she marries Clym Yeobright (the Native) upon his return from Paris. The pair represents the archetype of two people caught up in their passion for each other and conflicting ambitions. For Clym, the heath is beautiful; for Eustacia, it is hateful. The plot of the novel emphasizes just this kind of difference in perception. What impresses me upon rereading this is the intricate plotting of Eustacia who throughout the novel is weaving a web of deceit with the aim of enhancing her own life. Her hubris knows few bounds and is exacerbated by her lack of understanding of those in whose lives she has intervened. She raves, "How have I tried and tried to be a splendid woman, and how destiny has been against me! I do not deserve my lot! O, the cruelty of putting me into this ill-conceived world! I was capable of much; but I have been injured and blighted and crushed by things beyond my control! O, how hard it is of Heaven to devise such tortures for me, who have done no harm to Heaven at all!"(Book 5, Chapter 7) 
This lack of understanding is an example of the importance of misconception in the novel which is not limited to the character of Eustacia. Ambiguity builds as the novel progresses and the main characters remain obscure for the reader. When The Return of the Native was first published, contemporary critics criticized the novel for its lack of sympathetic characters. All of the novel's characters prove themselves deeply flawed, or--at the very least--of ambiguous motivation. What I found redeeming about the novel was the way Hardy brings the lives of this couple and their friends and families alive through detail that reinforces his penetrating portrayal of the community on the heath.


The final section provides some hope for the future, tempering the otherwise bleak landscape of the novel. This was Thomas Hardy's first great novel and he would follow it with bleaker tales this is the one that I return to when reminiscing of the joy of reading Thomas Hardy's novels.


The Return of the Native

4 comments:

parrish lantern said...

Although I enjoyed this when I read it, my favourite hardy is Jude the Obscure

parrish lantern said...

Ps. have just noticed this in your sidebar - Proofs and Three Parables, George Steiner, whats this like & have you read any others. My favourites After Babel, although I have My Unwritten Books sat next to me.

James said...

While I admire Jude the Obscure I find, with its' unremitting bleakness, that it cannot hold the place as my favorite Hardy.

James said...

Regarding George Steiner, I have read several of his works of which I enjoyed both In Bluebeard's Castle and Tolstoy or Dostoevsky the most. My comments on his novella, Proofs are posted here: http://frugalchariot.blogspot.com/2011/03/proofs-and-three-parables-by-george.html