As I have mentioned before, I along with some friends have undertaken a Hardy reading challenge. Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite authors – and I know many other people love his writing too.
As I have read all the Hardy novels before and nearly all the short stories this was a re-read for me although I had remembered surprisingly little about it. That for me was a bonus as it was almost like reading it for the first time – although things did start to come back to me as I read. Hardy readers beware – there are spoilers ahead.
In The Return of the Native, Hardy uses the landscape of Egdon Heath to set the mood for the entire novel. The Heath is almost a character in itself – a timeless landscape which carries the reminders of the civilisations that have come before, it is a dark looming presence. The characters are divided both physically and emotionally by the heath, needing to traverse it endlessly to interact with one another. Most characters love the heath, work on it and understand its beauties and its histories others particularly Eustacia Vye are imprisoned by it and long to get away from it. Hardy presents us with a way of life which was already under threat – the reddleman was already becoming a rare sight in these times, he continually reminds us of the passage of time, and the smallness of man upon the larger landscape of the heath, old traditions and myths are woven into the story of the people who live their lives on this most impressive landscape.
This was Hardy’s first real attempt at tragedy as character after character is driven to destruction in the shadow of Egdon Heath. Eustacia Vye is beautiful and capricious, living on the Heath with her grandfather, she is entangled with Wildeve using bonfires to signal to him across the heath – but he is supposed to be marrying Thomasin Yeobright, the cousin of the returned native – Clym Yeobright. However when Eustacia hears about Clym who is returning from Paris –a place she can only dream of – she firmly sets her sights on him – planning to have him return to Paris with her. Seeing it as a punishment of Eustacia, Wildeve marries Thomasin – and Eustacia gets her man, although in doing so – she sets him against his mother. This falling out has tragic repercussions from which Clym never really recovers. Whether Eustacia really loves poor Clym is open to debate - yet their union is not a happy one. Despite Clym’s insistence that he’ll never return to Paris – but become a school master in Budmouth instead – Eustacia still has her sights set on the boulevards of her imagination. In preparing to become a school master – Clym sets himself to reading – and in so doing damages his eyesight to the point where he can no longer read, and in fact has his vision seriously impaired. Not wishing to be idle – he takes to furze cutting alongside other colourful characters of the heath, instead of being proud of her young husband for his industry and flexibility – Eustacia is horrified by and ashamed of his work. Meanwhile, innocent, gentle Thomasin is married to the selfish and grasping Wildeve who after inheriting money plans to run away with Eustacia. Thomasin however is loved quietly and honourably by the reddleman Diggory Venn – it is Venn who helps to ensure she is married to Wildeve rather than disgraced by his desertion of her, he is instrumental in returning to her money that had fallen into her husband’s hands. It almost goes without saying – that Hardy punishes those who the reader may see as deserving punishment – Eustacia and Wildeve are doomed – though poor Clym is left heartbroken and guilt ridden. The only characters finding real happiness are Thomasin and the wonderful reddleman – who gives up being a reddleman and acquires a dairy herd. This happy ending for Diggory and Thomasin – was not what Hardy had originally intended – but I have to say it is more satisfying than the ending we might have otherwise had.