The Return of the Native

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The Return of the Native
Thomas Hardy

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


The Return of the Native is Thomas Hardy's sixth novel and probably his best known. In fact, many critics assert that Eustacia Vye is one of the most memorable characters in English literature. The story focuses on the lives and loves of residents in the fictional county of Wessex, England, an area which was based on the rural area where Hardy was raised.

When the book was published in 1878, it met with mixed reviews. Some commentators praised Hardy's vivid descriptions of the geographical landscapes, especially those in the first chapter. Others felt that his portrayal of the local characters was shallow and unconvincing. Yet other critics objected to the sexual relationships in the novel. The charge that he wrote about sexual relationships purely for sensationalism hurt Hardy to such a degree that he quit writing novels by 1895, although he continued to live another thirty-three years.

Author Biography

Thomas Hardy was born in Higher Bockhampton, in Dorsetshire, England, on July 2, 1840. His father and grandfather were master masons, and it was expected that he would be one also; but as a young man he excelled in his academic studies, learning Latin and Greek and studying poetry. At age sixteen, he left school to be an apprentice architect in nearby Dorchester.

In 1862, he moved to London to work with a noted architect. It was then that he started writing in his spare time. His first love was poetry, but he had trouble getting his work published. In 1868 he returned to Dorset as an architect. He began writing novels, publishing the first one, Desperate Remedies, in 1871. The three novels that he wrote over the next three years were successful, so that after publishing Far From the Madding Crowd in serial form in 1874, he was able to quit architecture.

Hardy's work met with commercial and critical success. However, starting with The Return of the Native in 1878, Hardy's fiction began to gain a reputation for its salacious treatment of sexual relationships. When Tess of the D'Urbervilles was published in book form in 1891, he included scenes that had been cut out of the magazine serialization because they were considered too scandalous. As a result, Hardy became a controversial figure. With the publication of Jude the Obscure, critical and popular opinion began to turn against him.

Because of this negative publicity, Hardy quit writing novels more than thirty years before his death. After 1895, he concentrated all of his literary efforts on poetry. He published the poems that had been rejected early in his career, along with new works: Wessex Poems (1898) and Poems of the Past and Present (1902). After his wife's death in 1912, he published a book of short, bitter poems about marriage, Satire of Circumstances; yet additional poems published later showed a fond and tender remembrances for their courtship and early years. In 1914 he married Florence Emily Dugdale, who had been his secretary for years.

Between 1898 and his death in 1928, he published eight volumes of poetry. As a senior literary figure, he was an influence on many twentieth-century writers, such as Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, and Virginia Woolf. After a short illness, Hardy died on January 11, 1928. His ashes are buried in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, London, next to those of Charles Dickens. His heart was removed and buried separately in Dorset.

Plot Summary

Book First: The Three Women

This novel opens with a sweeping view of the Egdon Heath countryside, providing descriptions of the landscape and some sense of its history. In the next chapter, an old man—later identified as Eustacia Vye's grandfather—meets a red dye salesman, known as a reddleman. They briefly discuss Thomasin's marriage, and the old man infers from the reddleman that the wedding has been postponed.

In town, Thomasin meets her aunt and explains that her wedding was called off because of a mix-up with the license. They go to the tavern and receive assurance from Damon Wildeve, her fiancé, that he will marry Thomasin in a day or two. When the locals show up to sing to the newlyweds, they are forced to pretend that the marriage occurred.

After everyone leaves that night, Wildeve sees a bonfire up on the hill nearby the Vye house. Eustacia Vye, the exotic beauty who lives there, has heard from her grandfather that the marriage did not take place. She lit the fire, which was not unusual because many people celebrated Guy Fawkes Day with bonfires. Yet this was the same way she had attracted Wildeve the previous year; he had come to her house and they had begun a passionate affair. Confused, he goes to Eustacia again. After his visit, Wildeve decides that he does not want to marry Thomasin after all.

Diggory Venn, the reddleman, has been in love with Thomasin since childhood. He finds out about Eustacia and tries to get her to leave town. Thomasin's aunt, Mrs. Yeobright, tells Wildeve her niece is thinking of marrying Venn. When she hears this news, Eustacia decides that Wildeve is not as attractive as she had thought; she begins to have doubts about her relationship with him. Meanwhile, news comes that Mrs. Yeobright's son, Clym, has returned from Paris.

Book Second: The Arrival

Clym's arrival is important news to the locals, who remember what a bright, promising boy he was. Bored with Wildeve, Eustacia becomes infatuated with Clym. On the night that the drama troupe is going to put on a Christmas play, Eustacia finally meets Clym, although she keeps her identity hidden. She is so preoccupied with Clym that she fails to show up to tell Wildeve whether she will run off with him or not. Diggory Venn pressures her to leave Wildeve alone, and so she writes Wildeve a letter saying that she will not be involved with him anymore.

As soon as Venn admits that he is not engaged to Thomasin, Wildeve rushes to her house and sets a wedding date. When Thomasin and Wildeve get married, the witness to their wedding is Eustacia Vye—she just happenes to be in the churchyard when a witness is needed.

Book Third: The Fascination

Clym's Christmas holiday at home turns into an extended stay. He considers his life in the diamond trade in Paris to be superficial, and formulates a plan to open a school in the heath where he can teach the poor children who otherwise would get no education. He finally meets Eustacia, and is impressed with her beauty and intelligence. He informs his mother that Eustacia could be a part of his heath school.

Yet in fact, his mother doubts that Clym is serious about being a teacher at all. She accuses him of being interested in the young woman romantically. Eustacia does not like his plan to open a local school either; she sees none of the charm of Egdon Heath, and instead wants to go to Paris with him. When Clym proposes, she accepts, thinking that she can change his mind after their marriage.

After a fight with his mother, Clym marries Eustacia. In protest, his mother does not even attend. Yet she decides to send a local boy to the wedding with a hundred guineas. On the way, Wildeve dupes the boy into gambling and takes all of the money, which he considers half his anyway; Diggory Venn, who has been following him, gambles with Wildeve and wins the money from him.

Book Fourth: The Closed Door

Not knowing that the money was meant for Thomasin and Clym, Venn gives it all to Thomasin. Mrs. Yeobright assumes that Wildeve gave the money to Eustacia, his old lover. Mrs. Yeobright and Eustacia have a bitter argument.

Studying late into the night to become a schoolmaster, Clym damages his eyes and is told to quit reading for a while. Rather than staying idle, he takes a job as a furze cutter. Being married to a furze cutter is exactly the fate that Eustacia thought she was avoiding by marrying a worldly diamond merchant from Paris. As a result, she is humiliated. Depressed about her life, she goes to a local dance and meets her old flame, Wildeve. He is now rich from an inheritance from a distant relative—just the kind of man she would have wanted to marry. Yet she refuses to get involved with him.

Wildeve cannot get Eustacia out of his mind. He goes to her house at night, but Diggory Venn plants traps along the path. To avoid Venn, Wildeve goes to the house one afternoon. That happens to be the afternoon that Mrs. Yeobright has decided to visit Clym and Eustacia's house for the first time.

With Clym exhausted and sleeping on the couch, Wildeve arrives and Eustacia invites him into the living room. Just as they decide that they will not have an affair together, Mrs. Yeobright knocks at the door. Eustacia ushers Wildeve to the back door. When she checks the front door, Eustacia finds that Mrs. Yeobright has left.

On the way back to her house, Mrs. Yeobright walks with a young boy from the area, Johnny, telling him that her son has broken her heart. He leaves her when she sits down at the side of the trail to rest. That night, after work, Clym decides to visit his mother and settle their differences. He finds her lying on the side of the road, unable to talk. Local people determine that she has been bitten by a snake. They try to cure the bite.

Meanwhile, Wildeve has returned to the house to say goodbye to Eustacia. She has him walk her to join Clym and Mrs. Yeobright. They come across the people trying to revive the sick women and Eustacia is afraid to let anyone know she is there. Mrs. Yeobright dies, and the boy she was walking with tells Clym that she said that afternoon that her son had broken her heart.

Book Fifth: The Discovery

In mourning, Clym is overcome with sorrow and grief until he finds out more about his mother's last day. It is then that he learns that there was another man in the house, and that Eustacia looked out the window at Mrs. Yeobright when she was knocking. He accuses her of having an affair, so she moves back into her grandfather's house. Wildeve comes to her and asks her to go away with him, but she refuses to be unfaithful to Clym. When he asks if there is anything he can do for her, she says he can arrange transportation to the port town of Budmouth, where she can catch a ship.

Thomasin convinces Clym to forgive Eustacia, but she has already left. That night, Wildeve tells Thomasin that he has to go away for a while; she sees him take a huge roll of bills, indicating that he is going for a long time. Thomasin tells Clym that she thinks Wildeve and Eustacia are running away together. After he goes to stop them, she goes out into the storm too. Lost, she comes across Diggory Venn's wagon and he helps her in the search. Just as Clym finds Wildeve's coach, they hear a body fall into the river near the dam. Both men jump in to save Eustacia. When Venn arrives he jumps in too, pulling out Clym and Wildeve. Wildeve and Eustacia are dead, but the doctor is able to revive Clym. He blames himself for her death in addition to the death of his mother.

Book Sixth: Aftercourses

One year later, Clym lives with Thomasin and her daughter in his mother's old house. Diggory Venn has made enough money selling reddle to buy a large dairy farm. He asks Thomasin to marry him, but she thinks that he has become too isolated to be a good husband. Just as Clym is thinking that he should probably ask Thomasin to marry him, she tells him that she would like to marry Venn. Venn and Thomasin marry and Clym becomes a famous preacher.


Christian Cantle

Christian is a shy, ineffectual young man, nervous around women. Entrusted to go to Clym's house on his wedding day and deliver a gift—one hundred guineas that are to be divided between Clym and Thomasin—Christian loses the money to Wildeve in a game of dice.

Grandfer Cantle

Grandfer (a title that is local dialect for "Grandfather") represents the lively spirit of the simple country people. At almost seventy, he is eager to dance, sing, joke, and tell exaggerated stories.


Charley is a local man who cares for Eustacia. After Eustacia has argued with Clym and gone back to her grandfather's house, Charley takes care of her. He makes a fire for her and feeds her, and when he sees that she has looked too long and sorrowfully at the pistols, he sneaks through a window and takes them away to hide them.

Olly Dowden

A local woman, Olly is a besom maker. Wildeve takes a bottle of wine to her sick husband one night, using the visit as an excuse when he goes to see Eustacia.


Humphrey is a furze-cutter. When Clym decides to go into the business of cutting furze, he borrows Humphrey's old equipment.

Media Adaptations

Return of the Native was adapted as a television presentation for the Hallmark Hall of Fame series in 1994, starring Clive Owen, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Joan Plowright. The television movie was directed by Jack Gold and released as a video in 1999 by Hallmark Home Entertainment.

Audio Partners Publishing Company has an unabridged, 12—tape edition of actor Alan Rick-man reading the novel which was produced in 1999.

Johnny Nunsuch

Johnny is a young boy who lives near Captain Vye's house. At the beginning of the novel, Eu-stacia pays him to tend the bonfire that she uses to signal Wildeve. He sees Wildeve talking to Eustacia and tells Venn about it. Johnny later walks with Mrs. Yeobright after she leaves Clym's cottage at Alderworth.

Susan Nunsuch

Susan is Johnny's mother. A superstitious woman, she believes that Eustacia is a witch and blames her for her children's illnesses.

Diggory Venn

Venn is a local man that has been in love with Thomasin since childhood. As such, he frequently works behind the scenes to protect her and assure her happiness. He is called the "reddleman" because he deals in reddle, a dye used by sheep farmers; as a result of handling it, his clothes, skin, and everything he owns are dyed red, giving him a devilish look. It is Venn who brings Thomasin back to town after her marriage to Wildeve is delayed. When he finds out that Wildeve has been seeing Eustacia, Venn pressures him to marry Thomasin; though it means he cannot have Thomasin for himself, it would be the best thing for her reputation. Moreover, he offers to arrange a job for Eustacia so that Wildeve will go back to Thomasin and make her happy.

After Wildeve wins the money that Christian was supposed to deliver to Clym and Thomasin, Venn wins it back and gives it to Thomasin. When Wildeve has run off with Eustacia, Venn helps Thomasin find them. It is Venn who saves Clym's life by pulling him out of the water. When he has saved up enough money, Diggory Venn quits the reddle business and buys a dairy farm. Eventually he proposes to Thomasin and they marry.

Captain Vye

Captain Vye is Eustacia's grandfather.

Eustacia Vye

Eustacia is local woman and one of the major characters of the novel. She is exotic, beautiful, ambitious, and eager to leave Egdon Heath. Much of the action in this story revolves around the fact that men find Eustacia so unnaturally attractive that there are even rumors of her being a witch. Born and raised in the seaside resort of Budmouth, Eustacia's father was a musician from the island of Corfu, in the Ionian Sea. Eustacia was educated and raised in a cosmopolitan environment, but after her parents died her grandfather brought her to Egdon Heath.

She is forced to find the excitement she craves in her relationships with men. She has an affair with Wildeve, but cuts it off after he breaks his engagement to Thomasin. She falls in love with Clym before meeting him, almost solely on the fact that he had a successful career in Paris. While courting, Clym is adamant about the fact that he plans to stay in the country and open a small school, but Eustacia believes she can change his mind later. When Clym takes a job cutting furze, Eustacia resents him.

Soon after Eustacia marries, Wildeve inherits a fortune. Eustacia feels she has married the wrong man. This feeling intensifies when Clym accuses her of causing his mother's death. Wildeve offers to take her away, but Eustacia insists on remaining faithful to her wedding vows. She does accept a ride to the port town. Tragically, she drowns in the reservoir, and there is a question whether her death might have been a suicide.

Damon Wildeve

Wildeve is a wild young man. Engaged to Thomasin, he has a long-standing affair with Eustacia. In fact, he decides to drop Thomasin for Eustacia; instead, Eustacia breaks off their affair and he marries Thomasin. Not surprisingly, he isn't a very good husband. Just as Eustacia is feeling that her marriage to Clym is boring and difficult, Wildeve inherits a fortune; they meet at a dance and find each other exciting all over again. When she separates from Clym, Wildeve offers Eustacia anything that his money can offer, but she declines. At the end of the novel, he drowns in the reservoir trying to save her.

Clemson Yeobright

The "native" of the novel's title, Clemson (also known as Clym) is a local boy who has returned to Egdon Heath after a successful career in Paris. He is sick of city life, and looks forward to starting a local school. Not long after he returns, he meets Eustacia and marries her. He thinks that Eustacia supports his plan to start a school, and is shocked when he realizes that she doesn't. While studying to be a teacher, Clym damages his eyes. Because he cannot read until they heal, he takes a job cutting furze, which is what most of the local men do for a living.

After his mother's death, he feels guilty and blames himself. When he finds out that Eustacia did not let his mother in the house because she was talking with Wildeve, he accuses his wife of having an affair and blames her for his mother's death. After Eustacia's death, he lives with Thomasin and considers marrying her. When he realizes that she will be happy married to Diggory Venn, Clym becomes an open-air preacher and becomes famous by talking to the field workers in language that they understand.

Clym Yeobright

See Clemson Yeobright

Mrs. Yeobright

Clym's mother, Mrs. Yeobright, represents conventional Victorian values in the novel. For example, when Wildeve postpones the marriage, she feels that Thomasin's honor is at stake; to save her niece's reputation, she pressures Wildeve to fulfill his commitment. Mrs. Yeobright also objects to her son Clym marrying Eustacia, considering the young woman a "bad girl." She does not attend their wedding, but gives him his inheritance as a present. When she receives no thanks for it, she reaches the conclusion that Wildeve gave the money to Eustacia. When Eustacia denies knowing anything about it, the two women have a fight.

To reconcile with her son, Mrs. Yeobright travels to Clym's house, but by mistake, no one lets her in. Mrs. Yeobright walks home feeling that she has been turned away, and on the way a snake bites her. Clym finds her on the path that night, dying.

Thomasin Yeobright

Thomasin is Clym Yeobright's cousin. She is in love with the charismatic Wildeve and is disappointed when he puts off their marriage. She considers marrying Diggory Venn, the reddleman who is in love with her. Yet she takes his devotion for granted and is still attracted to Wildeve. Eventually she does marry Wildeve, but their union is not a happy one. After her husband dies, she marries Diggory Venn, who has become a wealthy dairy farmer.



The role of time and the effect of its passage are major themes in the novel. As the story spans eighteen months, the landscape of the heath remains unchanged—that consistency is reflected in the people who live on the heath for generation after generation. They are creatures of tradition, following the same wedding rituals, the same harvest rituals, the same holiday traditions and the same folk remedies (such as the traditional cure for an adder's bite) that has been handed down to them. Sometimes traditional beliefs lead to hostility, like the fear of Eustacia Vye being a witch.

The characters who encounter difficulty are the ones who are not content to live in rhythm with country life. Most notably, Eustacia is impatient with life on the heath, wishing for the "bustle" of Paris. Wildeve is also bored with life on the heath. When he inherits a large sum of money, he plans to tour the world. Clym is the most divided character in the novel; Eustacia assumes that he is too worldly to settle down in the country, but he is able to appreciate the beauty of the land's timelessness.

[W]hen he looked from the heights on his way he could not help indulging in a barbarous satisfaction at observing that, in some of the attempts at reclamation from waste, tillage, after holding on for a year or two, had receded again in despair, the ferns and furze-tufts stubbornly reasserting themselves.


Hardy introduces his readers to the landscape of Egdon Heath before introducing any characters. This emphasizes the important role that the natural landscape will play in the story. His description of the natural setting can be taken as symbolic of the people who live there—"neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly: neither commonplace, unmeaning nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring." It can also be taken as a simple acknowledgment that people come to resemble the place where they live.

For instance, the extreme heat of the August day when Mrs. Yeobright is turned away from Clym's cottage may be perceived as symbolic of her turmoil. Hardy addresses this issue directly when he has Eustacia wander out into a violent storm on the night of her greatest mental anguish: "Never was harmony more perfect than that between the chaos of her mind and the chaos of the world without." If the people of Egdon Heath seem carefree, it is because they are comfortable in their surroundings.

The character who appears to be most in tune with nature's mysteries is Diggory Venn. He does not look like a human because of the red dye that has seeped into his skin and hair, and he does not operate by the rules of human interaction, instead appearing and disappearing mysteriously at night. It is not surprising that in the end he becomes a dairy farmer—making his living with domesticated animals, in harmony with nature but not completely subject to its whims.


The characters in The Return of the Native are motivated by their consciences more than any other driving force. Their attempts to avoid social confrontation are not guided by concern about what others will think, but by what harm they will do to others. This is evident in the opening chapters, with Thomasin's return after her aborted attempt to be married; although eloping is considered shameful, Thomasin and Wildeve are unconcerned about that social stigma, which is quickly forgotten anyway.

On the other hand, Wildeve is unwilling to go through with his wedding to Thomasin when he feels that he might end up regretting it and longing for Eustacia. When they do marry, it is not to satisfy the social requirement, but because of Wildeve's failed romantic life. Diggory Venn is driven to assure Thomasin's happiness, passing up opportunities that could benefit him in order to protect her. Telling her about Wildeve's involvement with Eustacia might make her forget Wildeve—thereby clearing the way for him—but Venn cannot hurt her. So he keeps silent.

Late in the novel, when Eustacia realizes that Wildeve has become the rich, worldly husband that she always wanted, she does not run away with him because she cannot hurt Clym. At her house, he says that he could not abandon his wife either, but later, when Eustacia is leaving town, he is willing to run away with her, still making sure that Thomasin will receive half of his inheritance.


Point of View

This novel is told from the third-person point of view, which means that the narrator is a disembodied voice, referring to each character as "he" or "she." However, the narrative is not omniscient. This means that the narrator looks at the story unfolding from different points of view, but when it settles on any particular viewpoint it stays consistent, if only for a short amount of time. When new information is introduced into the story, that information is initially understood only in terms of the narrator's point of view at the time.

For instance, when Wildeve first appears, readers are not told who he is; his character is revealed by what he says. Clym is a mystery for Eustacia to fantasize about long before his thoughts are related. In fact, even when they do talk outside of the Christmas party, the narrative shifts from her perspective to his then back to hers. Giving readers access to just one person's experience at a time is called "limited omniscience."

Topics for Further Study

  • The events of this story take place in the 1840s. Determine how rural England changed between that time and the time of the book's publication in 1878. What factors account for such a change?
  • At the beginning of the book, Thomasin and her aunt are worried about her reputation when she comes home unmarried. Investigate Victorian social customs. Discuss how things have changed since Victorian times. In your opinion, have they changed for the better or for the worse?
  • The legendary figures of the American West, including Jesse James and Billy the Kid, were active in 1878 when this book was published. Explain the relationship between the wilderness of Egdon Heath and the wilderness of the West as fictional settings.
  • Some of the people of Egdon Heath consider Eustacia Vye to be a witch because of her exotic looks and behavior. Research other women in history who have been charged with witchcraft, and draw comparisons between them and Eustacia.

By limiting the flow of information to the reader, Hardy is able to create a sense of mystery in the story. This is accomplished because the motivations and intentions of the characters are not always immediately clear. When Hardy wants to convey theories and opinions, he frequently presents a scene in which several of the local characters are gathered together and talking while doing something else. This occurs in the bonfire scene in the chapter called "The Custom of the Country" and in the later chapter where people gather and discuss the best way to deal with a snakebite. A contrast to this is the scene of hauling the bucket out of the well: general knowledge of the subject of bucket retrieval is conveyed directly from the narrator to the reader here, rather than through the conversation of the locals.


This book was written for magazine serialization, and this is reflected in its structure. Actions occur within specific episodes, and future developments in the story are foreshadowed. Chapters end with lines that are meant to raise curiosity, a technique that is effective to keep readers of novels turning the pages. Moreover, it was meant to inspire excitement so the reader would buy the next month's installment.

A good example of this technique is when Thomasin returns unmarried from Angelbury. The chapter ends with her aunt asking, "Now Thomasin … what's the meaning of this disgraceful performance?" Readers know that the explanation will follow, but it does not follow right away. Viewers of television—where shows are regularly scheduled in weekly installments—are very familiar with this technique.

Critics have also contended that this book is structured like a Shakespearean drama. Most of Shakespeare's plays were organized in five acts, with a climactic conclusion in the last act. Although The Return of the Native is presented in six books, most critics agree that its artistic structure only requires five—the sixth was added to please general audiences that wanted to see everything turn out all right in the end. A clue to the book's debt to Shakespeare is the reference to King Lear, one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, in the introduction.


The names of Thomas Hardy's characters are almost always symbolic of their functions within his novels, and the names in The Return of the Native are no exception. "Wildeve" suggests someone on the verge, or eve, of wildness, while his first name, Damon, is commonplace enough to suggest that he will never break out of the mold.

Eustacia is derived from the word "eustacy," which means a change in the level of the sea all around the world, indicating the immense changes that she is set to bring into the lives of the people on the heath and beyond. It also rings of the prefix "eu-," which has an Latin meaning of "good" and an Old Norse meaning "to want," and from "ecstasy." Her last name, "Vye," indicates the character's combative stance toward the world.

Clym's last name, "Yeobright," combines the word "yeoman" which indicates a servant or underling with the indication of his natural intelligence, or brightness. There are minor characters here also given names that are common words that appear in dictionaries, such as "Nunsuch" (normally spelled "nonesuch"), "Christian," and "Fairway."


The sweeping topographical and historical description of Egdon Heath that opens this book is considered to be one of the finest extended descriptions in all of English literature. The importance of this setting to the events of the novel cannot be overemphasized. It is the land's flatness and barrenness that has made it useless for development, which means that the civilized world has passed it by. The residents of the heath are isolated and possess their own distinct culture, separate from the rest of the world.

Eustacia is feared by the ordinary people and alluring to Wildeve and Clym for the same reason, because she keeps herself separate from the ordinary people; she is treated as if she has supernatural powers, as if she can transcend the land's hard demands. Clym is treated as an almost mystical personage because he has been to Paris, even though there is no indication that in Paris he was treated as anything more than a jeweler's clerk. The only way for people of the heath to gain wealth is to inherit it from far away, as Wildeve does, or to earn it in other places, as Diggory Venn does.

Historical Context

The Victorian Age

Today, Victorianism is thought of as another word for sexual repression. Yet the Victorian Age (1839–1901) was also a period of profound social commentary and social developments. The literature of the time addressed such significant issues as the growth of English democracy, the education of the masses, and the impact of industrialization on the working class.

One constant of the Victorian Era was that it was a time of an increased sense of social responsibility. In her early days on the throne, Victoria was viewed as liberal in her beliefs. A marked change came in 1840, when she married Albert, her mother's nephew and prince of Saxe-Colburg Gotha. Albert was conservative, moralistic, and prudish; Victoria adopted similar attitudes. After his death in 1861 she reigned for another forty years and never remarried. Her personality influenced all of society and set the tone for the age. In a way it provided a moral compass that provided a sense of constancy in a turbulent time.

Politically, the era was characterized by a prolonged economic boom. England reigned as a prosperous and dominant world superpower. In 1853, England, the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and France fought a military conflict against Russia, in what was known as the Crimean War. It was fought to keep Russia from widening their influence in the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. The conflict ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed on March 30, 1856.

The novelist most commonly associated with the Victorian Age is Charles Dickens (1812–1870), whose books were modest about sexual relations; yet, they are aggressive in portraying the wretched social conditions of urban life. Thomas Hardy is also associated with the era, even though his works were considered controversial and even prurient according to Victorian standards. Hardy's sexual openness in portraying Eustacia's and Wildeve's lust for each other even when they are married to others was viewed as shocking. It certainly violated the sensibilities of the time, and earned Hardy a legion of detractors who looked on his works as a form of pornography.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1840s: Milk production in dairy farming is all done by hand.

    1878: The first commercial milking machines are produced in Auburn, New York.

    Today: Dairy farming is automated. Cows are kept in small enclosures that allow no room to move and seldom come into contact with humans.
  • 1840s: The typewriter is a new invention. Patented in 1843, it uses the concept of the moving carriage to make letters strike evenly.

    1878: The typewriter is greatly improved when the Remington Arms Company added a shift key that would allow the same document to include lower—and upper—case characters.

    Today: Typewriters are practically obsolete. Word processing makes any desktop system capable of professional-quality graphics.
  • 1840s: The first rail lines are just beginning to connect major urban areas, with passenger train travel starting in the 1830s. The only transportation available to inhabitants of Egdon Heath is primitive, such as horse-drawn carriages.

    1878: Railways are common across the English countryside. They link cities and allow travel to even isolated areas.

    Today: With automobiles providing convenient personal transportation, travel to any point in England is quick and easy.
  • 1840s: Human behavior is a matter for speculation by philosophers and fiction writers.

    1878: The first laboratory for experimental psychology is opened by Wilhelm Max Wundt, making a science out of the study of the mind.

    Today: The latest developments in psychology have been in the area of treating depressions and violent behavior with mood-altering drugs.

Critical Overview

Before it was even published as a novel, The Return of the Native had already been rejected by Leslie Stephen, the editor of the prestigious Cornhill Magazine. Stephen objected to the hint of ex-tramarital sex and found it inappropriate for a family magazine. The serial ran in Belgravia, which, according to Desmond Hawkins, Hardy found to be an inferior publication.

The initial critical response to the novel was mixed. A review in Athenaeum deemed it "distinctly inferior to anything of his we have yet read." The reviewer also took issue with the language used by the characters, which seemed "pitched throughout in too high a key to suit the talkers." That same month critic W. E. Henley reviewed the book in The Academy. He found the work highly artificial but was reluctant to say so, because Hardy himself seemed sincere. On a positive note, he praised the opening descriptions of the heath and of Eustacia to be among the best things written in the English language—but that was not enough to make up for the weaknesses. Henley summarized all that was good and bad about Hardy's work in one seemingly endless sentence:

… that he rarely makes you laugh and never makes you cry, and that his books are valuable and interesting rather as the outcome of a certain mind than as pictures of society or studies in human nature; that his tragedy is arbitrary and accidental rather than heroic and inevitable; and that, rare artist as he is, there is something wanting in his personality, and he is not quite a great man.

More than a decade later, Francis Adams pointed out the same strengths and weaknesses. Of Hardy's characterization of the dialogue of country maids, he wrote, "Nothing more ridiculous than this has been done by any writer of anything approaching ability in our time, and it is as false in characterization as it is absurd in conception." He went on to praise Hardy's artistic gift for making characters' environments reflect in their personalities, "a single harmonious growth of spiritual and natural circumstances."

Negative critical responses did not seem to trouble Hardy as much as the artistic constraints of having to please Victorian sensibilities. In 1894, the first book-length analyses of Hardy's fiction were published: Lionel Johnson's The Art of Thomas Hardy and Annie Macdonell's Thomas Hardy. Hardy mentioned them in a letter to a friend that year: "… are too laudatory. They are not in bad taste as a whole, if one concedes that they had to be written, which I do not." It is generally accepted that he wrote no novels after 1895 because of the changes that he had to make to every piece in order to tone down any suggestion of sexual passion.

In the decade after his death, Hardy's reputation declined. His fiction was too outdated to hold much interest—it was half a century since Return of the Native, and in the meantime modernism had redefined literary tastes. T. S. Eliot asserted that Hardy was "indifferent even to the prescripts of good writing: he wrote sometimes overpoweringly well, but always very carelessly; at times his style touches sublimity without ever having passed through the stage of being good."

His literary reputation soon revived, though, when critics started to take a new look at his work after the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1940. Since then, his six major novels—Far From the Madding Crowd, Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure—have held significant places in the ranks of English-language literature.


David Kelly

Kelly is an instructor of Creative Writing and Literature at Oakton Community College in Illinois. In the following essay, he examines how the timelessness of Egdon Heath actually helps support the plot's reliance on chance.

Upon delving into any number of essays focused on Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, one is almost certain to come across a few important issues. The first issue is the character of the setting, Egdon Heath, which Hardy establishes in that long, lovely description in the first chapter and then comes back to throughout the book. More than most novels, even the bulk of Victorian romances, this book uses the setting as a character, a living presence, and not just as a buffer to linger over in between scenes. It seldom fails to impress. Critics who do not think much of Hardy's attributes as a novelist will usually point out, to soften the tone of their criticism, how he brings Egdon Heath to life—it's their way of paying homage to the man whose literary reputation is firmly established. Similarly, critics often point out his greatest weakness as a fiction writer: that he often stretched credibility too far by expecting his readers to believe that awkward twists in the plot happened because of coincidence.

These two outstanding aspects of The Return of the Native, though often mentioned just in passing and almost always separately, are in fact supports bracing one another—wedges of the same frame that Hardy used to present a unified world-view. The timelessness of the heath, and the unlikely confluence of the events that go on there, blend to create a unique place where nature itself is unnatural.

Stories, of course, have to happen somewhere; moreover, the stories that are the most artistically sound use their settings to manifest what is happening to the characters. Some novels, especially if they are set in the present and under familiar circumstances, can take their settings for granted, offering up names of towns and streets and occasional descriptions of the surroundings. When the location will probably be unfamiliar—most notably in science fiction or fantasy or historical fiction—the writer is obliged to paint a fuller landscape. What is notable about The Return of the Native is that Hardy could have effectively set the scene with far less detail than he did in fact use. It is a desolate area; the people there live as their ancestors did; the railroad has not arrived yet. That covers all that needs to be covered.

Instead, he opens the book with a haunting description that extends from sky to ground, from dark to light, and from the present to the past. Other novels occur in settings that have evolved in ways corresponding to the laws of history, but the rules of physics don't apply to Egdon Heath.

In his study of Hardy's career, Richard Carpenter cites John Patterson as identifying the heath as Limbo or the Cimmeron of Homer—places that are balanced between this world and Hades—not miserable but certainly not places of life. Hardy writes that the heath has the ability to "retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause and dread." The character of this place is so crucial to telling this story that it is expanded across six pages, which is an incredible amount of space for a novelist to spend on a description of anything. Also telling is the fact that it is situated first in the book, establishing its importance before any specific human characters are introduced.

Carpenter describes this setting as more than an image: it is a convenient narrative tool, allowing Hardy's characters to summon one another across miles with signal fires and also to bump into each other unexpectedly as they wander the twisted paths through the furze. "By confining nearly all of his action to its terrain," he writes, Hardy "achieves a unity of place which markedly aids in the creation of dramatic effects." It is a handy set-ting for events that have to be brought together in order to make the story work, but it is in no way a superbly successful one. If Egdon Heath were flawless in drawing readers into the novel's magical spell, the reader would be left feeling completely satisfied about the reality and inevitability of what he or she is told goes on there. Instead, the reader is left conscious of the hand of the author as coincidences abound, apparently there only for his storytelling convenience.

Stories always depend on coincidental events. Hardy appears to not have recognized the boundary that separates "did not anticipate" from "could not anticipate"—and that line, wide as the Mississippi River, separates tragedy from potboiler. A turn of events like Clym Yeobright's semi-blindness, for example, seems to materialize pretty quickly in the story, but it follows naturally from Clym's sudden dedication to be a great educator, which follows from his impulsive high-minded character, and is therefore grounded in the story.

Diggory Venn always shows up unexpectedly and fortuitously, so the reader can accept him as either a supernatural presence or an extremely prepared guardian. Eustacia and Wildeve are drawn together by a similar restlessness, so it is no wonder that their internal clocks would direct them both to the East Egdon "gipsying" at the same time. The adder that bites Mrs. Yeobright is the natural result of life on the heath. Eustacia is devious enough to loiter outside of the chapel when Wildeve is marrying, so there is no stretch of reality in her being the wedding's witness.

Even the event that starts the whole novel into motion—the canceled marriage between Thomasin and Wildeve—seems only to be a matter of coincidence to the people in the book. Readers recognize this as one of those psychological non-accidents, reflecting the fact that one of these two subconsciously wanted the ceremony abandoned—although it is unclear whether the hesitant party is Thomasin, who changed towns suddenly at the last moment, or Wildeve, who forgot to change the license.

These coincidences can all be explained, and they even afford readers some fun in recognizing that life in the novel can be as unruly and unpredictable as it is in the world. Other coincidences are harder to swallow. Readers who can get past the idea that Mrs. Yeobright and Wildeve and Johnny Nunsuch all arrive at the cottage at the same time still have to accept the fact that Clym would happen to choose that particular night, after months, to visit his estranged mother's house. Wildeve's fortune arrives out of nowhere, just in time for Eustacia to notice him again. The strangest of all, perhaps, is Fairway showing up late the night Eustacia is leaving, almost as an afterthought, with Clym's letter: it is hard enough to believe that he would happen to write when she happens to be leaving, but having a very minor character show up and say he had forgotten the letter until the drama is mounting shows a truly half-hearted effort on the part of the writer to simulate reality.

All readers of conscience are left to wonder how much the heath's wonderful, unique character can be allowed to account for the gaps in the story's credibility. To some extent, a lot: the otherworldliness that is so richly established allows Egdon Heath to excuse itself from any standards of behavior that are generally expected. If the laws of evolution are suspended there, then the laws of chance must be so too, since the one leads to the other. The same glitch that has left the heath unaltered for a thousand years also makes it possible for money to rain down unexpectedly from a previously unknown source, or for Diggory Venn to show up whenever his appearance would help the story.

In fact, Hardy not only flaunts the fact that chance rules, but he actually uses the readers' diminished expectations as part of the story's fabric. The characters who have any sense of the outside world become impatient with the slow, staid pace at Egdon Heath and they try taking fate into their own hands, creating tragedy. These characters include Eustacia and Clym, who has lived in Paris, the capital of the civilized world. Wildeve, an educated man, is able to sense a world beyond the heath, but he lacks the fortitude to do anything about it. When he inherits a lot of money later in the novel, he makes plans to break free of the heath and traverse the globe, but this hope is what leads to the tragedy at the book's end. Wildeve and Eustacia find out that the law of the heath is not outside of nature, that it is their nature.

Trying to change is what causes trouble in an environment where change is the one thing that cannot happen; and, because their energies cannot produce the results that were intended, the force expended careens off into the void and then bounces back in ways not expected. Readers who accept the fact that time has passed the heath by do not have to strain too hard to see that the same mysterious force that stops time is not universal—that the real-world passions of Eustacia and Yeobright and Wildeve will bring loose energy into the place and create chaos.

The question at the center of all of this is whether Thomas Hardy is the force that made the heath, or if the novel's unique elements can be accounted for naturally. One thing that is certain is that Hardy felt that the Egdon Heath he presented was a description, not a creation. Photographs and the testimony of other writers who came after him seem to bear out this idea, that the place before the arrival of technology was just as it had been for thousands of years. In old pictures, it looks just as desolate as the moon would look if it grew weeds. However, the old photos were shot with the theme of desolation in mind, thanks to Hardy: he observed the land and then added the idea that it willed itself to not change. Today, that area in the south of England is plenty inhabited, as cultivated as any other, proving, if such is necessary, that it had no magic aura that sealed it. Thomas Hardy, like any good novelist, saw a unique situation and took advantage of that opportunity to create his own mythology.

Much as I try, I cannot find causes for the strikingly bold "coincidences" I have mentioned, but I do feel that they belong in the novel. The same property that made Egdon Heath unique also allows characters in the book to stroll up with letters sent long ago, or to all decide at once to go to the same place. Like early physicists, the readers' job might be to identify the unseen currents and principles that make actions lead to unexpected results in this one field; or, like early theologians, the reader might just have to accept the fact that all that occurs is related. The degree to which Hardy's surprises are or are not believable goes beyond the events themselves and depends on how much one believes in the author and his world.

Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale Group, 2001.

Avrom Fleishman

Fleishman is an American educator who has written extensively on the English novel. In the following excerpt, he analyzes the nature of Egdon Heath.

What Do I Read Next?

  • All of Hardy's other novels are well-respected, but Tess of the D'Urbervilles, published in 1891, is particularly like Return of the Native in theme and setting.
  • One of the greatest novelists of Hardy's time was George Meredith, an author known for his psychological insights. His Diana of the Crossways (1885) is about a woman who has an affair and is accused of giving away secrets to her lover.
  • Margaret Mitchell's 1936 romance set during the Civil War, Gone With the Wind, is an epic story about longing and survival. The protagonist of the novel, Scarlett O'Hara, possesses many of the same traits as Eustacia Vye: she is proud, ambitious, restless, and driven by love.
  • George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) wrote similar stories about life in rural England. The Mill on the Floss was published in 1860 and it concerns the trials of a sensitive young woman, facing rejection by her family.
  • The definitive biography of Thomas Hardy is Martin Seymour-Smith's Hardy (1994), which includes exhaustive detail and comprehensive insight.

One would search long for a commentator on The Return of the Native who has failed to locate the story of Clym Yeobright and Eustacia Vye in the elaborated space of its landscape. Still it may be said that Egdon Heath has not been recognized as a figure in its own right—in both narrative senses of "figure," as person and as trope. One of the clos-est observers of the novel, John Paterson, has listed [in his essay "The 'Poetics' of The Return of the Native"] some of the heath's associations: "… it is a stage grand enough to bear the weight of gods and heroes; more specifically still, it is the prison-house of Prometheus, the fire-bearing benefactor of mankind." Paterson and others have supported such identifications by quoting the novel's repeated attribution of Promethean characteristics to the major characters. Hardy is never one to make his classical allusions evasively; the demonic rebelliousness of Eustacia and the bonded martyrdom of Clym are steadily projected upon the heath in the mode of scenic amplification. Yet the felt connection between the human actors and their inanimate setting exceeds the scope of metonymic associations like the scene-act ratio of Kenneth Burke. The ruling passions of the protagonists in The Return and the awesome powers of the heath need to be treated as forces of a like nature—the heath manifesting the same impulses as do the fictional characters.

To return to the setting of Hardy's first major novel is to seize his imagination at an originative position, where his sense of the past and his complex feelings about modern life intersected at a place with which he identified himself. Throughout his career, Hardy was inclined to express his strong response to the history-laden landscape of his shire in images of a special kind—special, that is, when compared with those of other Victorian novelists but commonplace in the tradition of local observers with a bent for narrative explanation. He was born, it will be recalled, in a cottage on the edge of the fourteen miles or so of high ground that has come to be identified with Egdon Heath, and he built his home, Max Gate, near its southwest flank five years after writing The Return. In 1878, the year the novel was published, the Folk-Lore Society was founded in London, and at about this date Hardy joined the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club. To the latter he also delivered a paper on "Some Romano-British Relics Found at Max Gate, Dorchester"—found, that is, during the digging of foundations for his house. These delvings in the earth encouraged Hardy in a long series of reflections on the presence underfoot of a many-layered past: beginning as early as the passage in The Return on Clym's attendance at the opening of a barrow (book III, chapter iii); continuing with the account of unearthed Roman skeletons in The Mayor of Casterbridge (chapter xi); and developing a fine blend of fascination and detachment in poems like "The Roman Gravemounds" and "The Clasped Skeletons."

The sense of the past, it has been abundantly demonstrated, touches Hardy's work at innumerable points, but one may be isolated for the present discussion: his adumbration of an animate (or once-animate) being dormant in the earth, whether in the form of a buried skeleton incarnating the ghosts of the past, or of a quasi-human figure underlying or constituting certain topographical features (usually hills), or of a genius loci residing not in an aerial or other evanescent medium but in the soil of the place itself. It will be seen that some such preternatural beliefs are at work amid the rationalist skepticism which Hardy tried to maintain and that, while his own beliefs are not to be equated with those of the peasants in his tales, his absorption in them resembles the intellectual sympathy which modern anthropologists and folklorists have been recommending.

The prime instances of buried figures in the Hardy country are, quite naturally, those associated with a number of massive formations which surpass anything comparable in the southwest—the region of England perhaps most densely populated by ancient remains. Foremost is Maiden Castle, a Celtic hillfort a few miles south of Dorchester, which Hardy described as "an enormous many-limbed organism of an antediluvian time … lying lifeless, and covered with a thin green cloth, which hides its substance, while revealing its contour." Comparable in fame and grandeur is the Cerne Abbas giant, with his club and explicit phallus, on a hill seven miles north of Dorchester in a region Hardy favored for his rambles; it is mentioned in Tess of the d'Urbervilles and other writings, most saliently when described by the local peasantry in The Dynasts as a malevolent ogre, comparable to Napoleon.

Besides those and other gigantic erections in the vicinity, like Stonehenge, additional outcroppings of the land contour Hardy's writings. In a poem titled "The Moth-Signal," specifically set on Egdon Heath and reminiscent of an incident in The Return, the waywardness of modern domestic life is seen from the perspective of a dweller in the earth:

   Then grinned the Ancient Briton
   From the tumulus treed with pine:
   "So, hearts are thwartly smitten
In these days as in mine!"

Hardy takes up the point of view of an inhabitant of the heath in a more personal way in another poem, "A Meeting with Despair" (noted in the manuscript as set on Egdon Heath):

   As evening shaped I found me on a moor
   Sight shunned to entertain:
   The black lean land, of featureless contour,
   Was like a tract in pain.
   "This scene, like my own life," I said, "is one
   Where many glooms abide;
   Toned by its fortune to a deadly dun—
   Lightless on every side."
   Against the horizon's dim-discerned wheel
   A form rose, strange of mould:
   That he was hideous, hopeless, I could feel
   Rather than could behold.

Although Hardy metaphorically identifies the pattern and tone of his life with the heath's, he resists the insinuations of the apparition—named "Despair" in the title but referred to only as "the Thing" in the poem itself—so as to argue that the glowing sunset portends better prospects for the future. In a voice we recognize as that of the stupid giant of fairy tales, his interlocutor replies, "Yea—but await awhile!… Ho-ho!—/ Now look aloft and see!" More striking, perhaps, than either the poem's finale (with the loss of light and portent of defeat) or the similarities between its treatment of Egdon Heath and the novel's is the encounter with an abiding presence there—the black lean land, featureless, in pain, from which a hideous, hopeless form arises.

These poems call to mind others in which one of the most familiar features of Hardy's style, personification, is employed in its mode of gigantism. The best-known instance of this trope is found in "The Darkling Thrush": "The land's sharp features seemed to be / The Century's corpse outleant…." In the periodical publication of the poem, its original title emphasized this figure rather than the thrush: "By the Century's Deathbed" enforces the idea not simply of a localized spirit but of the entire earth as a body suffering a secular decline. A more sharply focused version of this image occurs in the poem "By the Earth's Corpse" (from the same volume as "The Darkling Thrush"), in which Time and "the Lord" conduct a dialogue on the themes of guilt and repetition, while placed like mourners near "this globe, now cold / As lunar land and sea," at some future time "when flesh / And herb but fossils be, / And, all extinct, their piteous dust / Revolves obliviously…."

The most highly developed vision of the earth as an organic, vaguely human being is, however, that of The Dynasts. A stage direction of the "Fore Scene" is justly famous for its panoramic sweep, anticipating (but still surpassing) the movement of the camera eye in epically scaled movies:

The nether sky opens, and Europe is disclosed as a prone and emaciated figure, the Alps shaping like a backbone, and the branching mountain-chains like ribs, the peninsular plateau of Spain forming a head…. The point of view then sinks downwards through space, and draws near to the surface of the perturbed countries, where the peoples, distressed by events which they did not cause, are seen writhing, crawling, heaving, and vibrating in their various cities and nationalities.

With the return to this vision in the "After Scene," Europe is "beheld again as a prone and emaciated figure…. The lowlands look like a greygreen garment half-thrown off, and the sea around like a disturbed bed on which the figure lies." In this instance, human forms in the mass join with geographical features to create the image of a total organism: the earth itself (or its European portion) as a giant, going through the stages of awakening, struggle, and exhaustion—a composite being living out the disturbances and sufferings of humankind.

Is it this (or a related) giant who confronts the reader from the title of the opening chapter of The Return: "A Face on which Time makes but Little Impression"? The rhetoric of the so-called pathetic fallacy suggests that it is a creature on the scale of the earth: it "wore the appearance of an instalment of night" and, reciprocally, "the face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening." Not only are vital reflexes, human apparel, and personal physiognomy suggested, but the sustained comparison of Egdon Heath and mankind is raised from mere analogy to essential identity:

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.

It is on the basis of this profound identity that the epithets used for the heath come to resonate like personal designations: "Haggard Egdon," "the untameable, Ishmaelitish thing that Egdon now was," "the people changed, yet Egdon remained." In the most pathetic of these characterizations, the place is defined in relation to other natural forces in a style usually reserved for romantic fiction: "Then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend." But the role hardly suits a figure that has emerged as not merely humanized but on a larger-than-individual scale: "singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony." Such a colossus can be a hero only of a special sort.

In inventing the name itself, Hardy seems to have had in mind not a place-name but a personal one. Its closest analogue is a forename: Egbert, from Old English ecg ("sword") and bryght ("bright")—the latter term also appearing in the chief surname used in the novel. Egdon would be its derivable opposite: the second syllable is equivalent to dun, the word used since Anglo-Saxon times to describe the natural shades of landscape, animals, and atmosphere in a dull, brown grey range. (But compare the Celtic name of Maiden Castle: mai dun ["strong hill"].) Etymology resolves nothing, but this name goes beyond the expansive suggestiveness of well-wrought place-names in fiction, encouraging instead the identification of a personal presence by a favored technique of characterization.

If these two processes are indeed comparable—if a somewhat amorphous terrain is presented here in the manner in which fictional characters are conventionally introduced—we shall have to revise our expectations of the role of landscape in this novel more radically than we may be prepared to do. Landscape is not satisfied to act in The Return of the Native as a background, with human subjects in the foreground (although some positioning of people against a background of natural elements is at work, e.g., in the chapter entitled "The Figure against the Sky"). Instead, Egdon Heath becomes one of the principal agents of the action, a protagonist in the classical sense of the dramatic actor, and probably the most memorable figure to emerge from the events. The title of the novel has been given some new turns in recent criticism, so as to widen its reference beyond the donnée of Clym's return to Wessex. If its individual implications are taken seriously, the title refers somewhat sardonically to Clym's return to the native state in the course of the action; it also suggests more broadly the heath's renewed prominence in the life of the characters and of the modern age generally. "The Return of the Native" would name, then, a story about Egdon Heath.

The operation of these narrative traits makes the term "personification" no longer adequate to describe the process by which Egdon Heath is generated by the text. When natural categories are fixed, one may speak about the ascription of human characteristics to inanimate beings or about the representation of an abstract or other impersonal entity in human terms. But Egdon is not so clear-cut: it is never given as entirely on one side of the animate/inanimate polarity before being assimilated to the other. Even in the opening chapter, the metaphoric expressions by which it is rendered human are immediately posited as literal (or as leading to literal statements about the heath's role in human psychology): "Then [in storms, etc.] 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." Without drawing conclusions about Hardy's version of the unconscious, we find his prose moving from the metaphoric level (movement of storms / movement of phantoms), to statements that posit the heath as the original model of dream landscapes, to a final suggestion of its function as a permanent index of the unconscious "regions" of the mind itself. So steadily cumulative is this assimilation of the heath to the animate level that toward the close of the novel, as intensity of style mounts in tempo with intensity of action, we are prepared to take in stride such passages as this: "Skirting the pool [Eustacia] followed the path towards Rainbarrow, occasionally stumbling over twisted furze-roots, tufts of rushes, or oozing lumps of fleshy fungi, which at this season lay scattered about the heath like the rotten liver and lungs of some colossal animal." While it is Eustacia who is stumbling toward her death, it is the heath that is seen here as a dismembered giant—neither clearly human nor, as Lawrence thought, merely bestial but a "colossal animal" who is martyred and distributed in a spectacular way.

While the interconnections of the animate and the inanimate must be deduced from the rhetorical modes of the opening chapter, later passages state their inherent identity in the heath with some urgency. The chief of these occurs in the first description of Eustacia Vye:

There the form stood, motionless as the hill beneath. Above the plain rose the hill, above the hill rose the barrow, and above the barrow rose the figure. Above the figure was nothing that could be mapped elsewhere than on a celestial globe.

Such a perfect, delicate, and necessary finish did the figure give to the dark pile of hills that it seemed to be the only obvious justification of their outline. Without it, there was the dome without the lantern; with it the architectural demands of the mass were satisfied. The scene was strangely homogeneous, in that the value, the upland, the barrow, and the figure above it amounted only to unity. Looking at this or that member of the group was not observing a complete thing, but a fraction of a thing.

Hardy employs the term "organic" in the next sentence to describe the internal relations of the "entire motionless structure"; we may apply it equally to the tenor of his thinking in this passage. Although the human figure is to be regarded esthetically as a "necessary finish" and a satisfaction of an "architectural" demand, it is more fundamentally a "fraction" of a larger "unity." Nor is the heath complete without the person: it needs it as its "obvious justification," to become a "homogeneous" being in its own right. The text speaks of this organic unity of the human and the nonhuman "members" of Egdon Heath as "a thing" and elsewhere adds, "a thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity."

Although Eustacia is most striking in her unwilling assimilation into Egdon Heath, other characters exhibit a spectrum of possible relations to it, ranging from identification to detachment. Although the gigantic "thing" takes in both human beings and the heath, there are a number of possible modes of integration, which various characters explore. The peasants live in wary observance of the land and its seasons, but their limited mentalities are none too gently satirized in Hardy's folkish chapters. The reddleman, Diggory Venn, shows himself adroit not only in the world of commercial and (eventually) erotic competition but is especially competent among the highways and byways of the heath. (It is noteworthy that he gets no particular credit for this intimacy with the heath, as measured by the conventions of heroic stature; given Hardy's view of him as an "isolated and weird character"—in the "Author's Note" of 1912—he is scarcely ennobled by his numerous displays of omnicompetence.) It is Clym who displays the most complex relation to the heath, being the one who exercises a series of considered choices in the matter. In his first characterization, his constitution or generation by the place is stressed: "If any one knew the heath well it was Clym. He was permeated with its scenes, with its substance, and with its odours. He might be said to be its product." At the end of his series of ideological shifts and personal misfortunes, he stands before the heath in an alien position, as of one face impervious to another: "… there was only the imperturbable countenance of the heath, which, having defied the cataclysmal onsets of centuries, reduced to insignificance by its seamed and antique features the wildest turmoil of a single man." But the most extreme separation from the heath—indistinguishable from a kind of rationalistic stupidity—is represented by the pragmatic objectivity of Thomasin Yeobright: "… Egdon in the mass was no monster whatever, but impersonal open ground. Her fears of the place were rational, her dislikes of its worst moods reasonable."

Despite their differences, the characters have a common connection with the heath, a unity of fate that is consistently figured in allusions to Prometheus: "Every night [the heath's] Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis—the final overthrow." The iconography of Prometheus chained to a mountain in the Caucasus is strikingly transmuted in this and similar passages: the scene of suffering becomes the sufferer (Egdon is not Caucasian but Titanic), while at least part of the demigod's character is ascribed to the land itself in its "unmoved" martyrdom. Yet the myth's primary orientation toward apocalypse (the final overthrow of Zeus) is, as we shall see, fully employed in The Return.

The heath's Promethean, long-suffering form of resistance is picked up in the characterization of the human actors but is resourcefully applied as a differentiating factor. The peasants' lighting of fires to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, although localized as a modern British survival of the ritual death and rebirth of the year, is seen as the expression of a universal need: "Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light." Here humans, heath, and Titans are seen on the same side, resisting—or at least protesting—an imposition from without, the fiat of a being or realm representing black chaos, winter, and death. Humanity joins with the land itself in "Promethean rebelliousness," and it is with one voice that they register their counterfiat; theirs is the voice of the "fettered gods" or Titans, which proclaims light—a biblical equivalent for the Promethean fire that is the subject of this passage.

The chief characters are, however, subtly distinguished in their articulations of this rebellion and thus in their associations with the band of "fettered gods." Eustacia is described from the first in terms derived from the preceding passage: "Egdon was her Hades, and since coming there she had imbibed much of what was dark in its tone, though inwardly and eternally unreconciled thereto. Her appearance accorded well with this smouldering rebelliousness…. A true Tartarean dignity sat upon her brow …" The term found in both passages, "rebelliousness," is linked to its consequences of banishment or living burial, whether of humans in Hades or of Titans in Tartarus (the variability of mythological traditions is exploited here to make these roughly equivalent terms for confinement in the earth). It is notable that this passage begins by emphasizing Eustacia's unwilling bondage in Egdon, the setting of her unsatisfactory station in life, but it gradually identifies her with the heath insofar as the latter, too, is unreconciled to its bound condition under the fiat of the ruling gods.

Precisely the opposite shift occurs in the course of Clym's characterization: beginning as one fully at home on the heath—"its product"—he becomes so thoroughly acclimated in his return to the soil that he renounces rebelliousness: "Now, don't you suppose, my inexperienced girl, that I cannot rebel, in high Promethean fashion, against the gods and fate as well as you. I have felt more steam and smoke of that sort than you have ever heard of. But the more I see of life the more do I perceive that there is nothing particularly great in its greatest walks, and therefore nothing particularly small in mine of furzecutting." Clym's liberal renunciation of the Promethean stance is part of an explicit cultural theme in the novel, concerned with the vulnerability of the modern mind by virtue of its skeptical intelligence, its loss of traditional, organizing mythologies (a loss and a vulnerability in which Hardy felt himself implicated). But Clym's career also involves a break with the creaturely tendency to rebellion against earthbound suffering, a separation from the Titanic "fettered gods" with whom Eustacia, involuntarily, associates herself. And it is this loss of Promethean vision that is his true undoing, for he sees "nothing particularly great in [life's] greatest walks" or, by the same token, in the heath's.

Source: Avrom Fleishman, "The Buried Giant of Egdon Heath: An Archeology of Folklore in The Return of the Native," in Fiction and the Ways of Knowing: Essays on British Novelists, University of Texas Press, 1978, pp. 110-22.

Harvey Curtis Webster

In the following excerpt Webster suggests that according to Hardy, human effort, governed by natural law in a "Chance-guided universe," goes "from one mistake to another," and this gives the novel its pessimistic and bleak outlook.

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Source: Harvey Curtis Webster, in On a Darkling Plain: The Art and Thought of Thomas Hardy, University of Chicago Press, 1947, pp. 120-21.

Joseph Warren Beach

In the following excerpt, Beach emphasizes the action and reaction ("suggestive of physics and dynamics") of the feelings of Hardy's characters, and the heath as representative of natural forces that are indifferent or antagonistic to human will.

[With] The Return of the Native, Hardy has taken up a theme which involves a clear-cut issue in the minds of the leading characters, and especially in the mind of Eustacia, which is the main stage of the drama. It is her stifled longing for spiritual expansion which leads her to play with the love of Wildeve, which causes her later to throw him over for the greater promise of Clym, which leads her back again to Wildeve, and at last—with the loss of all hope—to suicide. In every case it requires but the smallest outlay of incident to provoke the most lively play of feeling; and the play of feeling—the opposition of desires—is embodied here, in true dramatic fashion, in talk rather than in acts. It takes nothing more than the return of Thomasin from town unwed to set going the whole series of dialogues which make up the substance of the first book, dialogues in which Wildeve and Mrs. Yeobright, Venn and Eustacia, Eustacia and Wildeve do nothing more than fence with one another, each maneuvering for position in a breathless game of well-matched antagonists. These are scenes in the true dramatic sense, not in the popular sense that calls for violence and surprising action.

In the third book the main thing that happens is a quarrel between Clym and his mother over Eustacia. The wedding itself is not presented, having no dramatic value. The dramatic value of the book is indicated in its caption, "The Fascination," the drama lying in the resistless attraction to one another of two persons so far apart in mind.

Never before in Hardy had the machinery of action been so masked and subordinated. Never again perhaps was it to occupy a place of so little prominence in his work. It is only once or twice in Meredith, and more generally in the later novels of James, that we find so great a volume of emotional energy released by events of so little objective importance. Only in them is found a greater economy of incident; and many more readers will testify to the dramatic intensity of The Native than to that of The Egoist or The Golden Bowl.

The whole course of the story was conceived by the author in terms suggestive of physics and dynamics. Each step in the plot represents the balance and reaction of forces expressible almost in algebraic formulas. Many readers have been impressed with the strong scientific coloring of Hardy's mind: with his tendency to view both external nature and the human heart with the sharpness and hard precision of a naturalist, and to record the phenomena observed with some of the abstractness of the summarizing philosopher.

The division of a novel into parts is always a significant indication of an author's interest in the logical massing of his material, in the larger architectonics of his work. It is very little used by novelists like Dickens; very much used by novelists like George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Henry James, and … Mr. Walpole. It generally implies a bias for the "dramatic," in so far as it involves the grouping of the subject-matter around certain characters or great moments in the action, as that of a play is grouped in the several acts. In The Native this is especially notable.

These five books are like the five acts of a classic play. And in each book the scenes are largely grouped around certain points in time so as to suggest the classic continuity within the several acts.

What we are concerned with here is the unity of tone—the steadiness with which the heath makes us feel its dark and overshadowing presence, so that men and women are but slight figures in a giant landscape, the insect-fauna of its somber flora. Mr. Hardy was bold enough to begin this grave history with an entire chapter devoted to a description of the heath at twilight; and his choice of a title for the second chapter but serves to signalize the littleness and frailty of man upon the great stage of inhospitable nature: "Humanity appears upon the scene, hand in hand with trouble." It is very quietly and without word or gesture that humanity makes its appearance, like a slow-moving shadow.

It is thus that Egdon takes its place as the dominating force of the tragedy, as well as its appropriate and impressive setting. So that the unity of place, in itself an artistic value, is but the counterpart of a unity of action rooted and bedded in a precious oneness of theme. Instead of being, as in Far from the Madding Crowd, brought together arbitrarily to make out the prescribed materials of a novel, plot and setting here are one, growing equally and simultaneously out of the dramatic idea expressed in the title. For the first—and almost for the last—time in the work of Hardy, the discriminating reader is delighted with the complete absence of mechanical contrivance. Contrivance there is as never before in his work, the loving contrivance of an artist bent on making everything right in an orderly composition; the long-range contrivance of an architect concerned to have every part in place in an edifice that shall stand well based and well proportioned, with meaning in every line.

The determinist may be equally impressed with the helplessness of man in the grip of strange forces, physical and psychical. But he is distinguished from the fatalist by his concern with the causes that are the links in the chain of necessity. Determinism is the scientific counterpart of fatalism, and throws more light on destiny by virtue of its diligence in the searching out of natural law. Mr. Hardy is rather a determinist than a fatalist. When he speaks most directly and unmistakably for himself, it is to insist on the universal working of the laws of cause and effect.

The point in which determinism and fatalism agree is the helplessness of the individual will against the will in things. Only the determinist conceives the will in things as the sum of the natural forces with which we have to cope, whereas the fatalist tends to a more religious interpretation of that will as truly and literally a will, an arbitrary power, a personal force like our own. Sometimes Mr. Hardy allows his characters the bitter comfort of that personal interpretation.

What gives rise to such notions is the ironic discrepancy between what we seek and what we secure, between what we do and what follows from it. We have control of so very few of the factors that go to determine our fortunes that we can hardly help imagining behind the scene a capricious and malignant contriver of contretemps.

Source: Joseph Warren Beach, in The Technique of Thomas Hardy, University of Chicago Press, 1922, pp. 93-4, 96-7, 101, 105, 228-9.


Adams, Francis, Review of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, in The Fortnightly Review, Vol. LII, No. CCVII, July 1891, pp. 19-22.

Carpenter, Richard, Thomas Hardy, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1964.

Eliot, T. S., After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, Harcourt & Brace, 1934.

Hawkins, Desmond, "The Native Returns 1876–1878," Barnes & Noble Books, 1976, p. 76.

Henley, W. E., Review, in The Academy, Vol. XIV, No. 343, November 30, 1878, p. 517.

Page, Norman O., "The Return of the Native," in Reference Guide to English Literature, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.

Review, in The Athenaeum, November 23, 1878, p. 654.

Taylor, Richard, "Thomas Hardy: A Reader's Guide," in Thomas Hardy: The Writer and His Background, St. Martin's Press, 1980, pp. 219-58.

For Further Study

Brooks, Jean R., "The Return of the Native: A Novel of Environment," in Modern Critical Views: Thomas Hardy, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 55-72.

Analyzes the novel's most conspicuous literary theme.

Davidson, Donald, "The Traditional Basis of Thomas Hardy's Fiction," in Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Albert J. Guerard, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp. 10-23.

Identifies elements of the oral tradition of rural England in The Return of the Native and other works.

Hands, Timothy, "'Yea, Great and Good, Thee, Thee we hail': Hardy and the Ideas of his Time," in Thomas Hardy, St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Traces the philosophical movements of the late nineteenth century and evaluates their influences in Hardy's works.

Hawkins, Desmond, Hardy the Novelist, David & Charles, 1965.

This respected analysis offers a strong background to students who are becoming acquainted with Hardy's fiction.

Hillis Miller, J., "The Dance of Desire," in Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970, pp. 144-75.

Considers the themes of desire and longing in Hardy's novel.

Hornback, Bert G., The Metaphor of Chance: Vision and Technique in the Work of Thomas Hardy, Ohio University Press, 1971.

Exploration of Hardy's narrative technique.

Mickelson, Anne Z., "The Marriage Trap," in Thomas Hardy's Women and Men: The Defeat of Nature, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1976.

A feminist reading of Eustacia Vye.

Sumner, Rosemary, Thomas Hardy: Psychological Novelist, St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Discusses the treatment of psychological issues in Hardy's work.

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