The Novel: Its Publication
The Return of the Native was written in 1878 when Hardy was at the height of his power. It was sent for publication to Comhill Magazine which rejected it on the ground that it would hurt the feelings of the lady readers of the Magazine. It was ultimately serialised in Balgravia and was later on published in book from by Smith Elder and Co.
Contemporary Criticism of it: Its Real Greatness
At the time of its first publication it was violently criticised by the reviewers. A number of faults were found with it. It was condemned for (a) its artificial story in which their is much repetition and too much depends on chance and fate (b) its pessimistic and depressing tone and atmosphere, (c) the exaggerated importance assigned to Nature, which pushes the human actors into the background, and (d) its immoral, passionate characters, like Eustacia and Wildeve who know no law but the gratification of their passion. However, with the passing of time the many merits of the novel have been better appreciated. Today not only is the novel regarded as the masterpiece of Hardy, but it is also considered as one of the classics of the English fiction.
Egdon Heath: Its Grandeur and Significance
The opening chapter of the novel which introduces to us Egdon Heath, the principal character in the novel, has been praised by all.
The Return of the Native is the book of Egdon Heath; without Egdon it would not hold together. C. Duffin rightly points out, “with most of the other novels the scene could be transposed to some other part of Wessex without vitally affecting the story; this story could not run its course anywhere other than amid the solitudes of Edgon. Egdon influences all the human characters, moving them to love Or to hate, to despair or to the philosophic mind. Even pretty Thomasin, to whom it is just, ‘a ridiculous old place’, confesses she could live nowhere else. And as if he had put so much life into Egdon that he had less to expand on the human figures, Hardy has given us here a set of characters not quite so high in the scale of being as those of Far From the Madding Crowd. The human actors look puny in comparison with the grand Egdon. “If we place Yeobright, Venn and Wildeve over against Oak, Boldwood and Troy, the difference will be apparent and Eustacia, for all her splendour, is shoddy stuff to Bathsheba. Bathsheba stooped to Troy —she would never sink to Wildeve.”
The Human Actors: Eustacia
The chapter describing Egdon Heath is a classic of English prose. When Egdon has been set before us with all Hardy’s unmatched powers of description, humanity is introduced in such a way as to leave the spell cast by the Heath unbroken. There is the fantastic Reddleman and his unexplained, mysterious occupation. There is the old naval officer, father of Eustacia. Then there are the mysterious figure on the barrow; and the woman (Eustacia) momentarily queen of the solitude, then vanishing into Egdon’s shade. The opening of the novel is miraculous. It is conscious, deliberate, a perfect work of art. The marvellous description of Eustacia is one of the glories of the novel. It is one of the finest examples of set description in all Hardy. Eustacia herself is an otherwise unexampled type in Hardy; a woman who lives to love, and to love in a hot, blind lustful way—not necessarily an animal way, but a way that leads to ‘anything in trousers’, even to Wildeve. For Wildeve is really unworthy, and Eustacia’ intrigues with him are painfully squalid. He has no glamour about him, but merely keeps a public-house called “Tlie Quiet Woman.” He makes even Eustacia yawn. He provokes the simile of, “a dancing master”, but is more like a tailor’s dummy is his, “elegant new summer suit and light hat”. In a sense she uses him, only as an instrument, but in reality she is throughout attracted by him, and the fact robs her of some interest.
Eustacia is a strange enough personality to demand something of the fantastic and the grotesque in her story, and this element is provided by Diggory Venn, the Reddleman, a blood-red figure, isolated and aloof. He has his own hand to play for the winning of Thomasin but intervenes at a number of critical points in the main plot as well. Like Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd he is still and deep; like him he is passive and unselfish, though more purposefully, less patiently so.
Clym and Eustacia: Their Dissimilarity
The story begins in right earnest with the return of Clym Yeobright from Paris. He has been a diamond merchant’s manager in Paris, and towards the end of the book he evolves an educational ideal which in practice means the opening of, “a good private school for the sons of farmers.” To Eustacia the first occupation smells of heaven, though she is not attracted at all by the other one. In his social class, Clym is a little higher from the Wessex norm, his mother having been a Curate’s daughter, and Eustacia begins at once to think and dream about him. She goes to look at his house before he arrives and reads into his passing good-night, “all emotional things possible.” Perhaps seclusion on Egdon produces an artificial stimulation of feelings as great as that caused by a life of work for long hours in office, school or nunnery, except to those who, like Clym, find the hills, “friendly and congenial.” Clym is a true, “native”, desiring to combine the intellectual life with the plainest of rustic living. He is one of Hardy’s pure intellectuals, and not at all suitable as a lover and husband for Eustacia, for Eustacia’s dissimilarity amounts to positive and violent antagonism. As they meet, first at the mumming, then by the well, and then move on to the first love scene, all handled by Hardy with beautiful care and restraint, the impossibility at their ever living and working side by side grows more and more evident. “It is not only that their outlook differs —that might have been modified by education; but she is essence of woman, he of man; and to link those two essence in a bond can succeed only if no differences arise —if differences do arise they are irreconcilable” (C. Duffin).
The Mother-son Relation
Mrs. Ycobright, the mother of Clym, plays an important part in the story. In this way, we have before us Hardy’s own study of the mother-son relation which has since been dealt with at length by the psycho-analysts and by the novelists like D. H. Lawrence. Hardy is not much concerned with parents. Only in the case of Clym Yeobright’s mother and Grace Melbury’s father is parental influence perceptibly exercised, and in both cases with disastrous results. Elfride, Stephen Smith, Ethelberta, and Anne Garland all have parents, but they are of a sensible, easy-going, accommodating kind, and play no decisive part in directing or obstructing the lives of their children. In all these cases the actual relation of parent and child is matter of fact, unemotional. But the relation between Clym and his mother is stated to be a relation of love. Indeed, in one passage Hardy suggests that the love between them is of an exceptionally exalted kind, “indestructible”, “profound.” It is singularly unhappy and unfortunate in its consequences for the love of Clym and Eustacia. Mrs. Yeobright’s opposition to her son’s desire to give up the jewellery trade and take up work of real service to his fellows is partly due to her obvious inability to follow the reasons which Clym lucidly explains to her. But the real reason is that she does not want her son to love and marry Eustacia. She knows that he would marry Eustacia, if he stays at home. This, as well as the love of the mother for her son, is clearly brought out in the following dialogue :
“In that case I’ll branch off here, mother. I am going to Mistover.”
Mrs. Yeobright turned to him inquiringly.
“I am going to help get the bucket out of the Captain’s well”, he continued, “As it is so very deep I may be useful, And I should like to see this Miss Vye …. not so much for her good looks as for another reason.”
“Must you go ‘?” his mother asked.
“I thought to.”
And they parted. “Tliere is no help for it”, murmured Clym’s mother gloomily as he withdrew. “TJiey are sure to see each other. I wish Sam would cany his news to other houses than mine.”
Clym’s retreating figure got smaller and smaller as it rose and fell over the hillocks on his way. “He is tender hearted,” said Mrs. Yeobright to herself while she watched him : “Otherwise it would matter little. How he’s going on !”
He was, indeed, walking with a will over the furx.e, as straight as a Iineu as if his life depended upon it. His mother drew a long breath, and turned to go back by the way she had come.
The dialogue, the mode of contact, are different from anything else in the novels, because the relation is unique, “He was”, says Hardy, “a part of her.” That is the strength of the parental altitude.
Parental Opposition: Its Tragic Consequences
A second opportunity lor loving sympathy, turned instead into a cause for bitter hostility, arises when Clym’s feeling for Eustacia begins to develop. Parental opposition to a son’s choice of a wife is age-old, and is not excused by the fact that quite often the parents are, as Mrs. Yeobright is here, right. It simply is the folly of Clym, that makes him think that Eustacia “would make a good matron in a boarding school.” Their dissimilarity of type was so fundamental as to render a successful marriage unlikely. Nevertheless, apart from the fact that Clym was an adult individual (not merely “a part of her”), his mother’s opposition did nothing but make things worse : in its absence there was a possibility that Clym and Eustacia might have learnt enough from each other to have achieved some happiness. With her opposition, it became inevitable that Clym’s divided loyalty should embitter the misunderstanding over Wildeve to a point where fate could drive them all to tragedy. “But these are the materials out of which life makes tragedy.”
After Clym’s admission that he was engaged to Eustacia, his mother’s opposition reaches such an intensity that it becomes necessary for him to leave home. He goes, and she lets him go. “The trouble with these two is that they are loo strong. One touch of emotional weakness (call it softness, call it kindness) on either side would have brought the whole black slructure of misery tumbling down.” Mrs. Yeobright’s weakness and love is revealed only afterwards, in talking to Thomasin, and then in a pathetically blind way : “Oh Thomasin, he was so good as a litlle boy ….. so tender and kind ….. I did not think one whom I called mine world grow up to treat me like this ..,.s That is maternily …. to give one’s best years and besl love to ensure the fate of being despised.” Things are nol improved by Ihe bitter, ‘Encounler by the Pool’, of Clym’s mother and Eustacia —an indictment of the incredible unreasonableness woman can exhibit.
The Climax: Journey across the Heath
The genuine yielding …. weakness that arises from strength …. comes later, on both sides, after Clym has married and lurned furze culler owing lo his failing sighl. Clym lells Euslacia he musl seek reconcilialion with his mother, and about the same time Mrs. Yeobrighl lells ihc Reddleman that she too has determined to make some effort to heal the sorry breach. It is an indication of the central position assigned to the mother-motive tha(f the chapler describing Mrs. Yeobright’s journey across the heath to Clym’s cottage and back again stand as a climax lo the novel. The later and perhaps the more exact climax, the scene where Clym charges Eustacia wilh infidelity and his mother’s death, is a consequence of the other one. “Tlie heath journey is man-ellously done, and is punctuated, as it were, with the living creatures which Mrs. Yeobright, a noticing woman ami a lover of’animals, observes by the way : those maggoty things wriggling in the muddy pond, ihc sleeping cat, the drunken wasps on the fallen fruit, the ant’s nest, the heron flying into the sun. And there was another she did not see until it was too late, the adder that bit her in the foot.” (C. Duffin)
The well intended visit is tragically frustrated, and the stricken woman’s creep back across. Egdon is shown to us (and later to Clym) through the eyes of one Hardy’s rare but marvellous children, Johnny Nonsuch. It is by an extraordinary process of investigating and questioning, of Christian Cantle, Diggory Venn and finally little Johnny, that Clym tracks down the truth of what had happened on the previous afternoon. And yet not quite the whole truth; the missing witness is Eustacia herself. Here he does question, but in such a way as to make reply impossible or valueless. “His love for his mother has taken complete possession of him now, had it been balanced by an equal love for his wife (but that, in the nature of the case, was impossible) he would have been saved much raving despair.” In the end he loses’wife as well as mother, and he feels he has caused the death of both. “The self accusation is not altogether just; yet Clym’s-egoism has been dangerously ruthless. His point of view has been ‘right’ in both cases, but to follow right in scorn of consequence is stupid, and to override other less ‘right’ points of view is the mark of simple strength but not of that more complicated thing, greatness.” The book closes with Clyrn thinking of his mother as a sublime saint, and preaching his first sermon on Rainbarrow on the text, “Ask on, my mother : for I will not say thee nay.”
A Grim Tragedy
It is grim terrible story, this first of Hardy’s great tragedies with a single, relentless drive to disaster. “A striking difference between Shakespeare and Hardy is that in every one of his tragedies Shakespeare kills both hero and heroine. This may be due to his sense of artistic finish, or to his tenderness for the children of his hand. Hardy, more cruel, leaves, as life generally does, one alive but maimed. Yeobright is among those few who are left not only sadder but wiser for their experience and their loss” (C. Duflln). The tragedy is terrible but it is not depressing. In the end, Thomasin is married to the faithful Diggory, and is destined to live happily with him. Thus the conclusion is that human lot is not utterly tragic, some happiness is also possible.
A Great Social Document: Realism
The Return of the Native is a great, poignant iragedy, as well as a valuable social document. Hardy has been called, “the historian of Wessex”, and the novel justifies the praise. It is a rich store-house of Wessex customs and superstitions. Egdon Heath was a real heath which Hardy knew intimately, and life on it has been graphically and realistically described. The rustic characters or the chorus group —the finest in all Hardy —are true representatives of Wessex-folk and the dialect they speak is the dialect actually spoken in that part of England. They live in nature and are one with her. Indeed, the poetic fusion of Man and Nature is one of the glories of the book.