Book List 2012 · Book Review · Fiction · Thomas Hardy

Review: The Return of the Native

I began The Return of the Native with the impression that I would find it difficult to enjoy. And that was simply because the blurb made it sound like it would have something to do with Red Indians and the picture on the jacket made me feel even more sure. I admit, that was very silly of me. Because the blurb did read that The Return of the Native was set in the English country-side. Anyway, the story is of a young man, Clym Yeobright, who falls in love with a beautiful, passionate, darkly discontented girl, Eustacia Vye, on his return from Paris, and of their stormy marriage.

I began this book with a closed mind and the first few pages were the dullest pages I’d ever read. I actually had to read aloud to keep from drifting. But even while fighting the urge to put down the book I realized that there was a rhythm to the sentences and a smooth flow to the words. I was reading a mellifluous open ended poem describing Egdon Heath, the setting for this violent tragedy. The poetry changes to prose as the action begins.

Eustacia Vye is the beautiful, mysterious girl who lives with her grandfather and haunts the hills of Egdon Heath. Some people think she is a witch. And Eustacia is too proud to mix with the villagers to worry about clarifying any wrong beliefs that they may have of her.

Under a facade of cool nonchalance and unconcern Eustacia Vye is as passionate and insubmissive as the ocean. Thomas hardy describes her as “the raw material of divinity”. She is something of a romantic though not in the conventional sense. She desires to be “loved to madness” and would rather have a short mad affair than settle for a placid love that lasts forever. For want of a better object and not because he is up to her standards, Eustacia has an affair with Damon Wildeve.

Wildeve is very similar to Eustacia. He is as ambitious and passionate as Eustacia. But during a pause in their relationship he begins courting another woman, Thomasin Yeobright. They even plan to marry. But the wedding doesn’t take place due to some error in the marriage license. Later that evening Wildeve visits Eustacia. He isn’t so sure that he wants to marry Thomasin Yeobright anymore. Eustacia, on the other hand, is with Wildeve only because there isn’t anyone more exciting in Egdon Heath. So when she hears that Clym Yeobright, the native in question as well as Thomasin’s cousin, will be coming to visit from Paris she is full of hope that he might be the person to help fulfill her ambitions of an exciting life away from Egdon Heath.

The Return of the Native is a complicated story and I’m a little afraid that I might give away too much without even realizing it. So I shall stop with the story telling and try analyzing as much as I can.

This book begins with a description of Egdon Heath. The language is poetic and calming and doesn’t instantaneously pull in firm readers of prose. But as the story progresses it gets difficult to put the book down even for those of us who have a certain fixed limit for serious poetry. I found that I was so engrossed in the story that I wasn’t able to find time to make side notes for later use.

Now I don’t normally read tragedies but this book made me wonder if perhaps I should begin to. Of course the happy ending here was added later by Thomas Hardy to please the unapproving public. But he had initially planned for the characters to carry on with their lives with no remarkable and happy event.

After having completed this book I can’t help going back on my own words and saying that I thought this a very absorbing book. I especially enjoyed the subtleties and the perceptive observations of character and personality that have been described so thoroughly. I liked the fact that the characters had depth and were complicated. They were obviously thought out very carefully.

While reading, I had a feeling that The Return of the Native wasn’t simply to entertain and the story was perhaps only a base or a vehicle, if you will, for the thoughts and ideas that Hardy wanted to share. The afterword in my copy of the book was written by Horace Gregory and he confirms this thought.

“Hardy observed life with the eye of a great poet. His literary guides were the King James version of the Bible (much of his concern was for the Fall of Man, man leaving the Garden of Eden and passing out of the sight of God), Greek tragedy, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth.”

I think it was the descriptions and the analysis of every situation and character that made up a major portion of the story as well as the complications.

One interesting thing about this book was the Reddleman, also known as Digory Venn, a person trading in red dye. He loves Thomasin Yeobright and had approached her. When she refused he left Egdon Heath and took up the reddle trade. He loves Thomasin to the extent of devoting himself to her happiness at all costs, even when it causes him unhappiness. The reddleman, though not exactly omniscient, is in a position where he knows most of what is happening on all sides. He adds an interesting element to the story.

Another thing that made this book stand out was the Narrative. The story is told from an outside view while at the same times from the minds of the characters. I say ‘minds’ because the characters aren’t always aware of why they behave the way they do. Sometimes we know their thoughts. Everything has been described so completely.

Finally, if you’re still hesitant and skeptical about reading this book, like I was when I began, don’t worry. This book is a delight and has kindled in me the curiosity to explore more of Thomas Hardy’s books.

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