Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy


Return of the Native has perhaps one of the most striking heroines in Thomas Hardy's novels. Not as innocent as Sue Brideshead, or sacrificing as Tess Durbeyfield, Eustacia Vye is nevertheless bewitching - far more witchlike than these two. The novel centres around 4 characters, Thomasin Yeobright, Damon Wildeve, Eustacia Vye and Clym Yeobright. Be warned however that Thomasin is not a typical Hardy heroine, passionate and eager, and we do not hear her thoughts. She is practical, not idealistic, and therefore less struck by tragedy than the rest. It is curious to reflect Hardy liked to  .make his idealistic characters fall into tragic circumstances. He seemed to equate that quality with misfortune.
Thomasin Yeobright has been engaged to Damon Wildeve and have run away to get married in another parish. Her aunt is against Wildeve who hasn't got a steady income. He was an unsuccessful engineer who turned to running an inn for a living. This means that he is better educated than the rest but has fallen. He isn't a steady character either. Unfortunately the license is only valid in another parish so they can't marry. Thomasin runs home and her aunt says now her reputation is ruined she must marry Wildeve. Weeks pass and they don't marry because Thomasin is unsure. She thinks she ought to marry Wildeve since they ran away together and people would gossip, but she does not think him as great as she once did. 
Eustacia Vye portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones
In the meantime the other educated person in the district, Eustacia Vye, is dying of boredom in this lonely desolate place, Egdon Heath. She lived in a seaside town called Budmouth in her childhood and misses it, but her family has no money to live in a good way. She lives with her grandfather, a taciturn captain, who seems to be quite a neglectful guardian. They don't mix with the villagers and are called aloof. Eustacia longs for excitement, and her wish is to be loved passionately. Her heroes include Napoleon and powerful figures. Hardy describes her in a way that reminds me of Lamia in Keats. Eustacia is no delicate blonde angel. Her hair is as black as night, her complexion very white, and her features are beautiful in a sensuous way. She is compared to Greek mythology, which seems a bit too much, even for Hardy, but then arguably the novel is meant to reflect certain ancient Greek literary conventions. She looks striking, out of place in Egdon Heath. Even Hardy remarks on it. Eustacia is quite interesting in the beginning, for we get to hear her hopes and wishes, unlike Thomasin's, who is supposed to be the paragon. Although she seems shallow, we can sympathise with her, because she is one of the most intelligent people there and her longings are perfectly justified. 

Some time ago, Wildeve and Eustacia had been lovers (and I mean this in the Victorian sense. Not the modern sense which means you must sleep together, otherwise you're merely dating). Wildeve was quite a charmer, and Eustacia was head in heels in love with him.  They parted later after he deserted her, something which happens again when he takes a long time to marry Thomasin after the elopement. Eustacia had loved him because there was no one better and nothing so interesting as him, and he was the most educated man she knew. I thought it ironic that a love based on shallow grounds should be so passionate rather than flirtatious. But there's Hardy's Darwinism for you. And there's a LOT of Darwinism in this book. But one day while Eustacia lights a bonfire Wildeve sees it and comes to see her. They had used it as a signal in their courtship days. She has heard about his engagement to Thomasin and concludes that since they didn't marry he must still be in love with Eustacia. Which is the wrong picture. But Wildeve is still entranced by her beauty, though he is not always constant to her. The chemistry between them is ill-depicted, as they only seem to discuss their thwarted romance. Hardy is so gloomy. Eustacia urges Wildeve to come to her instead and leave Thomasin but he knows Thomasin is a good girl.
Autumn Leaves by Sir John Everett Millais

In the meantime, an admirer of Thomasin's, Diggory Venn, tries to talk to Eustacia and get her to convince Wildeve to marry Thomasin. Diggory wants Thomasin just to be happy. But Eustacia is too madly in love with Wildeve. Diggory also proposes marriage to Thomasin to protect her reputation but she refuses.

Thomasin's aunt, Mrs Yeobright, tells Wildeve that Thomasin has another suitor and might marry him, hoping this will hurry Wildeve up. It does. When Eustacia hears that Wildeve is jilted, she loses her attraction to him, since someone else doesn't find him so charming. She writes him a letter saying they must cease their understanding.

There's also another reason for this. Mrs Yeobright's son Clym has come home from Paris where he had been working as a jewellery salesman. He is intelligent and better-educated than the rest of the villagers and highly regarded, even though a jewellery salesman may not seem very much to us. In Hardy's former working class roots an ordinary middle-class person with education was considered gentry even though technically they are not. This can be quite confusing to someone accustomed to reading gentry in novels as upper-class or upper-middle class people. Eustacia falls in love with the idea of someone from Paris and arranges to see him. The stable-boy, Charley, who is infatuated with her, is supposed to act a role in a play at the Yeobrights' to celebrate Clym's return. Those day they might invite the whole village, though Eustacia is not included, as she doesn't see the Yeobrights and is standoffish. I think this rather unkind however, because even if Eustacia never visited Mrs Yeobright the latter could have done so to her. Eustacia tells Charley to pretend to be ill and say that Miss Vye's cousin will be playing Charley's part. She takes over his role well, and a few performers suspect her identity.

Eventually she comes to encounter Clym who asks her if she is a woman. She tells him she came because she is bored and depressed and he is curious that a well-spoken lady should dress as a boy, but she will not reveal her identity. I believe she is covered by a hood because he doesn't notice her face.
Victorian schoolroom

Later on, Thomasin and Wildeve marry and move out. Mrs Y is lonely. Clym has ambitions of retiring from the jewelery business to become a schoolmaster in his place. He wants to educate the lowly villagers but Mrs Y says this is foolish, because he will be poor and they cannot be educated to a high level. They may not be interested or have the ability to learn very much. There are so many schoolmasters in that area anyway. But he doesn't listen. He gets to know Eustacia and soon they start walking out together, talking. He hopes she can teach in his future school but she doesn't like the idea and wouldn't be good at it. Eustacia sees him as a man from Paris rather than as an idealist who loves his hometown. While she hates the place he loves it. While she has no inclination for social service he has. She wants to go to Paris some day and hopes to achieve this by marrying him.  And yet we do not feel utterly repugnant towards her. They fall in love, to Mrs Y's disapproval. The chemistry between them is better written than that between her and Wildeve, because it was all sad and thoughtless with Wildeve, and certainly impetuous. Not so with her and Clym. She tells him she would be a bad wife, and not suited to the sort of life he likes. For this I admire her, because she dares to be honest about her weaknesses despite loving Clym, even going to the extent of discouraging their marriage. He says he will go on loving her so they get married and move out. He proposes to read for 6 months to qualify as a schoolmaster in a small cottage and then work. Eustacia hopes he'll change his mind, but anyway goes along with the plan. They seem to be happy initially though she is dissatisfied to be stuck there. 

One day Clym's eyesight is ruined, and he cannot become a schoolmaster, so he takes up furze-cutting, to his wife's humiliation. What is worse, to her, is he enjoys it.

After a quarrel between her and Mrs Y, she is furious and refuses to see her again. Clym is upset as he loves his mother. One day Mrs Y visits their house when he is asleep. Eustacia will not answer the door after the first knock. At the same time  Wildeve is in the house as he came to see her. She confides to him her dissatisfaction. The door knocks a second time and opens. Mrs Y sees her son's boots and knows he is at home. She thinks he doesn't want to see her and then leaves. At the sound of the door opening Eustacia thinks Clym has answered it so she doesn't bother. But afterwards she realised he is still sleeping, so he couldn't have seen his mother.

While on the way home Mrs Y is depressed, thinking she is forsaken by her son. She is bitten by an adder and falls unconscious. Clym encounters her and gets the doctor, but she dies. He is remorseful as he had not seen her for two months although she was only 5 miles away. He later finds out the truth about Eustacia's refusal to open the door and gets angry with her. He also discovers Wildeve was in the house with her and thinks they have been having an affair even though they haven't. Eustacia seems to miss her former lover though she doesn't give in to him, I think because she does love Clym. She did not marry him purely for Paris. She married him because she loved him though Paris had a part in it.

Damon Wildeve has inherited 11000 pounds from a dead relative and wants to go on holiday. He asks Eustacia to come with him. She is tempted though she doesn't want to ruin her reputation. Anyway she returns to her grandfather as Clym is angry with her. After he has cooled down he writes a letter to her but she doesn't get to read it, because she has run away - Clym thinks with Wildeve. He runs to look for her, and sees Wildeve. His wife has slipped into the pool and drowned, and in the confusion Wildeve drowns. Clym never gets over her death and becomes a preacher.

Thomasin inherits her late husband's property and brings up their child with great care. The story is supposed to end here, but Hardy's publishers wanted it longer, so he added another part which he resented. In this part Thomasin marries Diggory Venn. Hardy added a note to say that the perceptive reader will decided what the ending is. What ought to have happened was Diggory Venn disappears, wandering alone, and Thomasin remains a widow. It is also truer to character, as Hardy emphasised the fact Venn is an isolated person, not very good with women. Thomasin is also the sort to remain true to her husband, and not remarry even if the husband was rotten. She does not seem to have much passion or sexuality. And given the fact she is presented as pure, it would be expected such a Victorian woman would rather remain a widow, as it was considered commendable then for widows not to remarry.  She also praised her aunt as being noble for not remarrying after the latter's widowhood. So I will not dwell on Hardy's extended ending as he didn't believe in it. He even made Thomasin coquettish and unsteady, which is not the Thomasin we know.

An important question is, did Eustacia intend to elope with Wildeve? She hoped to reunite with Clym but didn't know he had forgiven her. She did signal for Wildeve to meet her, but her thoughts are anguished. She can't bear the idea of being his mistress and asking him for money. She forgot to take money with her and won't ask him. So we do know she did not intend to become his mistress or she would have asked for his money. She was only using him as an escape out of Egdon Heath, and then presumably they would part. Even Wildeve's thoughts are not quite beastly. He plans to leave half his property to his wife and then devote himself chivalrously to Eustacia, which sounds less adulterous than you'd expect. Eustacia has stopped loving him, and sees him only as a gateway to a new world, so her intentions are not adulterous. Many people interpret the last part as adultery, but I don't think so. Eustacia's cries to him are that of a lonely woman wanting to be free rather than a woman in the throes of passion.

Among the main characters, Thomasin is disappointingly drawn because we don't know her thoughts. Hardy could only portray passionate women - indeed many of his heroines have similarities. They could be an Expy as TvTropes would say. Thomasin is unusual in that she is almost sexless, like Sue Bridehead, and is only really attracted to one man. And we never hear Sue's thoughts either. But I commend him for trying another woman, and indeed Thomasin may be fairly realistic. There are many uninteresting people in the world who are not passionate, and some may well be as good and steady as Thomasin. With little to trouble her existence or serenity there is little to write about her. Hardy was best at troubled characters. He could not detail the foibles and subtle relationships in high society, and high society novels tend to be all relationships and little else, no social issues, great passion, etc. Which is being real (like Jane Austen) but it adds more to our emotional understanding rather than intellectual inspiration. But I digress. Hardy is real in the tragic rather than the happy and the ordinary. He will write a good scene of villagers talking in the pub, but real neutral conversation between intelligent people eludes him, unless there is tragedy in it. This is not to say I dislike Hardy. I like and admire Hardy - he brought symbolism the other Victorians didn't, and despite being modern was very much a Romantic. Those who credit the Modernists with consciously doing symbolism would do well to read Hardy.

Damon Wildeve is better-written, because he has more speaking parts, but we only see him as a failed selfish man. Perhaps Hardy intended this, but considering much of the plot is centred on him we see precious little of his thoughts. We do know he goes back to Thomasin, fearing he might lose her, and his passion for Eustacia, but he seems little more than a sensual, dissatisfied lover. Even Eustacia who has these qualities is more sympathetic - but Hardy's heroines are always sympathetic. I think Hardy had a grudge against Wildeve, which is why he is badly written. Being a respectable man he couldn't fully sympathise with Wildeve. But even without hearing his thoughts, I really don't see how he entrances Eustacia. Hardy interestingly refers to him as the Rousseau of Egdon, as Rousseau emphasised feeling and passion rather than reason. Wildeve is unsteady, which is right. But his passion for his two women fluctuates, so how passionate can that be? He is terribly insensitive as well, and is too much of a wastrel to be a Rousseau. Did Hardy try to see a better side of him by comparing him to Rousseau? Perhaps.

We think of this as the passion between Wildeve and Eustacia, but really the principal cast are Eustacia and Clym. In fact the passion is really nothing but shallow fantasies of a secluded girl and Wildeve is not rendered loveable enough to convince you how he charmed two pretty girls. At least, not in his speech. Even Clym sounds more charming and loveable and his conversation is more pleasing. A charmer is good and pleasing speech, for heaven's sake do something with Wildeve's conversation.

Clym in his days of courtship is quite loveable. He accepts Eustacia's self-deprecations, attempting to cheer her up, and says some very sweet things as lovers ought to (unlike Wildeve). His idealism is touching but too unreal for a man accustomed to the jewellery trade in Paris. One would expect such a sensitive's souls ideals would have been shattered by living abroad. Still, these things happen among intelligent men though they are not common. I like the fact someone as good and cheerful and idealistic as him sees past Eustacia's morbidities. Though it is likely he is attracted to the only educated woman in the area. She is the only woman he has loved deeply. One can't help but wonder whether it is her otherworldliness that attracts him. He wishes to reform the villagers into something better: does he see her as an unearthly girl to reform into his plans? She could be a Wordsworthian Lucy or his idea of a Roussean girl, shielded from commerce and industry and close to nature. He loves nature and wants to share it with her. Clym's and Eustacia's expectations, contrary to what they are, are so real as to render the inconsistencies all right.

Eustacia is the most interesting character. Originally she was meant to be more evil, but thankfully Hardy made her a sympathetic anti-heroine which is more real. You may blame her for wanting to go to Paris, for hating her residence, but it is understandable an intelligent educated girl should want more, and hold herself up high. It is not merely pride that makes her so forbidding to the superstitious villagers (they think she is a witch) but her shyness. Why should she have eluded the respectable Yeobrights so long? Pride can't be the full answer: she was probably not at ease with the idea of meeting them. The fact she loved Clym more than Wildeve redeems her, though she loses her faith in her husband.  I do think Clym made her a better person in teaching her to love someone truly for their goodness (to her, not the village) rather than the wild passion in Wildeve. It is more enduring. Her vanity and shallowness is off-putting - does she read nothing useful, or harbour better thoughts? - but having no chemistry or ease is enough to make one a misanthrope. I was angry she was tempted to run away with Wildeve to go to Paris, because that was not only shallow, but unfaithful. But there's no doubt she's the best-drawn character. Her former relationship with Wildeve is not very convincing - I can imagine why she loved him for a while - but why he loved her and had a relationship goes against the fact she is a secluded miss. How would they know each other? And charmers like him don't go for secluded misses who repel most people she comes into contact with. Also, why does she repel everyone? She is pretty and likes gaieties, there surely must be people with similar temperaments. We do know she disliked school during breaktimes, preferring to read. Perhaps she is a misanthrope. But that is inconsistent in liking gaiety and going out to society. People who avoid others do not seek lively society. I feel it is the ideal of going out to society she wants, and were she to confront the reality it would not be likeable to her. Perhaps Hardy did this deliberately. Even so, her school experiences and her stay in Budmouth would surely have warned her, since she didn't have much society there, avoiding it.

It is tempting to ask, as Miss Rigby did on Jane Eyre, why, despite going to a good school, Eustacia never seems to be in contact with her schoolfriends. Friends then were not what they are now: good schoolfriends would regularly write to each other and friendships were treasured greatly. With less mobility each friendship was special. Acquaintances would talk more to each other, and a modern person seeing their conversation would think of them as friends. Though they would not consider each other friends. So between friends things were greater. I won't believe she despised them all, since she loved Budmouth and the girls must have been of a respectable status. I put it down to feeble characterisation, or some clever way of portraying her as unreal and idealistic which may be too contrived. Hardy was never good at writing about the protagonists' side friendships. One gets the idea the characters here are figures rather than living, breathing individuals, meant to promote Hardy's own ideas. Which is not surprising, as he inserts in a lot of references to myths and philosophy, which seems vain but is a boon to the reader because we get to know what Hardy's intentions were. If it hadn't been by Thomas Hardy you wonder whether this would have lasted all those years.

Overall the themes are excellent - better than A Pair of Blue Eyes, and the story is meant to be powerful and it has power. The characters are flimsy, and you wonder how this became known as a masterpiece, but that is due to the passion and tragedy. There's a great deal of Darwinism, a favourite with Hardy (an obsession I should think), and Rousseau and a good deal of Romanticism. If strictly read as an intellectual novel the book beats most. As an overall classic novel it would not win over Jude and Tess. Even the characters in A Pair of Blue Eyes are better-drawn. Return of the Native is a poem in prose form: the materials are haunting, passionate, poetic, and reminiscent of many things in mythology. As it is set some time in the past perhaps that is why it lacks some of the modernity in Hardy's works. But there is little doubt the plot is timeless, and that is why it is a classic.

I'll be writing later on the annotations in the novel. Watch out for them!

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