Friday, 6 July 2012

Lasting Impressions: Eustacia Vye

I never was quite satisfied with Hardy's character in the Return of the Native. Perhaps he had not fully realised his female creations then (it was 1878, still early in his writing career). But certainly Eustacia is more vivid than Bathsheba Everdene, if not so realistic to the cynic.  But I would dispute that for a start.

Eustacia in her younger days lived in a seaside town called Budmouth, and due to straitened circumstances, lives with her grandfather in desolate Egdon Heath, which she hates. She is bored and lonely, and is still in love with her former lover, Damon Wildeve, who is engaged to another girl. But when Clym Yeobright, diamond manager returns from Paris, she transfers her affections to Clym and dumps Wildeve. It is curious, almost sad, that love is her intention, rather than a lover.
To be loved to madness--such was her great desire. Love was to her the one cordial which could drive away the eating loneliness of her days. And she seemed to long for the abstraction called passionate love more than for any particular lover.
 For a young woman of nineteen this seems pretty intense, but Hardy's more outstanding heroines are never conventional. It is an ideal rather than a specific object than holds her in thrall, and I can't help being fascinated by this. There is something almost detached in this passion.
And so we see our Eustacia--for at times she was not altogether unlovable--arriving at that stage of enlightenment which feels that nothing is worth while, and filling up the spare hours of her existence by idealizing Wildeve for want of a better object. This was the sole reason of his ascendency: she knew it herself. At moments her pride rebelled against her passion for him, and she even had longed to be free. But there was only one circumstance which could dislodge him, and that was the advent of a greater man.
 You might scorn her lack of affection, but you must admire her need to idealise, a way to cope in her boredom. It also makes her more complicated: we know she knows her passion is fatal, and wants to be free, so she is not entirely stupid. And this need to idealise points to a higher mind that seeks greater feelings. She is not content with mere flirtation: she must have more, or be unhappy. This makes her more deep than the fickler heroines, though Eustacia is far from ideal or holy. The last sentence is quite a shaker to the passion, and plays on Hardy's Darwinian beliefs in Sexual Selection. It is quite rare for a major Victorian novelist to be so open about Darwinism, but here we have it.
Darwin on sexual selection

Another thing I never quite understood was the circumstances of her death. Was it an accident or suicide? She falls into a pool, just as Ophelia fell into a river, while trying to run away with Wildeve to France. Some say it was suicide, because she is upset that having run away from her husband to commit adultery, she knows she will never be accepted by society, and so kills herself in despair. I doubt it. She had thought of shooting herself before, so why didn't she? Besides, she is excited about going away to France, so why put an end to her escape? She is filled with remorse at leaving Clym, and she is worried because she does not want to commit adultery either. So the adultery explanation doesn't quite work. The most probable answer is  that she stood at the edge of the pool, contemplating her fate, not caring what happened to her, and she slipped and fell into the pool. The parallel to Ophelia is quite clever, and Hardy could be making the reader ask the same question. Only this novel is more definite than Hamlet. We see a woman in confusion and despair, at crossroads, until fate killed her. It is her environment she cannot adapt to, more so when it ends up killing her - a useful metaphor for natural selection.  She was too weak to resist the forces of nature, and that is why she died. If we see it symbolically it makes sense. Hamlet is about a young man who is too weak to resist his circumstances, just like Ophelia, and her descendant, Eustacia. If Hardy saw this in the play he might have expanded on it in his novel.  But this is speculation. Let's give Hardy his due.
Ophelia by Millais

If Eustacia deliberately committed suicide, he could have said so. Her last known thoughts were not fully anguished. It was at the point of her future ascent (possibly getting money from Wildeve, though she didn't want to and intended not to, and going to a big city) that she dies. It is as if Fate is all out to prevent her from ever succeeding. Hardy does use this motif in Tess and Jude, so it is likely he did it earlier on in Return of the Native and only improved on it later. If Eustacia did commit suicide it would mean she didn't strive enough to get out of Egdon Heath, and therefore she has her lack of efforts rather than fate to blame. Hardy was into Natural selection, and he preferred to blame circumstances rather than the individual's lackadaisical behaviour for their misfortunes. His protagonists are not lackadaisical; they are unfortunate. If Eustacia had been so weak as to kill herself, the power of fate, circumstance and natural selection would not be so impressed upon the reader in the form of a cruel, unfeeling environment: Egdon Heath. The reader would blame Eustacia, not her surroundings.

So what do you think? Did or did she not commit suicide?

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