The novel entitled “The Return of the Native” by Thomas Hardy was always perceived ambivalently, as the plot itself is to great extent paradoxical. First and foremost, “The Return to the Native” is a novel about human desire to escape or break free, in which the person uses any available methods. One of the main characters of the book, Eustacia Vye, is an embodiment of this spirit of liberation and breach of heath as a prison, where her revolutionary spirit is actually locked. Thus, the central theme in “The Return of the Native” is Eustacia’s escape from the heath, manifested first and foremost through using ancient Greek symbols, whereas the other characters are to certain degree secondary, as they are designed to help or create additional barriers to her flight.
Eustacia is a 19-year-old sensual beauty, who has only one dream: to be strongly loved by a worthy man, who would take her way from this desolate Egdon Heath settle down somewhere in exotic lands. Due to the fact that she lives in a bleak localty, the only worthy man she meets is Damon Wildeve, an inn owner, very passionate and impulsive personality. Both partners in this couple seem to fit each other in terms of their sensual natures and the desire to play with another’s affections: “”You give me no peace. Why do you not leave me alone? I have seen your bonfire all the evening.” The words were not without emotion, and retained their level tone as if by a careful equipoise between imminent extremes” ( Hardy, 2001, at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/122, Book 1, Ch.6).
The young woman, in turn, carries and presents herself as extremely determined and psychologically resistible person: being asked by Wildeve is he caused her pain, she responds: “”But perhaps it not wholly because of you that I get gloomy”, she archly added. “It is my nature to feel like that. It was born in my blood, I suppose” (Hardy, 2001, Book 1, Ch.6). On the other hand, Wildeve cannot endure such a cruel lovegame for a long time and decided to marry Thomasin Yeobright, a humble and simple girl with kind and loving heart, who seeks to create a supportive family and live in the heath. However, on their wedding day, the marriage license appears invalid – this either deliberate or unintentional act, coducted by Wileve, deeply hurts and humiliates Thomasin, the girl therefore rejects Wildeve (Alcorn, 1977).
In this sense, Eustacia is forced to search for another appropriate person to connect her life with, as she decided to reject Wildeve. “She often repeated her prayers; not at particular times, but, like the unaffectedly devout, when she desired to pray. Her prayer was always spontaneous, and often ran thus, “O deliver my heart from this fearful gloom and loneliness, send me great love from somewhere, else I shall die” (Hardy, 2001, Book 1, Ch.7). Later, Eustacia meets young Clym Yeobright, Thomasin’s cousin and early love. Thus, it seems like Eustacia intentionally tries to destroy Thomasin’s happiness, but in fact the former is blind in her desire to leave the heath. On the other hand, in order to ensure Clym hasn’t fallen in love with Thomasin again, she helps arrange Thomasin and Wildeve’s marriage. Thus, the couple begin their family life, even though Diggory Venn, a true embodiment of unselfish and sacrificing love, who has been loving Thomasin for years, proposes to her.
Eustacia, in turn, accept Clym’s proposal, but financial problems and Clym’s progressing eye disease gradually undermine their relationships. Mrs.Yeobright shares her capital equally between her niece Thomasin and her son Clym, but because of Venn’s machinations, Eustacia and Clym do not receive their half. Furthermore, because Clym’s eyesight deteriorates, he is not able to teach at school and therefore decided to work as furze-cutter, although both Mrs.Yeobright and Eustacia are extremely discontent with this choice. In fact, the young woman has expected a totally different life: due to the fact that Clym has recently returned from Paris, he still has a kind of “glamorous cover” (Carpenter, 1964, 188) on his appearance, manners and erudition, so his young spouse hopes to move to Paris, “a gay city” (Hardy, 2001, Book 2,Ch.4). When she realizes that her goal is unachievable, Eustacia meets with Wildeve in order to ask him for assistance in her flight – the young man, tired of Thomasin and longing for new adventures, elopes with Eustacia, but on their path to absolute freedom, the two ex-lovers sink in the weir.
As Judith Mitchell states, “What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does” (Mitchell, 1993, TCLC, at www.enotes.com). Indeed, the description of Eustacia’s personality is quite useful in the central theme of freedom, or break-through.
The character is on the one hand very realistic, but not typical for Victorian society, as Eustacia’s portrayal is saturated with pagan motifs. First of all, “Hardy connects her to the Tartarean heath by speaking of her first as “the raw material of a divinity””(Alcorn, 1977, p. 311). The author implies that Eustacia is a goddess exiled from her own Olympus represented by the so-called beau-monde of Budmouth and placed because of his grandfather’s whim to the Tartar of the heath. The author often refers to her as to a character of ancient tragedy and mentions her habit to act as a prophetess “ of Delphian ambiguity” (Vigar, 1974, p. 274).
All aforementioned features make the character similar to the Godden of the Underworld, Hecate, as well as to Cumaean Sybil (Vigar, 1974). Due to the fact that in Hardy’s epoch witchcraft and the control over the other world were implicitly viewed by the signs of freedom, impermissible freedom from societal mores, Eustacia is one of hypostases of the spontaneity and otherness, but enormous willpower and independence were needed to reveal these traits at the time of Victoria’s reign (Alcorn, 1977; May, 1986)). “Hardy’s description of her soul as “flame-like” suggests the torment that the fraudulent consellors Ulysses and Diomedes suffer in Limbo, “as viewed from the brink by the sublime Florentine,” Dante Alighieri, in his Inferno” (May, 1986, p. 117). Eustacia’s unruly desires and mysterious nature, conflicting with her social status, are indicative in terms of the freedom and escape theme.
Another argument in favor of the importance of flight as major plotline of the novel is the description of the heath as a separate and self-sufficient character (Alcorn, 1977; may, 1986)). On the one hand, the heath is a setting of the writing, so it is important as a background of all events. On the other hand, the heath seems to live its own life, moreover, seems to leave deep footprints in the relationships among the characters. For instance, Venn adores this place and therefore plans to build his future in Edgon Heath, Thomasine seems deeply ‘acculturated’ and ‘acclimatized’ to its mood (Vigar, 1974), even Clym, who has returned from the lush city, seems hypnotized by the heath so that he stays in this forgotten place instead of moving with his young wife to a more appropriate place, where the couple is more likely to find new impressions and interest in life.
“The heath is a driving force in itself, a force that goes by its own free will and nature” (Vigar, 1974, p.147). As for Eustacia, she is the only character, who feels the miasmas of gloom and spiritual impoverishment, coming from the heath, thus, the place becomes its rival and creates new obstructions and barriers to Eustacia’s flight. The heath interferes into her relationship with Wildeve, who often sees her sweetheart gloomy and depressed because of her daily routines, close-knit with the heath. The local climate is so dangerous that it causes the deterioration of Clym’s health state, so that Eustacia is literally bonded by the place (May, 1986; Vigar, 1974). Finally, when her struggle with the element reaches culmination and the woman attempts to elope with Wildeve, the merciless heath kills both, just like prison guard stops a fugitive with leaden bullets. As it has been mentioned, analyzing the meta-context of the novel, one can understand, that the heath is parallelized to the Tartar, and as one knows from Greek mythology, the Hell is not merely a place, but also a divinity of this place. Accordingly, Eustacia’s ‘war’ with the heath can be parallelized to the clash between two Greek deities, the imprisoned and the prison-keeper.
The woman’s confrontation with the place might also point to her rejection of the local community and the circumstances, by which she is encumbered. In this sense, “Through the mechanism of allusion, association and metaphor, the psychological passes into the mythical” (Vigar, 1974, p. 263). Eustacia’s dissatisfaction with the place is supplemented and reinforced by lack of respect for the local inhabitants, who seriously regard her as a witch, so the heath cannot be accepted as an archetypal and cozy home in any case. Furthermore, “Throughout the course of the story, Eustacia senses that, no matter how she tries to avert it, her end will come as a victory not only for Egdon Heath but also for the community that has imbibed its spirit” (Vigar, 1974, p. 265). Her tragic death in the pool of Shadwater Weir to certain degree supports the claim about Eustacia’s witch-identity, as seeking to flee the socially-controlled institution of marriage and community life, she sinks in the “boiling caldron” (Vigar, 1974, p. 265), a traditional method of witch identification in the Middle Ages. Although her physical expiration cannot be interpreted as her victory over Egdon Heath, her soul is nevertheless liberated from her existence in the world of interpersonal proximity with complete alienation implied.
Some critics (May, 1986; Carpenter, 1964), however, suggest that there exists another hypostasis of Eustacia, an earthy, but romantic girl. As may states, Hardy “was interested in synthesizing the two, so that the reader may have in Eustacia both a naïve, romantic nineteen-year-old and a would-be pagan deity. Only her death can resolve this tension between her anomalous natures. The eternal rigidity of death freezes her into a transitional state between the fervor of her psychological character and the resignation of her archetypal position” (May, 1986, p.125). As one can understand, Eustacia’s desire to leave the place can be probably associated with her will to escape from herself, her Victorian alter ego, which prescribes that all 19-year-old girls should be romantic and naïve and behave just like Thomasin, i.e. reveal no demands and demonstrate submission and fidelity. Due to the fact that this psychological duality is invincible and that it is impossible to escape from oneself, only physical destruction appears a workable solution of Eustacia’s inner problem.
To sum up, instead of depicting social struggle as a typical theme of a Victorian novel, Hardy draws the images of almost mythical clash between a Greek goddess, forced to live in the body of Eustacia, and the deity of Tartar, or the heath, in which the former tries to overcome the latter through escaping from the odious place. Moreover, the pagan goddess seeks to separate from her social ‘shell’, the nineteen-year-old idealist, who controls her desires and passions because of the community pressure. Thus, there are two closely interwoven aspects in the central theme of flight; both of them have the same tragic outcome, inferring that the true freedom comes only after death.
Alcorn, J. The Nature Novel from Hardy to Lawrence. MY: Columbia University Press, 1977.
Carpenter, R. Thomas Hardy. New York: Twayne, 1964.
Hardy, T. The Return to the Native. Available online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/122
May, C. “The Magic of Metaphor in the Return to the Native”. Colby Library Quarterly, 1986, 22 (2): 117-135.
Mitchell, J. “Hardy’s Female Reader”, in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, available online at: http://www.enotes.com/twentieth-century-criticism/hardy-thomas/judith-mitchell-essay-date-1993, 1993.
Vigar, P. The Novels of Thomas Hardy: Illusion and Reality. London: The Athlone Press, 1974.