The Return of the Native
by Thomas Hardy
The Homecoming King
Clym is the native who's returning. His very existence in the novel poses two big questions: what makes a native return home, and how does that return go? Clym's return is the driving force of the novel, but Clym himself is not exactly a force to be reckoned with – he spends the novel screwing up one thing after the other and winds up sad and alone. So what's the deal with this guy?
Like Eustacia, Clym is dissatisfied with his life and wants a change. He spends much of the book thinking that he's found a path to change his life. Unfortunately for Clym, he's headlining a tragedy. So it's no surprise that his plans don't go so well.
Clym is yet another character with wasted potential, a life swallowed up by the heath and misfortune. He was a local celebrity, seemingly destined for greatness.
He had been a lad of whom something was expected. Beyond this all had been chaos. [....] The only absolute certainty about him was that he would not stand still in the circumstances in which he was born. (3.1.4)
So Clym's return, while it was temporary, was a celebrated event. But when Clym turned his vacation into a permanent move, people were skeptical and confused. Why couldn't Clym just do what he wanted without any trouble? Well, he seemed to be going against his intended role, and his own narrative trajectory.
Written in Reverse
See, Clym was supposed to be the local golden boy who left and didn't return. He was cast by his own community as an archetypal hero, and heroes tend to leave home and have adventures. They aren't supposed to return home to small-town life. Clym starts out as a modern man of the world and ends up doing a pale imitation of Jesus delivering sermons as a preacher.
What's fascinating about Clym is that he chose to return to the place he was supposed to have escaped. We're reminded of Spoon's song "Written in Reverse," (hence the section title) because that's essentially what happened to Clym. He was supposed to be the hero who left home and went on to bigger and better things. Instead, Clym starts rewinding his own life, willingly returning to his roots, and then suffering a series of tragedies that leave him poor, broken, and alone. The universe itself seems to think Clym's return was a bad move.
We can learn a lot about Clym from this crucial decision to return home. Clym doesn't see the decision as a failure. In fact, he actually loves the heath and wants to be there. His love of the heath helps him stand out in a novel full of heath-haters (see Eustacia and Damon).
"Can you say so?" he asked. "To my mind it is most exhilarating and strengthening, and soothing. I would rather live on these hills than anywhere else in the world." (3.3.81)
It's a lot like how some characters on Lost treat the show's mystical island – it isn't that good for them, but they just can't stay away. But Clym argues that the wealthy world of Paris wasn't good for him either – he calls it "flashy" and "effeminate" and claims to "hate" it (3.2.18).
Clym is trying to make a Point with a capital P here. He's rocking out the social commentary and he's stubbornly committed to making his point. The problem is, Clym isn't entirely clear on what that point actually is.
As a hero in a Naturalist novel, Clym has a fairly raw deal. He's got fate and nature working against him. Clym comes across as a traditional hero, filled with big ideas and good-looking, to boot. But Clym isn't all that much of a hero. He's very flawed. He makes poor decisions, he procrastinates, and he's got bad relationship skills.
Clym's flaws are front-and-center in his relationships with the novel's three main women, in particular. In fact, Clym is often more of a nexus point for the novel's women than he is an active hero in his own right. We can see this in the scenes leading up to Mrs. Yeobright's death. Eustacia and Mrs. Yeobright do most of the acting here, while Clym literally sleeps through the whole thing. And his procrastination also plays a role in Eustacia's death. Clym waits around at home for Eustacia to come back while she's running around on the heath and then drowning.
"There," he said, as he laid [the letter] on his desk, "that's a good thing done. If she does not come before tomorrow night I will send it to her." (5.6.30)
Clym is kind of full of himself, patting himself on the back for writing a letter and then not even bothering to mail it right away. In fact, Clym's relationships with the novel's major female characters are marked largely by arrogance, wasted time, false impressions, and overly-idealized views. This is especially true of his relationship with his mother and his wife.
Clym alternately idealizes and vilifies the women in his life, especially his wife and mother, but also Thomasin to a lesser extent – he is genuinely shocked about her scandalous relationship with Damon since he can't see her as anything other than a well-behaved young lady.
Clym definitely has something of an Oedipus complex in regards to his mom. In fact, Clym ends up marrying a woman who has a lot of similarities to his own mom – Eustacia and Mrs. Yeobright may fight as much as they do because they're too much alike. Clym seems to pick up on the similarities as well – he describes both of them as true "ladies" and compares Eustacia to a "goddess" (3.5.70) and describes his mother as nearly divine in her "goodness" (5.3.59).
In the original Greek Oedipus story, Oedipus accidentally marries his own mother and, after discovering the truth, gouges his own eyes out. Well, that's one way to express your grief. This just goes to show that Hardy has a twisted sense of humor. Because Clym goes essentially blind in the novel, and it is kind of self-inflicted – he studies too hard and completely ruins his eyesight.
To be doomed to behold the world through smoked glass for an indefinite period was bad enough, and fatal to any kind of advance; but Yeobright was an absolute stoic in the face of mishaps which only affected his social standing [...]. (4.2.39)
Clym demonstrates two kinds of blindness here. He's physically almost blind and he is "blind" to Eustacia in a way since he isn't overly concerned about his social status, which Eustacia bitterly points out impacts her too. Clym's mom also frequently mentions his "blindness" and how he doesn't see things clearly. She calls him a fool, basically, but uses vision metaphors to do it. Thanks for being thematic, Mrs. Yeobright!
"You are blinded, Clym," she said warmly. "It was a bad day for you when you first set eyes on her. And your scheme is merely a castle in the air built on purpose to justify this folly [...]." (3.3.142)
Clym's literal blindness is a reflection of his own internal state. And the novel's imagery reflects this aspect of Clym's character as well.
He was a brown spot in the midst of an expanse of olive-green gorse, and nothing more. [...] His daily life was of a curious microscopic sort, his whole world being limited to a circuit of a few feet from his person. (4.2.57)
Clym's decision to return home effectively drives the entire plot of the novel. But for Clym himself, that decision literally causes his world to shrink; he's essentially swallowed up by the world he chose to return to.
In the end, Clym is a very myopic character, meaning that he has limited vision. He literally and figuratively fails to fully see the world and especially the people around him, and this leads him to frequently procrastinate. Clym's failure to see clearly also translates itself into his murky status as the novel's hero – Clym isn't very clear on what he wants and, as a result, isn't very clear on who he is or who he wants to be.