Given the era when The Return of the Native was written, it's surprising that Eustacia wasn't cast as the villainess, with Thomasin as the heroine. After all, heroines were often quite virtuous in Victorian era literature – we got stars like Dorothea in Middlemarch, Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit, Jane Eyre from – you guessed it – Jane Eyre.
Eustacia, with her second-degree murder (kind of), her almost-adultery, and her clandestine romances, is more of an anti-heroine, we'd say. But we kind of like her more when she's being bad (like in the scene where she really sticks it to Damon at his wedding – it's a fabulously snobby thing to do). However, Eustacia isn't all that bad; she's more flawed than anything else. Hardy initially planned for her to be much worse. Hardy scholar John Paterson writes that Eustacia "was to have suggested a satanic creature supernatural in origin" (source: The Making of The Return of the Native. University of California Publications: Studies in English 19 (1960). p. 17).
So how did Eustacia go from the devil incarnate to a complicated, moody, and flawed adolescent? Well, Hardy probably made the change for a variety of reasons, probably one being pressure from his publishers who worried about Eustacia's wicked ways.
Hardy may have changed Eustacia for thematic reasons as well. Eustacia as she is in the published novel is someone who is out-of-place and she doesn't quite fit into her surroundings. Themes of survival of the fittest come into play here, as Eustacia is trapped in an unsuitable spot and must either adapt or perish. Eustacia's story is one of lost potential, the interplay of fate and free will, and the consequences of decisions driven by dreams. And none of those ideas would have come across if Eustacia was just a one-dimensional villain.
That's a famous quote from a Marlon Brando movie, On the Waterfront. In the movie, Brando's character can't escape his crummy life circumstances and make a better life for himself. He "could have" done something better, but fate and his own decisions totally work against him.
This story has been told over and over again in a variety of formats, and we often see it told in terms of suffocating small towns that rob people of their potential to do something grander. There's Belle in Beauty and the Beast, who was way too smart for the local yokels in her "provincial" hometown. And let's not forget novels like Madame Bovary and Main Street, which feature bored women rebelling against their small-town circumstances, with pretty bad results (spectacularly bad in Emma Bovary's case).
Like these other characters, Eustacia doesn't fit in with the surrounding town. She's constantly described as some sort of goddess or mystical creature, which doesn't mesh well with the rural locals like Timothy Fairway. The narrator even points out that Eustacia could have been a very different person if she had just lived somewhere else (2.7.6).
But Eustacia undeniably causes a lot of her own problems. She hates the heath and she refuses to even attempt to live her life there; instead, she spends all her time dreaming of other places and plotting her escape through other people. Eustacia longs for a fairy tale rescue, which is apparent in her dreams:
There was, however, gradually evolved from its transformation scenes a less extravagant episode, in which the heath dimly appeared behind the general brilliancy of the action. She was dancing to wondrous music, and her partner was the man in silver armour who had accompanied her through the previous fantastic changes [...]. (2.3.18)
If Eustacia were in a fairy tale, all this would probably pan out for her. Belle, the star of Beauty and the Beast, after all, manages to escape her backwater town by landing a sweet gig as royalty, living it up in a chateau with the world's best library, a hot husband, and lots of musically-inclined servants. But Eustacia is living in a tragedy – and a Thomas Hardy tragedy at that– which means she's doomed from the start.
This doom is foreshadowed throughout the book, and it is particularly highlighted in Eustacia's close relationship with the heath – it even lurks in the background of her dreams. Eustacia may hate the heath, but she's also marked by it. She can never fully escape it.
Eustacia's never going to be free of the heath because she's blended with it. There's a ton of interesting stuff going on in this idea. First, we see how the novel's themes of naturalism are demonstrated through Eustacia. Fate and nature mark her and work against her, and her own efforts to change things just end up failing – her "power" is limited.
The relationship that Eustacia has with the heath is also hugely important in the novel as a whole. The heath and Eustacia reflect one another, and this may be why Eustacia hates the heath as much as she does – it sort of throws her own difficult nature back in her face constantly. Eustacia refuses to adapt and just accept her connection to the heath. As a result, she dies in an attempt to flee the heath.
But it isn't just nature that helps kill Eustacia. The people around Eustacia and her tumultuous relationship with the community around her also cause a lot of a problems. Like Brando in On the Waterfront, Eustacia is a rebel for whom things don't work out.
Eustacia is at the center of multiple triangular relationships in this novel: the love triangle between her, Damon, and Clym; the other love triangle between her, Thomasin, and Damon; and the weird, jealousy-driven triangle between her, Clym, and Mrs. Yeobright.
Eustacia's relationship with the wider community isn't much better than her personal relationships. She isolates herself and behaves arrogantly to those around her. As a result, the people of Egdon gossip about her, think she's a weirdo, and even accuse her of witchcraft. In the end, they seem to like her a lot better when she's dead:
All the known incidents of [Damon and Eustacia's] love were enlarged, distorted, touched up, and modified, till the original reality bore but a slight resemblance to the counterfeit presentation by surrounding tongues. (6.1.1)
In the retelling of Eustacia's life story, everything boils down to tragic love. Love and love stories are a very important part of Eustacia's life, but it's important to notice exactly what kind of love Eustacia wants. In fact, sometimes love often seems to be an afterthought to Eustacia:
To be loved to madness – such was her great desire. [...] And she seemed to long for the abstraction called passionate love more than for any particular lover. (1.7.13)
Eustacia is a material girl, who wants culture and money and excitement. She asks, "Do I desire unreasonably in wanting what is called life – music, poetry, passion, war [...]?" (4.6.33). It often seems like love, to her, is merely a means to an end – a way to get to that exciting, wealthy life she desires. She basically wants to live out one of her romantic dream stories. Love is like a plot device to her, more about adventure than about people.
There's a definite boldness to Eustacia in all this – she knows what she wants and she's willing to do what it takes to get it. But Eustacia also is a shockingly passive character at times, which is unusual for a heroine (though perhaps not so unusual in a novel fixated on tragedy and fate). She's a tends to look for ways to escape reality rather than confront it.
"Let it be as you say, then," she replied in the quiet way of one who, though willing to ward off evil consequences by mild effort, would let events fall out as they might sooner than wrestle hard to direct them. (4.7.25)
This brings us to yet another triangle relationship for Eustacia and a key point about her function in the novel. More than any other character, Eustacia is consistently caught between competing forces – fate and free will, love and hate, the past and the present, the countryside and the city. She's a complicated character that's seemingly made up of disjointed parts – a trait that is reflected in the heath itself, which has the capacity for beauty and horror all at once.
Eustacia often veers between personality traits, and can catch you off guard with her behavior. She's too emotional, too removed from reality, too high-strung. Check out her epic argument with Clym, where she seems to undergo a personality transplant half-way through, much as the heath itself can change its appearance or mood on the turn of a dime:
She was not a woman given to speaking first at a meeting, and she allowed Clym to walk across in silence, without turning her head. (5.3.3)
But after remaining stoically silent for a while, Eustacia finally lets loose.
"I wouldn't tell you after this, if I were as innocent as the sweetest babe in heaven!" (5.3.52)
She then goes back and forth between strong silence and fear, cutting words and pleading for mercy.
How do we explain Eustacia's almost schizophrenic nature? Well, it has a lot to do with her dreamy, romantic personality. See, the problem is that Eustacia lets her dreams overpower her common sense and her own ability to adapt to things. Since she can't or won't deal with reality, she tends to flip out easily or let her thoughts wander off, which makes her hard to deal with and which makes her often unable to handle very emotional situations.
We can see this with her obsession with Paris, which pretty much led her to marry Clym and to blind herself to his true nature. But what's interesting in all this is why Eustacia longs for Paris in the first place. Eustacia essentially argues that she has a right to be selfish, to want things for herself, and to want things for no other reason than her desire. Eustacia, isolated and out-of-place, acts as a counterpoint to the surrounding community and families – she's a powerful individual who longs to be treated as such, but doesn't know how to achieve it.
Eustacia's own personality doesn't just reflect the heath, but also her place in the novel itself. As we noted before, Eustacia is caught in the middle of competing relationships and thematic forces. And this position at the epicenter of dramatic forces is emphasized by frequent scenes that show Eustacia alone.
In a way, Eustacia is a true paradox. She's the epitome of the novel's tragic themes and structure – a doomed figure caught up in competing forces and helpless against her own doom. But she's also a figure that bucks convention, including many of the literary trends and structures, such as Romanticism and classical tragedy. For example, Eustacia is a romantic dreamer who longs for material things more than love; Hardy uses romantic imagery alongside social commentary and cynicism. She's also a tragic figure who manages to sometimes shrug off fate and make her own decisions, for good or ill; Hardy uses classical tragedy as the foundation for a novel that often undermines its own tragic foundation, whether through humor, through realistic details, or through outright sarcasm on the part of the narrator.
Which brings us to the big question surrounding Eustacia – her death. Eustacia's death is bound up in the novel's themes, and in her complicated position in the whole thing. So the question is, was Eustacia's death an accident, the curse of fate bringing about her preordained doom? Or did Eustacia commit suicide, choosing to just go along with fate's planned doom? We're inclined to believe it's a mixture of the two. Eustacia didn't actively commit suicide, but she was certainly careless of her own safety and didn't really care if she did die. But that's just what we think. How about you? The book leaves Eustacia's final moments very ambiguous, which is a rather fitting conclusion to Eustacia's story.