Given how many different genres this book has working together, it's not surprising that we have a lot of different tones here too. Layers of tone, like a complex musical piece. First up, we have the distant and philosophical tones, which are basically a brainy sort of distance from the action. The narrator frequently analyzes events and people, and especially the landscape, without getting emotionally involved in it. There's very little sympathizing here; instead, there's a lot of intellectual pondering, which often happens through a bunch of allusions. And the narrator isn't the only one who's philosophical and fond of observing things in a fairly detached way. Just check out this dialogue from Eustacia:
"No. Only I dread to think of anything beyond the present. What is, we know. We are together now, and it is unknown how long we shall be so." (3.4.66)
If she had launched into some "To be, or not to be" there, we wouldn't be surprised at all. But this isn't to say that the entire novel is filled with deep thoughts and intellectual ideas. We also have a lot of romance, and the tone of the novel definitely reflects that. But even the romantic comparisons can't escape the philosophical tendencies, or the humor (yes, humor) that's present in the novel.
They were like those double stars which revolve round and round each other, and from a distance appear to be one. The absolute solitude in which they lived intensified their reciprocal thoughts; yet some might have said that it had the disadvantage of consuming their mutual affections at a fearfully prodigal rate. (4.1.2)
We start out with a very romantic description of stars orbiting one another, but the tone shifts in the back half of this section. We get a reference to "some might have said," which is always a good sign of philosophy at work; the all-knowing "some" or "one" say so. And we end with a display of rather snarky British humor, with the reference to a "fearfully prodigal rate." It's a snooty way of saying that Eustacia and Clym's summer romance won't last.
It's the wit and humor of the novel that's really worth noting here. Word choices, little throw-away lines, and snarky asides from the narrator and other characters can really catch you off guard in this largely serious novel. But it's these little displays of humor in the tone that keep the novel from becoming too overbearing and depressing. Check out this paragraph, which starts off with a melodramatic tone and ends with some snark:
The wings of her soul were broken by the cruel obstructiveness of all about her [...] She uttered words aloud. When a woman in such a situation [...] takes upon herself to sob and soliloquize aloud there is something grievous in the matter. (5.7.19)
The narrator is kind of making fun of a super distraught Eustacia here. But this display of humor isn't totally out of place. The humor also feeds into the distance and intellectual-bent of the tone. Humor here has a distancing effect and helps the novel as a whole shy away from sentimentality.
This novel is the stuff Masterpiece Theatre productions are made of – it's filled with brooding, attractive people who are all doomed. Like a good drama, this novel keeps you on edge with all the foreboding hints of the future and all the anguish of the past and present.
Life in this novel is largely serious and often miserable, and the focus of the story is on human interaction. This human interaction is embedded in a larger context, though, with themes such as nature, fate, history, and society swirling around the characters. So this novel is both a human drama, with a focus on characters, and a socially-conscious drama, with a focus on broader social issues and themes.
And there's even a third type of drama that comes into play in the novel's style: theater. We'll get into that more when we hit the "Tragedy" section, so stay tuned.
This novel is definitely a tragedy. But how are drama and tragedy different? We're glad you asked. As we noted above, dramas can be serious, moody, edge-of-your-seat experiences, as well as thought-provoking, emotional, and sad. Just check out the types of TV shows that get nominated for Emmys in the "Drama" category, and you'll see how varied the definition of drama can be.
Tragedies often do all those things too, but the key to tragedy lies in the ending – if the ending involves a huge amount of death and destruction and if happily-ever-afters are conspicuously lacking, then you are probably looking at a tragedy. Hardy was inspired by theatrical dramas and tragedies when he wrote this novel. (You can read more about that in the "In a Nutshell," "Style," and "What's Up with the Ending?" sections). Hardy especially drew upon the structure of Greek and Shakespearean tragedies in this novel. And those tragic plays generally ended with most of the main characters dead and everyone else fairly miserable. Granted, Thomasin and Diggory get a pretty happy ending by the end, but even their ending can't alleviate the overall tragic impression left by all the deaths and by Clym's miserable state at the end.
The cool thing about this genre is that it was also an influential literary movement back in the day (i.e., the late nineteenth century). As a genre and as a style of writing, Realism was becoming super popular when Hardy was writing The Return of the Native. Some of the key traits of Realism that you can see in this novel are a concern with social conditions and the lower class, a general lack of happy and idyllic human relationships, a focus on money, and a concern with the natural world. Realist novels try to depict life as it actually is, not as people wish it could be. And after reading this, you really can't accuse Hardy of wearing rose-tinted glasses – this book is a downer.
But Hardy also diverged slightly from straight-up Realism through his interest in Naturalism, a literary type of realist style that emphasized ideas of fate, nature, the impersonal and mean attitude of the universe at large, social Darwinism (survival of the fittest), and the fairly insignificant place of mankind in the universe. Overall, the very practical and socially-focused style of the novel make it a good example of Realism, but it's worth noting the Naturalistic elements at work too.
OK, so we just went on for a while about Realism and now we're bringing up its polar opposite. What gives? Well, Romance isn't diametrically opposed to Realism, meaning that the two can sometimes work together hand-in-hand. In The Return of the Native, Hardy uses a lot of romantic elements, often to create a sense of contrast and irony with his realist aspects. For more on what makes a description romantic, check out the "Style" section.
This title certainly seems straightforward enough – it's all about a native who is, well, returning. Somewhere.
All right, so that interpretation, brought to you by Captain Obvious, isn't going to get you very far. And, fortunately for us, Hardy really loves his metaphors and his deeper meanings, so this title is far from being completely literal. In fact, this novel explores more than one kind of "return."
But there really is a returning native in this book – a long-absent native of Egdon Heath returns from Paris and stirs up drama. The story of this returning native is kind of like the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, but with a twist. In the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), a son who loved to party and waste money finally partied himself out and came home, humbled, to ask for help from the family he had long ignored.
Hardy's returning native, Clym, was actually a better son than that while he was living abroad. But he also returns home only to enter into conflict with his family. Clym then falls upon increasingly hard times after returning home. So much for all those aphorisms (educational sayings) about how there's "no place like home," and "home is where the heart is," and "home is super great and you should go back there." We may have made that last one up. At any rate, the return home in this novel is a bit of a disaster. Apparently, Thomas Hardy has a lot in common with another famous Thomas – American novelist Thomas Wolfe, whose well-known 1940 novel taught us that You Can't Go Home Again.
This idea of not being able to go home again brings us to the deeper meaning of "Return," and "Native" in The Return of the Native. See, after the native returns in Hardy's novel, a question surrounds him: will this native son remain or will he leave once more to Paris? And how much of a "native" is he anymore? Will he "return" to being a native once more, or is he destined to be different? And Clym isn't the only one who inspires questions about what a return entails, or means. Questions about what a return means surround other characters in the novel, like our female protagonist who may or may not "return" to her ex-boyfriend, and our male antagonist who may or may not "return" some money to its rightful owner.
The word "return" has a lot of meanings in this novel and it's always surrounded by questions of longevity and intent. In other words, how long do returns last and why do people decide to return or not to return in the first place? This title conveys one of the major themes of the novel: choice. All returns are a result of a choice and all sorts of returns in this novel cause a lot of drama.
Melodrama and drownings abound at the end of this novel. Basically, half the main cast is dead by the end, and a third of the survivors are crippled with a permanent case of moodiness. This type of ending seems fairly typical of Victorian romance and drama – just check out George Eliot's 1860 novel Mill on the Floss for more tragic drownings. This type of ending also has a lot in common with the French realist novels the came out in the nineteenth century, by authors like Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo (who wrote of a drowning in Les Misérables).
Why bring up French novels when we're talking about an English one? Well, a lot of critics noticed the similarities between Hardy's novel and the French realist novels like Madame Bovary, which featured a tragic ending as well. In 1878, a reviewer wrote that The Return of the Native ends after "a second chapter of accidents sends the heroine to death by drowning. And the hero [...] is left to live on [...] It is all very mournful, and very cruel, and very French" (source: Barnes and Noble edition, appendix, 426). Quel dommage! (Or "what a pity," but it sounds more dramatic in French.)
But is Hardy really rocking out his French Connections (movie pun!) and his Victorian melodramatic leanings with this ending of sorrow and woe and drowning? Well, he is and he isn't. Hardy is also giving a shout-out to Tragedy (yes, capital T) in the classical sense here. See, Hardy largely modeled this novel after Greek tragedy, or dramatic tragic plays from ancient Greece that consisted of a series of acts and a chorus. We also see elements of Shakespearean tragedy in this novel, with all the doomed lovers and familial suffering and misunderstandings and death. Lots of death. And woe. Don't forget the woe.
The deaths at the end of this novel are definitely tragic in a Greek way. The two drowning victims, Eustacia and Damon Wildeve, are victims of an angry Mother Nature and of fate. We get a sense that these two are doomed a few chapters before they even approach the water that's going to kill them. First, we get a sense of a doomed atmosphere: "The gloom of the night was funereal; all nature seemed clothed in crape" (5.7.16). And our heroine is also cast as the walking dead a few minutes before she actually dies. She's described as a "sobbing" ghost-like figure (5.8.99). So, back to the similarities to Greek tragedies, the ancient dramas often featured deus ex machina devices, a term that literally means "fate from the Gods." In other words, some God or "fate" would interfere in the lives of our characters and cause tragedy. Hardy's vicious storm and doomed drowning victims fit the bill here.
But The Return of the Native also features a very substantial epilogue that goes on for a pretty long time. This epilogue seems downright anticlimactic after the intense drowning ending. And that may have been the point. Hardy's epilogue may have deliberately undermined the intensity of the drownings in order to move the emphasis to another major aspect of this novel: Realism. With the epilogue, Hardy shows that life goes on in some form or fashion and that some good things can come out of a disaster, though certainly not for everyone.
One other thing worth noting about the ending(s) of the novel: Hardy only originally planned for the first (drowning) ending. The original epilogue he wrote was much shorter and much sadder – the three surviving characters were all left alone and miserable after the deaths of Eustacia and Damon. Here's Hardy's own footnote on the matter, left in the novel:
The writer may state here that the original conception of the story did not design a marriage between Thomasin and Venn. He was to have retained his [...] weird character to the last, and to have disappeared mysteriously from the heath [...] - Thomasin remaining a widow. But certain circumstances of serial publication led to a change of intent. (6.3.46)
Hardy goes on to tell readers that they can imagine whatever ending they think is best here, so he sort of became the first person to ever write a Choose Your Own Adventure story. Good job, Hardy! Basically, Hardy faced pressure from his audience, his publishers, and his own bank account, and so decided to write an ending that would be a crowd-pleasing moneymaker, even though it rankled his artistic sensibilities. It really is fascinating that the readers of this novel, coming from the land of Shakespearean tragedy, didn't have the stomach, apparently, for a harsher ending. But as much as the Victorian-novel-reading public didn't mind their sad endings and their drownings, they did want at least some of the cast to get a happy ending. The type of flat-out tragedy that Hardy wanted to create in novel form was apparently more suited to France at this time period; he jumped the gun a bit in England.
We actually feel a little weird talking about Egdon Heath as just a setting – it's really more of a character. In fact, Hardy goes to a lot of trouble to set up the heath as a character at the beginning of the novel. We start out with some very lengthy descriptions of the heath and absolutely zero people. And we go even longer without any dialogue. The way the heath is described in this introduction is crucial.
The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn [...] and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking dread. (1.1.2)
In it lay what may be called the linguistic peculiarity of the heath; and being audible nowhere else on earth off a heath, it afforded a shadow of reason for the woman's tenseness [...]. (1.6.4)
The heath is personified here, which is a fancy way of saying that Hardy describes an inanimate object (the heath) as if it were a living person, with a "face" and a "voice." But what kind of person is the heath? To find out, we're going to check out the various "faces" of the heath, so to speak, and see what its role is in the novel overall. Let's go.
We first meet Egdon Heath at night, with an introduction that really helps set the tone for the entire novel. In the above quote, the heath is a little bit sinister, what with its ominous, black-hole-like ability to suck the light out of things. The heath is an untamed place and the people on it seem very small in comparison. In fact, the heath doesn't just swallow up light; it can swallow up people as well!
The form was so much like an organic part of the entire motionless structure that to see it move would have impressed the mind of a strange phenomenon. (1.2.46)
We also get a strong sense of the isolating effect of the heath during the chapters featuring the Guy Fawkes Night bonfires (1.3). The bonfires seem like little islands in the dark heath:
In the valleys of the heath nothing save its own wild face was visible at any time of day [...] None of its features could be seen now, but the whole made itself felt as a vague stretch of remoteness. [...] Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round. (1.3.3-4)
The heath's "wild face" crops up again here. But the heath is also cast as a sort of universe, which is hugely significant. Characters often note that the heath is all they can see, that it seems to be the entire world (see Eustacia at 5.7.1 and Clym at 3.5.69). Egdon functions as an all-encompassing universe. And in this scene, the dark heath is like a night sky and the bonfires are like tiny suns in the heath's solar system. This is definitely fitting since the heath just swallows things up and almost blots them out; it's no mistake that in certain areas the heath is all that people can see.
But it's worth noting the role of the bonfires here as well. They harken back to a sort of ancient, primitive past where people used bonfires for light and warmth, not just for celebration. This is definitely fitting since the heath is also directly linked to ancient pasts throughout the book, particularly to the Celts and the ancient Romans. The darkness here acts like a sort of literal "dark ages," and ties into all the ideas of ancient pasts and age that are swirling around the heath. But, often, the narrator comes right out and says "the heath is old" (it's more poetic than that, though), which is nice and helpful.
[T]o know that everything around and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the irrepressible New. The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim. (1.1.11)
There's an interesting dichotomy set up here. The heath is "prehistoric," and is always there, which implies that it's very old – much older than the folks prancing around on it. But the heath is also "unaltered," which suggests that the heath isn't so much aging as it is outlasting everything around it. So the heath becomes almost god-like here, immortal and unchanging. And just like on Survivor, Egdon Heath outlasts and outplays everything around it and on it, including those pesky little people with their bonfires, which inevitably burn out.
We see evidence of the heath's resiliency, or ability to last, throughout the novel:
But as for Yeobright [...] he could not help indulging in a barbarous satisfaction at observing that, in some o the attempts at reclamation from the waste, tillage [...] had receded again in despair, the ferns and furze-tufts stubbornly reasserting themselves. (3.2.8)
There's something competitive about Egdon Heath here. It often seems to fight back against the people inhabiting it and changing it (recall its dislike of anything "new"). Maybe the heath should see a therapist for its fear of change. At any rate, this competitive spirit ties into another very important theme in the novel: Social Darwinism.
What is Social Darwinism, you ask? Let's start off with the Darwinism part. So, Darwinism is the system outlined by Charles Darwin that proposes things like evolution, survival of the fittest, etc. Social Darwinism basically applies the ideas that Darwin had about nature to society and people. The idea here is that people evolve, some get to be superior, and they compete against one another.
Social Darwinism also tied into another important philosophy: Naturalism. The two schools of thought overlapped a fair bit. Both emphasized competition, harsh reality, nature's mean streak, and so on. And all of these ideas play a huge role in how the setting is depicted in this book.
Aside from being old and ancient, the heath is also callous, meaning that it's uncaring. Eustacia in particular hates the heath and thinks it is cruel. But Eustacia has a lot more in common with the heath than she's ever prepared to admit, and this connection is crucial to our understanding not just of Eustacia but of Egdon.
Egdon was her Hades, and since coming there she had imbibed much of what was dark in its tone, though inwardly and eternally unreconciled thereto. Her appearance accorded well with this mouldering rebelliousness, and the shady splendour of her beauty was the real surface of the sad and stifled warmth within her. (1.7.7)
Egdon and Eustacia are both dark and volatile, or emotional, in their own way. And they're both explicitly tied to night or "shade." There's something inscrutable, or hidden, about them both. But, unlike the heath, Eustacia is very young and is quite rebellious. The heath is old, unchanging, and seemingly immune to Eustacia's angry and emotional outbursts of rebellion. Eustacia is not a threat to the heath, but the heath is definitely a threat to her and to those around her.
We noted before that the heath has a definite edge – it's dark and broody and stubborn. So it makes sense that the heath frequently places people in danger. Yes, it's a danger zone.
The most notable scene of danger in the book is the rainy night when Eustacia and Damon drown in the flooded pond. The heath contributes to the dangerous atmosphere with its dark, uncaring attitude and its total lack of sympathy. Egdon is so ancient that it has seen everything before and is unmoved by anyone's plight. In fact, it rolls out the funeral trappings for Eustacia a few hours before she dies:
The gloom of the night seemed funereal; all nature seemed clothed in crepe. The spiky points of the fir trees behind the house rose into the sky like the turrets and pinnacles of an abbey. (5.7.16)
Given how old and unsympathetic the heath can be, it really is a bit like a god of sorts, which is fitting given how preoccupied Hardy is with his Greek references in this book. And Greek gods and goddesses in epics like the Odyssey and the Iliad were notoriously unsympathetic to the measly little humans that they manipulated and used and ignored at will.
But we also have scenes of danger that take place in the daytime. Egdon is a place of love and beauty and dreams during the day, but it is also a place of cruel exposure and heat, like a sort of hell. Check out these two contrasting scenes of the daytime heath:
It was the one season of the year [...] in which the heath was gorgeous. This flowering period represented the second or noontide division in the cycle of those superficial changes which alone were possible here; [...] to be displaced by the dark hue of the winter period, representing night. (4.1.1)
On the present heated afternoon, when no perceptible wind was blowing, the trees kept up a perpetual moan [...]
Here she sat for twenty minutes or more ere she could summon resolution to go down to the door, her courage being lowered to zero by her physical lassitude. (4.5.15)
In the first scene, the beautiful heath is the stage for Clym and Eustacia's (literal) summer of love, but it still carries the hint of winter and night with it. The narrator points out that the heath changes with the seasons to emphasize how nothing lasts and to hint at unhappy endings for our resident couple.
The second scene here really demonstrates the heath's capacity for cruelty. The day of Mrs. Yeobright's death is viciously hot and bright, all the better for her to see her daughter-in-law refuse to open the door for her. The heath on that day exposes a lot of very unpleasant truths to the cast of characters, even as it strips them of things like "courage."
Nature itself and Egdon in particular are not safe places, and they are not to be taken for granted. So ultimately, what sort of character is Egdon Heath? We're going to try to sum it up in one word: impervious. Impervious means something that can't be disturbed or affected in any way. And this ancient setting is definitely impervious. It's just always there, trumping everyone and everything around it. In a way, it really is the star of the novel.
I bade good morrow
And thought to leave her far away behind
But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind.
I would deceive her,
And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and so kind.
The epigraph is an excerpt from an epic poem by John Keats entitled "Endymion." "Endymion" was published in 1818 and was largely disliked upon its release. Hardy, no stranger to critical receptions, may have sympathized with that. But we think Hardy quoted this super long and rather sentimental poem because of its overall story.
"Endymion" is basically a retelling of a Greek myth starring Endymion, a shepherd, and the moon goddess who loved him, Selene (who was later supplanted by the goddess Artemis in mythology). Of course, we hear nothing about moon goddesses in the excerpt Hardy chose to introduce his novel. Instead we hear about Sorrow, who is personified as a woman here. And this section features a narrator who loves Sorrow. However, we did catch the awesome biopic movie Bright Star and we can confirm that Keats was pretty darn mopey.
Speaking of mopey people, we have the entire cast of The Return of the Native. Hardy definitely wasn't leading us astray by choosing an epigraph that worships at the altar of Sorrow. The way that Keats phrases his ode to Sorrow is also key and indicates the type of story Hardy is about to tell, and the way in which he's going to tell it.
Keats uses a lot of irony and unexpected contrasts in the section of his poem that Hardy focused on. He uses words like "cheerly" and "kind" to describe Sorrow, which is the opposite of what we would expect. This entire stanza is basically a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way of saying that the narrator is "constantly" plagued by Sorrow and has kind of come to love "her" since she is such a loyal companion. And the emo Keats may have also been pointing out how hard it can be to shake off sorrow and "leave her far away behind" – sadness and moodiness can be kind of addictive in a way.
Hardy's use of Keats helps to set the tone for his own tale. See, Hardy uses a lot of irony and dark humor in his story, reminiscent of Keats here. Also, Hardy relies upon contrasts, unexpected twists, and, of course, sorrow, in his own storytelling. So Hardy tips his hat to Keats's tone and style in this stanza.
Hardy also references the same myth in his novel that Keats does in his poem. The Return of the Native features a love story between an Endymion-like figure, Clym, and a moon goddess, Eustacia. Eustacia is also very moody and mopey and may very well be Sorrow personified. So it's double the fun there.
One last thing about Keats – he was a notable English Romantic poet. Hardy often bucks against Romantic genre conventions in his work, so keep an eye out for how Hardy both does and does not rock out of Romantic tendencies in The Return of the Native.
Since this novel is an odd blend of romantic and realistic elements (see the "Genre" section for more information on this), it makes sense the style would be a bit of a smorgasbord as well. There's something here for everyone. Check out this passage, where we can see a lot of different style elements at work:
"O – Tamsie," said the elder, weeping, "I don't like to let you go."
"I – I – am –." Thomasin began, giving way likewise. Bu quelling her grief, she said, "Good-bye!" again and went on.
Then Mrs. Yeobright saw a little figure wending its way between the scratching furze-bushes, and diminishing far up the valley – a pale-blue spot in a vast field of neutral brown, solitary and undefended except by the power of her own hope.
But the worst feature in the case was one which did not appear in the landscape; it was the man. (2.8.44-46)
First off, we have some interesting dialogue. In this dialogue, Hardy uses realism and attention to detail – these characters are speaking like people who are actually upset, rather than delivering long, eloquent speeches about how depressed they are. Throughout the novel, we see attention paid to local slang and accents, people's tendencies to stutter or say things they don't really mean, and so on.
We also get a different kind of detail in the nature descriptions and the strong imagery, which is loaded with symbolic meaning. Thomasin is facing doom here, but rather than just say "Thomasin is sad because she is doomed," Hardy lets imagery get the point across for him. We see Thomasin swallowed up by the "neutral" colored heath, which implies that the heath, and the world itself, is indifferent towards Thomasin's plight. At the end, we also shift to Mrs. Yeobright's perspective more fully and learn about the ominous "man" she sees. The man may not interrupt the landscape and Thomasin's solitude, but his presence is still largely felt in the scene.
This is a very visual novel in a lot of ways – we get very long passages with just the narrator talking and relatively little dialogue. Check out Eustacia's introduction chapter (1.7), where the narrator just describes her in acute detail the entire time. There's also the beginning of the entire novel, where we just get page after page of detail and imagery about the heath.
So how does detail work in this novel? Well, we have a lot of romantic imagery and details – Eustacia is compared to things like queens and goddesses in her introduction. We also have attention paid to two other kinds of detail in the style:
When he had again regained his van he lit the lantern, and with an apathetic face at once began to pull off his best clothes, till in the course of a few minutes he reappeared as the confirmed and irretrievable reddleman that he had seemed before. (2.7.88)
Hardy often gives us very detailed physical descriptions, such as how people look, what they're doing, and the imagery of the heath. And we often have to infer emotional details from the physical descriptions we get. This isn't to say that Hardy doesn't psychoanalyze his cast or provide us with up-front emotional details. But in terms of style, it's worth noting that he often pulls back some and lets us do more of the emotional guess-work on our own.
So, in this passage, we see a very careful use of diction and a subtle use of detail that lets us know what is going on with Diggory Venn. The word "again" lets us know that Diggory is returning (a major theme) to his van, and thus to his old life; and this return is packed with meaning. Instead of moving on to a new and better life, Diggory "at once" begins to change clothes and he quickly transforms back into the reddleman "he had seemed before." The "he had seemed" part is very crucial here, since it implies that Diggory is in a sort of reddleman disguise and that he's really a type of person who's not defined by being a reddleman. Finally, we get a tiny clue as to Diggory's emotional state through the word "apathetic," which means uncaring or numb.
So on a sentence and paragraph level we have different sorts of details all functioning together to give us a rich picture of these characters and where they live. Hardy uses words very carefully and alternates between emotional, physical, romantic, and realistic details in the style. This novel relies a lot on imagery, symbolism, and sometimes subtle hints as to what's going on and who's doing or thinking what.
In a broader sense, we have two other style elements to consider: epic and theatrical. In the passage with Thomasin, quoted above, there was a sense of epic, even cinematic, sweep to the scene. It also concluded a section in the chapter and functioned as a sort of mini-climax and a quick scene-break – we get a short transitional paragraph about Thomasin's marriage and then proceed onwards to a follow-up scene with Clym and Mrs. Yeobright. The chapters in this novel are all styled like individual scenes in a play and tend to revolve around common themes. The volumes, meanwhile, function as full acts in a play. We have other examples of theatrical elements in this novel as well: namely, monologues and soliloquies.
"And I have no money to go alone! And if I could, what comfort to me? I must drag on next year, as I have dragged on this year, and the year after that as before. How I have tried to be a splendid woman, and how destiny has been against me!" (5.7.20)
Eustacia is speaking like she's actually in a play, directing her words towards some unseen audience. We even see this type of style crop up during conversations, in which characters speak outward towards an unseen audience rather than to one another. This is also a comment on how people have a hard time communicating and understanding one another – check out the "Language and Communication" themes for more information.
It's worth noting that the narrator could've just told us what Eustacia was thinking, rather than have her deliver a lengthy monologue, which also functions as the climax to the scene. We pointed out the realistic dialogue between Thomasin and Mrs. Yeobright earlier. But this novel also has lots of stylistic shifts where characters speak more like dramatic actors than real people, and the bi-play between the two speaking styles sort of represents the varied style of the novel overall.
Another major style element that ties into this sense of the theatrical and the dramatic is suspense. We often jump forward in time to different scenes and get little clues about developments and new events before having them confirmed. So how is this suspense accomplished in terms of style? Let's check out this scene, where we follow Clym on a walk.
Minute after minute passed by, perhaps ten minute spased, and the shadow on the moon perceptibly widened. He heard a rustling on his left hand, a cloaked figure with an upturned face appeared at the base of the Barrow, and Clym descended. In a moment the figure was in his arms, and his lips upon hers.
"My Eustacia!" (3.4.5-6)
There's a lot of lead-up to the scene's climactic moment, where it's confirmed that Clym and Eustacia are secretly dating. And we get a lot of clues and details that there's more to this scene than Clym just communing with nature (which, given this novel, may have actually been the truth). The emphasis on time here, for instance, implies that Clym is actively waiting for someone instead of just enjoying the lunar eclipse.
Finally, we have a strong sense of the epic in the novel. A lot of the epic is set up through mythology references, through the setting, and through chapter titles like "The First Act in a Timeworn Drama." It seems like this story has happened before and these characters are playing out designated parts in a saga (for more details on this, check out the "Fate and Free Will" theme section). But we also get very dramatic individual scenes that are styled in an epic way.
On inclining into the latter path Yeobright felt a creeping chilliness, familiar enough to most people, and probably caused by the unsunned morning air. In after days he thought of it as a thing of singular significance. (5.2.71)
This is a definite stylistic break, where the narrator hints at future events and the fact that doom is definitely approaching. In a way, this small sentence helps to offset the coming scenes that lead up to Eustacia's death and it lets us know that we're about to enter some new dramatic territory.
But Hardy likes to disrupt expectations on occasion and he especially tends to undermine his sense of the epic, even as he spends a lot of time setting it up in the first place. He often uses irony and humor to shift the tone and style, and to cut away from the sort of high melodrama of the more epic passages in the novel. The humorous remark Hardy uses often feature direct narrative address (where the author talks directly to the reader) and a different sentence style.
That she would behold face to face the owner of the awakening voice [...] was most unlikely, unless she were to haunt the environs of his mother's house like a robin, to do which was difficult and unseemly. (2.4.1)
Hardy undercuts the epic love story that he set up in the previous chapter, referenced by the "awakening" voice, by basically mocking Eustacia's would-be stalker tendencies. One last style element to point out here: Hardy is a huge fan of metaphors and similes, and he frequently uses comparisons between characters and nature details (like the robin) to get various themes and plot points across to the reader.
Overall the style fluctuates a good bit in this novel – not enough to be jarring, but enough to show a whole lot of complexity and a lot of different styles at work.
Darkness is used a bit like a clock in The Return of the Native – it signals the time of day as well as the time of year, as when we hear about "the dark hue of the winter period, representing night" (4.1.1). But, aside from letting us know the time of day and year, and other than making the first few chapters of the novel especially creepy, what's the deal with all the darkness?
Hardy begins with and hits many of its dramatic high points (namely death scenes) at night. Darkness becomes a location for secrets, danger, and death. So darkness does a lot to set the overall tone of the novel. If the novel had started off with a scene of sunshine and rainbows, we'd expect something very different. Instead, we get clued in from the get-go that this is not going to be a happy read.
Darkness is also tied very closely to Eustacia's character, especially her hair:
To see her hair was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow: it closed over her forehead like nightfall extinguishing the western glow. (1.7.2)
Eustacia's hair represents winter and night here, once again linking time and darkness. The image of "nightfall" covering Eustacia's forehead also alludes to how moody and depressed this girl is. Eustacia has a rather "dark" personality, and her outward appearance reflects that. Her outward appearance also reflects the heath at night, which is a place of mysteriousness and danger. In the sentence about Eustacia, words like "extinguished" and "shadow" have a negative connotation, or meaning, and imply that the darkness is somehow dangerous and bad.
So darkness isn't looking so good here – it seems kind of shifty. But it also represents another, less negative thing in the story – the past. Once again, darkness is tied to time, but in this case we're talking about ancient history. Most of the references we get to the ancient past occur at night, sort of literally connecting us back to the dark ages (check out the references to "ancient bonfires" at 1.3.7). But the ancient past itself is sort of automatically tied to the idea of death and loss, and it's often presented in a creepy way. Overall, darkness symbolizes a lot of different things, from individual character traits to ideas of time. But, above all else, darkness functions as a sort of tone-setter throughout the novel and generally creates scenes filled with foreboding, or warnings of doom.
Birds are strongly linked Thomasin Yeobright in the novel.
In her movements, in her gaze, she reminded the beholder of a feathered creature who lived around [Mrs. Yeobright's] home. All similes and allegories concerning her began and ended with birds. There was as much variety in her motions as in their flight. (3.6.23)
Looking at Thomasin in terms of this symbol can help us get a better grasp on her character, which is otherwise a bit hard to pin down. We don't see Thomasin a lot in the book, even though she's one of the major characters. So how can birds help us understand her?
Well, birds have both negative and positive ideas associated with them. Let's start off with the negative, so we can end on a happier note. Birds are associated with ideas of cages and entrapment, and also vulnerability (birds are often delicate and fragile). We see evidence of how Thomasin is trapped and made vulnerable by her ill-advised marriage to Damon:
"I want some money, you know, aunt [...] and he doesn't give me any. I don't like to ask him, and yet, perhaps, he doesn't give it to me because, he doesn't know. Ought I to mention it to him, aunt?" (3.6.29)
Themes and imagery of entrapment appear through birds in another notable scene as well, though this one involves Thomasin's aunt and not Thomasin herself, directly at least.
The only living thing that entered now was a sparrow, and seeing no movements to cause alarm, he hopped boldly around the room. [...] This roused the lonely sitter, who got up, released the bird, and went to the door. She was expecting Thomasin [...]. (3.7.1)
What's interesting is that this sparrow is trapped and lost in Mrs. Yeobright's home, just as Mrs. Yeobright herself is, in a way – she is sort of isolated through her own stubbornness in this scene. But the bird also helps to draw Mrs. Yeobright out of her own depression and gets her to take some action. In a way, this bird has a liberating effect on her, since it "frees" her from her morose thoughts, temporarily at least.
This brings us to the more positive aspects of birds: freedom and movement.
Feathered species sojourned here in hiding which would have created wonder if found elsewhere. [...] A traveller who should walk and observe any of these visitants as Venn observed them now could feel himself to be in direct communication with regions unknown to man. [...] But the bird, like many other philosophers, seemed as he looked at the reddleman to think that a present moment of comfortable reality was worth a decade of memories. (1.10.1-3)
We see here how birds have a sort of positive, even otherworldly, energy associated with them. Birds prompt Diggory to think about looking for happiness in the present and to ponder things beyond his immediate surroundings, much as the sparrow did for Mrs. Yeobright.
The birds also subtly represent Thomasin here as well, since Diggory's past is largely about Thomasin and his present and future happiness hinge upon her. In a way, Thomasin, like these birds, might have a sort of emotional freedom and inner calmness that comes from her practicality and her ability to live in the present and in harmony with nature, like the birds.
Overall, birds are largely feminine in the novel and the opposing things they represent, entrapment and freedom, really capture the difficult status of women in this novel and in the Victorian era.
Say the word "Paris" to someone, and they'll probably conjure up a knee-jerk image of, say, a romantic sidewalk café and people in berets drinking coffee. Eustacia has this reaction, only a hundred times more intense. For her, Paris represents everything she wants out of life: luxury, adventure, culture, and romance.
A young and clever man was coming in to that lonely heath from, of all contrasting places in the world, Paris. It was like a man coming from heaven. [...] This was the obscure, remote spot to which was about to return a man whose latter life had been passed in the French capital – the center and vortex of the fashionable world. (2.1.28-31)
[S]he had represented Paris, and not Budmouth, to her grandfather as in all likelihood their future home. Her hopes were bound up in this dream. In the quiet days since their marriage, when Yeobright had been pouring over her lips, her eyes, and the lines of her face, she had mused and mused on the subject, even while in the act of returning his gaze. (4.1.4)
We can really see the disjunction present in Clym and Eustacia's relationship here. When she sees him, all she can think of is Paris; he's sort of like a means to an end for her. Clym, meanwhile, is extremely physically attracted to Eustacia.
So "Paris" the word represents a whole host of longing and desires for Eustacia. Paris greatly contrasts to the heath, which is why Eustacia longs for it so darn badly. As such, it also represents the entire outside world, particularly the more modern and urban world Eustacia longs to join. Paris, for Eustacia, represents the entire world outside the heath.
This makes Clym's return from Paris all the more interesting – we can see how Clym, returning from the "wider world" makes Eustacia fall in love with him. And we can also see how the reality of Clym and Paris causes a lot of grief for Eustacia, who had been clinging to a dream world, represented by a Paris that never really existed in the first place.
We kick off the novel with a bunch of bonfires, which are not just for dramatic effect – they set up a lot of the novel's themes. Bonfires are tied to the past and to history and give us a sense of the Egdon community. But we want to discuss two other major symbols here.
First, the bonfires at the start of the novel kind of act like lights on a stage.
Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round. They were the bonfires of other parishes and hamlets that were engaged in the same sot of commemoration. Some were distant, and stood in a dense atmosphere, so that bundles of pale strawlike beams radiated around them in the shape of a fan. Some were large and neat, glowing scarlet-red from the shade, like wounds in a black hide. (1.3.4)
Hardy sure knows how to rock out the descriptive imagery when he gets going. Props, Hardy, props.
So, given how many theatrical elements exist in this novel, it makes sense that we'd have a set of metaphorical stage lights turn on and light up the darkened heath, which is for all intents and purposes the stage of the novel. The novel has a lot of stylistic and structural ties to the theater, especially Greek dramas and tragedies. Greek plays were generally performed outside in amphitheaters, and this idea of an outdoor, natural stage setting runs throughout the novel and reinforces the idea of bonfire as stage lights.
But bonfires also act as another, perhaps more significant, kind of light in the novel: signal lights. Bonfires are the primary secret signal between Eustacia and Damon and we have multiple scenes in which they light a bonfire and have a clandestine, or secret, meeting. The description of this signal bonfire is very telling.
[T]his was the nearest of any, the moon of the whole shining throng. It lay in a direction precisely opposite to that of the little window in the vale below. [...] This quiet eye had attracted attention from time to time [...]. (1.3.117)
We can see here how bonfires act as eyes in a way – they help others to see what's around them and they call the attention of those at a distance.
Water, and ponds especially, are hot hang-out spots in this book, particularly favored by Eustacia. She often meets Damon by the pond near her grandfather's home.
But Eustacia also has one of her earliest, face-to-face meetings with Clym by a well. In fact, the reason that Clym is there in the first place is because the Vyes' bucket has fallen into the well and they have no access to drinking water. However, Clym and others point out that the Vyes could make do with the pond water until they got a new bucket for the well.
"That's the only kind of water we have," she continued, tossing a stone into the pool, which lay on the outside of the bank like the white of an eye without a pupil. The stone fell with a flounce, but no Wildeve appeared on the other side [...]. (3.3.45)
In a way, Eustacia is symbolically acting out her love life with water – by turning down the pond water she's in a sense refusing her link to Damon and choosing Clym instead. And Damon is, of course, a very real presence in that scene with Clym. Eustacia throws a rock as a signal, though it seems she's hoping to catch the attention of someone other than Damon now.
Given how closely water is tied to Eustacia and her decisions (to see or not to see Damon, mainly), it makes sense that water would also be the scene of Eustacia's mysterious death. Did Eustacia choose suicide or did she fall into the stormy water by accident? The question is never really answered. The confusion surrounding her watery demise is fitting, though, given how choices in this novel are never clear-cut either.
Water also plays a huge role in the final moments before Eustacia drowns. She wanders in the rain, ruminating over her life and her life choices.
The moon and stars were closed up by cloud and rain to the degree of extinction. It was a night which led the traveler's thoughts instinctively to dwell on nocturnal scenes of disaster in the chronicles of the world. [...] Never was harmony more perfect than that between the chaos of her mind and the chaos of the world without. (5.7.17)
Water, like many of the symbols in this novel, has both positive and negative aspects attached to it. Water is life-giving and healing, but also deadly and dangerous. So it's fitting that such a complex symbol would be attached to a complicated theme like choices, especially to Eustacia's choices.
This might be the most significant motif, or a running theme, in the entire novel. Given how huge this theme is, we're going to tackle four separate instances where sight comes into play in order to see just how varied this theme is in the novel.
First, we'll start off with the most notable example of the theme of sight: Clym's blindness. Sight is crucial to understanding Clym's character and his loss of vision is no accident on the part of the author.
Amid these jarring events Yeobright felt one thing to be indispensable – that he should speedily make some show of progress in his scholastic plan. With this view he read far into the small hours during many nights. [...] Fretting with impatience at this interruption to a task he was so anxious to hasten, Clym was transformed into an invalid. (4.2.36)
Clym got so focused on one thing that he lost sight of everything else around him. And this metaphorical shortsightedness translates itself into a literal blindness.
His daily life was of a curious microscopic sort, his whole world being limited to a circuit a few feet from his person. (4.2.57)
Clym certainly isn't the only character to have vision problems; in fact, many other characters suffer from similar sorts of myopia, or limited vision. These appear in different ways, though. Take Eustacia, for example – unlike Clym, who sees only what's immediately in front of him, or doesn't see at all, Eustacia sees things that aren't even there: "Involved in these imaginings she knew nothing of time. When she became conscious of externals it was dusk" (2.1.30). Eustacia's rich inner fantasy life tends to spill over into her actual life and literally disrupts her vision. As with Clym, the inability to see clearly causes a lot of anguish, or pain and suffering.
Yet another example of not seeing well comes with Mrs. Yeobright. In her case, she sees just fine, but she completely misinterprets what she sees, which causes a lot of problems too:
Her eyes were on the ground; within her two sights were graven – that of Clym's hook and brambles at the door, and that of a woman's face at the window. (4.6.64)
Mrs. Yeobright jumps to a hasty conclusion based on what she thinks she's seeing. And this tendency to misinterpret things or to draw hasty conclusions is a pronounced character trait in Mrs. Yeobright. We see this especially with her reaction to Clym's relationship with Eustacia – she instantly assumes the worst about Eustacia based on limited information and her own emotions, namely fear and jealousy.
So vision is a very unreliable thing in this novel. Characters constantly see the wrong thing or fail to fully understand what they're seeing, which is perhaps the most important thematic point here. Sight is only as good as someone's interpretation of it, and the characters here have a very hard time correctly understanding the things they see.
When we meet Eustacia, we learn that she's carrying two rather unusual items with her: an hourglass and a telescope.
For the rest, she suffered much from depression of spirits, and took slow walks to recover them, in which she carried her grandfather's telescope and her grandmother's hour-glass – the latter because of a peculiar pleasure she derived from watching a material representation of time's gradual slide away. (1.7.22)
So what's up with these two objects? Well, these two symbolic objects represent two of the books major themes and help us explore Eustacia's relationship with these themes. These objects stand for time and sight.
Let's start off with the hourglass. Eustacia gets a weird kick out of watching time physically slide away, perhaps because it means that yet another terrible day on the heath is over for her. But what else is going on with this symbol?
[T]he middle article being the old hour-glass, and the other two a pair of ancient British urns which ha been dug from a barrow near, and were used as flower-pots for two razor-leaved cactuses. (2.4.4)
The hourglass here is surrounded by old, historic objects – ancient urns and cacti that seem like prehistoric plant life. But why is the hourglass connected to the past? Well, an hourglass is a rather old-fashioned way to tell time – there were clocks back in Hardy's day. In fact, Victorians really loved their new-fangled clocks. Time wasn't measured by the natural world as much anymore and cities began to run on different sorts of time than the countryside still did. (Check out this cool site to learn more about the history of how people told time.)
And Eustacia isn't so divorced from the modern world that she relies solely on an hourglass to tell time; she actually carries a watch with her (1.6.13). The fact that she still favors using an hourglass gives us some insight into how Eustacia approaches time.
First, Eustacia's use of an hourglass points to her situation on the heath – an old-fashioned and isolated place. Ironically, Eustacia longs to escape the heath, yet she definitely has an old-fashioned vibe. So Eustacia's approach to time may point to her counter-cultural tendencies and her penchant for going against the crowd. Likewise, as we noted earlier, the hourglass's physical representation of time passing appeals to Eustacia's sad and thoughtful nature; she likes to dwell on things, and the hourglass really lets her dwell on time's passage.
The telescope is a bit more obvious than the hourglass. After all, Eustacia uses it to spy on people, so the telescope's ties to the theme of sight are pretty straightforward. However, this idea of spying gives us further insight into Eustacia's character.
She lifted her left hand, which held a closed telescope. This she rapidly extended, as if she were well accustomed to the operation, and raising it to her eye directed it towards the light beaming from the inn. (1.6.10)
Eustacia tends to set herself apart from people – she eavesdrops and crashes a party in disguise before finally meeting Clym (the object of her stalking) face-to-face. Eustacia often does things in a very roundabout way and the telescope points to her tendencies here. She spies on people, she engages in subterfuge and secret meetings, and the girl likes to be sneaky. All these things indicate a very imaginative and romantic personality, which ties back to Eustacia's tendency to confuse fantasy and reality. The things Eustacia sees aren't always reality and her fondness for viewing stuff via a telescope point to her fondness for "seeing" things as romantic when there might not be any there.
Our narrator is omniscient, or all-knowing. But the narrator's often very detached from the action. The narrator is almost retelling a myth in a lot of ways – there's a strong sense of history, past tragedies, and fate in the narrative, all of which impact how the narrator tells the story. And the omniscience of the narrator comes through in this idea of fate. There's a sense that the narrator knows what's on the horizon.
The narrator is also a psychological profiler. We get long character studies and insight into people's thoughts and feelings, even things that they aren't aware of themselves. Additionally, the narrator's God-like omniscience comes out in the book's theatrical style. The narrator functions like a director at times, surveying the action and watching the characters maneuver around the "stage" of Egdon Heath. And, like a director, there's a definite level of detachment in the narrator. The narrator may know all, but he keeps his feelings on everything largely to himself.
Eustacia literally kicks off the novel "anticipating" some sort of change, whether it's dumping Damon, eloping with him, dumping him (for good), or having a romance with the mysterious guy arriving from Paris.
Hardy uses actual dream-like nature imagery to depict these two characters in love and, aside from Clym's conflict with his mother, things seem to be going well for our two lovebirds. But doom is approaching, of course.
Clym and Eustacia have increasing problems in their marriage, Damon arrives on the scene again to further complicate matters, and Mrs. Yeobright's relationship with her son suffers after a series of misunderstandings.
Things go from bad to worse here after Mrs. Yeobright dies tragically and Eustacia is somewhat to blame. After increasingly tense chapters, Clym finally finds out Eustacia's role in Mrs. Yeobright's death and the two have an explosive confrontation that ends with a crushed Eustacia leaving Clym to return to her grandfather.
Eustacia gets increasingly suicidal and she ends up drowning, along with Damon. After this intense tragedy, Thomasin and Clym try to go on with their lives. Thomasin succeeds at this more than Clym does; she ends up marrying Diggory Venn.
The end of Book 1, of course, when Eustacia learns that Clym is coming home from Paris, which basically sets everything else into motion.
In the midst of falling in love, these two crazy kids manage to seriously anger Mrs. Yeobright (hence the conflict). This love affair is far from calm, and we have the ongoing conflict with Damon as well.
Eustacia and Clym's marriage gets hurt by one problem after another, so the two grow distant. Damon and Thomasin aren't having a great time either. Mrs. Yeobright tries to give her relatives their inheritance, which of course goes badly.
Oh, the drama. This is the major turning point of the novel and Mrs. Yeobright's death sets the stage for all that follows.
The suspense is out of control here, given Eustacia's crushing guilty secret and Clym's obsessive need to find out about his mother's death.
It's all downhill in this section, though not in terms of action – everyone is pretty much just doomed. The requisite tragic deaths occur here.
Everything wraps up here and the (surviving) characters get their endings, though not all are particularly happy.
Books 1 and 2: The beginning until Eustacia and Clym get married.
Books 3 and 4: Eustacia and Clym's marriage goes increasingly south, Mrs. Yeobright dies in the novel's climax, and Clym and Eustacia part after a huge argument.
Books 5 and 6: It's the death and marriage section. Half the cast dies tragically, and the rest get endings ranging from OK to happy.