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.
Sight and Vision
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.
Hourglass and Telescope
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.