Classic Literature / Highly Recommended

Review: The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

I first read Return of the Native when it was assigned in my high school English class.  I was a senior at the time and basically an emotional mess.  This book was a perfect fit.

Reading it again, I wondered if it would read differently.  Then I was seventeen, full of emotional angst and a pretty immature idea of love and relationships.  Today I’m settled down in a marriage, home and career.  Life couldn’t be more different.

The book is about a very, very small town in the English countryside in the early 1800s.  Eustacia Vye is a beautiful, educated young woman who has come to live with her grandfather after the death of her parents.  Hardy describes her as a goddess, a woman who could rule the world, if she wasn’t stuck on the heath.  The heath in Hardy’s world is a character in itself – it’s brutal but the villagers know it and love it.  Eustacia is an outsider and never adapts to it.

Eustacia is discontented and sees love and marriage as her way off the heath and into a grander life – yet in this very small town there’s unlikely to be a man who can give her all that.  She thinks that person might be Damon Wildeve, who loves her but has set her aside to marry Thomasin Yeobright.  Enter the return of Clym Yeobright, Thomasin’s cousin, straight from a glamorous diamond career in Paris and years of schooling.  Eustacia falls in love just from hearing people talk about Clym; but will he be interested in a woman most of the town views as a witch and his own cousin and mother despise?

Eustacia is no role model, but at the time I was struck by her passion, her restlessness, her longings for a better life.  She plays with men’s emotions, she schemes, she’s selfish and she’s lazy (Hardy frequently points out how late she sleeps and how little she wants to work).  But she’s also stuck in a small town life she never asked for, and as a woman she sees no way to get out of it except through love.  As her grandfather points out, she has the time and education to conjure up great fantasies about what her life could be like, and nothing less will satisfy her.

She may be a cautionary tale but I admired her then – and I admire her now.  Because what she’s trying to do in this book is to LIVE.  She just isn’t very smart about it.

Some of the reasons I find her so interesting:

  1. She’s insecure. She may be beautiful and smart but she’s also so emotionally confused she’s afraid to commit to someone –so when Wildeve is committed to another, she desires him, but when he says he will give up Thomasin, she suddenly worries that he isn’t the best she can do.  Both she and Wildeve find the other far more attractive when they are pursued by others.   The result is they circle each other over and over again but can’t come to agreement (but neither can they give each other up).
  2. She’s a nonconformist. She cares what people think of her but cares very little for what is proper or expected.  One of my favorite parts of the book is when Eustacia concocts a scheme to act in a holiday play at the Yeobright’s party so she can meet Clym.  She bribes one of the boys to let her take his part and performs the role perfectly.  The boys aren’t fooled, and neither is Clym, but it’s a gutsy, dramatic thing to do.
  3. She’s fearless. She never worries about going anyplace alone, or whether it’s dark outside.  She goes where she wants, when she wants.
  4. She’s stubborn. Most people, if accused wrongly, would just explain what really happened.  Not Eustacia – she’s too emotional for that.  When she thinks Clym’s mother is accusing her of cheating, she’s so hurt and angry she fails to defend herself.  Same thing when Clym accuses her – she could explain what happened but she won’t.   She reacts in extremes.  And when she makes a decision, she acts on it.
  5. She refuses to settle. She wants it all – love, passion, wealth, and a glamorous life in the city.  It’s unlikely she’ll get any of these things.  At one point, when she is dreaming of leaving the heath, Diggory Venn offers her a position as a gentlewoman’s companion in Budmouth to get her out of town.  As a woman her options to work are extremely limited so this is a great offer.  She clearly should accept the position, but she declines because she wants love, not a job.  This will of course come back to haunt her.
  6. She’s misunderstood. As much as she tries to improve her life and her character, the heath and the other townspeople are all against her, and as hard as she tries, circumstances make her appear to be unfaithful.  One of the women in town even burns a voodoo doll of Eustacia because she thinks Eustacia made her son ill.  Hardy loves his heath but criticizes the small-mindedness of its residents.
  7. She comes to genuinely love Clym. I love the dialogue between her and Clym as they are getting to know each other.  In many ways they are perfect for each other.

This book made me so much more sad this time around.   Reading it in high school felt like a roller coaster; but reading it now with more maturity (and knowing what happens), I could see how many mistakes Eustacia makes and how hard she tries to get things right. And how if things had happened slightly differently, she might have lived a happy life.  Being older now I have a better idea of all the things Eustacia could have had.  But then Hardy is never kind to his characters.

I love how vivid Eustacia and the other characters are in this book.  Not just Clym and Wildeve but Clym’s mother, Eustacia’s grandfather, and the other townspeople.  Most vivid (literally) is the reddleman, Diggory Venn, who is a bright shade of red because he works with reddle, a dye for wool.  I recalled him being  a more sympathetic character, but this time I was just  angry with him for all of his meddling.

I wanted Eustacia to be better than she was.  I wanted her to use her mind and passion to teach, or write, or do good things for others.  But this isn’t the character she was written to be. And honestly, I think most of us are closer to Eustacia Vye than we are to Dorothea of Middlemarch, or Elizabeth of Pride and Prejudice.

I could write about this book endlessly but will leave this review here: Did the book hold up?  Absolutely.

9 thoughts on “Review: The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

  1. How interesting that you saw things differently on re-reading it. I read this years ago. I went to school in Dorchester (Casterbridge) and so I always claim to have read every one of Thomas Hardy’s books – though when I look at the list, there are loads I don’t remember.

    Although I form strong opinions about books as I read them, I can rarely remember characters names or much about what happened. Whenever I thought about this book in recent years (i.e. adding it to my bookshelves on LibraryThing and Goodreads or showing off about how many Thomas Hardy books I have read) I always thought that Diggory Venn was stained blue, not red.

    I must go back and read it again. Thanks for reminding me.

  2. I must admit, I knew nothing of this book and only know Hardy through ‘Tess of the D’Urbevilles (like you, I read it when I was a teen).

    The title alone made me think of the caribbean for some reason. It had a ‘Wild Sargasso Sea’ type of impression, but now I see was wrong.

    It’s great that I stumbled across your review, beacuse I’ve just finished ‘Madame Bovary’ and it also deals with the same issues. In fact, I was almost going to write that Hardy could take a leaf out of Flauberts book when constructing a heroine, but didn’t.

    Your review has totally turned my attention on this. I hope I can break my bias on Hardy. Excellent post!

  3. This sounds like a much more vibrant story than I expected. I’m finding that much of classic literature is pretty vibrant. Who knew?? All this time I thought it would be dry. 😀

    • Looks like we are checking out each other’s blogs at the same time! Lately I find the classics to be a lot more entertaining than expected. Maybe because they are assigned to us in school we think they must be tedious. One book I never could stand was Wuthering Heights, yet people find that one really romantic. Sorry to see you didn’t love Pride and Prejudice, but you had some really insightful comments in your review. Thanks for visiting!

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