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The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

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You are ambitious, Eustacia - no, not exactly ambitious, luxurious. I ought to be of the same vein, to make you happy, I suppose.

The Victorians were influenced by the Romantic ideals of love, nature and expression of emotion, accentuated by poets such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, as well as the Gothic horror stories like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In these times, the novel was often serialised in magazines, very much in the same way that a television programme is done today, to keep the prospective reader hanging on tenterhooks to the end of the tale.

One of the most successful authors of the 19th Century utilised this method to produce a work that encapsulated love, loss, disaster and drama in twelve highly popular instalments.

The Novel

Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native could be described as a Greek tragedy in six Acts. It was first published as a serial in Volume 37 of the magazine Belgravia in 12 monthly instalments, running from January to December 1878 inclusive, and then published as six books in three volumes.

It tells the tale of Eustacia Vye, a tempestuous young woman who yearns for passionate love and freedom from the barren confines of Egdon Heath, a wild tract of land in the Dorset countryside. With only her grandfather for company, she finds herself bored with her life and looks for the cure to this in finding the ideal man to spend the rest of her life with, hopefully away from this 'prison'.

However, when Damon Wildeve, the only other person out of the inhabitants of the Heath who fits Eustacia's ideals, decides upon marrying the meek Thomasin Yeobright, Eustacia sets her sights on Thomasin's cousin, Clym, who is returning to Egdon Heath from living a lavish lifestyle in Paris as a jeweller. The temptation of rich luxury and escape causes Eustacia to fall hopelessly in love with a man she is yet to see, or know - a fantasy.

It sounds fairly cut and dried, but as per usual - all is not well.

Clym Yeobright's decision to abandon the Parisian life for teaching, and later, becoming a Heath worker alienates himself from the entire community of Egdon Heath, compared to his rich beginnings. This also damages his relationship with his mother, the elderly and ambitious Mrs Yeobright, Wildeve and Thomasin's marriage and his own ill-fated relationship with the desperate Eustacia.

Through unfortunate circumstances - due to the characters' non-consideration of the outcomes - The Return of the Native is a tale that reflects the inability of human nature to change to do the right thing, ending in tragic consequences for all involved.

The Characters

Along with clever narrative techniques, another method that Hardy uses for moving the plot of The Return of the Native along is the diversity of the characters in the novel. From all walks of life, they all contribute to the cumulative tragedies as the story unfolds.

Eustacia Vye

It is best to let Hardy describe the incredibly deep female protagonist of the novel, with an entire chapter or few devoted to her physical and personal descriptions:

Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those who make not quite a model woman.

In short, Eustacia Vye is a luxurious dark beauty who commands a great deal of respect from the lower classes. The daughter of a foreign bandmaster, she lived in the nearby seaside town of Budmouth as a young child, but the death of both her parents brought her to Egdon Heath to live with her grandfather, the Captain.

She is a well-educated woman and considers herself to be a ladylike character, despite her rather dubious parentage (of which Mrs Yeobright continually reminds Clym), her on/off love affair with Wildeve and her peculiar tendency to wander the wilds of Egdon Heath in the middle of the night, as well as cross-dress, causing the rest of the Heath Folk to label her idle and a witch.

Seeming to believe that she is competing in I'm A Typical Tragic Literary Character - Get Me Out Of This Unhappy Circumstance!1, Eustacia would do anything to get away from Egdon Heath and find love elsewhere. The arrival of Clym Yeobright from sparkling Paris sounds like the right thing - until he decides that he prefers the old Heath life, and Eustacia has to think again when Wildeve, whom she spurned, seems to be coming into a bit of money.

Clym Yeobright

Clym Yeobright was a precocious youth, and Mrs Yeobright saw fit to fulfil her ambitions and give her son the best education to ensure that he would live happily ever after. Therefore, with a good job as a jeweller surrounded by finery in the fashion capital of Paris sounded like the right way to go.

On the other hand, Clym has other ideas. On his return to Egdon Heath at Christmas, he immediately makes it clear that he is here to stay. His primary intention is to become a schoolmaster and set up a school for the Heath Folk, who he considers to be uneducated due to their 'low' upbringing. His infatuation with Eustacia's looks and curious personality causes a rift between him and his mother, and Thomasin is left to pick up the pieces.

As fate would have it, Clym ends up becoming a furze-cutter2, now a rather unattractive catch for Eustacia.

Unlike her, though, Clym is happy with his circumstances.

Mrs Yeobright

As the head of the primary family on Egdon Heath, Mrs Yeobright has the 'lady' status that Eustacia Vye clamours for. The daughter of a curate, the Heath Folk hold her and her family in high regard, and would do anything for her. She spent a lot of time and money on making Clym have the best life that she believes would be the best for him, but naturally, Clym disagrees.

Despite her eternal dislike for Eustacia, the two are very similar in character when it comes to talking about Clym. She tries to dissuade him from staying permanently on the Heath, and almost has a fit when she finds that he has become a furze-cutter. She often confides in her niece Thomasin, though the front there is rather unstable too, with Mrs Yeobright's dislike for Wildeve as a suitable husband. She would have much preferred Clym and Thomasin to get together, to keep the Yeobrights 'Yeobright'3.

Damon Wildeve

Damon Wildeve, by education, is an engineer, but circumstances find him as the landlord of the Quiet Woman Inn. He is described as the type of man who is aesthetically pleasing to women but not the paragon of masculinity to his own sex. He and Eustacia were formerly lovers, but now he is looking forward to marrying into the Yeobright family through Thomasin.

Just like Eustacia, he despises the Heath, but he is also a gambler, and he gambles that he will find good fortune living there, if it was not for a certain reddleman that keeps foiling his plans.

Thomasin Yeobright

The complete opposite to Eustacia, Thomasin is the quintessential English rose. Meek, mild and continually under the watchful gaze of Mrs Yeobright, Thomasin just wants to do the right thing when it comes to making her own decisions.

Not one to complain about her situation, Thomasin and Wildeve are an odd couple, with Thomasin practically under the thumb of her gambling husband.

Diggory Venn

The reddleman4 is a curious character, used by Hardy as both a physical and metaphorical method of motioning the plot towards its tragic end.

Physically, Diggory Venn is a person who is basically covered from tip to toe in the red stuff that makes his trade. He is not rated highly among the upper class members of the Heath due to his messy work, though he is actually the son of a rich cattle farmer, and beneath all the gunk, Venn proves to be a rather handsome chap.

Hardy uses Venn as Wildeve's arch-enemy, due to Venn's love for Thomasin. Venn's method of foiling plans and just being a general annoyance to Wildeve causes the balances to tip in Thomasin's favour, without care for any of the other characters.

At heart, Venn is a good-natured soul who just wants the best for his love - Thomasin.

The Captain

The Captain is Eustacia's grandfather5, retired to Egdon Heath on a naval pension. He could be described as the Victorian version of Uncle Albert from the UK sitcom Only Fools And Horses.

He is far from the parent figure that Eustacia so desperately needs, and is not very sympathetic when things do not go her way. He much prefers to sit at home or go for a drink with the other Heath Folk at the Quiet Woman Inn.

The Heath Folk

The Heath Folk are used by Hardy as a Greek chorus. They are a great source of gossip and rumour, and move the plot along by the main characters either listening in, in the case of Eustacia, or joining into conversation with them.

They are a varied lot, ranging from the jolly Grandfer Cantle, who is the head of the Heath Folk, to his simple grandson Christian Cantle, to the witchlike Susan Nunsuch, but their purpose is to reflect upon the decisions of the main protagonists, depending on how good or pathetic they are.

Egdon Heath

Though not a living breathing person in the same way as the other characters, the Heath plays a major part in the plot as a backdrop upon which the players' fates are carved out, with the first chapter thickly dedicated to its description. It is the personification of Father Time, in the way that the Heath sees all that happens around it, from the pagan times to the present.

Eustacia and Wildeve, as outsiders, both despise the Heath, seeing it as a symbol of imprisonment, whereas the Heath Folk and the locals see the Heath as their home and livelihood.

Hold on... Eustacia who?

Even though it has such a diverse plot and range of characters, The Return of the Native is often hidden under the shadow of Hardy's more famous works like Tess and Jude. However, this may be because of how Hardy instills deep description into the persona of the Heath, which can startle the reader into boredom. Past this point, on the other hand, the reader will be moved into a dark world of tragic consequences and subliminally into the lost world of the English countryside.

1This would be the Victorian literary version of I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out Of Here!, except the extreme climate is the wilds of the Dorset countryside rather than the sweltering heat of the Australian jungle.2A person who cuts gorse. They were already a dying breed in Hardy's time and wanted to preserve the old traditions of the English countryside.3Marriage between cousins in rich families were popular in Hardy's time to ensure that the family wealth was kept within the family.4A reddleman was a person who painted sheep with 'reddle' paint in order to identify them from others. They were long gone in Hardy's time.5Hardy fiddled about with this character a lot in later editions. He was originally called Captain Drew, which made him Eustacia's grandfather on her mother's side. The 1895 edition renames him to Captain Vye, which suggests that he was Eustacia's grandfather on her father's side. However, the main discrepancy was that the Captain was not a foreigner like Eustacia's father, who was either Belgian or from Corfu (Hardy could not decide this either), so to sort it out, Hardy replied that Eustacia's father took her mother's maiden name upon their marriage. Still confused? Don't worry. It still doesn't make any sense...

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