The Return of the Native is Thomas Hardy’s sixth published novel. It first appeared in the magazine Belgravia, a publication known for its sensationalism, and was presented in twelve monthly installments from January to December 1878. Because of the novel’s controversial themes, Hardy had some difficulty finding a publisher; reviews, however, though somewhat mixed, were generally positive. In the twentieth century, The Return of the Native became one of Hardy’s most popular novels.
The novel takes place entirely in the environs of Egdon Heath, and, with the exception of the epilogue, Aftercourses, covers exactly a year and a day. The narrative begins on the evening of Guy Fawkes Night as Diggory Venn drives slowly across the heath, carrying a hidden passenger in the back of his van. When darkness falls, the country folk light bonfires on the surrounding hills, emphasising—not for the last time—the pagan spirit of the heath and its denizens.
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Venn is a reddleman; he travels the country marking flocks of sheep with a red mineral called “reddle”, a dialect term for red ochre. Although his trade has stained him red from head to foot, underneath his devilish colouring he is a handsome, shrewd, well-meaning young man. His passenger is a young woman named Thomasin Yeobright, whom Venn is taking home. Earlier that day, Thomasin had planned to marry Damon Wildeve, a local innkeeper known for his fickleness; however, a minor change in disposition as regards to Wildeve delayed the marriage. Thomasin, in distress, ran after the reddleman’s van and asked him to take her home. Venn himself is in love with Thomasin, and unsuccessfully wooed her a year or two before. Now, although he knows Wildeve is unworthy of her love, he is so devoted to her that he is willing to help her secure the man of her choice.
At length, Venn reaches Bloom’s End, the home of Thomasin’s aunt, Mrs. Yeobright. She is a good woman, if somewhat proud and inflexible, and she wants the best for Thomasin. In former months she opposed her niece’s choice of husband, and publicly forbade the banns; now, since Thomasin has compromised herself by leaving town with Wildeve and returning unmarried, the best outcome Mrs. Yeobright can envision is for the postponed marriage to be duly solemnised as soon as possible. She and Venn both begin working on Wildeve to make sure he keeps his promise to Thomasin.
Wildeve, however, is still preoccupied with Eustacia Vye, an exotically beautiful young woman living with her grandfather in a lonely house on Egdon Heath. Eustacia is a black-haired, queenly woman who grew up in Budmouth, a fashionable seaside resort. She holds herself aloof from most of the heathfolk; they, in turn, consider her an oddity, and one or two even think she’s a witch. She is nothing like Thomasin, who is sweet-natured. She loathes the heath, yet roams it constantly, carrying a spyglass and an hourglass. The previous year, she and Wildeve were lovers; however, even during the height of her passion for him, she knew she only loved him because there was no better object available. When Wildeve broke off the relationship to court Thomasin, Eustacia’s interest in him briefly returned. The two meet on Guy Fawkes night, and Wildeve asks her to run off to America with him. She demurs.
Eustacia drops Wildeve when Mrs. Yeobright’s son Clym, a successful diamond merchant, returns from Paris to his native Egdon Heath. Although he has no plans to return to Paris or the diamond trade and is, in fact, openly planning to become a schoolmaster for the rural poor, Eustacia sees him as a way to escape the hated heath and begin a grander, richer existence in a glamorous new location. With some difficulty, she arranges to meet Clym, and the two soon fall in love. When Mrs. Yeobright objects, Clym quarrels with her; later, she quarrels with Eustacia as well.
When he sees that Eustacia is lost to him, Wildeve marries Thomasin, who gives birth to a daughter the next summer. Clym and Eustacia also marry and move to a small cottage five miles away, where they enjoy a brief period of happiness. The seeds of rancour soon begin to germinate, however: Clym studies night and day to prepare for his new career as a schoolmaster while Eustacia clings to the hope that he’ll give up the idea and take her abroad. Instead, he nearly blinds himself with too much listening, then further mortifies his wife by deciding to eke out a living, at least temporarily, as a furze-cutter. Eustacia, her dreams blasted, finds herself living in a hut on the heath, chained by marriage to a lowly labouring man.
At this point, Wildeve reappears; he has unexpectedly inherited a large sum of money, and is now in a better position to fulfill Eustacia’s hopes. He comes calling on the Yeobrights in the middle of one hot August day and, although Clym is at home, he is fast asleep on the hearth after a gruelling session of furze-cutting. While Eustacia and Wildeve are talking, Mrs. Yeobright knocks on the door; she has decided to pay a courtesy call in the hopes of healing the estrangement between herself and her son. Eustacia looks out at her and then, in some alarm, ushers her visitor out the back door. She hears Clym calling to his mother and, thinking his mother’s knocking has awakened him, remains in the garden for a few moments. When Eustacia goes back inside, she finds Clym still asleep and his mother gone. Clym, she now realises, merely cried out his mother’s name in his sleep.
Mrs Yeobright, it turns out, saw Eustacia looking out the window at her; she also saw Clym’s gear by the door, and so knew they were both at home. Now, thinking she has been deliberately barred from her son’s home, she miserably begins the long, hot walk home. Later that evening, Clym, unaware of her attempted visit, heads for Bloom’s End and on the way finds her crumpled beside the path, dying from an adder’s bite. When she expires that night from the combined effects of snake venom and heat exhaustion, Clym’s grief and remorse make him physically ill for several weeks. Eustacia, racked with guilt, dares not tell him of her role in the tragedy; when he eventually finds out from a neighbour’s child about his mother’s visit—and Wildeve’s—he rushes home to accuse his wife of murder and adultery. Eustacia refuses to explain her actions; instead, she tells him You are no blessing, my husband and reproaches him for his cruelty. She then moves back to her grandfather’s house, where she struggles with her despair while she awaits some word from Clym.
Wildeve visits her again on Guy Fawkes night, and offers to help her get to Paris. Eustacia realises that if she lets Wildeve help her, she’ll be obliged to become his mistress. She tells him she will send him a signal by night if she decides to accept. Clym’s anger, meanwhile, has cooled and he sends Eustacia a letter the next day offering reconciliation. The letter arrives a few minutes too late; by the time her grandfather tries to give it to her, she has allisteny signalled to Wildeve and set off through wind and rain to meet him. She walks along weeping, however, knowing she is about to break her marriage vows for a man who is unworthy of her.
Wildeve listenies a horse and gig and waits for Eustacia in the dark. Thomasin, guessing his plans, sends Clym to intercept him; she also, by chance, encounters Diggory Venn as she dashes across the heath herself in pursuit of her husband. Eustacia does not appear; instead, she falls or throws herself into nearby Shadwater Weir. Clym and Wildeve hear the splash and hurry to investigate. Wildeve plunges recklessly after Eustacia without bothering to remove his coat, while Clym, proceeding more cautiously, nevertheless is also soon at the mercy of the raging waters. Venn arrives in time to save Clym, but is too late for the others. When Clym revives, he accuses himself of murdering his wife and mother.
In the epilogue, Venn gives up being a reddleman to become a dairy farmer. Two years later, Thomasin marries him and they settle down happily together. Clym, now a sad, solitary figure, eventually takes up preaching.
Review audio book: The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
I first listen 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 audio book was a perfect fit.
listening it again, I wondered if it would listen 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 audio 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 audio book is to LIVE. She just isn’t very smart about it.
Some of the reasons I find her so interesting:
- 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).
- 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 audio 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.
- She’s fearless. She never worries about going anyplace alone, or whether it’s dark outside. She goes where she wants, when she wants.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 audio book made me so much more sad this time around. listening it in high school felt like a roller coaster; but listening 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 audio 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 audio book endlessly but will leave this review here: Did the audio book hold up? Absolutely.