The Return of The Native: Critical Analysis

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Importance of Egdon

      Egdon Heath can almost be called the principal character in this book, for we are made to feel its vast impassivity as a living presence. It provides one of the two elements which are always to be found in Hardy's art at its best. The fundamental meaning is the same whether we call these elements the transient and the abiding, or the human heart and the impersonal universe. In this novel, Egdon Heath influences all the human characters, moving them, to love or to hate, to despair or to the philosophic mind. The novel also contains matters purely based on Hardy's personal experiences. For instance, the comical description, in the fifth chapter, of the playing of clarinet by Thomasin's father is a humourous reproduction of the tales which Hardy had heard in his youth of the prowess of his grandfather, Thomas Hardy. There is a reminiscence of Hardy's own residence at Weymouth in 1869, when part of Desperate Remedies was written, in chapter ten when Venn praises Budmouth.

Formal Perfection

      Hardy is well-known for his portrayal of Wessex. These landscapes of meadow and wood, all these pictures of villages and rustic scenes are indebted for their existence and immortalization to Hardy. The Return of the Native undoubtedly holds a very high position among the Wessex novel. Abercrombie says that The Return of the Native clearly specifies Hardy for the importance of formative imagination in art. Hardy did not create thereafter such shapely symmetry of construction, so complete a blending of the setting with the story. Nor was he able again to maintain his own personality so completely in solution throughout the book.

As a Realistic Novel

      The novel The Return of the Native is a realistic novel as it presents to us ordinary human beings who seem faithfully rendered. The characters are motivated by the same desires and are equipped with the same vices and virtues as themselves. Hardy portrays Egdon Heath, the Wessex of his own life, so that one can accept it as a credible environment for the novel. Many critics have commented on Hardy's ability to describe the Heath, either in a panoramic way or through descriptive passages. His description of the mummer's play is another example of realism, showing his knowledge of the customs of England. These elements argue that Hardy is a realistic novelist But compared to certain other novels of Hardy even these examples fail to convince everyone. In matters of treatment, it is a polished, impeccably organized drama, unlike the ordinary chaos of life.

      Hardy's novel has none of the freedom, or diffuseness that are characteristic of modern realists as Preiser or Zola. His art is classical only because of its orderliness and balance. In reality, his realism is a distortion of life, that the incidents of plot follow too neatly upon each other to be the approximation to life that we call realism. Many critics have complained about this polished finicky control Hardy exerts over his material.

Concatenated Affections

      Concatenated affections or the heavy piling-up of circumstances and accidents bind The Return of the Native together. All the major characters are linked together indissolubly in a balanced arid perfectly designed whole that seems quite unlike the disorderly arrangements of life. The novel displays certain forces of hate and love, attraction and repulsion. It is very much like a cob-web involving human beings. When the web is disturbed from one stand, the other begins to vibrate. When the love between Eustacia and Clym begin to cool Clym's relations with his mother, Eustacia's affair with Wildeve, and Thomasin's relationship with Diggory Venn are altered in various directions and degrees. The vibration becomes stronger when Mrs. Yeobright dies.

Major Themes

      One major theme of the novel is the contrast between appearance and reality, between illusion and fact. This theme is symptomatic of the disillusionment suffered by Hardy and his nineteenth-century contemporaries. Clym, the protagonist, has returned to Egdon Heath as a result of his feeling of suffocation to the life in Paris. He returned with a knowledge that others on the heath do not have that his life in Paris "was the idlest, vainest, most effeminate business that ever a man could be put to." Eustacia is portrayed as a figure, passionate to pompous life. She is a person having some romantic illusions. Before their marriage, she elevated him to an ideal status. But after the marriage, the illusion is completely shattered, and the truth observed, when Clym first pursues his favorite profession of a schoolmaster, and then that of a farmer. Her final accusation contains a self-revelation "You deceived me—not by words, but the appearances, which are less seen through than words."

      Another major theme in the novel is the shrinkage of man in the modern world as a result of his inability to control his own destiny. The novel portrays this modern vision of man with a texture composed of elements of mischance, accident, uncontrollable passion, petty errors and cross purposes. Throughout the story there are man-made errors and the destiny of the major characters is greatly influenced by minor accidents, such as the simultaneous arrival of Mrs. Yeobnght and Wildeve at Clym's cottage, the fatal snake bite and the unreceived letter.

      The third important theme is the nature of the universe in which man finds himself. Throughout the novel, Hardy uses the image of a "victim" or "prisoner" as a means to describe his characters.

      The Return of the Native is as much a "tragedy of environment" as it is a "tragedy of character". Both character and environment are involved in the destiny of man.

Hardy's Portrayal of Eustacia

      Hardy's portrayal of Eustacia is noted for his poetic grandeur. She is described as "full-limbed and somewhat heavy; without enddiness, as without pallor; and soft to the touch as a cloud". She has pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries. In chapter seven, "Queen of Night", Hardy gives a vivid imaginative portrait of her. The method employed in describing her shows that she is intended to be taken very seriously, as a study of strong but abnormal personality, and by no means a mere vulgar butterfly, pining, for frivolity at any cost. Here is a small passage full of the imaginative power of Hardy at its peak.

"She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries, and their light, as it came and went, and came again, was partially hampered by their oppressive lids and lashes; and of these the underlid was much fuller than is usually with English women and her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnight; her moods recalled lotus-eaters and the march in Athalie; her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola."

      Before she meets Clym, she has elevated him to an ideal status and when the reality comes, her dreams and illusions are shattered. Her degradation takes place when she turns to Wildeve. Finally, she rehabilitates her dignity by not surrendering her honor with her death which is most probably a suicide.

Conclusion

      The Return of the Native stands unique among the works of Hardy. Egdon Heath represents both the indifferent world of Nature and the stage on which human dramas have been enacted from time immemorial, sets the tone for the somber story of trapped human passions. This novel is the most artistic presentation among the Wessex novels of the theme which is always present to Hardy's consciousness, the theme which he heard in the song of the trees in the Yell' ham wood:

'Life offers to deny'.

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