June 29, 2010

Review: "The Return of the Native" By Thomas Hardy

Every once in a great while you read a novel that just knocks you back onto your keister.  Well, for me, this was just one of those novels.  I finished reading Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native several days ago, and it made such an impression upon me that I turned to page one, and began it all over again!  The first impression?  Wow!  Upon finishing it for the second time?  I concur with the first impression.

This is the fourth in Hardy's series of eight 'Wessex' novels, all being set in his native countryside of southwestern England.  Originally, The Return of the Native was serialized in twelve monthly installments in Belgravia magazine in 1878.  Interestingly, Belgravia magazine was edited by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (of Lady Audley's Secret fame) and her husband, John Maxwell.

The Return of the Native takes place over the course of a year and one-day, and the setting of the novel is entirely on the fictional Egdon Heath of Hardy's Wessex.  In fact, Egdon Heath with its rolling hills and dense warrens of scrubby, spiny, and brown furze should absolutely be considered one of the main characters listed in the novel's Dramatis Personae.

The novel, as Hardy originally intended and envisioned, is a tragedy in five parts; however, he was persuaded by the editors, for serialization purposes, to add a final sixth book (Aftercourses).  Hardy even includes a disclaimer at the start of this sixth book suggesting that the reader choose the ending for the novel that he or she deems appropriate.  Hardy was not a fan of adding the sixth book to the novel.

The first fifty pages, or so, of the novel feels like something out of the Britain of the Druids.  Hardy's description of the Egdon Heath, the late fall weather, and the magical, almost pagan, customs of the people surrounding their bonfires next to the ancient Celtic barrows on the night of November Fifth was simply spell-binding.  And it just gets better! 

Early on we are introduced to the novel's primary protagonists.  There's the seemingly-Mephistophelean Diggory Venn, the Reddleman, covered in red, from head-to-toe in the ochre he uses to mark the flocks of sheep; the beautiful and good-hearted Thomasin Yeobright; the handsome 'failed' engineer, now inn-owner, Damon Wildeve; the solid and steady matron of the heath, Mrs. Yeobright; the 'Queen of Night,' the darkly beautiful 'wayward and erring heroine,' Eustacia Vye ("to be loved to madness, was her great desire"); and, finally, the 'Native,' who has returned to the heath, the only child of Mrs. Yeobright, Clym Yeobright.  The novel travels through the four seasons of the year with these six characters locked together in a tale of passion, drama, pathos, and tragedy where, in typical Hardyian fashion, only Fate, Chance, and Irony exert any control whatsoever.  Like a moth is drawn to a flame, the reader is inexorably drawn into the tale, and recognizes with a growing horror that a full release can only be attained through reaching and experiencing the novel's shocking climax.

The novel contains more than a superficial nod to the great choric scenes of the Greek Tragedies, and includes the gatherings of commoners like many of Shakespeare's dramas.  Hardy's characters' dialog is spare and clipped, but each word is chosen carefully and packs an emotional wallop.  The descriptions of the environment, the role of the humans in it, and the interactions between the characters reminds me of the great modern American novelist, Cormac McCarthy.  The Return of the Native is Hardy's Naturalism at its finest; and becomes an almost poetic homage to the interaction of the human species with one another as well as with the Earth Mother herself.

Hardy chose an ode from Keats's epic Endymion as an epigraph to lead off the novel.  Nothing could describe this novel better--

"To sorrow
I bade good morrow,
And thought to leave her far away behind;
But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind.
I would deceive her,
And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and so kind."

(Endymion, Book IV, 1817)


Finally, I want share one of Thomas Hardy's poems that directly speaks to his beautiful novel, The Return of the Native.  This poem is entitled, The Moth Signal--

The Moth-Signal
(On Egdon Heath)

'What are you still, still thinking,
  He asked in vague surmise,
'That you stare at the wick unblinking
  With those great lost luminous eyes?'

'O, I see a poor moth burning
  In the candle-flame,' said she,
'Its wings and legs are turning
  To a cinder rapidly.'

'Moths fly in from the heather,'
  He said, 'now the days decline.'
'I know,' said she.  'The weather,
  I hope, will at last be fine.

'I think,' she added lightly,
  'I'll look out at the door.
The ring the moon wears nightly,
  May be visible now no more.

She rose, and, little heeding,
  Her husband then went on
With his attentive reading
  In the annals of ages gone.

Outside the house a figure
  Came from the tumulus near,
And speedily waxed bigger,
  And clasped and called her Dear.

'I saw the pale-winged token
  You sent through the crack,' sighed she.
'That moth is burnt and broken
  With which you lured out me.

'And were I as the moth is
  It might be better far
For one whose marriage troth is
  Shattered as potsherds are!'

Then grinned the Ancient Briton
  From the tumulus treed with pine:
'So, hearts are thwartly smitten
  In these days as in mine!'

[Published in Satires of Circumstance, 1914]

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