Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review: THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE by Thomas Hardy

Original Publication Date: 1878

Genre: Tragedy

Topics: Romance, morality, provincial life, British, superstitions

Review by: Peter S.

When my friends found out that I was reading Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, I heard the words "depressing," "tragic," and "heartbreaking." And after finishing the novel, I knew that my friends were right. The Return of the Native can indeed by a downer, but it doesn't mean that it's not enjoyable. In fact, it's one of my most wonderful reads this year so far. This is my first Hardy, and I can't wait to read his other works.

The native that the title refers to is one ClymYeobright, who finds himself returning to Egdon Heath to keep his mother, Mrs Yeobright, company. While Clym was away, Clym's cousin, Thomasin, was living with his mother. But now, Thomasin is set to marry the local innkeeper named Damon Wildeve. Things don't go as planned with the marriage of Wildeve and Thomasin, and it has something to do with Eustacia Vye, a beautiful woman who was one time romantically involved with Wildeve.

Eustacia is a restless soul. She hates Egdon Heath with a passion. When Wildeve and Thomasin do get married, she sets her eyes on Clym. Eustacia believes that it is Clym who'll take her away from Egdon Heath to live in Paris. But when the two eventually get married, Clym reveals that it was never his plan to go back to the city of lights. He loves Egdon Heath, and he dreams of becoming a schoolmaster in the nearby town.

Now here is where my summary can get a little bit spoilery. So unless you want to know what makes The Return of the Native tragic, tread carefully, dear reader. Clym doesn't become the schoolmaster that he intends to be. A condition involving his eyes renders him incapable of even reading. He becomes a furze-cutter instead. Poor Eustacia! Stuck with a husband who appears to be happy doing manual labor, while her dreams of living in Paris have gone to the dust. She seeks the help of Wildeve to escape Egdon Heath. It is during this fateful circumstance wherein Wildeve and Eustacia meet their deaths by drowning.

So now the cousins Clym and Thomasin find themselves a widower and a widow respectively. Clym thinks that he and Thomasin can become a happy couple, but we find out that Thomasin fancies the reddleman, Venn Diggory, and decides to marry him. What happens to our native? Clym finds his calling as a preacher.

All the events in The Return of the Native happen in Egdon Heath. This fictional setting is one that Hardy describes vividly. Reading about this fictional setting makes you want to live there, amid the spirited and gossipy locals and the lush flora. As someone who lives in the tropics, I am smitten by the romantic description of the heath. I can almost smell it.
The month of March arrived, and the heath showed its first faint signs of awakening from winter trance. The awakening was almost feline in its stealthiness. The pool outside the bank by Eustacia's dwelling, which seemed as dead and desolate as ever to an observer who moved and made noises in his observation, would gradually disclose a state of great animation when silently watched awhile. A timid animal world had come to life for the season.
What I also love in Hardy's novels are the questions that it poses to the reader. When Wildeve and Eustacia had that tragic accident, was it because of the spell  (or curse?) uttered by Susan Nunsuch, a woman who believes that Eustacia is a witch? Was Thomasin simply compromising when she chose to marry Venn after the death of her first husband? Was Clym really happy as a preacher? Or was this also a fallback when his plan of asking Thomasin to marry him fell through? I'd like to believe that he was.

A lot of people say that The Return of the Native is Hardy's most representative work. It did make me curious about his other works, and the novel inspired me to talk about Hardy to other book-loving friends. Hardy isn't really very popular nowadays, yes? Perhaps it is the depressing feel of his novels that turns people off. But Hardy isn't just about that. He wrote about the mores of his time, the way people once viewed marriage and how they acted based on their social status. He allowed us to glimpse on how people acted when faced when unbearable tragedy. His writing soars amid a backdrop of bleakness.

Download The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|