I was very interested in reading this book until I read the first chapter. Oh-oh – bo-ring! But I picked it up later and was automatically fascinated. Go figure – but that’s happened to me before so I’ll often give a book two or three tries before really setting it aside. The Classics Reading Group II prompted this read.
Hardy loves to weave nature’s wonders into his stories along with the flaws of humans and their society. Return of the Native is an excellent example. Re-browsing Thoreau’s Walden was an interesting parallel to Hardy’s theme. In The Return of the Native the Egdon Heath is almost a character (and I don’t like using the term that way) because of its effect on the lives of all the human characters. I might be able to call a setting a character if I use a term like “uber-character.” These types of settings are certainly more than “backdrops” for stories which could take place anywhere.
It has been said that in Return of the Native Hardy shows “human experience [as] an echo of the cycles of nature.” And similarly, Egdon Heath can also be seen as a symbol of darkness – nature is not always benevolent.
The fictitious Egdon Heath is in the middle of very real Wessex County, southwest of London, which is also the general area of Stonehenge, an area long known for its old superstitions and rumors of witchcraft, etc. These elements are briefly portrayed in Return of the Native giving the novel a real historical texture (to me anyway).
The story – Eustacia Vye is a beautiful, flirtatious, pretentious and dreamy young woman who is without money or resources. What she has are dreams of life befitting a “lady,” so she makes designs on men and status – particularly a young man named Damon Wildeve. But a big part of why she desires him is he’s promised to Tomasin Yeobright, a sweet innocent who lives with her aunt, Mrs. Yeobright. Mrs. Yeobright has specific ideas about who “should” marry whom – social class counts enormously. Their relationship has problems come wedding time. But then Tomasin’s cousin Clym, the son of Mrs. Yeobright, returns to the village sick of Paris and that life and Eustacia becomes enchanted with Clym and his background – the life he could take her to. Clym falls in love with her but his desire is not to go back to Paris but rather to become a teacher of young boys there in the Wessex area. Meanwhile, Diggory Venn, a very good man but a social outcast because he’s a reddlemen, is in love with Tomasin and does whatever he can to help her. These are the basic ingredients of what turns into a tragic mess.
Brilliant book – I’d love to read it again and see if I can figure out more specifically how the natural, environmental elements fit with the human stories.