The novel is dead, e-books outsell real books, the famous Prairie Lights bookstore has ceased to carry Loeb classics, Apple has been declared guilty of e-book price-fixing conspiracy, the critic Lee Siegel claims studying literature doesn’t matter, and some Americans are wearing Google internet-connected glasses that take photos with a wink.
I turn to the pastoral novels of Thomas Hardy.
A few weeks ago I reread The Mayor of Casterbridge, a beautifully-written novel set in his fictional Wessex, and one of the most dazzling novels of his intricate multi-novel chronicle of town and rural life. (I wrote about it here.)
The Return of the Native, another stunning Wessex novel, is an intense apocalyptic Victorian romance modeled on Greek tragedy, set against the gloomy, cataclysmic background of Egdon Heath. If you are a fan of Twilight or Sophocles, of the Brontes or Death of a Salesman, you will admire Hardy’s lyrical prose and what D. H. Lawrence in his Study of Thomas Hardy calls “a constant revelation in Hardy’s novels: that there exists a great background, vital and vivid, which matters more than the people who move upon it.”
In The Return of the Native, the unhappy wild characters who roam wild Egdon Heath and long for a glamorous unobtainable urban life meet their deaths, while the tame characters survive to rebuild and recivilize the post-wild society. There are five main characters of marriageable age: two wild, two tame, and one outsider, balanced between both states. The wild, wretched, passionate Eustacia Vye and Wildeve (don’t you love the repetition of Vs, Vye/Eve?) long for what they can’t have and no longer want it when they have it. Fast-forward to their apocalypse: the two plan to run away, but drown in the river during a tumultuous storm, leaving their tame and mild spouses in desolate anguish: Clym, a former diamond salesman who returned to Egdon Heath to teach but lost his sight after marrying Eustacia, and Clym’s practical cousin Thomasin, who married Wildeve with misgivings after he jilted her, grieve and gradually realign themselves with nature.
The outsider, Diggory Venn, a reddleman (he sells a dye called reddle for marking sheep, which has turned his skin red), is a minor god of nature, meddling in the lives of humans with varying results. Unlike Pan or other nature gods of myth, this former farmer, who is in love with Thomasin, is highly moral and just. After the death of Eustacia and Wildeve, he gives up the reddle trade, buys a farm, and becomes a strong, buoyant figure in the reconstruction of Egdon Heath society.*
The motif of disguise is used but not overused (one can almost say that Venn is in disguise, because people only see the red skin and assume he is lower-class). Disguise appeals to but is almost too exciting for Eustacia, a beautiful orphan who lives with her grandfather and longs for romance. She takes long walks on the heath, intensely hates its remoteness from society, and lights bonfires to call her former lover, Wildeve, to rendezvous. When she hears Clym Yeobright has returned from Paris, she disguises herself as a boy so she can go with the mummers to perform a Christmas play at the Yeobrights’ party. She is exhilarated when Clym pays attention to her at the party,
…and yet not to her but to some imaginary person, by the first man she had ever been inclined to adore, complicated her emotions indescribably. She had loved him partly because he was exceptional in this scene, partly because she had determined to love him, chiefly because she was in desperate need of loving somebody after wearying of Wildeve. Believing that she must love him in spite of herself, she had been influenced after the fashion of the second Lord Lyttleton and other persons, who have dreamed that they were to die on a certain day, and by stress of a morbid imagination have actually brought about that event. Once let a maiden admit the possibility of her being stricken with love for some one at a certain hour and place, and the thing is as good as done.
When Clym realizes she is a woman among the mummers, he is intrigued.
They talk about depression.
What depressed you?”
“That’s a cause of depression a good many have to put up with.”
Perhaps it is not the most romantic conversation but when you are in the middle of Hardy, you don’t question it.
They marry against Clym’s mother’s wishes (so did his cousin, Thomasin). Initially he and Eustacia are very happy. But when his eyes fail him and he can no longer study to be a teacher, he goes out to earn money as a furze-cutter. She is appalled. She feels degraded. She has wanted above all to escape the heath, and longed to go with him to Paris, even though he said he wasn’t going back.
Egdon Heath is one of the main characters of the novel. In D. H. Lawrence’s Study of Thomas Hardy, he describes the importance of the background of Egdon Heath which produces the wild
What is the real stuff of tragedy in the book? It is the Heath. It is the primitive, primal earth, where the instinctive life heaves up. There, in the deep, rude stirring of the instincts, there was the reality that worked the tragedy. Close to the body of things, there can be heard the stir that makes us and destroys us. The heath heaved with raw instinct. Egdon, whose dark oil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast. Out of the body of this crude earth are born Eustacia, Wildeve, Mistress Yeobright, Clym, and all the others. They are one year’s accidental crop. What matters is some are drowned or dead, and others preaching or married: what matter, any more than the withering heath, the reddening berries, the seedy, furze, and the dead fern of one autumn of Egdon? The Heath persists.
The structure of The Return of the Novel is a classical ring composition, with scenes in the first part repeated or balanced by similar scenes in the latter part. The novel opens with Diggory Venn’s giving the humiliated, jilted Thomasin a ride home in his van. (The marriage certificate was wrong, and Wildeve isn’t sure he wants to go through with the marriage.) Later in the novel, when Thomasin is carrying her baby in the rain, desperately thinking her husband Wildeve has run off with Eustacia, she again runs into Venn’s van, and he saves what can be saved.
Really a beautiful book.
*Hardy did not intend for Diggory Venn, the reddleman, to play a big part in the ending, but his editor wanted a happy ending.