The heath is more than just a dramatic backdrop to the action; it is an integral part of the plot and character development, and a constant thematic symbol. Hardy devotes the novel's entire first chapter to describing the timeless landscape of Egdon heath. What defines it most of all is its timelessness - it is much bigger than any human drama, and hence might its natural forces swallow those humans.
The heath can also be viewed as an antagonist in the story, working against the key characters to bring about their tragic fates. Mrs. Yeobright, exhausted by her long toil to Clym’s house, collapses in the darkness on her return, and is bitten by a snake. Wildeve and Eustacia both drown as they plan to flee the heath forever. Clym becomes a preacher, extolling the virtues of a world beyond the heath. Only Thomasin and Diggory, who are truly at ease with their surroundings, endure. The heath is a place for lasting sentiment, not fiery passion or intellectual ideals. Those who are able to tune to its rhythms and pace remain. Those who feel they can live beyond its power are destroyed by it. Eustacia views it as an explicit antagonist - "‘Tis my cross, my shame and will be my death" - and yet falls in attempting to defeat it (69). Most of all, the heath is an expression of Hardy's tragic sense, which suggests that time and the world have little use for the squabbles of humans and will thereby negate their efforts time and again.
Superstition permeates the text, and is connected with the death of Eustacia and possibly Mrs. Yeobright. In the most basic sense, superstition exists through the heath locals. So tied to nature, they are naturally drawn more towards pagan rituals than towards the transcendent message of Christianity. They judge their lives according to the cycles of the heath, and hence believe that strange forces beyond their understanding rule the world.
Many locals, Susan Nunsuch most of all, believe Eustacia is a witch. Susan brings a fearful dimension to their charge, both stabbing Eustacia with a pen and then later making a wax effigy that she burns. Hardy was cautious to avoid being labelled immoral, and so he never extrapolates on Susan's suspicions, which could be based in the possibility of Eustacia's sexuality. Both of Susan's actions are based around witch-lore. A witch would supposedly not bleed if pricked, and an effigy works akin to a voodoo doll, by transferring pain to another.
Eustacia's death also evokes witch-lore, since a suspected witch was thrown in water. If she floated, she was vindicated, and if she drowned, she was proven witch. Tragically, Eustacia floats but it brings her no benefit, since she dies. In surviving and dedicating himself to Christianity, Clym suggests Hardy's dismissal of such lore, though the author never goes so far as to outright denounce any of the ancient superstitions suggested in the text.
One of the novel's inherent conflicts is that between the declining, traditional attitudes of Dorset and the modern world that was replacing it. Hardy’s work often highlighted the waning traditions and ideals of his age, and there are many examples where custom and folklore feature as central to the narrative. Part of the novel's appeal is the way it records these dying customs.
For instance, Diggory Venn’s trade as a reddleman represents the dying skills of the region:
He was one of a class rapidly becoming extinct in Wessex, filling at present in the rural world the place which, during the last century, the dodo occupied in the world of animals. He is a curious, interesting and nearly perished link between obsolete forms of life and those which generally prevail.
Though Diggory does dismiss the traditional fears - that a reddleman stole children - he nevertheless dedicates himself to this ancient trade.
Hardy also records the decline in church attendance in rural regions like Egdon, and discusses the history and function of the mummers. In terms of the latter, he explains how repeated tradition can lead to perfunctory execution and reception, as opposed to the true passion of a regenerated custom.
There are some customs that Hardy connects to more ancient customs. Hardy believed the November 5th bonfires were a continuance of Druid tradition more than a commemoration of Gay Fawkes. Further, the May Day celebrations seems to have a primal draw, since it is those which finally bring Thomasin and Diggory together.
The Return of the Native presents a range of views on education without ever delivering a final conclusion in the issue.
As an extraordinary resident of the heath whose intelligence allowed him to explore the greater world, Clym is a strong proponent for education. In fact, he wants to explore a new type of education with the residents of the heath, and is drawn home for that purpose. However, he confronts both reticence and outright opposition to these noble plans, and ends up as a preacher - a vocation more associated with tradition than modernity - than as a teacher. To some extent, Clym is oblivious to the nature of those he wishes to educate. They are not only not ready for his ideas, but are also fundamentally opposed to them. Captain Vye gives a reflective instance of their skepticism when he describes education as valuable only towards encouraging the young to engage in offensive graffiti.
In fact, Hardy explores how Clym's natural good-looks stand in opposition to these modern ideas of education exemplified in his intellect:
He already showed that thought is a disease of flesh, and indirectly bore evidence that ideal physical beauty is incompatible with emotional development and a full recognition of the coil of things.
It is only really within the spiritual world that he is finally able to find solace. His ideal of "instilling high knowledge into empty minds" is unrealistic to the point of arrogance, an indicator that his learning has not helped him to connect with his fellow man (160). Even as preacher, his "moral lectures" maintain a didactic air that repulse some listeners. He continues to speak but not to listen, which gives an implicit criticism of the educational instinct.
Clym’s most significant education is what he learns on the heath - that the world is controlled by large forces beyond our understanding.
The quest for romantic love amongst the nature-centered heath affects many characters, Eustacia most of all. She is desperate to discover the passion of romantic love. Early in the text, she expresses that she seeks, "A blaze of love, and extinction, [which] was better than a lantern glimmer of the same which should last long years (56). She wants a quick burst of passion, rather than the pragmatism of a sustaining respect and passion. This desire helps explain her tragic demise - she is too quick to romanticize a situation, ignoring its reality. She ignores the fact that Wildeve mostly repulses her, to twice become attracted to him, and ignores Clym's stated intentions to justify her acceptance of his proposal. This conflict creates a sense of dissatisfaction that has tragic consequences.
Clym is attracted to Eustacia on so many levels, but ultimately chooses a respectable, simple life with her. The passion and romanticism that defined him on his return is quickly traded for a more pragmatic personality that disappoints Eustacia. His tragic flaw here is his blindness to what she needs, and they both pay for it.
Finally, Thomasin begins with a romantic passion for Wildeve, but ultimately realizes the greater wisdom of pragmatism. When they finally marry, she is no longer enamored with him, but rather has matured to realize that she must protect her reputation over her romantic pride.
The Oedipus complex
Clym has an intense and turbulent relationship with his mother, which evokes the Oedipus complex, so-named by Freud because of the ancient play Oedipus Rex. Simply put, the Oedipus complex describes an unhealthy love-hate attraction between a mother and son.
Mrs. Yeobright has clearly had great ambitions for her son. We see her disappointment when he reveals that he has left Paris to return to Egdon. She cannot appreciate his return to Egdon as a step forward; instead, she vicariously considers it as sign of failure, asking him, "But it is right, too, that I should try to lift you out of this life into something richer, and that you should not come back again, and be as if I had never tried at all?" (140).
This vicarious association further explains her contempt for Eustacia. She cannot understand that he is attracted to her instead of finer Parisian ladies. The relationship between Clym and his mother starts to sour after he begins to court Eustacia. He chooses to give Eustacia a gift – a charnel pot unearthed from the burial mound – which was originally intended for his mother. Though all of these attitudes can be explained, they together suggest an intimate and intense connection.
Clym is aware of the challenges to his happiness, and refers to the competing areas of his life as "antagonistic growths." Interestingly, his relationship with his mother is the first he lists, before his wife and vocation. He is forced into making a choice between Eustacia and his mother, and the regrets over this situation lead to a romantic demise for almost all involved.
In the novel, characters who display constancy are rewarded. Like the unswerving firmness of the Egdon landscape, those who remain true to their ideals endure. Diggory Venn, as example, is unwavering in his love for Thomasin. He adapts his lifestyle and means of income to win her affections, and patiently remains her faithful champion. Similarly, Charley the stable boy does not waver in his affection for Eustacia. He gives her his mummer’s role, and later cares for her despite her attitudes towards him. Even the dim-sighted Clym can perceive Charley's love for his wife. Similarly, the heath folk are characterized by their adherence to unchanging tradition and folklore. They accept the heath as timeless and constant, and their kind perseveres for that reason.
The characters more defined by transient, changing passions - Wildeve, Eustacia, and Clym - all suffer a tragic end. The heath, with its constancy, has little use for such dynamic human passions.
Return of the Native Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Return of the Native is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Native Americans have always symbolized the mythic American frontier. They were either savages who fight to the death or noble savages that conform to western values. Native Americans have a built in identity, largely fictionalized by Hollywood,...
Whether or not there is poetic justice in Book Five is questionable. This book is Hardy's weakest in the entire novel. We might consider Eustacia's death a form of poetic justice, but only if she did in fact fall into the weir. Knowing she had...