A Series of Unfortunate Marriages

diggory venn

The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy, 1878

Alert: The Return of the Native is one of the only audiobooks that Alan Rickman ever recorded. If you enjoy audiobooks at all, you should listen to this one before reading this post. Treat yourself. I will not divulge the entire plot here, but you might want to go give it a listen before I divulge a single thing.

This novel is a strange, mixed bag. It contains all the elements that make Thomas Hardy’s writing wonderful and some elements that let the story down. The highlight of the book is Diggory Venn, the reddleman. I love this character from the depths of my being. He roves the heath in something like a Romani wagon, selling red dye that shepherds use to mark their livestock. He’s quite successful, but his trade has the disadvantage of turning his skin and clothes red. Of course, he becomes the local boogeyman, because of his outlandish appearance. If you don’t wash behind your ears, the reddleman will carry you away. Far from being a scary kidnapper, poor Diggory is kind and resourceful and tireless in his efforts to help others. But the woman he loves, Thomasin Yeobright, will not marry him, in part because of his redness.

We must take yet another moment on this blog to recognize Hardy’s brilliance with character names. Characters in this book include:

Thomasin (Tamsin) Yeobright                                          Clement (Clym) Yeobright

Eustacia Vye                                                                        Damon Wildeve

Grandfer Cantle                                                                     Johnny Nunsuch

How does he do it?

The tale takes place on Egdon Heath. Hardy describes this wild habitat with such beauty and nuance that the setting is absolutely the second-best part of the book after Diggory Venn. I appreciate every word he uses to describe Egdon. However, when the setting is more interesting than half your characters, you halfway blew it. If he’d put the same energy into making Tamsin something more than a symbol of feminine sweetness, figuring out whether Eustacia is supposed to be an allegory or a girl, and eliminating the bizarre, abstract elements of Clym’s characterization, this would be a perfect book.

We need to talk about Eustacia Vye. Please indulge me by reading Hardy’s initial description of her:

“Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman. Had it been possible for the earth and mankind to be entirely in her grasp for a while, she had handled the distaff, the spindle, and the shears at her own free will, few in the world would have noticed the change of government. There would have been the same inequality of lot, the same heaping up of favours here, of contumely there, the same generosity before justice, the same perpetual dilemmas, the same captious alteration of caresses and blows that we endure now.”

Wow. I love this intertwining of Hardy’s worldview with his description of this woman. She is as unpredictable and arbitrary as human destiny. I’m intrigued. Did you notice that in this extended metaphor he avoided implying that any deity actually does control the outcome of our lives? Hardy was pretty much an atheist. Go team!

I wanted to love our mercurial heath goddess, Eustacia, because she dresses in drag to get close to a fella she’s interested in. But she’s a Hera, not an Athena, and we can’t love Hera, because she’s prone to imposing extravagant punishments on the women that her husband rapes. You have to exhibit a smidge of compassion to be a sympathetic character. Instead, Eustacia’s careless, egotistic meddling ruins lives. This would be fine, not morally, but as a fictitious device, if Hardy didn’t spend the last section of the novel asking the reader to bewail poor Eustacia’s sad lot. The same lot in life that she chose for herself with complete disregard for the happiness of everyone around her. Perhaps this will not be a problem for you. Perhaps you are more forgiving than I.

 

You might like The Return of the Native if:

  • you’re a fan of Thomas Hardy’s other work
  • you love anything set on a moor

You might not like The Return of the Native if:

  • you need your characters to be at least as dynamic as the scenery

Final Thoughts: Even with this flaw, the end of the book is pretty satisfying. Overall, I like it very much. Hardy’s prose is top notch in this one. There is pristine scene in which a woman looks at a heron. I read it three or four times and I got more out of it each time. Currently, I would rank The Return of the Native fourth or fifth out of the seven Thomas Hardy books I have read, which may sound low, but the three or four books ahead of it are three or four of my all-time favorite books. I think it’ll end up at the top of my second tier of Hardy novels. We shall see.

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