Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Return of the Native

The Return of the Native is the second novel by Thomas Hardy I've read this year, and I have to say I enjoyed it much more than Tess of the D'Urbervilles, despite the latter's fame. This strengthens my resolve to delay forming an opinion of an author until having read more than one of his/her works.  Tess seems to be problematic and depressing for current readers, in part due to its unfair treatment of a victim of circumstance by the other characters. The Return of the Native presents a very different plot and structure, while retaining Hardy's sense of place and modern perspective.
      Slightly controversial when published due to its modern themes, The Return of the Native brings to life a deeply flawed heroine who, along with the other characters, must navigate sexual politics, unfulfilled desire, and conflicting demands of nature and society.  Throughout the novel, the omniscient narrator points out cultural vestiges of pre-Christian agricultural society which still survive on Egdon Heath, and the heath is portrayed as a place where time runs more slowly, but the reader sees that the modern world is already trickling in and will someday carry off the old ways in a flood. If you want to read about mumming, small beers, Nov. 5 bonfires with pre-Guy Fawkes origins, omens, barrows, effigies and folk cures, this book gives them a mention but doesn't dwell on them; they are almost taken for granted. Some characters understand the heath and love it as their home, accepting their place in nature. To others, who want to leave nature behind for culture and society, the heath is a prison. There is a sad nostalgia as Hardy describes Egdon Heath, as one would experience when contemplating a dear friend whose days are numbered. In other words, this book is a big plate of modernity, with a side dish of modernity, washed down with a tall glass of... classical tragedy. Wait..what? That's right.
      Hardy originally planned to structure the novel into five books, which is the classical tragic format, but he adapted his work to the tastes of the public by adding a happy ending for Diggory Venn and Thomasin in a sixth book, Aftercourses. In Hardy's original version, Venn remains a reddleman (seller of red ochre for marking sheep) and Thomasin lives out her days as a widow. In addition to the classical tragic structure, Hardy employs unity of time, place and action (also requirements of classical tragedy). This means that the plot occurs in a single place and with a main course of action (subplots were discouraged). Traditionally the unity of time meant that a classic tragedy took place in a single day, but Hardy's novel covers a year and a day.  To further emphasize the classical nature of his work, he chooses for its setting an ancient heath steeped in pre-Christian history and creates a chorus consisting of the heathfolk.
     The setting itself, Egdon Heath, is imbued with enough life to be considered a character in its own right. Hardy is known for his masterful treatment of place and his literary landscape of Wessex, the semi-fictional region in which his novels take place. Hardy drew maps of Wessex; he loved its wilds and mourned its industrialized areas, and in this he shares some similarities with Tolkien, although he did not provide a backstory for Wessex complete with cosmology and languages, as Tolkien did for Middle Earth.  The composer Gustav Holt wrote a piece called Egdon Heath, inspired by Thomas Hardy's description. You can listen to it here.
     Because I mentioned Thomas Hardy in my last entry about D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, I would like to complete the circle this time by including Lawrence's view of The Return of the Native. An anonymous contributor has put it so eloquently on wikipedia that I would like to directly quote a that too shocking?  Really, who's going to spend time editing the wikipedia article on The Return of the Native? Probably only academics and lit geeks, either of whom are qualified enough to do so. SPOILER AHEAD. Here's the paragraph:

"Some critics—notably D. H. Lawrence—see the novel as a study of the way communities control their misfits. In this view, Eustacia dies because she has internalised the community's values to the extent that, unable to escape Egdon without confirming her status as a fallen woman, she chooses suicide. She thereby ends her sorrows while at the same time—by drowning in the weir like any woman instead of floating, witchlike—she proves her essential innocence to the community."

The titular native: Clym Yeobright
Promethean heroine: Eustacia
Babe in the woods (er, on the heath): Thomasin
Fox on the run: Damon Wildeve
The reddleman, hero of the heath with a dash of magical realism: Diggory Venn
Leading character: Egdon Heath
There was a lot of: walking on the heath,  heath-en customs
There should have been more: I wouldn't have minded more descriptions of heathen customs, but that wouldn't have been as realistic. The novel is a largely accurate portrayal of Wessex life at that time.
This book makes you want to: embrace your little corner of the world, not resent it
This book makes you glad you don't have to: be shunned by a small community for being different

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