The Return of the Native | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Return of the Native | Book 1, Chapters 1–2 : The Three Women | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1: A Face on Which Time Makes But Little Impression

The opening scene of the novel is set on Egdon Heath, a wild, sparsely inhabited, open expanse of countryside in southwest England. The heath is ancient, and civilization is its enemy. As twilight approaches, the heath already appears gloomy, and night seems to have taken up its stand there. This wasteland, says Hardy, is indeed "a near relation of night." It is a place of solitude and loneliness, the author adds darkly, "suggesting tragical possibilities."

Chapter 2: Humanity Appears upon the Scene Hand in Hand with Trouble

On the single highway traversing the heath, an old, white-haired man encounters a van driven by a reddleman, whose profession is to sell red ochre or chalk to farmers, a material they use to mark their sheep. As the two travelers converse, the reddleman reveals that he is transporting a young woman in need of assistance. Over the next few chapters, it gradually becomes clear that the reddleman is young Diggory Venn, the old traveler is Captain Vye, and the young woman is Thomasin Yeobright, who was supposed to be married that very day to Damon Wildeve. As Venn stares at the barrow, or mound, at the summit of the heath, he sees a woman's ghostly figure outlined against the sky for a short time. This figure is later identified as the novel's heroine, Eustacia Vye. The form then disappears, to be replaced by a mysterious group of human shapes.

Analysis

Hardy includes an epigraph for the novel—a brief statement or quotation intended to set the tone for the narrative or to suggest an important aspect of the theme. Hardy's epigraph is taken from the poem "Endymion" (1818) by John Keats, a pastoral narrative featuring a shepherd who was beloved by the moon goddess. The lines Hardy cites are distinctly mournful, paradoxically personifying sorrow as "cheerly," "constant," and "kind." The quotation effectively foreshadows a mournful, even tragic, tale to come:

To sorrow
I bade good morrow
And thought to leave her far away behind
But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind.
I would deceive her,
And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and so kind.

The description in Chapter 1 of Egdon Heath is one of the most celebrated accounts of setting in English literature. A heath is a wild, mostly open tract of countryside used by grazing animals and very thinly populated by human beings. Hardy emphasizes the land's antiquity, changelessness, and enduring solitude. The extended description begins with a distinctly oppressive simile, in which Hardy compares the scene to the upper reaches and flooring of a vast tent. From then on, in paragraph after paragraph, the description creates a solemn, mournful atmosphere, much of it evoked by word connotations. Consider these words in the second paragraph, for example: pallid, darkest, darkness, distant, retard, sadden, frowning, storms, opacity, moonless, and dread.

Before Hardy's novels, heaths (sometimes called moors) had served as intensely dramatic settings for at least two well-known works: Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth (1607–07), and Emily Brontë's Romantic novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), whose hero is named Heathcliff. Hardy would have known both of these works well, and he would have been acutely aware of the atmospheric and symbolic contributions such a setting could make to a narrative. In The Return of the Native, Egdon Heath plays such a prominent role that critics and commentators sometimes elevate it to the status of a character in the novel.

A second distinguishing feature of the way Hardy begins the novel is his oblique introduction of major characters. Diggory Venn, Thomasin Yeobright, and Eustacia Vye are all described, alluded to, or indirectly perceived rather than named or clearly introduced. Readers should keep in mind that Hardy's style and techniques were, like those of Dickens, substantially influenced by the custom of serializing lengthy narratives. This publication method put a premium on suspense, or the deliberate creation of tension or uncertainty in the reader's mind.

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