The Return of the Native | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Return of the Native | Book 1, Chapters 3–4 : The Three Women | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 3: The Custom of the Country

In this chapter Hardy begins his portrayal of two of the most characteristic aspects of his Wessex novels: the role of traditional folkways in the local setting and his characters' use of local dialect. The action focuses on the building of a large bonfire to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day (November 5). This holiday is the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when a group of dissidents plotted to use explosives to blow up the Houses of Parliament, the king, and the government's ministers. The plot was foiled, and the leading conspirators were executed. It is possibly significant that the Gunpowder Plot, which had contemporary significance for Shakespeare, also figures substantially in the background of Macbeth. Hardy comments on how the historical events of 1605 have melded with age-old seasonal rituals to produce the local observance.

In Chapter 3 we meet the "heath people": Timothy Fairway, Grandfer Cantle and his son Christian, Susan Nunsuch, Humphrey the furze-cutter, and the broom-maker Olly Dowden. Gossip about the wedding of Thomasin Yeobright to the innkeeper Damon Wildeve dominates their conversation. The locals discuss how Mrs. Yeobright had forbidden the banns, or public notice in church of a prospective marriage, a year ago. The return from Paris of Thomasin's cousin, Clym Yeobright, in time for Christmas is also mentioned.

Chapter 4: The Halt on the Turnpike Road

This chapter clarifies some of the mysteries and uncertainties of Chapter 1. It turns out that Thomasin Yeobright, who was engaged to be married to the innkeeper, Damon Wildeve, has returned from Anglebury in the cart of the reddleman Diggory Venn. Due to a mistake or irregularity in the official documents, she has not been married after all. Her aunt, Mrs. Yeobright, sternly demands to know what has happened to postpone or cancel the wedding, since she regards such an event as a slight on the family honor.

Analysis

Some critics have compared the heath people—superstitious, semi-educated, and gossip-prone—to a Greek chorus, the group of onlookers in ancient Greek drama who periodically sang and danced in commentary on the main action of the play. The persuasiveness of such a comparison is still in doubt, however. It is reasonable to believe Hardy included such characters in a number of his novels to render his setting more vivid and credible. His imaginative presentation of Wessex, a fictional place similar to Hardy's home county of Dorset, appealed to the nostalgia of an increasingly urbanized reading public. Four years before The Return of the Native, in 1874, Hardy had used such scenes to great effect in Far from the Madding Crowd, his first notable success as a novelist. Leslie Stephen, the editor of The Cornhill Magazine, which had serialized that novel, had commented admiringly on Hardy's "prose idylls of country life," encouraging him to write more in this "original vein." It is notable that Hardy lifted the title of Far from the Madding Crowd from Thomas Gray's well-known poem, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751), which celebrated the lives of the rural poor and unfamous. Thus, there were more immediate reasons than any strained "imitation" of Greek tragedy for Hardy to include the Wessex country folk in his fiction.

Considering the major themes of The Return of the Native as a whole, the discussion of "no moon, no man" about marriage is especially significant. Christian Cantle's awkwardness with women serves as the springboard for a conversation on the folk belief that a boy born at the new moon will never amount to a worthy husband. The ominous relevance of the discussion does not emerge until Book 3, Chapter 4, when Clym Yeobright proposes marriage to Eustacia Vye during an eclipse of the moon.

Although Hardy introduces some other characters obliquely, as noted previously, our first impressions of Mrs. Yeobright, Thomasin's aunt, are sharply drawn. She is imperious and opinionated. Her treatment of Diggory Venn is off-putting and condescending, considering he has treated her niece kindly and respectfully.

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