The Return of the Native | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Return of the Native | Book 4, Chapters 5–6 : The Closed Door | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 5: The Journey across the Heath

It is the last day of August, and Egdon Heath bakes like a kiln in the heat. Mrs. Yeobright has chosen this day to cross the heath on foot to her son's house. As she makes the journey, she sees two wayfarers. One is her son himself, who is preoccupied in his new—but socially despised—trade of cutting furze. She follows him to his home, unable to keep up with his pace. And the other is Damon Wildeve, whom Mrs. Yeobright fails to recognize. She sees the man look about the property, then knock at the door and enter. In a case of dramatic irony, she supposes the presence of some acquaintance may make the meeting less awkward.

Chapter 6: A Conjuncture, and Its Result upon the Pedestrian

Since their meeting at the "gypsying," Wildeve has been determined to visit Eustacia openly by day, thus foiling Diggory's annoying tricks and nocturnal surveillance. By chance he arrives on this day just after Clym has retired for a rest from his fatiguing physical labor. He gets there shortly before Mrs. Yeobright.

Wildeve and Eustacia discuss her present marriage and their past relationship. He tells her that she rightly belonged to him. She admits sadness about her misfortune, but she also says she loves Clym and asks Wildeve to make this his last visit to her home. In the middle of their conversation, there is a knock at the door. Going to a window, Eustacia ascertains that the visitor is Mrs. Yeobright. From the other room, they hear Clym say the word Mother. Mistakenly inferring that Clym is awake (he is only dreaming), Eustacia takes Damon to the back door and ushers him out of the house. She finds Clym still asleep, then hastens to open the front door. But Mrs. Yeobright has gone.

The elderly woman's return journey across the heath occupies the rest of this harrowing chapter. She has seriously misinterpreted the scene. She first sees Clym's furze hook and brambles outside the door, and then she glimpses Eustacia's face at a window. Based on this she has inferred that Clym has permitted Eustacia to shut the door against her. Her misunderstanding of appearances leads her to believe that she has been shunned and betrayed by her own son.

With such tormenting thoughts roiling through her mind, Mrs. Yeobright encounters young Johnny Nunsuch, who offers to accompany her on part of her return journey. The child's innocent questions offer a counterpoint to Mrs. Yeobright's suffering. She sits down momentarily to rest and sends the boy to fetch water from a pool. When Johnny departs, Mrs. Yeobright presses on, then stops to rest once more, watching a heron fly with its face toward the sun.

Analysis

Once again, the setting of Egdon Heath plays a key role in these chapters. Although Hardy has earlier described the heath as a place where "time makes but little impression," he skillfully manipulates the locale to suit the emotional pitch of the plot at various points in the novel. These chapters will be among the most emotionally fraught parts of the story; it is fitting, therefore, that the weather is both extreme and exhausting.

This plot sequence makes prevalent use of dramatic irony. When she glimpses a furze-cutter ("of no more account in life than an insect"), Mrs. Yeobright at first has no idea of his identity. Soon, however, the man's gait reminds him of her husband's, and she recognizes the laborer as her son. The recognition deals a blow to her notions of social status and propriety.

As if this were not enough, Mrs. Yeobright discerns a second male figure as she approaches Clym and Eustacia's house. This time Hardy does not identify the man (Wildeve) until the beginning of the next chapter. But the opportunities for situational and dramatic irony are not lost. Mrs. Yeobright, at first perturbed, soon concludes that the presence of a neighbor or acquaintance may help smooth over any awkward moments in her reconciliation with Clym. She begins to feel comfortable with the situation, unaware that Wildeve's presence will cause this visit to go wrong.

In the final paragraph of Chapter 5, Hardy offers an idyllic vignette as a prelude to one of the most dramatic turning points in the novel's plot: A cat is asleep on the path; wasps roll drunk on the juice of apples fallen from a tree inside the gate; Clym's furze-hook lies by the door. This portrait of rural serenity is about to be shredded.

At the beginning of Chapter 6 Hardy explains to the reader that Wildeve was determined to visit Eustacia openly. Thus, his visit on this particular day has coincided with Mrs. Yeobright's attempt at reconciliation with her son. From this point on, events cascade. Wildeve and Eustacia converse about their relationship and Eustacia's marriage even as Clym, exhausted from his physical labor, lies asleep on the hearth in plain sight. Such physical proximity of wife, husband, and past and would-be lover would have been enough, by itself, to have disconcerted some readers in Hardy's audience.

Mrs. Yeobright's knock at the door is the key turning point in the scene. Aside from the dilemma it poses for Eustacia, two additional details are notable. The first is Eustacia's brief appearance at the window. She learns that the newly arrived visitor is Mrs. Yeobright, but—even more important for future events—Mrs. Yeobright glimpses and recognizes Eustacia. The second important detail is the utterance by Clym of the word Mother—interpreted by Eustacia and Wildeve as indicating that Clym has awakened from sleep, but in reality only a word he speaks as he is having a dream. In this detail a case of dramatic irony spells trouble for the characters who misinterpret his speech. The dream itself is an exemplar of verbal irony: Clym was indeed envisioning and speaking to his mother, but in an entirely different set of circumstances, which will be explained at the beginning of Chapter 7.

In the remainder of Chapter 6 Hardy narrates Mrs. Yeobright's harrowing attempt to return home across the heath. Given the torrid weather, her extreme fatigue, and her battered emotional state, her progress is slow and halting. During the journey, she encounters the child Johnny Nunsuch, who attempts to help her. However, the child does not really understand her physical predicament or her emotional state.

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