The Return of the Native | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Return of the Native | Context


The Victorian Age

Some familiarity with Victorian social conventions is needed in order to understand how disturbing many of Thomas Hardy's readers found his novels. Hardy challenged virtually all the social norms of his era, especially the sanctity of marriage and the rigidity of class distinctions.

The reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) marked the high point of British power and prosperity. The Industrial Revolution, which replaced human labor with machine power in many industries, was at its height. Largely thanks to the power and reach of the British navy, the nation's colonizing efforts spanned the globe. According to a popular adage, the sun never set on the British Empire.

British global supremacy in the second half of the 19th century had numerous implications on the home front as well. A rigid social code became even more established in a culture where class divisions had long been ingrained. Families were strongly patriarchal, with women and children relegated to silence and obedience. Institutions such as the monarchy, the nobility, the military, and the church were rarely, if ever, questioned. Responsibility and respectability were supreme virtues. There were occasional political reforms, however, and science did progress, as with English naturalist Charles Darwin's landmark work The Origin of Species (1859).

The Evolution of a Realist

In the early Victorian Age, the novel was revitalized by the Brontë sisters, a remarkable trio of writers whose greatest works were arguably Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847). Around the same time English writer Charles Dickens's stunning series of tales steered the novel firmly into the arena of social criticism, with works such as Oliver Twist (1837–39), Hard Times (1854), Bleak House (1852–53), and Great Expectations (1860–61). While Dickens exposed Victorian hypocrisy, crime, and deficient institutions, his contemporary English novelist George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, 1819–1880) probed the psychology of human relationships in novels such as The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Middlemarch (1871–72).

Thomas Hardy's originality, when gauged against the Victorian novel's earlier development, is to have discovered a freshly penetrating level of psychological insight. Hardy is considered a realist in the tradition of George Eliot for his bleak portrayal of life. Literary realists attempt to show their subject matter truthfully. However, characteristics in his writing verge on modernism.

Modernist writers such as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf rejected formal structures to experiment with techniques such as stream-of-consciousness writing, which replicated a character's thought process. While Hardy's structures are more traditional, his daring willingness to challenge Victorian conventions and his interest in conflict reflect modernist traits. Social concerns play an important role in Hardy's fiction, but it is the interplay of character and destiny that chiefly interests the author and enthralls the reader.

Hardy's Wessex

With Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), Hardy made an important decision regarding his literary canon. He created a setting that was both real and fictional. For the rest of his career as a novelist, he set his stories in the region of Wessex, a semi-fictionalized landscape based on the medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex and closely resembling his native county of Dorset. This literary device afforded him significant advantages:

  • He could infuse his novels and short stories with appealing local color through traditional folkways and dialect.
  • He could critique social prejudice and injustice without unduly offending real-life culprits.
  • He could appeal to familiar character types and landscapes while bathing them in a somewhat unfamiliar and alluring light.

When revising his novels for collected editions in 1895 and 1912, Hardy changed some place names in The Return of the Native and other earlier novels to match the Wessex place names he invented for later novels. There are widely circulated editions of both earlier and later editions.

After Hardy, major novelists who adopted such a strategy included the American writer William Faulkner, who set many of his novels in fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, and the Indian novelist R.K. Narayan, whose works unfolded in fictional Malgudi, a small town in South India.

Hardy's Worldview

In his novels and his poetry, Hardy espoused a worldview that may be called pessimistic at best and nihilistic, or despairing, at worst. Over a 20-year span from Far Ffom the Madding Crowd (1874) to Jude the Obscure (1895), the novels grow steadily darker in their view of human nature and behavior. Hardy believed that chance, irony, and coincidence played a major role in human affairs, and he often portrayed human destiny as unfolding in an indifferent, perhaps even hostile, environment.

Compounding Hardy's pessimistic outlook was his critical approach to some of the hallowed institutions of his time. Marriage, especially, came under Hardy's microscope and was found to be largely vain and hollow. Hardy's views on the materialism, hypocrisy, and social vanity of Victorian marriage became steadily more forthright, and they eventually provoked the scathing reviews of his final novel, Jude the Obscure.

Note on Editions

The Return of the Native was first serialized in Belgravia magazine between January and December of 1878. The first edition of the novel, with some revisions by the author, was published in 1878. Hardy substantially revised the novel for an 1895 collected edition of his novels, and yet again in 1912 for the Wessex Edition of his works. Many modern editions follow the first edition, while others follow Hardy's last revision of 1912. Editions that use the place name Southerton in Book 1, Chapter 2 are based on the first edition, while those that use Anglebury are based on one of the later editions. This study guide follows the later editions in use of names.

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