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The Return of the Native | Themes

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Inescapable Destiny

Destiny, or fate, is a leading theme in most of Thomas Hardy's fiction. From the very beginning of the novel, the description of Egdon Heath as an enduring, immemorial setting suggests that Hardy views the human characters as playing their parts against an indifferent, perhaps even hostile, backdrop. At one despairing moment, Eustacia thinks of death as a release if the "satire of Heaven" should continue much longer. Just before she commits suicide, she loudly laments her lot, ranting against the bitterness and injustice of her fate, despite the fact that she has never harmed Heaven.

Other characters besides Eustacia are ill-used by fate. Thomasin, for example, is deceived and eventually deserted by the insidious Damon Wildeve. Clym Yeobright is thwarted, both professionally and personally, by many obstacles not of his own making. Mrs. Yeobright is fearsomely judgmental, but also fearsomely unlucky, a victim of an ominous web of circumstances that lead to despair and death.

Hardy's view of destiny is combined with a certain element of poetic justice. For example, Eustacia's overweening ambition and ego recoil on her in ways that suggest Greek tragedy. Yet more important, in Hardy's worldview, is the weight of chance and coincidence in human affairs—that unpredictable conjunction of circumstances which, in the later novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, he would dub, in a memorable phrase, "the persistence of the unforeseen."

Marriage as a Trap

Hardy's pessimism about individual human destiny extended to social institutions as well, and no aspect of his novels was more controversial in his time than his views of marriage. Most Victorians regarded marriage as a sacred compact, blessed by the church and revered by every respectable quarter of society. In his fiction, however, Hardy drew steadily away from this idealization of marriage, going so far as to include extra-marital sex and rape in his plots. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, the protagonist Michael Henchard, acting in a drunken rage, sells his wife and daughter to the highest bidder in the first chapter. The view of marriage in Hardy's final novel, Jude the Obscure, is even more negative.

In The Return of the Native, marriage is portrayed at the mercy of a cluster of materialistic and psychological forces that threaten to nullify it as a healthy or even legitimate human relationship. Social snobbery underlies Mrs. Yeobright's opposition to a marriage between her niece Thomasin and the reddleman Diggory Venn. The reddleman, in her eyes, is a social inferior whose bizarre appearance definitively excludes him from a marital alliance or relationship. Mrs. Yeobright exerts a slightly different form of this sort of prejudice against Eustacia as a potential wife for Clym, judging her to spring from questionable origins and to be inferior as a person of very limited means.

But the institution of marriage, as Hardy portrays it, is also buffeted by other powerful forces. There is, for example, egotistic competition. Wildeve and Eustacia are the chief contenders here, each measuring the attractiveness and potential of a mate by how alluring he or she may be to other contenders.

And finally, money and ambition are seen, through Hardy's lens, to distort what should ideally be a solemn compact of love and devotion. Eustacia's fascination with Clym is repeatedly portrayed as grounded on the glamor and luxury she expects him to provide her with in Paris. Wildeve's unexpected inheritance in the latter part of the narrative provides a strong incentive for Eustacia's renewed interest in his attentions. Marriage for Hardy, in short, is more of a trap and a delusion than a sacred state or hallowed relationship.

Heath Folkways as Part of the Setting

Throughout The Return of the Native, the folkways of the Egdon Heath people enrich the novel with colorful characterization, traditional celebrations, and vivid dialect. These sections of the story are more than digressions. They function as comic relief, picturesque background, and a reassuring center of gravity in a story that often verges on the desperate. Although the heath people have limited education and little sophistication, they are sometimes shown to advantage in comparison with their supposed "superiors" in the social order.

Hardy depicts the ways in which the heath celebrations accord with the cycle of seasons, linking the lives of the locals and the deep-seated rhythms of nature. The emblem of fall, for example, is the bonfires for the Fifth of November, the anniversary of Guy Fawkes' plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Hardy specifically notes that the November bonfires are closely related to ancient Druidical and Saxon ceremonies intended to mark the cycle of the seasons. Similar comments could be made about the mummers' Christmas plays (Book 2) and the springtime Maypole festivities (Book 6).

The portrayal of the heath folkways affords Hardy the opportunity to introduce a number of minor but generally attractive characters, including the eccentric Grandfer Cantle and his simple son Christian, the prickly and superstitious Susan Nunsuch and her boy Johnny, the loyal and helpful furze-cutter Humphrey, and the pompous Timothy Fairway. This gallery of personalities, juxtaposed with the novel's major characters, results in a more richly textured narrative. Perhaps the most poignant characterization of all is that of the boy Johnny Nunsuch, who has a major part to play in Books 4 and 5.

Social Status as a Motivator

For the vast majority of people, life in Victorian England depended on social status. Until the middle of the 19th century, only a small majority of male citizens (and no females) were eligible to vote. Class distinctions were rigid. The Industrial Revolution did not bring economic equality to Britain; on the contrary, it severely reinforced inequality. Many Victorian novels, prominently those of Charles Dickens, protested these conditions and impugned the character of Victorian institutions, including schools, courts of law, and organizations for social relief.

In The Return of the Native few characters openly question the social hierarchy on the heath. At the same time it is left somewhat unclear how the upper echelon has gained its position. For example, Eustacia Vye regards herself as superior. Yet her grandfather seems an ordinary sea-captain and her parents foreign drifters without much pretension to gentility. Mrs. Yeobright is in the same position: the daughter of a curate (rather than a rector or higher-ranking churchman), she has laid claim to a high social status in the community without really any credentials for it. The material achievements of her son Clym support her claim—until he sets about disowning those achievements.

Despite all these ambiguities, however, there is no question that social status plays an important thematic role in the story.

Chance Reigns

Thomas Hardy is famous for the role that chance and coincidence play in his fictional plots. The prominence of the fortuitous is not the result of amateurish plotting, however. It is a very real outgrowth of Hardy's philosophical belief that much of human life is unpredictable and subject to hazard. In one of his most famous early poems, "Hap," Hardy singled out "purblind doomsters" and "dicing time" as the masters of human destiny. (In the poem, "hap" is a synonym for "chance.") In The Return of the Native, this outlook gives the gambling match between Damon Wildeve and Christian Cantle toward the end of Book 3 a special force.

In his foregrounding of chance and coincidence as significant determinants of destiny, Hardy implicitly positioned himself as opposed to conventional, religious views of his time, whereby destiny was governed by a more or less benevolent divine Providence. At the same time, from a 21st-century perspective, Hardy's view seems prophetic, since so many modernist and contemporary artists and writers have highlighted the role of chance in human affairs.

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