Thomas Hardy’s controversial novel The Return of the Native is perhaps the most naturalistic of his works. Set on the fictional Egdon Heath, the novel illustrates how the protagonists are somewhat fatalistically bound to the natural landscape. Because it is so determinant over the lives of its inhabitants, the Heath begins to take on human characteristics. As D.H. Lawrence famously expressed in his Study of Thomas Hardy, “Egdon, whose dark soil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast.” (May 13) Indeed, the Heath becomes a symbol for the fickleness of nature over the human race.
The story follows the tribulations of its protagonists, the idealistic schoolteacher Clym Yeobright and the “femme fatale” Eustacia Vye, as they attempt to resist the ties that bind them to the Heath. These two thoroughly modern characters are confined by the traditional values of their rural community. Both contradict conventional societal ideals of respectability—Eustacia is an independent and sexually liberated young woman, while Clym is a progressive educational reformer. The great tension between these New World protagonists and their largely anachronistic environment illustrates a major theme present in all of Hardy’s major works: the English struggle to adapt to the Modern World.
Hardy’s status as a distinctly regional writer is probably the most apparent in The Return of the Native. Egdon Heath is based on Black Heath, which bordered Hardy’s childhood home in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset. In no other novel is Hardy’s Wessex mythology more pronounced. Egdon Heath is truly a microcosm for a Pre-Industrial England—its inhabitants are socially conservative laborers who are attached to the natural landscape in an almost mystical fashion. The community’s livelihood is completely dependent on the landscape itself; they are bound to the capricious Egdon Heath in an eternal struggle for survival.
In many respect, Hardy’s work can be read as an anthropological treatise on the dying practices of English rural culture. A major figure in the novel is Diggory Venn, a traveling reddleman. Venn’s nomadic lifestyle demonstrates a quiet defiance of the modern social custom of “pastoral enclosure” and domesticity. Diggory Venn represents the Old World concept of the rugged individual on the margins of society that lives off the land alone. Thomas Hardy further preserves this obsolete rural world through a nearly exhaustive exploration of rural trades. In a chapter entitled “The Custom of the Country,” the author describes the rural practice of furze cutting. Through the illustration of these rural practices, Hardy acts as a sort of amateur anthropologist, depicting his dying Wessex culture at all costs.
The author demonstrates more regional mythology in The Return of the Native through an exploration of local superstitions. The novel opens and closes on Guy Fawkes Day, a holiday notorious for the collapse of social order and its nearly pagan obsession with fire. One of the most haunting parts of the novel is when Susan Nonesuch, an embittered neighbor, makes a wax fetish doll of Eustacia Vye and burns it in hopes of causing her death. This instance of “voodoo” violence illuminates what Hardy saw as an inherently superstitious and paganistic aspect of rural culture. Through the exploration of these pagan rituals, the author illustrates how the Wessex people’s profound connection with the natural landscape can potentially encourage them to forsake polite society and Christian values and pursue the dark arts. Indeed, there is an inherent danger in losing oneself completely to the landscape itself.
The Return of the Native is perhaps the most rewarding of Hardy’s novels to explore in terms of landscape. Literary enthusiasts can venture to Upper Bockhampton in Dorset to not only see Thomas Hardy’s childhood home but also Puddletown and Black Heath, the inspiration for Egdon Heath. The traveler will immediately understand Hardy’s sublimic portrayal of the landscape; the Heath is at once feral and chaotic, but peaceful and picturesque. The Return of the Native is by far the most naturalistic of Hardy’s novels—a thorough examination of the Heath’s landscape is necessary in order to fully appreciate the author’s fatalistic depiction of nature.
When D.H. Lawrence referred to the Heath in The Return of the Native as having the “body of a beast,” he articulates just how vital a role the natural landscape has in Hardy’s beloved novel. Indeed, the inhabitants of Egdon Heath are bound to its caprice; their Old World values and practices illustrate a nearly pagan reverence for nature. By exploring the anthropological and natural origins of Thomas Hardy’s text, the reader will better appreciate The Return of the Native’s themes.
© Copyright Clare Keating & Katie Hickey 2007