The Return of the Native

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Read 17/01/2016-21/01/2016

Rating: 4 stars

Read for the Reader’s Room Winter Scavenger Hunt Challenge

I love Thomas Hardy. I love the pictures he paints of the Wessex landscape. I love the way his words enable the reader to see the scene he describes. I love how strong his female characters are, how central to the story. The Return of the Native is one of the best examples of his art. Of course, it’s Hardy, so it isn’t without a dose of tragedy, but somehow the tragedy in this book is of the sufferers’ own making, and it paves the way for some restorative joy. There is tension, there is boredom, there is silliness, there is sorrow. It is a book about life.

These are people on the cusp of change. Rural life would gradually be eroded through education and industrialisation. Clym Yeobright, an idealistic, naïve young man who turns from his life of wealth to seek a sense of usefulness back among his native people, is described as being too far in advance of his compatriots for the idealistic vision he has of giving something back to work. Rural life hasn’t yet caught up with life in towns and cities.

The novel is a poem to the ancient beauty of the heath. Hardy’s descriptions of the way the light falls across it at different hours, the colours that emerge from it, and its ancient invariability and unwillingness to be tamed are beautiful. The characters who live, work, idle and scheme on the heath are among the best, in my opinion, that Hardy created. Eustacia Vye is a wonderful creation, spirited, intelligent, manipulative and yearning for something to lift her from the doldrums in which she perceives herself to be languishing. Damon Wildeve is a scurrilous rake in the mould of Pride & Prejudice’s Wickham. There is an element of caricature about them, but Hardy is too skilled a writer to bring forth pure exaggerations of human characteristics. Alongside the main personality traits writ large, Hardy includes subtle contradictions, light and shade, that make them seem modern at the same time as being romantic constructs. Hardy is good at acknowledging the restrictions of female existence in his era while at the same time recognising that women are more than society will permit them to be. It is the women in his books that compel. Given that there isn’t a single Thomas Hardy novel that is 100% cheerful, it would be too much to expect things to work out well for these three. But the tragedy that befalls them is tempered by a satisfactory joy for the two other, quieter, central characters, Thomasin Yeobright and Diggory Venn.

Along with Far From The Madding Crowd, this is now one of my favourites of Hardy’s novels.

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