Book review: The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

I make no apology for the fact that I am a big Thomas Hardy fan. My intention is to finish reading all of his Wessex novels. The return of the native is the last of the “major” novels for me to have got through (the others being Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure).

The setting for the story is the region of Egdon Heath. The Heath itself is almost a character in itself, and a very dark and malevolent one at that. The ‘native’ of the title is Clym Yeobright, a young man who has spent several years away from the heath where he grew up in order to live and work in Paris, though, having grown disillusioned with that life he chooses to return and train as a schoolmaster.

The early part of the novel, though, doesn’t feature Clym at all. Instead, the first part of the story sets us up my meeting who I would really regard as the main character of the novel: Eustacia Vye. In terms of the evolution of Hardy’s women, Eustacia is most similar to Bathsheba Everdene from Far From The Madding Crowd, only for all that Bathsheba had in naïve innocence, Eustacia has in scheming selfishness.

Eustacia’s character is given its introduction by her attitude towards Mr Wildeve, who has just postponed his wedding because he may still have feelings for Eustacia. This first part I felt wasn’t Hardy’s best opening as many of the male characters are given inadequate introductions, with the exception of Diggory Venn (the reddleman). It’s only in the second main section of the book that we learn who the main characters are as other drift into the background.

It is quite a classic Hardy novel in that the central theme is that of love in a fatalistic setting. As ever, his use of the English language is exquisite, which makes every paragreaph a pleasure to read. Because some of Hardy’s characters seem to be very similar to those in his other writings, one may consider criticising him for not being original in his character creation; I would not, though. All of his main characters are realistic and readily identifiable in people I know, have known, and in some cases there are characteristics that I see in myself. In this book, I found myself identifying much with Diggory Venn, as I have identified with Michael Henchard in Mayor and with Gabriel Oak in Far. As for Eustacia, it’s fair to say I’ve met one or two in the past, and am careful to steer clear of them in the future.

As the novel progresses, each of the characters, driven by their own desires of betterment, drive themselves to the point of destructive obsession. While the book is most similar to Far From The Madding Crowd in terms of the ‘love polygons’ that Hardy creates, by this time in his writing career, Hardy was not afraid of a tragic ending. Indeed here, there is a tragic end for at least one of the characters, though the very very end of the book does contain a positive note which I actually felt spoiled it a little. Hardy himself does actually include a small footnote to say that this “additional” ending was somewhat forced upon him by the fact that book was originally published as a serial.

While maybe not as good as Tess or Mayor, this is still one of the best novels I have ever read and would heartily recommend it to you.