The Return of the Native

The Return of the Native

The Return of the Native, which Hardy wrote with serial publication in mind, was turned down by both the Cornhill Magazine (which had published his two previous novels) and by Blackwood’s.  Eventually accepted by the less distinguished Belgravia it appeared in monthly instalments between January and December 1878.  It was published as a three-volume novel in the November of that same year.

Once again Hardy showed his willingness to experiment.  His opening chapter is entirely devoted to a meditation on the strange bleakness of Egdon Heath, where the story is to unfold.  The eight chapters that immediately follow are essentially set outdoors and at night.  The effect is to establish as primary to the novel the dark, brooding environment in which the action takes place.  There can be no agricultural work and very little in the way of social context on this desolate terrain of heath and furze.  The main characters live in virtual isolation in their widely separated dwellings.  Repeatedly they are depicted as solitaries in a sombre landscape.

It is in keeping with this narrative austerity that the notional hero of the novel does not put in appearance till a quarter of the way into the story.  The returning native of the title is Clym Yeobright, who gives up well-paid but meretricious employment in Paris in the hope of finding ‘some rational occupation’, probably as a teacher, in the place where he grew up.  As he sets about re-immersing himself in the subdued life of Egdon he attracts the love of a passionate local girl, Eustacia Vye.  She is excited from the moment she hears of his arrival - ironically because he has come from an exotic place to which she longs to escape from what she feels to be the stifling oppressiveness of the Heath.  Central to the story are the fatal misunderstandings, frustrations and disappointments to which this unlucky mismatch gives rise.

Even more than most of Hardy’s novels The Return of the Native is intensely episodic.  It returns to the memory less as a developing story than as a sequence of vignettes, many of them nocturnal: the flaring bonfire of the opening chapters, Eustacia peering through the darkness with the aid of a telescope, Venn and Wildeve gambling by the light of glow-worms, Mrs. Yeobright’s walk across the Heath, Wildeve and Eustacia dancing under the moon.  The often implausible plot is manipulated to enable such intensities, leaving the narrative connections between them sometimes strained or perfunctory.  Despite this waywardness, and perhaps because of it, The Return of the Native contains some of the most powerful scenes in all Hardy’s fiction.

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