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Friday, June 07, 2013

Return of the Native (1878) by Thomas Hardy

Book Review
Return of the Native
by Thomas Hardy

    God that random post on Internet Art I did a couple weeks back is the most popular thing on this blog since I reviewed Uncle Tom's Cabin, which, of course, is the most popular post on this blog in the last four years.

  I'm going to level with everyone, I am not particularly enjoying the mid-late Victorian period in literature.  I  can appreciate the deepening moral complexity of a Thomas Hardy v. an Emily Bronte, but that doesn't make for a fun read.  Hardy is notable as writer because of his ability to bring some moral complexity to the marriage/inheritance axis of the Victorian novel.   Hardy's characters are complicated and interesting, they work in multiple dimensions.  Return of the Native is named after one of the four main characters, Clym Yeobright. Return of the Native, like many, many, many other of Hardy's novels, is set in the fictional English countryside of Wessex, which in this book is played by the Egdon Heath.   Basically, Clym Yeobright is a succesful diamond merchant living in Paris.  He returns back to Egdon Heath to visit his Mom and falls for Eustacia Vye, a pretty and vacant girl living with her grand dad near Mom's house.   Eustacia Vye is single, but is sought byDamon Wildeve, a local inn owner who is not very rich and not very classy, but who is supposed to marry Thomasin Yeobright.

  So...then... Eustacia Vye and Clym Yeobright end up getting married because Eustacia thinks he will "take her away from all this" but surprise: Clym wants to "go local" and become a school master.  Eustacia is not stoked but this is the 1870s and she can't do shit.  Meanwhile Clym marries Damon instead, who still wants Eustacia.

   Then... Clym gets sick because he's reading in the dark (yay 1870s!) and loses his eye sight, so he can't continue to study and is rescued to collecting moss from the floor (for fuel?)  Eustacia is even less stoked after Clym becomes a manual laborer and THEN Damon inherits a ton of money which is ironic because Eustacia specifically chose Clym because he was going to have more money.   Andddd.... Eustacia and Damon end up drowned in a river (is there any other way to die in a Victorian novel?) and Clym becomes a sad itinerant preacher and Thomasin ends up marrying the "Reddleman,"  Diggory Venn.

  The character of Diggory Venn is fascinating.  "The Reddleman" is a guy who would travel the English country side selling red dye to sheep farmers.  It was a good gig, but the "Reddleman" was a kind of English bogey man who was conjured to scare misbehaving children i.e. "The Reddleman'll come and getcha!"

  Diggory Venn is into Thomasin, so he's bummed when she marries Damon and then he gets the girl at the end.  He also plays  central role in the second act, where a misunderstanding over money between Clym, his mother and Eustacia, which ends up with the death of Clym's Mother.  This death provides the trigger for a split between both Clym and Eustacia and Damon and Thomasin and THAT ends up with Damon and Eustacia dead in a river.(of course!)

  Hardy makes observations of his characters that stand out among his contemporaries and provide a solid basis for classic status.  Here is a great passage:

    She went indoors in that peculiar state of misery which is not exactly grief, and which especially attends the dawnings of reason in the latter days of an ill-judged, transient love.  To be conscious that the end of the dream is approaching, and yet has not absolutely come, is one of the most wearisome as well as the most curious stages along the course between the beginning of  passion and its end. (pg. 116)

   That passage is prefigures the doubt and ambiguity that would later characterize the attitude known as "modernism" but in 1878.  If you've ever experienced the end of love you know how perfectly accurate Hardy is in the above passage.

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