Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Native

Again from the vault. Somehow I decided to read Hardy backward:

Working backward through Hardy’s five acknowledged classics we come to this.

It mainly involves Clym Yeobright and his cousin Thomasine. As the novel opens, Thomasine is returning to Egdon Heath, the setting of the novel, after a failed attempt to marry her sweetheart Wildeve at Budmouth. Wildeve, it turns out, has been toying with her—he actually loves Eustacia Vye, another resident of the Heath.

Wildeve, Eustacia (who lives with her grandfather, an ex-naval captain, supposedly), and the Yeobrights are the only gentlefolk on the Heath, and therefore the only fit society for each other. Eustacia is half Greek, and is presented as a sort of tempestuous goddesss, wildly beautiful, and ambitious to get out of Egdon and into the sort of glamorous, exciting life for which she feels she’s destined; she feels that a truly transporting love is the way it’ll happen. She sort of loves Wildeve, who’s a failed engineer now running an inn; but their love for each other is half play, half mutual dare—as soon as one proves devoted to the other, the other loses interest. They’re both, in short, jaded and insincere people. Hardy tries to give Eustacia tragic dignity and mythic resonance, however, while Wildeve is just a bounder.

Anyway, Thomasine and Wildeve were set to marry, but a misunderstanding about the license prevented it; this brings them back to Egdon unmarried, with Thomasine in a social disgrace that will only be taken away by Wildeve marrying her. But now that he’s back near Eustacia he’s not so sure he wants to. He keeps meeting Eustacia on the sly, and they talk about running away to America together; but now that Eustacia seemingly has Wildeve where she wants him, she again seems to lose interest in him, and puts him off.

Then Thomasine’s cousin Clym comes back to the Heath. He’s been away for years, working in Paris as the manager of a diamond merchant’s establishment. This gives him a suitably glamorous air in the eyes of Eustacia, who quickly maneuvers to get to know him. He protests that he has no plans to return to Paris, but rather wants to set up back on the Heath as a schoolmaster or some such thing—he has vague idealistic notions of educating the commoners in such a way as to lift them from their superstition.

He’s quite open and honest about this with Eustacia, but she persists in believing that if she marries him, he’ll whisk her off to Paris. They marry, and he whisks her off to a cottage on the other side of the Heath. In retaliation, sort of, Wildeve finally marries Thomasine. Both couples are thus set up for unhappiness, and it comes. Clym’s eyes go bad—not total blindness, but enough to prevent him from studying, which thwarts his plans to set up as an educator. To prevent himself from being idle, as well as to keep their capital somewhat intact, he starts working as a furze-cutter on the heath. He’s perfectly happy doing this, but Eustacia is mortified, and this drives her into thinking about Wildeve again.

The other complication involves Clym’s widowed mother, who was against Thomasine’s marriage to Wildeve (until it became necessary to save her from shame) and Clym’s to Eustacia; she and Clym are estranged because of it. At length, though, he wants to be reconciled, and so does she; Eustacia won’t speak to the old woman, though, because she’s annoyed that Mrs. Y never trusted her. One day Mrs Y comes to visit, to be reconciled; Clym’s asleep on the sofa, and Eustacia and Wildeve are there, sort of trysting. They run out the back door, nobody lets Mrs Y in, and she turns back to cross the heath. It’s a hot day, and she collapses from heat stroke, is bitten by an asp, and dies, muttering that her son has deserted her.

Eventually Clym learns that Eustacia intentionally didn’t let his mother in, and thus inadvertently caused her death, before they could be reconciled. They fight, and separate. Wildeve seizes on the chance to convince Eustacia to run away with him, but she’s so mortified by the bad name this will leave behind that, on the rainy night they’re about to depart, she drowns herself. At least, that’s what we’re led to believe—all we know is she falls in a pool; Wildeve jumps in to rescue her and drowns; Clym jumps in and is just saved.

Thus the wicked illicit almost-lovers (they didn’t actually do anything while married, only talked about it) die, and the cousins are left alive and grieving. Clym blames himself both for his mother’s death and Eustacia’s—he was on the verge of forgiving her, too, when she died, and he eventually becomes a solitary itinerant preacher, sadder but wiser.

Thomasine remarries, to the other major character I haven’t mentioned yet, Diggory Venn. He’s not quite a gentleman, but was the son of a local wealthy farmer—just one step below the Yeobrights on the social scale. He’s always loved her, and when she rejected him (before the novel begins) he took up the trade of a reddleman, a wandering peddler of red sheep-dip, carrying which turns him, his clothing, and his van a devilish shade of red. He appears at the very beginning of the novel, having run into Thomasine as she flees Budmouth in disgrace; he carries her home in his van, and then sticks around, coming and going mysteriously and always intervening for her protection. He frustrates Wildeve’s attempts to tryst with Eustacia after they’re both married, for example, and he helps pull Clym out when he’s about to drown. He’s a great character—sort of a Robin Hood vigilante type. He cares nothing for his social disgrace in becoming a reddleman (the redness makes the rest of society treat him like a pariah, and as an occupation it’s considered quite undesirable), and is quite willing to help Thomasine be happy with Wildeve, if she won’t have him. Supposedly Hardy was originally not planning to give Venn and Thomasine a happy ending together, but bowed to commercial pressures; I’m glad he did, though, as their happiness provides a nice contrast with Clym’s sorrow.

Thematically it’s trying to create in Eustacia a sort of classical mythical heroine, but she’s too dislikable to really admire in any mythical way. She’s just consistently selfish and small-minded. She and Wildeve really deserve each other. …There’s lots of myth stuff, though—as in Casterbridge the land itself, with all its Roman and pre-Roman ruins, its pagan nature-worship aptitudes, becomes a character, and colors all. The fact that Clym ends by becoming a preacher—a Christ-figure preaching on a mount—might be intended to suggest the end of the pre-Christian phase of this world, but that only serves to underscore how long its pagan rhythms survived, in Hardy’s mind.

Not quite as affecting as the others—I really think he got better as he went along—but quite good. And its prose is more poetic than the others—very flowery, but often quite striking for that.

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