The Return of the Native is English author Thomas Hardy's sixth published novel. It first appeared in the magazine Belgravia, a publication known for its sensationalism, and was presented in twelve monthly instalments in 1878. Because of the novel's controversial themes, Hardy had some difficulty finding a publisher; reviews, however, though somewhat mixed, were generally positive. In the twentieth century, The Return of the Native became one of Hardy's most popular novels.
The novel takes place entirely in the environs of Egdon Heath, and, with the exception of the epilogue, Aftercourses, covers exactly a year and a day. Like all of Hardy's work, The Return of the Native is passionate and controversial, with themes and sympathies beyond what a good Victorian would ever admit. A modern and honest novel of chance and choice, faith and infidelities, this dark story asks what is free will and what is fate? What is the true nature of nature, and how do we fit together? Can we fit together? A tragedy set in the barren land of Edgon Heath. Our heroine, Eustacia, is proud, passionate, cruel, fickle, avaricious, and desperate. She burns every life she touches, never able to find the mad love and exotic world she dreams of. Our supposed hero, Clym, is modest, steady, plain, moral, and dutiful. He is satisfied returning from Paris to the simple comfort of home. Originally released as five books, in classic tragic form, a sixth, tacking on a 'happy ending', was added by editor and public pressure.
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About the Author
In November 1872, Leslie Stephen, the distinguished critic and editor, wrote to Hardy inviting him to contribute a novel for serialization in the Cornhill Magazine, a prestigious monthly that had published the work of such established writers as Anthony Trollope. Hardy accepted and in his letter to Stephen added that 'the chief characters would probably be a young woman-farmer, a shepherd, and a sergeant of cavalry.' He wrote Far from the Madding Crowd both in and out of doors at Bockhamptom as if possessed. 'Occasionally without a scrap of paper at the very moment when [I] felt volumes . . . [I] would use large dead leaves, white chips left by the woodcutters, or pieces of stone or slate that came to hand,' Hardy later recalled. Published anonymously in 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd sold out in just over two months and marked the turning point in Hardy's literary career. As Virginia Woolf later noted: 'The subject was right; the method was right; the poet and the countryman, the sensual man, the sombre reflective man, the man of learning, all enlisted to produce a book which, however fashions may chop and change, must hold its place among the great English novels.'
The success of Far from the Madding Crowd in 1874 encouraged Hardy to abandon architecture and devote himself entirely to the craft of fiction. His next novel, The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), also appeared in the Cornhill Magazine but did not repeat the success of its predecessor. In 1874 Hardy married Emma Lavinia Gifford, and the couple soon settled in an idyllic cottage overlooking the Dorset Stour, at Sturminster Newton, where Hardy wrote The Return of the Native (1878). In 1878 he moved to London. Although he became a well-known figure in literary circles and was considered a catch for hostesses, Hardy wrote three disappointing 'minor' novels during his years there: The Trumpet-Major (1880), A Laodicean (1881), and Two on a Tower (1882). This fallow period in his career seemed to lift in 1885 with his return to Dorset to live at Max Gate. Over the next three years he published The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), which many regard as his greatest tragic novel, The Woodlanders (1887), and his first collection of short stories, Wessex Tales (1888). In 1891 Tess of the d'Urbervilles appeared, and in 1895 Hardy's final novel, Jude the Obscure, came out. The book sent shock waves of indignation rolling across Victorian England. It was denounced as pornography and subjected the author to an avalanche of abuse. Hardy's disgust at the public's reaction led him to announce in 1896 that he would never again write fiction.
During the remaining years of his life, Hardy devoted himself to poetry, publishing his first book of verse, Wessex Poems, in 1898. A second collection, Poems of the Past and Present, appeared in 1901. Over the next five years Hardy wrote The Dynasts, an epic drama about the Napoleonic War. In 1912 he made a final revision of his novels for the authoritative Wessex Editions. Hardy's wife died suddenly the same year. In February 1914 he married his longtime secretary, Florence Emily Dugdale. Over the next decade Hardy continued to write poetry and to work on his autobiography, The Early Life of Thomas Hardy, which was supposedly authored by his second wife and published posthumously. Thomas Hardy died in Dorset on January 11, 1928. His heart was buried in the Wessex countryside in the parish churchyard at Stinsford; his ashes were placed next to those of Charles Dickens in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Date of Birth:June 2, 1840
Date of Death:January 11, 1928
Place of Birth:Higher Brockhampon, Dorset, England
Place of Death:Max Gate, Dorchester, England
Education:Served as apprentice to architect James Hicks
Read an Excerpt
A SATURDAY afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.
The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking dread.
In fact, precisely at this transitional point of its nightly roll into darkness the great and particular glory of the Egdon waste began, and nobody could be said to understand the heath who had not been there at such a time. It could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen, its complete effect and explanation lying in this and the succeeding hours before the next dawn: then, and only then, did it tell its true tale. The spot was, indeed, a near relation of night, and when night showed itself an apparent tendency to gravitate together could be perceived in its shades and the scene. The sombre stretch of rounds and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure sympathy, the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it. And so the obscurity in the air and the obscurity in the land closed together in a black fraternization towards which each advanced half-way.
The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen. Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis—the final overthrow.
Table of Contents
BOOK FIRST: THE THREE WOMEN
BOOK SECOND: THE ARRIVAL
BOOK THIRD: THE FASCINATION
BOOK FOURTH: THE CLOSED DOOR
BOOK FIFTH: THE DISCOVERY
BOOK SIXTH: AFTERCOURSES
Reading Group Guide
1. What does Egdon Heath symbolize to you? How does each character relate to the heath? To what extent does the landscape control the actions of the characters or influence them? How do the characters resist or succumb to the landscape? What is the role of urban life in the novel?
2. Discuss Clym's spiritual odyssey. How does it shed light on Hardy's concerns in the novel? Would you describe Clym as idealistic? How does his attitude compare to that of the people of Egdon Heath or that of Eustacia?
3. Why does Eustacia hate Egdon Heath? Is she too headstrong? How much control does Eustacia have over events that shape her life? Over the lives of others? Do you think Eustacia symbolizes human limitation or potential? Do you think her death is a reconciliation of sorts, or not?
4. Discuss the role of fate or chance in the novel. Is Hardy sympathetic to the victims of chance in this novel? To what extent are events caused by the force of a character's personality (e.g., Eustacia), rather than by chance? To what extent do actions produce results opposite from that desired? Do you think there is a connection between this use of irony and the role of fate in the novel?
5. Discuss the novel's opening scene, in which Hardy describes Egdon Heath. How does this establish the emotional tone of the book? How does it foreshadow the action within the novel?
6. Why is Eustacia interested in Clym? How does this set the wheels of the plot in motion? How does this affect the other characters, like Thomasin and particularly Clym's mother? What is Wildeve's role in Mrs. Yeobright's fate?