One of Thomas Hardy's most powerful works, The Return of the Native centers famously on Egdon Heath, the wild, haunted Wessex moor that D. H. Lawrence called "the real stuff of tragedy." The heath's changing face mirrors the fortunes of the farmers, inn-keepers, sons, mothers, and lovers who populate the novel. The "native" is Clym Yeobright, who comes home from a cosmopolitan life in Paris. He; his cousin Thomasin; her fiancé, Damon Wildeve; and the willful Eustacia Vye are the protagonists in a tale of doomed love, passion, alienation, and melancholy as Hardy brilliantly explores that theme so familiar throughout his fiction: the diabolical role of chance in determining the course of a life.
As Alexander Theroux asserts in his Introduction, Hardy was "committed to the deep expression of [nature's] ironic chaos and strange apathy, even hostility, toward man."
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About the Author
Thomas Hardy was born on June 2, 1840, in a thatched-roof cottage in upper Bockhampton, Dorset, England, a prophetic birthplace that lay in the center of 'Wessex,' the fictional region of southwest England which would serve as the backdrop for his novels. The eldest son of a prosperous builder and stonemason, Hardy was educated at the village school and apprenticed at the age of sixteen to local architect and church restorer John Hicks. In 1862 he went to London to pursue his architectural career; he also began writing at this time. Hardy returned to Dorset in 1867 to become assistant to John Hicks and wrote his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, of which only fragments remain. Although George Meredith, who was reader for Chapman & Hall publishers, advised against its publication, he encouraged Hardy to keep writing, preferably a story with a more complicated plot. Over the next several years he produced three more novels: Desperate Remedies (1871) and Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) were published anonymously, but A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) bore the author's name.
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.
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.
Excerpted from "The Return of the Native"
Copyright © 1999 Thomas Hardy.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgements Introduction Thomas Hardy: A Brief Chronology A Note on the Text
The Return of the Native
Appendix A: Prefaces and Maps
- The Preface to the 1895 Wessex Novels Edition
- The Postscript added to the 1912 Wessex Edition
- From the General Preface to the Novels and Poems (1912)
- Map of Egdon Heath (1878)
- Map of Wessex (1895)
Appendix B: Contemporary Reviews
- From The Athenaeum (23 November 1878)
- Hardy’s response to the Athenaeum review (30 November 1878)
- From W.E. Henley, The Academy (30 November 1878)
- From the Saturday Review (4 January 1879)
- From the Spectator (8 February 1879)
- From the New Quarterly Magazine (October 1879)
- From Havelock Ellis, “Thomas Hardy’s Novels,” Westminster Review (April 1883)
Appendix C: Philosophical and Political Contexts
- Positivism: from Auguste Comte, System of Positive Polity (1851−54; trans. 1875−76)
- The Individual and Freedom: from John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)
- The Woman Question: from John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies (1865) and John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women (1869)
- Hedonism and Modernity: from Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873)
Appendix D: Scientific Influences
- From Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (1830−33)
- From Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859)
- From Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Biology (1864−67)
- From Thomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873)
Appendix E: Other Writings by Hardy
- A Selection of Hardy’s Poetry
- At a Bridal
- Neutral Tones
- Nature’s Questioning
- An August Midnight
- The Dead Man Walking
- By the Barrows
- The Roman Road
- The Moth-Signal
- The Oxen
- Welcome Home
- The Graveyard of Dead Creeds
- From “The Dorsetshire Labourer” (1883)
- From “The Profitable Reading of Fiction” (1888)
- From “Candour in English Fiction” (1890)
- From The Life of Thomas Hardy (1928; 1930)
Appendix F: The Play of Saint George
Appendix G: Arthur Hopkins’s Illustrations for the Monthly Serialization of Belgravia (1878)
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?