Embracing the Heathen Heritage

Pain, punishment, unrequited love, all of these crushing experiences saturate Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. The thread of every living existence is woven into the tapestry of Egdon Heath. Those who are closest to the heath, who live and breathe and care and work with the heath, are able to escape the whole of tragedy. Although a setting is usually only the background in a novel, the heath and its traditions operate as a catalyst for the experiences of its inhabitants. Clym experiences blindness and remorse after returning from Paris. Eustacia despises the heath and eventually drowns. Venn roams about, living a life closer to nature than any of the other inhabitants and is able to wrangle a sort of possession and will over those whom he stalks. All men suffer on the heath and Hardy’s novel seems to suggest that humanity’s traditions, homes, and livelihoods must not be divided or else dire consequences will be incurred; however, if one accepts tradition’s belonging to the heath, one can garnish the most power and least suffering.

In the beginning of the novel, Hardy demonstrates a settings effect on its inhabitants: “Men have oftener suffered from the mockery of a place too smiling for their reason than from the oppression of surroundings oversadly tinged” (10). In this sentence, a place or setting is anthropomorphized. It can be too smiling and mock its inhabitants or it can be sadly tinged and oppressive, but less sufferable during hardship. This gives the setting agency through its ability to influence emotion. Furthermore, the passage shows that man can repel the harsh sufferings of life more easily in a place that doesn’t relish only in life’s happiness. In this description, the heath allows for a more neutral human experience. The good and the bad are reconciled by a place that is not too smiling, but slightly oppressive. The setting and man are described has having an effectual existence. The way a man interprets his surroundings has an effect on his being. This paints the heath as having a powerful relationship with human experience.

The sufferings of man are further portrayed as the force behind the heath and novel: “Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at during winter darkness, tempests, and mists/ It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man’s nature–neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring” (11). The novel relishes in the somber tones of experience. This setting is important because throughout the novel, the primary focus rests on the sufferings of man. The pains of love and longing are either heightened by the heath or lessened, depending on a character’s desires. The characters who aspire to a relative closeness with the heath suffer less. The differences among the characters rest in their relationship with tradition and their ability to be at home on the heath.

The relationship between the heath and man is fortified through the traditions practiced on the heath. Men follow traditions and practices that link human experience with the natural occurrences on the heath and man uses those traditions to transcend time: “It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched there from an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot” (20). The traditions and myths of the heath’s inhabitants permeate the landscape and offer a powerful force in the lives of its residents. The furze cutters live homely lives, but endure and accept their place in the world on the heath. The presence of tradition, as a persistence of the past, is a sort of worshipping one’s place in the eternity of existence. It is a celebration of themes that are longer lasting than the individual man. Throughout the novel, as characters reach beyond tradition and the heath, they suffer. Those who maintain a close and applied relationship with the traditions on the heath are not susceptible to tragedy in the way that others suffer. Their pains are not the focus of the novel. Only those who go outside of the heath and tradition are those who’s pains are elaborated on. Hardy is using the heath as a reminder of the expansiveness of existence and the need to retain a relationship with the past. To maintain a respect for and relationship with those traditions allows one to live a neutral and emotionally balanced life.

A main character who runs against the grain of tradition and the heath is Eustacia Vye. She panders to tradition only for her own amusement. She uses the bonfires not as a way to pay tribute to the past, but as a toy with which to summon a convenient lover. She also uses the inhabitants of the heath: “The little slave went on feeding the fire as before. He seemed a mere automaton, galvanized into moving and speaking by the wayward Eustacia’s will” (60). She not only uses the tradition as a means to her own ends, but the young heath child is described as a slave to her will. In doing so she exhibits a selfish will that seems to lack empathy. Her lack of respect for tradition and the heath are fortified by her use of a telescope and hour glass: “She threw away the stick, took the glass in her hand, the telescope under her arm, and moved on” (57). By throwing away the stick, she is metaphorically rejecting the heath in exchange for the ability to monitor time and to look beyond her scope. She doesn’t take the time to understand the heath: “To dwell on a heath without studying its meanings was like wedding a foreigner without learning his tongue” (70). She wants nothing more but to be rid of Egdon Heath and holds no desire to understand it or respect its traditions.

She wants to leave the heath altogether, but is willing to pass her time with romantic love: “[She is] filling up the spare hours of her existence by idealizing Wildeve for want of a better object” (71). As her plot line continues, she increasingly yearns to leave the heath. She dumps Wildeve for Clym, and hopes to convince him to leave the heath. She selfishly abuses both men. Eustacia, in a way, marries “a foreigner without learning his tongue.” Clym has returned to the heath because he cherishes it. Eustacia is unable to understand the meanings of the heath and therefore cannot understand Clym fully. As Clym chooses to live a modest life as a furze cutter, she delves further into depression. She constantly wants more than what she has, whether to leave for Paris, or to use Wildeve’s money to escape to Budmouth. In an earthly harmonizing of elements, Eustacia, who used the flames of tradition to her own gain, is drowned by the waters of disenchantment. Hardy seems to punish Eustacia through this balancing of elements: “The stateliness of look which had been almost too marked for a dweller in a country domicile had at last found an artistically happy background” (361). She is forced to reconcile with the heath, not in life, but in death.

Even a character who cherishes the heath is punished by Hardy in the novel. Clym Yeobright had journeyed away from the heath to Paris, but returned with the hope of improving the lives of its inhabitants through education: “Talk about men who deserve the name, can any man deserving the name waste his time in that effeminate way, when he sees half the world going to ruin for want of somebody to buckle to and teach them how to breast the misery they are born to?” (173). Although Clym returns to his native Egdon Heath, he denigrates its inhabitants and their way of life: “[He attempted] to disturb a sequence to which humanity has been long accustomed” (171). He works endlessly to educate himself so that he can help them, but loses his eyesight in the process. His loss can be interpreted as a punishment, because it is linked to his desire to change the life on the heath.

Losing his sight not only seems a fit punishment for a man who passes his time reading, but it also seems to align as a proper punishment for one who loves to look into the eyes of a deviant fire. Throughout the novel, Eustacia is likened to flames: “Assuming that the souls of men and women were visible essences, you could fancy the colour of Eustacia’s soul to be flame-like. The sparks that rose into her dark pupils gave the same impression” (66). As Clym realizes his mother doesn’t approve of her, his sight becomes affected: “Thus as his sight grew accustomed to the first blinding halo kindled about him by love and beauty Yeobright began to perceive what a strait he was in. Sometimes he wished that he had never known Eustacia” (197). His eyesight is linked both to his ability to change the heath and to loving one who does not respect the traditions of the heath.

After losing his eyesight, all that is left for Clym is to reconcile himself to the most traditional work on the heath. He becomes a Furze cutter: “The monotony of his occupation soothed him, and was in itself a pleasure. A forced limitation of effort offered a justification of homely courses to an unambitious man” (245). He maintained an appreciation for the heath of his childhood and after his affliction, he is able to find a new respect for the livelihoods of those he sought to change. Clym’s further suffering comes only from the hands of Eustacia and his mother, but returning to the initial statement demonstrates his plight more than any other: “Men have oftener suffered from the mockery of a place too smiling for their reason than from the oppression of surroundings oversadly tinged” (10). He is admonishing himself for the deaths of his loved ones, but the setting of the heath is a place that nourishes rather than mocks. Clym is able to reconcile with the heath and its traditions, and although he seems to be punished for his misdeeds, he does not die. He is the only character who went through a complete metamorphosis. Essentially, he is able to return to the native in more than just the physical sense.

Diggory Venn is introduced as a man living outside of the modern sphere: “Since the introduction of railways Wessex farmers have managed to do without these Mephistophelian visitants” (77). Although he can work other trades, he roams the countryside in an effort to be close to Thomasin. He literally chooses the past traditional labor over more lucrative modern work. His sacrificial love seems an impossible means to the other characters, but for Diggory it comes naturally: “But the loss of his labour produced little effect upon the reddleman. He had stood in the shoes of Tantalus, and seemed to look upon a certain mass of disappointment as the natural preface to all realizations, without which preface they would give cause for alarm” (81). Being that all men suffer on the heath, Diggory’s torment is his love for Thomasin, but Diggory, more than the other characters, is able to accept his suffering.

Diggory doesn’t wallow in self pity, but simply wanders on the heath and awaits his prospects. He doesn’t reject the heath in any way, but becomes a part of it. He is never summoned anywhere and yet he is always there. Diggory seems to drift among the social worlds of the heath. He’s like a creature of the past that is stalking the present: “[Venn] slowly rose from behind a neighboring bush, and came forward into the lantern light” (223). Venn is a part of the heath. The idea of Venn as a creature on the heath gains significance when considering his call towards domesticating: “One condition was indispensable to the favour of Thomasin herself, and that was a renunciation of his present wild mode of life” (151). This passage subtly displays all of Diggory Venn. He is wild, he is not like the present, he clings to tradition and nature and is willing and able to remain happy with the traditions of the past. But, ultimately, his contentment on the heath is what allows him a content life.

Egdon Heath is personified throughout the novel. It has a presence that transcends the short life-spans of its inhabitants and recognizes eternity. In this novel, Hardy has given authority to the background. A sort of traditional sentience has materialized in the plot. As the characters who push away from that heathen heritage falter into misfortune moment by moment, a pattern of punishment emerges. Either they can actively pursue forgiveness, such as in Clym’s case, or they will suffer death. If one cannot reconcile with the past and respect tradition, there is no life, only that which is saved through tradition. “The instincts of merry England lingered on here with exceptional vitality, and the symbolic customs which tradition has attached to each season of the year were yet a reality on Egdon” (369). Tradition is the only marker of an existence beyond the present for humanity. It keeps humanity alive as one organism rather than many small insignificant and individual experiences. If humanity refuses to carry that marker forth, there is only death.

Reference Notes: Thomas Hardy. The Return of the Native. Oxford University Press, USA; Reissue edition (July 26, 2009)