Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native is ostensibly about the titular character, Clym Yeobright, and the chain of fate set off by his return from Paris to a remote part of rural Wessex. The re-entrance in local society of this sophisticated, thoughtful local-son-made-good is the key to a complex love triangle, in this case perhaps more accurately a love pentangle.
Stick with the human drama, and you’ve got a classic old fashioned 19th-century novel – an entertaining cast of characters circling through a big story. However, the real star of this book is not the native but the place he returns to, Egdon Heath. Egdon is the impassive wild backdrop that puts petty human concerns in perspective. It is central to the story but utterly indifferent to the fate of its inhabitants, simply carrying on in its natural cycles of life and death through fair weather and (more often) foul.
Yeobright escaped the heath’s orbit to an exotic life in a foreign capital, yet finds on his return that it is all he ever needed. The tale’s major female love interest, Eustacia Vye, is wedded to the heath but unhappily, considering herself above it, a prelude to her later unhappy marriage. The assortment of unsophisticated peasant folk that complete the cast are, by contrast, so completely a product of the heath it doesn’t occur to them to question their relationship to the land.
In this the Egdon community is portrayed as almost a pre-Christian one. Pagan imagery abounds: bonfires, maypoles, rumours of witchcraft, voodoo-like occult practices, snake oil to treat snake bite, and the slow dance of the five main characters across the heath. Impetuous innkeeper Damon Wildeve’s name and character reflect this heathen character best, conjuring a wild daemon. The church only features as a scene for shotgun weddings, and it’s stressed that the people of Egdon are strictly Easter and Christmas churchgoers. This may seem surprising, but then, as the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out recently, the high watermark of churchgoing in the UK, in the 1850s, only saw 22% of the population regularly attend services.
Instead of the rhythm of imported religions, it is the rhythm of the seasons, with the heath at their heart, which dictates this community’s experience of the world. The spirit of Egdon Heath is strong, enough to keep at bay powers both worldly (Paris here representing worldly pleasures) and spiritual. Interestingly, the wildlife of the heath is most often illustrated using insects, for example:
With the departure of the boy all visible animation disappeared from the landscape, though the intermittent husky notes of the male grasshoppers from every tuft of furze were enough to show that amid the prostration of the larger animal species an unseen insect world was busy in all the fullness of life.
Insects are also heavily featured in the novel’s symbolism. Wildeve’s customary signal when calling on Eustacia is to send a moth into the room to blow out the candle. Later, a death’s-head hawkmoth stumbles portentously into the candle illuminating a bout of gambling between him and rival Diggory Venn, a local purveyor of red ochre dye who is permanently dyed a rufous hue by his wares:
Ten minutes passed away. Then a large death’s head moth advanced from the obscure outer air, wheeled twice round the lantern, flew straight at the candle, and extinguished it by the force of the blow.
In order to continue playing, Wildeve and Venn famously collect glowworms. Thirteen are apparently enough to read the dice by!
By day, the heath pulses and sings with butterflies and grasshoppers:
Yet Thomasin occupied Mrs. Yeobright’s thoughts but slightly as she looked up the valley of the heath, alive with butterflies, and with grasshoppers whose husky noises on every side formed a whispered chorus.
And when, after a spell of illness, Yeobright is forced into a life of common labour on the heath, its wildlife claims him as one of their own:
Bees hummed around his ears with an intimate air, and tugged at the heath and furze-flowers at his side in such numbers as to weigh them down to the sod. The strange amber-coloured butterflies which Egdon produced, and which were never seen elsewhere, quivered in thebreath of his lips, alighted upon his bowed back, and sported with the glittering point of his hook as he flourished it up and down. Tribes of emerald green grasshoppers leaped over his feet, falling awkwardly on their backs, heads, or hips, like unskilful acrobats, as chance might rule; or engaged themselves in noisy flirtations under the fern-fronds with silent ones of homely hue. Huge flies, ignorant of larders and wire-netting, and quite in a savage state, buzzed about him without knowing that he was a man. In and out of the fern-dells snakes glided in their most brilliant blue and yellow guise, it being the season immediately following the shedding of some of their old skins, when their colours are brightest. Litters of young rabbits came out from their forms to sun themselves upon hillocks, the hot beams blazing through the delicate tissues of each thin-fleshed ear, and firing it to a blood-red transparency in which the veins could be seen. None of them feared him.
In all of this nature is neither for nor against the human cast: it simply is. No moral attributes can be placed on it. The heath is a backdrop so powerfully alive and sure of itself it almost overwhelms the human narrative. It is a view of wild nature that is strikingly modern. At the same time nature does, ultimately, offer a potential way out from the human suffering of this story. In a pivotal scene, Clym Yeobright’s mother lies dying:
While she looked a heron arose on that side of the sky and flew on with his face towards the sun. He had come dripping wet from some pool in the valleys, and as he flew the edges and lining of his wings, his thighs, and his breast were so caught by the bright sunbeams that he appeared as if formed of burnished silver. Up in the zenith where he was seemed a free and happy place, away from all contact with the earthly ball to which she was pinioned; and she wished that she could arise uncrushed from its surface and fly as he flew then.
Life on earth is often short, and for many pitifully hard. Yet we live on a remarkable planet, one still filled with wonders. Our strivings, like those of the five heath-bound lovers of The Return of the Native, may well come to nothing, but to have flown in the sun, even for just a moment, is surely enough?