The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, Notes from the Lakeview Book Club

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, Notes from the Lakeview Book Club

We started with a few interesting facts about Thomas Hardy, who like the "Native" in his novel, loved his "heath" wilderness and rual community more than any other place he could choose to live. Hardy has said that he never wanted to grow up. He wanted to stay in the world he lived in when he was 6 years old. Many can relate to that from time to time.

Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 and died in 1928. He lived 88 years! During those years life changed drastically in his world, with major industrialization, the changes brought to rural life. The major big thinkers, Freud, Marx, Darwin, Einstein changed the world. Two major authors of his time were Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.
For a person who loved his roots, his wilderness, his neighbors, the outside world was alien to him. This was a theme in this wonderful classic. Hardy's wife was probably very much like Eustasia, strong willed, beautiful and someone who did not like the world Hardy chose.
When the public did not embrace his novels the way he wished, he switched to poetry. In this novel, in a footnote, at the end, he even complains bitterly that he did not want to make a happy ending. It didn't fit the story. The publishers insisted, because of public pressure from the serialization of this novel in magazines before it was published in novel form.
 
The Return of the Native is really a tragedy. Hardy is often compared to Shakespeare, and surely the complexity of this tragedy has Shakespearean elements.
There was quite a range of opinions on this title. A few of us loved it from the start and charged through savoring the language, the descriptions of nature, the characterizations, the surprising plot, the strange "happy" ending. Others never really got into it, finding the language arcane and difficult, the dialects hard to embrace, the characters in some respects one-sided and the combination of all of that made a few not finish it.
 
There was another set of members within our group, who found it difficult to get into, but then found it very rewarding, liking what ones who loved it savored. We noted that Hardy included comments that were of current events and past history that readers of that era and some now might not know, unless highly educated. Many of us were googling words and we had never heard before. Several of us looked up furse, which are reedy bushes, which the poor people cut to burn for fuel. We commented how Hardy pointed out the class differences, mentioning that wealthy people could burn hard wood! We saw Clym descend into poverty and how he embraced it. Hardy obviously loved his poverty class friends, using their own dialect in the novel. One member of our group actually got the Cliff Notes so she could understand what they were saying! That's dedication!
 
A few never got into it. They thought the characters were unsympathetic or unengaging. They also could not relate to the plot.
 
Part of the difficulty of understanding the plot and decisions the characters made was that these decisions were set in Victorian times. Scandal was just an easy mistake about the timing of a marriage or who spends time with whom. We compared it to The House of Mirth which also focused on the tragedy of decisions made against the norm.
We were asked to name our favorite character. For several of us it was the Heath, an ocean of nature that changed from nurturing and lush to cold or extremely hot and deadly. The Heath changed as the story changed, mysterious, sensual, harsh, unforgiving, beautiful and loving.
We also mentioned the Aunt as a strong attractive character. A few wondered at her changing her mind over Thomasin's wedding and her son, Clym's wedding after making strong objections. We thought, after discussing it, that is was indeed believable for the aunt to forgive them. It was the dichotomy of Victorian rules versus a mother's love, with mother's love eventually winning.
Most of us liked Eustasia, even though she was selfish, convinced of her beauty, arrogant and alienated from the community. She was REAL! She was foolish! She was smart. She was young! She was driven by boredom and a dream of Paris and all that entailed. She thought Clym would take her away from the "backwater" world! She thought she could change him, in spite of Clym telling her he would not go back to Paris. We thought that if she could have gone to Paris on her own, which she was planning, that she would have succeeded. She was driven! Though she didn't have the freedom modern women have, she would probably have found a rich husband or sponsor to keep her in style.
We commented that all of the characters lived in their heads and did not understand the motives of the people around them. Hardy has fatalism and desolation in his novels.
All of us liked the Reddleman, Diggery! His was a mysterious role of changing the destinies of the people around him. He recouped the gambling debt, he protected the niece and the aunt's servant and he did it all in secret.
It was pointed out that drama has three elements: Time, Place and Action. For this novel the time was exactly one year, the place was the mysterious/murderous and beautiful heath and action was the many disastrous decisions our main characters made.
We wanted to know what the underlying theme was. One member said it was, "We have little control over the world. We are delusional!" We agreed that this was the theme and we agreed it was true!
We thought the death scene was very dramatic. One wonders if the Hardy's rural community had a waterfall driven whirlpool who claimed lovers.
Another thought she felt the same about The Return of the Native now as she did when she read it as an undergraduate. Other classics, she finds different, such as The Leopard by Giuseppi Di Lampedusa, which is written about what is lost when society changes. Di Lampedusa was at the end of a long rich life, full of war and many harsh changes. Hardy was 38 when Return of the Native was published. It has a younger person's sensibility and focus on mismatched love.
We ended with commenting about how the happy conclusion had the wedding and a carriage driver hired from a larger community who wanted to know after seen the poverty of the area, "Why do you want to live here?" For some of us we understood that this stark rural community had everything anyone would want, friends, relatives, drama, beauty and peace. Who would want more? Maybe Eustasia.
 
Happy Reading!

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