Am I a good reader of Thomas Hardy’s novel? I most surely am not! Please keep that in mind for the next few days as I work on The Return of the Native (1878).
The difference of temperaments is one problem:
“But I am getting used to the horror of my existence.” (Book Fifth, Ch. 9)
This line comes near the end of the novel, after an unlikely catastrophe. Reading this line, am I supposed to burst into laughter? That is what I did.
But here is what follows after that line:
“They say that a time comes when men laugh at misery through long acquaintance with it. Surely that time will soon come to me!”
Wait, maybe I am supposed to laugh. Maybe my temperament is not so different from Hardy’s. I always get along well with his poetry, which I think of as a purer expression of his self.
I have no problem with the poetry of The Return of the Native, by which I mostly mean imagery in heightened language. It is the hottest day of the year, and an old woman is wandering around on the exposed heath:
She looked at the sky overhead, and saw that the sapphirine hue of the zenith in spring and early summer had completely gone, and was replaced by a metallic violet. (V, 5)
The language, and her perceptivity, reflects her heightened emotional state:
There lay the cat asleep on the bare gravel of the path, as if beds, rugs, and carpets were unendurable. The leaves of the hollyhocks hung like half-closed umbrellas, the sap almost simmered in the stems, and foliage with a smooth surface glared like metallic mirrors… among the fallen apples on the ground beneath were wasps rolling drunk with the juice, or creeping about the little caves in each fruit which they had eaten out before stupefied by its sweetness. (V, 5)
The great flexibility of the novel can be seen here. A painter cannot speculate, by means of simile, on the motivation of the cat, nor can he move inside the hollyhocks or describe the state of mind of the wasps. What does the repetition of the word “metallic” mean, to the character, or the narrator?
In the next chapter, the same character, still out on the heath, sees a symbolic heron:
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. (V, 6)
Again, metallic, using different words, and a return to the zenith from the beginning of the previous chapter, now invested by the character with enormous meaning. “Pinioned” is a funny word here, not quite a pun but a return to the old meaning of the word.
When we next meet the woman, she has gotten her wish, or perhaps a grotesque parody of her wish.
This side of Hardy I am reading all right, I guess.