Tuesday, March 22, 2016

It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities - landscape and form in The Return of the Native

The form of The Return of the Native is a strange experiment of Hardy’s, an attempt to mesh the novel with a five act play and the classical unities, yet also aligning the pacing, and even the chronology, with that of the novel’s serialization.  I take the experiment as a big success, clever and effective.

Thus the first quarter of the novel is one long action that covers not much more than twenty-four hours, introducing all of the major characters but one (and announcing that one – the native who returns in Act II, scrambling the status quo).

The starting date is November 5, Bonfire Night, a blend of Guy Fawkes Day and a pagan celebration.  The entire novel covers a year, or just a bit more.  Hardy pegs the big scenes to holidays whenever he can.  Or if no holiday is available, how about something astronomical:

While he watched the far-removed landscape a tawny stain grew into being on the lower verge: the eclipse had begun.  This marked a preconcerted moment; for the remote celestial phenomenon had been pressed into sublunary service as a lover’s signal.  (IV, 4)

The seasons and holidays provide one logical structure, the five “acts” or big scenes another.  Yet Hardy keeps things loose.  The Zola novel I am reading now, Nana (1880), is stricter – one chapter is usually one scene.  Hardy allows himself more cuts and edits.

The first chapter is all landscape, the place first, not the people.  Egdon Heath, a semi-fictional semi-wilderness, empty of humans for four pages, the sun setting, the bonfires not yet lit.

In fact, precisely at this transitional point of its nightly roll into darkness the great and particular glory of the Egdon waste began, and nobody could be said to understand the heath who had not been there at such a time.  It could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen…  The obscurity in the air and the obscurity in the land closed together in a black fraternisation towards which each advanced half-way.  (I, 1)

Those last two lines are the psychology of many of Hardy’s romantic couples projected onto the landscape, or in this novel vice versa.

The description is so strange.  Hardy moves so quickly to metaphor.  No one is expected to visualize the landscape, but rather to see it in some other imaginative sense.  For example, it is personified in several ways.  The heath is a Titan who has “waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries.”  What is it waiting for?  “[O]ne last crisis  - the final overthrow.” 

It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.

Civilisation was its enemy.  Ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the same antique brown dress, the natural and invariable garment of the formation.

Hardy’s imagination is simultaneously mythic and geological, even is his geology is wrong.  It must be wrong – no change since “the beginning of vegetation,” that can’t be true can it?  Well, it is true in this novel, for this place.

Chapter 2 is titled “Humanity appears upon the scene, hand in hand with Trouble.”  Its first line is “Along the road walked an old man.”  Those tragical possibilities suggested by Egdon Heath begin to become actual and the story begins.


  1. This is my favorite Hardy novel. While it has its tragedy, at least one character achieves his goal. I know Jude and Tess are considered his big ones, but both are so tragic I find them hard to read.

  2. "one character achieves his goal" - he sure does! It's an outstanding irony.

    I haven't read Tess, but whatever difficulties I have with Hardy, I enjoyed Native more than Jude or Mayor. The landscape setpieces, and the rustic scenes - the bonfires, the Christmas dance - were highly enjoyable. The big "action" scenes, too, like the end with all of the characters racing around the heath in the dark during a storm.

    I should reread Jude, but there is the disincentive you mention.

  3. Jude put me off Hardy. Ma Femme has a stack of his novels, so maybe I should give him another try. Cornerstones of English literature and all of that.

  4. it's been so long since i read it that your post brought back some of it with a bit of a shock. i'll have to go read it again. tx. since the Gondwanaland separation from the rest of europe, i believe that part of england has been subsiding; i think it's mostly limestone in one form or another but i can be mistaken about that. hmm. have to look up english geology now...

  5. Maybe Hardy's geology is not so far off. I can't expect him to know plate tectonics. Still, no change "since the beginning of vegetation," that's 450 million years.

    The book has a number of fine passages about ferns. The characters live in "the carboniferous era," Hardy says.

    Scott, what I have omitted and sworn to avoid are Hardy's bizarro sentences, when he sounds like he learned English from a book. You can glimpse it above, his lapse into Latinates, although I did not quote anything that made me wince. He is good with imagery, but the sentence sometimes, hoo.

    I know it is the grimness that puts off most people. For me, it's Hardy's tin ear. Luckily, the ear was usually flesh.

    The first chapter, just four pages, of Return of the Native is a good test - more of this, yes or no?

  6. Tess is the last Hardy I remember having read, and even though my teenage self liked it, I am not sure "our" tastes are quite the same these days. Your comment about Hardy's narrative experiment being "a big success" here gives me more than a little optimism, though.

  7. It's the overlay of the two frames - that's hard to do, and not something many Victorian novelists were thinking about. You can see the proto-Modernist in this move.

  8. "the remote celestial phenomenon had been pressed into sublunary service" is goofy, but the next excerpt you have, the heath in "its nightly roll into darkness" is fabulous. I think what exhausted me in Jude was the dragging out of the plot, the structure. I think I was okay with the prose. I know we have Return at home; I'll have a look tonight, maybe, at those first pages.

  9. It makes sense, when the novel covers a year and a day (i.e. fairy tale time) that the landscape should insist on unchanging endlessness. Egdon was rife with pixies, no? And then there's the witchy Queen of the Night.

    At one time, I very much liked his Wessex tales. But I don't think I own the short stories any more, and I have not looked at them in years. I'm not sure I have any Hardy at all any more, save the collected poems.

    I like what you say about the structure...

  10. There are some pages where the sentences were literally alternating from painful to sublime - wincing - wait, that one's really good - more wincing - then another good one. Baffling. But I guess I am learning to tolerate the pain. The important thing is to see the good images, not to lose them in the Latinisms.

    Marly, you are anticipating a future post, I think. The Return of the Native is about one inch removed from a fantasy novel, as people use that term today.

    I hope to read The Wessex Tales someday. Tess, though, it's Tess next, whenever next might be.

  11. Perhaps people these days would label it as "interstitial."

    I liked them well enough to reread them, once upon a time. Another of those hundreds and hundreds of books given up for the endless moving from place to place...

  12. Ha, yes, that's it. I'll note that when Hardy gets a scene rolling, his language becomes less bumpy. He reminds me of Dreiser that way. He has to work his way into a scene, but once he gets in he's all right. I assume they were both often writing in haste.

  13. Tess is great, although the alternation of painful and sublime writing is certainly present. For me, the sublime far outweighed the painful.

  14. This Fall, then, for Tess. Two Hardy novels a year seems about right.