Thursday, March 24, 2016

Thomas Hardy's independent world of ephemerons - featuring real skellington bones

My favorite moment in The Return of the Native.  A Celtic barrow has been opened, and the pagan spoils looted.  One of the protagonists, Clym Yeobright, was there.  “’Mr. Yeobright had got one pot of the bones, and was going to bring ‘em home – real skellington bones – but ‘twas ordered otherwise.’”  He gives the burial urn, full of bones, to his sweetheart who “’has a cannibal taste for such churchyard furniture.’”

When Clym came home, which was shortly after, his mother said in a curious tone, ‘The urn you had meant for me you gave away.’  (III, 3)

Hardy is grim, sure, macabre, even, but hilarious.

The entanglements and resentments of these three characters form much of the plot of the novel.  For some reason Hardy does not think the disposition of old bones is motivation enough, so he comes up with another device.  At this point the novel becomes either cleverly plotted or contrived or both depending on one’s tastes.

A minor character, an idiot, is supposed to deliver some money.  On the way, as in a fairy tale, he wins a raffle – his prize is a lady’s dress – and becomes fired up with the idea of luck, so he gambles away all of the money, which is not his, in a dice game.  Then the winner gambles away all of the money to a third character, who delivers the money but not quite correctly.  This is the beginning of a chain of events leading to the novel’s climactic wet catastrophe.

Gambling is among the worst plot devices for a fiction writer, the most arbitrary way to solve a plotting problem, which is why it is aggravating and ingenious that Hardy doubles the gambling.  Not only is there no such thing as luck in the plot, which is entirely under the control of the author, but there is no luck even within the world of the novel.  Only Fate.  The unlikely outcomes of the gambling are just more of “’the cruel satires that Fate loves to indulge in,’” (III, 5) as another character says.

The gambling scene is made as weird as possible, set at night among the giant ferns, the wild horses watching the game, which is completed to the light of glowworms.

He probed the glowworms with a bit of stick, and rolled them over, till the bright side of their tails was upwards.

‘There’s light enough.  Throw on,’ said Venn.  (III, 8)

Again, this is some kind of fantasy world.

I return to the old woman out on the heath on a hot August day:

Occasionally she came to a spot where independent worlds of ephemerons were passing their time in a mad carousal, some in the air, some on the hot ground and vegetation, some in the tepid and stringy water of a nearly-dried pool.  All the shallower ponds had decreased to a vaporous mud, amid which the maggoty shapes of innumerable obscene creatures could be indistinctly seen, heaving and wallowing with enjoyment.  (IV, 5)

After this point, as the plot began to squeeze the characters hard, there were times when I wondered why Hardy was writing a novel.  Why not a book of geology or entomology, but fictional, with the laws of nature under his control?  And he would answer, What do you think this book is?

How about a holiday break - next post on Monday.


  1. i just hadn't got this side of "native", i must have been not paying attention. in light of your post(s) hardy could be regarded as an early fantasist, a brother of poe et alia...

  2. Yes, a fantasist but without some of the markers we now attach to "fantasy."