Return of the Native is concerned not with the modern city but with life in the country. In what ways could the text be regarded as a ‘modern novel’, despite its rural setting?

During the 19th Century, the novel began its rise to show the struggle between ‘self’ and ‘other’. As the century progressed, authors of the time began to explore this binary divide to understand the ‘modern’. The investigation into human kind and to define and assert the self, began with a search for identity. In The Return of the Native, Hardy’s representation of his central characters question the idea of man’s place in the world. Kucich states that, ‘Hardy’s pessimism was rooted above all, in his conviction of man’s insignificance in natural processes’ (Kucich,2001, p225). This pessimism runs throughout The Return of the Native, as Hardy portrays the dying out of Christianity and lack of connection with nature, as a cause for the alienation of the individual. The crisis of the modern world is in line with the Romantics’ belief that modern people do not understand nature anymore. This can be seen in Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘The World is Too Much With Us’, in the lines, ‘Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in nature that is ours;’ (Wordsworth,2012, p545). Hardy wanted to show that the world needed to stop and take stock before it was too late. He believed that humans couldn’t find their way and life was blurred in the city and to go back to nature was to realign the soul and that identity is only possible in the country. He makes a case for this in Far from The Madding Crowd, where he states that, ‘civilised mankind… are dreamwrapt…’ (Hardy, 2018), showing that human kind is unaware of themselves and cannot find themselves. Perry Miesel states that Hardy’s modern must begin with ‘the extension of consciousness from the deceptive light of the most newly built fire to the surrounding territories of darkness’ but the conflict is that ‘all fires must be extinguished to learn to see in the darkness’ (Miesel,1972, p79). Hardy uses the character of Clym as a receptacle to show the search for his identity on the heath, returning back to nature, questioning religion and a revival of the tragic within the novel, and it is these factors which makes The Return of the Native a ‘modern novel’.

In chapter 1, Hardy introduces us to the heath during a transition of daylight to darkness: ‘Twilight combined with the scenery of Egdon Heath to evolve a thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity’ (Hardy, 2000, p6). The heath is in control and nature is at one with the environment. Hardy illustrates that the heath is far superior and this new kind of aesthetic is what Hardy wanted to portray as a theatre of life. Meisel suggests that, ‘Hardy’s changing use of landscape is important both as mediator between human community and nature and as a means of creating individual consciousness’ (Meisel, 1972, p71). Hardy shows that to be part of the heath and become at one with it, is the human’s salvation from a modern world in crisis. Modern man is longing for new beauty, but nature is hostile and as ‘Civilisation was its enemy…’ (Hardy,2000, p7) was beyond the comprehension of humans. Hardy gives life to the heath, describing it as ‘a place perfectly accordant with man’s nature-neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly…but, like man, slighted and enduring…’ (Hardy, 2000, p7) personifying it with the traits of man and a new kind of aesthetic sombreness far superior that humankind. Daniel Schwarz states that ‘paradoxically, the heath is not only a metaphor for the cosmos, but it mirrors mankind’s common internal chaos…’ (Schwarz, 1979, p23). Hardy demonstrates this through the heath having a deep impact on the psychology of the characters living on it. His move into naturalism shows an investigation not only into the impact of the environment on the human but to the psyche as well.

The heath has its own time zone, described as, ‘The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening…’ (Hardy, 2000, p5) illustrating a transcendental and mystical space. In stark contrast, when Eustacia walks on the heath, she carries her grandmother’s hourglass because of a ‘peculiar pleasure she derived from watching a material representation of time’s gradual glide away’ (Hardy, 2000, p60).  Using the hourglass, Hardy shows Eustacia having no connection with the heath. This is shown in the contrast between the characters of Eustacia and Thomasin. Hardy describes Eustacia’s relationship to the heath as, ‘The subtle beauties of the heath were lost to Eustacia; she only caught its vapours’ (Hardy, 2000, p59). Eustacia doesn’t understand the heath and wants to escape to the city, where she believes that life is happening away from her. Williams suggests that, ‘In her mind, Paris represents nothing except glamour and luxury’ (Williams,1972, p141) showing her superficial wants and desires. However, the heath will not release her from its clutches. Enstice believes that, ‘she is unashamedly in opposition, to both the heath and the centres of light and warmth that contain its human elements’ (Enstice, 1979, p87), demonstrating that Hardy’s construction of Eustacia has all the elements of what the future holds for mankind if it continues down this path. Thomasin however is close to nature and is described as ‘[a] fair, sweet and honest country face…reposing in a nest of wavy chestnut hair’ (Hardy, 2000, p32). The description of Thomasin and the language used shows Thomasin’s connection to nature. The personification of the heath shows the misalignment between the human and nature. It is a hostile, unforgiving place which humankind needs to come to terms with in the modern world. This forward thinking shows Hardy believing that the relationship between humans and the world is disillusioned and the heath becomes a place of enlightenment.

The character of Clym becomes a Jesus-like preacher on the heath mirroring the Sermon on the Mount of Christ. Hardy describes the inhabitants of the heath as, ‘In name they were parishioners, but virtually they belonged to no parish at all, (Hardy,2000, p100) illustrating the decline in Christianity. Whilst preaching to the heath men, ‘They listened to the words of the man in their midst…while they abstractedly pulled heather, stripped fearns, or tossed pebbles down the slope’ (Hardy,2000, p336)’ Clym wanted to educate them but Hardy shows that this was of little importance to the heath men. They listened to him out of sympathy rather than out of passion for a saviour. Schwarz states that, ‘Our last views of Clym are not of a man who has triumphed, but of one who has been defeated’ (Schwarz,1979, p23). Hardy shows that the decline of Christianity in a rural setting requires something more than the old doctrines and his existential

Hardy’s interest in paganist rituals can be seen throughout the novel. From bonfires being lit across the heath to the mummers ritual play at the Yeoman household, Hardy’s antagonism with paganism is ironized at the end of the novel. During the final few scenes, a maypole is erected for the villagers: ‘In these spots homage to nature…fragments of Teutonic rites to divinities whose names are forgotten, seem in some way or other to have survived mediaeval doctrine’ (Hardy, 2000, p319). The maypole dance is where Diggory Venn and Thomasin are brought together. Throughout the novel, the character of Diggory Venn, the reddleman, is symbolic of paganism. In Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, nature is described thus, ‘Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw / with ravine, shrieked against his creed/’ (Tennyson, 2018, LVI), which is an imitation of Diggory. A stalwart of the heath and forever coloured red as a reddleman, Diggory morphs from paganism to Christianity through his marriage to Thomasin. Seymour believes that, ‘Their union is not merely emblematic but represents the ‘inevitable movement onward’’ (Seymour, 2000, pxxi) demonstrating Hardy’s belief that Christianity would return. Although Clym states, ‘”Aunt only objected because he was a reddleman”’ (Hardy, 2000, p327), the lack of Christian values shown is symbolic of the traditional Christian stance Hardy objected to. A modern way of thinking came from the heath and Hardy views on Christianity and paganism sought only to show that there is no God. The novel criticises both pagan and Christian positions and portrays neither as valid. Leonard Deen states that the ‘protagonists’ acute sense of isolation in an alien society and in a universe abandoned or forgotten by a god who is after all only a fiction’ (Deen, 1975, p131). Hardy believed that to cling to Christian values was to remain stagnant in life and to go back to the beginning to see the real truth in ourselves was the way forward. Yet whilst his answer was not in the values of Christianity, neither was it in paganism. Hardy’s existential view prophesises the need of a more modern way of thinking, which cannot be found in Christianity or paganism.

It is his readings of social Darwinism theory that Hardy show the misunderstanding of the human role in nature. Hardy deconstructs the human role as makers in god’s image and believes that if we stick to Christian morality we would not be able to evolutionise the two sides of the self. Hardy goes the next step to complete the process of evolution in human nature. Believing the modern world is in crisis, Hardy’s solution is that evolution is the modern way forward. To go to nature in this way, the modern world will find its way again. Meisel argues that Hardy’s confrontation with rationalism is a symbolic one ‘that establishes a parallel between Darwin’s work and the development of Hardy’s fiction’ (Meisel,1972, p5). Humans are not in charge and this illustrates just how modern Hardy’s way of thinking was becoming.


Hardy revives the idea of tragic in The Return of The Native and tragedy becomes a series of events in which the characters all seem to relate. In Hardy’s poem entitled ‘Hap’, the lines, ‘[t]hese purblind doomsters had as readily strown / Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.’ (Hardy, 2018) show the idea of tragic possibilities of fate and that things happen due to time and circumstance rather than some all-powerful being, bringing about the tragic within the text. He shows that the human frame is too fragile to embrace the enormity of the world. In the description of the heath in chapter 1, Hardy states that ‘solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities’ (Hardy,2000, p7), illustrating the construction of the environment for tragedy.

The character of Eustacia allegorises the entire western culture from her Promethean heroine to her Shakespearean witchlike status. Deen suggests that, ‘She is emblematic of the feeling and infinite desire which rebel against inevitable limitation, and thus is the supremely tragic figure of the novel’ (Deen, 1975, p122).  Hardy epitomises this in Eustacia’s desire ‘[t]o be loved to madness…’ (Hardy, 2000, p58) showing her fatalist ideas do not correspond with human nature. The tragedies that befall Eustacia show her disconnection from a modern world and her lack of understanding. Upon hearing of Clym’s impending arrival back on the heath, Eustacia dreams of a dance in which she is in the arms of a man in armour, believing him to be Clym. Eustacia’s dream is a foretelling of her own death: ‘Suddenly these two wheeled out from the mass of dancers, dived into one of the pools of the heath…’ (Hardy, 2000, p98). Even though she believes the man to be Clym, it prophesises her and Wildeve’s drowning in the weir on the heath. Hardy’s foreboding demonstrates that disconnection with life and want of the fast, urban way of life is the tragedy of the modern world. In this way, he is offering a solution, which doesn’t quite come to fruition for the characters in Native. In The Mayor of Casterbridge however, the character of Henchard comes full circle in his realisation and awareness of his actions. Hardy’s modernist approach links the beginning of time with the end to come to a resolution.

In Native though, Clym’s self-absorption is his tragic flaw. Schwarz believes that, ‘Seemingly without passion or vitality after Eustacia’s death, he is rather anxious lest Thomasin should propose to him’ (Schwarz, 1979, p23). Clym does not have the awareness and thought: ‘…he dreaded to contemplate Thomasin wedded to the mere corpse of a lover that he now felt himself to be’ (Hardy, 2000, p325), showing his incapacity to move forward following Eustacia and his mother’s deaths. Upon partially losing his sight, Clym is left unable to see both physically and ‘intellectually blind in some respects right to the end’ (Williams, 1972, p144).  The most pivotal point for Clym comes when his estranged mother journeys to see him, with the hope of reconciliation. The tragedy that unfolds shows Hardy utilising Clym’s blindness as a metaphor for the lack of vision of the modern world: ‘He had been disturbed and made to dream and murmur by the knocking, but he had not awakened’ (Hardy, 2000, p236). This ultimate lack of understanding demonstrates that none of the characters are in control, giving substance to Hardy’s argument for life in the city. Resurrecting the tragic in novel form, Hardy is able to convey the ancient art form into the modern period, as a resolution for a life which is moving away from nature.


In The Return of the Native, Hardy calls for a realignment of humanity with nature. Hardy believed that to be at one with nature is where identity could be found and that life in the city was too fast. Illustrating the heath as a far superior place in which humans have no comprehension of, Hardy is showing that to return to it, will offer a resolution and even a small amount of understanding is better than nothing. Using the heath as a mystical place that appears to transcend all other faiths and doctrines, Hardy shows that this is where humans can find themselves. Hardy criticises both positions of Christianity and paganism showing that neither are substantial in the modern world. To remain faithful to the old Christian values was to remain stagnant in life and Hardy’s portrayal of both doctrines corroborates this. In his revival of Greek tragedy, Hardy shows that to go back to the old way or to the beginning of time, was the way forward in finding the ‘self’. The tragedy of the modern world is that life moved too fast and in Native, Hardy portrayed a rural setting as the modern place to be.    


Deen, L. (1975). ‘Heroism and Pathos in The Return of the Native’. In: Draper, R.P. (ed). Hardy: The Tragic Novels. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.

Enstice, A. (1979). Thomas Hardy and the Landscapes of the Mind. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Hardy, T. (2018). ‘Far from Madding Crowd’. Handout given in Victorian Novel 08/02/2018 by M. Jesinghausen.

Hardy, T. (2018). ‘Hap’. Handout given in Victorian Novel 08/02/2018 by M. Jesinghausen.

Hardy, T. (2003). The Mayor of Casterbridge. London: Penguin Classics.

Hardy, T. (2000). The Return of the Native. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd

Kucich, J. (2001). ‘Intellectual debate in the Victorian Novel: religion, science and the professional’. In: David, D. The Victorian Novel. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Meisel, P. (1972). Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Repressed. USA: Yale University Press.

Schwarz, D.R. (1979). ‘Beginnings and Endings in Hardy’s Major Fiction’. In: Kramer, D. (ed). Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Thomas Hardy. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.

Seymour, C. (2000). ‘Introduction’. In: Hardy, T. The Return of the Native. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

Tennyson, A.J. (2018). Literature Network. [Online] Available from: Accessed: 23/04/2018.

Williams, M. (1972). Thomas Hardy and Rural England. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.

Wordsworth, W. (2012). ‘The World is Too Much With Us’. In: Wu, D. (Ed) Romanticism: An Anthology Fourth Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd

Any thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s