WARNING: If you don't already know the plot-line of this book and have any intention of reading it, I have included spoilers in this review!
"The sea changed, the fields changed, the rivers, the villages, and the people changed, yet Egdon remained."
- Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native, Book 1, Chapter 1
I admit it, the main reason I listened to this book was because it was narrated by one of my all-time-favorite actors, Alan Rickman. I don’t know about you, but his voice comes as near as anything to sending chills down my spine. Thankfully Return was also a classic book, so I could count it on my reading list J.
First of all I will address the style of the book. I was prepared for Hardy’s writing by having read Tess of the d’Urbervilles last year, but it could be a little tedious for someone new to the style. Hardy is one of those people who can spend an entire chapter writing about a landscape, and pages of description about a character’s external appearances and inner character. He does it without being tedious, however, always weaving in such brilliant metaphors and similes that he keeps a reader’s interest.
Second, the setting. Of course, anglophile that I am, I was thrilled to be reading a novel set in a Wessex moor, the fictional Egdon Heath. The landscape has a great influence on this novel, creating an impression of loneliness and solitude, setting the story in a kind of inner world that serves to enhance the glamour of far off places like Paris. Characters are often described by the ways they react to the heath: some feel trapped by it, others revel in its wild, untamed beauty.
Apparently Return stirred up quite a bit of controversy when it was serialized in the magazine Belgravia back in 1878. The story deals with issues that were touchy in Victorian England, such as a deeply-flawed heroine and themes of illicit love. I found the book rather alarming in places where it questioned, nay, denied God’s goodness to man, treating the Creator as if He simply played around with humans and didn’t much care what happened to them.
The native who returns in the story is the wise and wonderful Clym Yeobright who has come back home to the heath with grand ideals of running a school for the peasant children. He is deeply devoted to his mother, but their relationship is strained to the breaking point when Clym decides to marry the beautiful and mysterious Eustacia Vye. His mother believes it imprudent, but Clym is in love.
Eustacia seems to me to be the exact wrong person for Clym and I can’t imagine how he ever thought he could be happy with her. The man loves the moor and would be happy living in a hovel, Eustacia just wants to have passionate love and a life of beauty in Paris. I believe that she really loved Clym, but she also deluded herself into thinking that he would take her with him to live abroad, and was quite upset and disillusioned when she realized that this was not to be.
The divisions that Clym and Eustacia’s marriage creates are widespread and deep. The mother, a cousin, a few old lovers, and a couple of new ones, all collide and scrape against one another in the rushing tumble of misfortune and grief that seems to fall heavier upon them as every day passes.
If I learned anything from this book it is that if one needs to do anything (visit a relative, write a letter, deliver something entrusted to you, etc.) do it immediately, or it’s bound to be too late and devastation will inevitably result. Also, if you love someone and believe that they are almost 100% right for you (heeding mother’s advice is good too), marry them, if you don’t, don’t marry them. If the characters in this story followed these two simple rules they could have avoided so much grief. Halfway measures just mess things up terribly.
I was at first rather jarred by the way the book ended, tying up some loose strings in a tidy little epilogue that seemed to want a happily-ever-after despite the dull, depressing nature of the rest of the book. Then I found out that Thomas Hardy had originally intended the novel to end as a tragedy. However, he submitted to the pressure of his readers and tacked on a happy ending.
All in all I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t pick it up again. The plot is so depressing, all about thwarted hopes and hellish fates. Ah well, what are classic novels for if not to increase our appreciation of our own sane, normal lives?