Going Home to “Return of the Native”

Sitting around an open fire one sunset this fall I proposed reading Return of the Native to my wife, and we took turns reading chapters of it out loud between Thanksgiving and Christmas, till we read the whole thing. Natural enough, I guess, since the book starts, memorably, with exactly that kind of scene:

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.”

The first time I read the book, I was a teenager, and it was one of the first serious works of literature forced on me that actually stuck. You don’t meet the ostensible hero till you’re a good quarter of the way into the story, which reinforces the reading of it that says it’s the heath, the geography that’s the protagonist.

The second time I read the book, in my 20s, I was living in Minnesota, my adopted home state from the time I was about 22 until my 30s. One phrase from the book I never forgot was also a description of the heath. Possibly because so many of my friends on the East Coast could not fathom why I’d moved to a place so bland as The Midwest, I liked to repeat that Egdon Heath, said Hardy, “appealed to a subtler and scarcer instinct.”

Furze, or something like it.

In the same passage that I felt flattered my taste by calling my instincts “scarcer,” Hardy writes, “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.” Though I don’t remember what my 24-year-old self made of a landscape being “emphatic in its admonitions,” this was to my mind a defense of my fondness for the prairies of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

I guess there’s something of Egdon Heath in the valley I live in now. I live minutes from the mountains but am just as happy watching old pastures in the flatlands “embrown” themselves.

Otherwise, my young self’s reading of the story tried extra hard to see sexual politics in it, and I did moral somersaults to rally to Eustacia Vye’s defense. To me it was a village full of hypocrites who had to punish its one extraordinary woman who dared to think bigger than cutting furze, and only had the bad luck to cross paths with the guy on an opposite trajectory, who was coming home to furze-cutting from the grand life she wanted.

I guess age and experience made me appreciate that there really are some manipulative people out there, whose combination of sex appeal and bravado dares you to get involved with them, and rewards you with conflict. Jealous of your attachment to anyone else, even your own family, and certainly your exes or admirers, they’ll sooner or later try to wedge you apart. And that’s Eustacia.

The other lasting impression Return of the Native left on me this time was its lack of sex. I know, it was 1878, and it’s clear enough that Eustacia and her guys probably weren’t just standing around on the heath when they met late at night. But with no hint or suggestion of their going to bed together, even after she’s married Clym, it left me unsure whether to root for or against their marriage lasting.

I know, because I can read a book jacket, that Hardy broke taboos and made it possible for writers a generation later to be sexier, but I suspect I’d get a lot more feeling out of my rereads if it were clear whether Clym and Eustacia were happy, and not just defensive of their marriage.

Then again, it’s clear that I have a lifelong relationship with this book, and it’s too late to choose that. It may be the only book I’ve read more than twice. You can’t choose your family, and these people, presided over by this landscape, are my book family.


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