Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native is a novel I read many years ago and being an admirer of his work, thought I would re-read it as its premise had long since slipped into the blur of Hardy novels. As any Hardy reader knows- and I don’t know who actually said this but it is very true – if you want a happy ending in a Hardy novel, then read it backwards. Which all sounds rather macabre and miserable, but it isn’t. This is because Hardy uses death as he uses life in his writing, as something that has to be endured and is unavoidable. Which also sounds rather bleak.
OK, so what he does is show us that regardless of the decisions we make, whether they are spontaneous or long deliberated on, makes no difference to the quality of our life and death. Both will occur, and our decisions will only make those occurrences more or less pleasant. The smallest of decisions, the slightest fall from grace or moral behavior can completely ruin or improve our lives. The only snag is that we don’t know when we are making those decisions what the consequence will be. No one can see into the future nor can they know what other people will do or how they will react. So essentially, the fact that all of Hardy’s novels – well, 95% of them – end tragically should act as a warning, a caution for the reader, a kind of flashing red light to check your own behavior and choices before it’s too late. It’s not bleak, it’s cathartic; a ‘thank goodness I’m not that hero/heroine, oops, maybe I should check I’m actually not acting that way.’
That said, my other observation on Hardy has to do with his wordiness, which generally has not ever worried or bothered me. To pick up a Hardy novel is to accept there will be considerable time spent, pages and pages in fact, on descriptions of characters, settings, motivations. Hardy can take six pages quite easily on the description of the interior of a cottage or the walk of a farmer. And this is not a problem. To read Hardy is to sink into his prose and let the imagination conjure up these images he draws for you with such painstaking clarity. Unlike some other authors, he is determined there should be no mistake about what his readers see when a character enters a scene.
However, I found myself becoming impatient with the descriptions concerning the heath in this novel; Egdon Heath to be exact. The novel opens with a ten page description of the heath at dusk, the colors, the light, the sounds, and if it sounds excessive, it is. But, believe me, you can definitely see the heath by the end of it. But the heath, unusually, is not then left alone now it has been firmly fixed in your mind. No, it keeps on being described throughout the novel; every time someone walks across it, during the day, the night, winter, summer, it’s all there. The heath must be described. And I found myself losing interest in the story, the characters, and most definitely the heath.
Then I realized there is a reason for this preoccupation with an inanimate expanse of unforgiving nature: Hardy is treating it as the main character of his novel. It is the difficult place where the characters must eke out a poor living if they can from furze cutting and livestock grazing, and it rewards them poorly for their labors like a stingy relative. It is the place where characters meet and love and hate using its paths and hollows and ferns to promote or conceal their activities. It hides and reveals sides of characters that would otherwise go unnoticed in more agreeable and easy terrain. It is changeable and uncaring, focused only on its own existence. And once I figured this out, I appreciated the wordiness, the exact descriptions, and the heath’s effect on the other characters.
So now I like Hardy all over again – for his preoccupation with death and setting both. For portraying them as inanimate characters which have enormous influence on every one of us, whether we realize it or not.