This essay was originally written for Philip V. Allingham's English 3412, Victorian Fiction, 1840--1880, in March 2004.
Thomas Hardy's characters in The Return of the Native live in a world governed by a harsh and indifferent ironic God. Hardy sees the reigning power of the universe as being essentially unjust and morally blind, as in his poem "Hap." Instead of rewarding the good and punishing the evil, this entity presides over a universe in which suffering abounds in the form of a perverse irony. Irony is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Current English as "a situation that appears opposite to what one expects" (480), and the critic Mary Caroline Richards elaborates by stating that "irony is the issue of an action which is intended to produce one effect (good for the agent) and ends by producing its contrary (disaster for the agent)" (Part One 272). Hardy uses this definition of irony in his works, but M. H. Abrams further delineates his style in A Glossary of Literary Terms by classifying his texts in the category of cosmic irony, wherein "a deity, or else fate, is represented as though deliberately manipulating events so as to lead the protagonist to false hopes, only to frustrate or mock them" (137). The ironic deity or guiding principle in Hardy's texts acts as "the mockery of potentiality, intention, and promise by unfulfillment" (Richards, Part Two, 28). Richards argues that Hardy follows various laws set up by the universe that act as the source for human ironies. These conditions are that
it is the nature of Life to dangle pretty prospects before our eyes--inner and outer--and then to snatch them away [ . . . secondly,] the indifference of the Will to justice [. . . thirdly,] the universe manifests not only indifferent but cruelty [. . . fourthly,] inner potentiality and practical possibility are all out of step [. . . and finally,] a gross lack of correspondence between man's nature and the materials of his life results. (34-35)
In Hardy's fiction and poetry, the "indisputable henchmen of this force [the ironic deity] against man's felicity are Change and Chance" (Richards, Part Two, 25). Hardy's characters live in a world governed by these twin powers, whose influence all too often is for evil, not for good.
Throughout The Return of the Native bad things happen to good people. Eustacia, the tragic heroine, is stifled by her environment in the heath and marries Clym Yeobright as an escape, despite his mother's disapproval. Her former lover, Damon Wildeve, spitefully marries Clym's cousin Thomasin in revenge for Eustacia's rejections of his charms. None of these characters is evil, but much misfortune befalls them before the book concludes. There seems to be no justice for the good or mercy for the mistaken. The critic Albert Elliot describes Hardy as having "no desire to explain experience; he wishes only to present it" (12). Although Hardy is often considered a pessimist as a result of his negative view about the possibility for hopefulness in life, he believed that he was merely "treating matters of life just as they were" (Elliot 13). In attempting to represent reality as he saw it, he wrote novels whose plots were heavily influenced by factors of chance and change, often leading to a negative conclusion. Hardy did not enjoy witnessing the suffering in the world around him, and "felt sympathy for almost all of his characters; the 'villain' has almost no place in his works" (Richards, Part Two,24) because to him all of humanity is guided by an outside agency and so have little responsibility for the painful outcomes that occur. There is a "tight linking of incidents toward doom" (Elliot 62) and, although The Return of the Native concludes with the happier Sixth Book, the overall tone of the text is an ironic and tragic one. In The Return of the Native, Hardy proves a dismal view of life in which coincidence and accident conspire to produce the worst of circumstance due to the indifference of the Will to issues of equity and justice. Examples of the workings of this agency abound in The Return of the Native, but I have selected two major episodes from the novel to demonstrate the workings of chance and change upon Hardy's characters. The first is the adventures of Mrs. Yeobright's guineas, and the second her journey across the heath to reunite with her son.
A key episode in the novel that hinges upon the element of chance begins with Mrs. Yeobright's decision to send a gift of guineas. Her son, Clym, is marrying Eustacia against her wishes, and she hopes that, by offering this gift, she and her son can repair their relationship. The other half of the money is to go to her niece, Thomasin, who has recently married Damon Wildeve, Eustacia's former lover. Unfortunately, Mrs. Yeobright selects as her messenger the inept Christian Cantle, the village simpleton. This ill-considered decision has major ramifications, and ultimately deepens the rift between herself and her son instead of bridging it. Instead of hurrying to the wedding party, Christian attends a raffle with his fellow heath men and happens to win. To the simple man, this occurrence is evidence of newly discovered, infallible luck. He declares: "To think that I should have been born so lucky as this, and not have found it out until now!" (Hardy 175). The naive fellow is so sure of his mastery over chance that he agrees to gamble with Damon Wildeve using Mrs. Yeobright's guineas. However, nobody can antipate the actions of Hardy's ironic deity; here, its henchmen Chance and Change work against Christian's supposed "luck." He loses the guineas intended for Thomasin and recklessly continues the game, betting Clym's share in a desperate bid to regain his earlier "luck." He moans, "'I don't care--I don't care!' . . . 'The devil will toss me into the flame on his three-pronged fork for this night's work, I know! But perhaps I shall win yet" (Hardy 179). Instead of withdrawing after losing only Thomasin's money to her husband, the chance of Christian's earlier win at the raffle which goaded him into enter the game prods him to believe that he may yet prevail. The element of coincidence at work in this scene is clear to the reader as the two men are playing with dice, symbols of chance and luck. Accord ing to the laws of probability, each man has an equal chance of winning with each fresh roll of the die, but chance favours Damon and he wins all of Mrs. Yeobright's precious guineas.
After Christian has sorrowfully left, Diggory Venn, a former suitor of Thomasin and Damon Wildeve's rival, reveals that he has been observing the dice game from a nearby hiding place. He has overhead the gamblers, and had watched the drama unfold. He challenges Wildeve to extend his winning streak, and the two men play. At first, "The game fluctuated, now in favour of one, now in the favour of the other, without any great advantage on either side" (Hardy 182). However, Lady Luck soon deserts Wildeve. He eventually loses all the coins to Diggory Venn. Venn is unaware that they were to be divided between Clym and Thomasin, and so presents all the guineas to Thomasin. As she did not know the amount of the gift, she does not think to question the precise number of guineas. Through this convoluted chain of events Mrs. Yeobright's hopes for reconciliation are dashed. An examination of the evening's proceedings reveal multiple incidents of change, chance and coincidence. For instance, on all of the great heath, Diggory Venn happens upon the two men quietly playing their game. When their lamp runs out, there are convenient glow worms nearby to light the game. As Christian won the earlier raffle and asked if he could keep the winning dice, he provided the materials for his downfall. Christian success in winning the raffle at all is perhaps the greatest example of chance. Thomas Hardy's characters are manipulated though links of unfortunate events towards the worst possible outcome. Even when chance appears to favour someone, such as Christian winning the raffle prize, it really is a two-fold cruelty on the part of the universe. The prize is a woman's dress, which the bashfully, socially inept man has no use for as no woman will have him, and his naive belief in his luck causes him to fail at carrying out Mrs. Yeobright's instructions.
The second set of proceedings that I shall examine for the influence of chance and change is set into motion by Christian Cantle's failure to deliver Mrs. Yeobright's wedding gift of guineas to her son or to tell her of his mistake. This situation drives mother and son father apart as she believes Clym received the gift but made no gesture of thanks. Eventually, she decides once more to attempt a reconciliation with her son and his new wife, and again Hardy's philosophy of how change and chance conspire to cause human suffering comes into play. The day Mrs. Yeobright chooses to make her journey is unseasonably warm, resulting in a difficult expedition:
In cool, fresh weather Mrs. Yeobright would have found no inconvenience in walking to Alderworth, but the present torrid attack made the journey a heavy undertaking for a woman past middle age. (Hardy 215)
As she approaches her son's home, she sees a furze-cutter up ahead on the path and reflects that "'His walk is almost exactly as my husband's used to be'" (Hardy 217). In a burst of understanding, she discovers Clym's current state. Since he has been married, incessant studying has caused him to become partially blind, and to bring in an income he has turned to the physical labour of furze cutting. Her beloved, well-educated son who was formerly a prosperous businessman is now an incapacitated common labourer. A difference of minutes could have delayed her discovery and disappointment but to be true to Hardy's vision of life, she must witness her son and see him enter his home.
After resting outside his house (just long enough for her tired son to fall deeply asleep), she sees a man enter her son's house. It is Damon Wildeve, Eustacia's former lover, and when Mrs.Yeobright knocks on the door she interrupts their discussion. Afraid of incurring her mother-in-law's wrath, Eustacia decides to withdraw to the back of the house with Damon, assuming her sleeping husband will wake and allow his mother to enter. As they left, "they could hear Clym moving in the other room, as if disturbed by the knocking, and he uttered the word 'Mother'" (Hardy 222). However, the 'conjuncture' that Clym will awake and let in his mother, as Hardy labels it in his chapter title, is incorrect, and Mrs. Yeobright sorrowfully leaves her son's house. Having seen him enter and Eustacia look from a window at her, she is convinced that her son's new wife has poisoned her son's mind against her and comments, "'If they only showed signs of meeting my advances half way how well it might have been done!'" (Hardy 224). The readers know that Mrs. Yeobright's belief is unfounded--although Eustacia did make the faulty assumption that Clym would answer the door, she did not act with malicious forethought. However, Hardy's powerful chance denies Mrs. Yeobright and Clym a reunion, and the distraught mother begins the long and hot journey home. She randomly encounters a young village boy on the heath and confides to him that she is "'a broken-hearted woman cast off by her son'" (Hardy 225). Mrs. Yeobright soon collapses on the heath from exhaustion, the heat, and disappointment.
Meanwhile, Clym wakes with no knowledge of what has occurred. While Eustacia is sorry and apprehensive of Clym's anger when she realizes that she has unwittingly turned away his mother, she decides not to tell him of his mother's visit. Once again, irony intrudes when Clym decides that he ought to attempt a reconciliation with his mother. If he had only made this decision a day earlier, then the entire incident could have been avoided. Mrs. Yeobright would not have undergone her trial in the eat or experienced what she thought was a rejection at the hands of her son and his merciless new wife. As Clym journeys to his mother's home, he discovers her prostrate body on the heath. Although he does prevent her from dying alone, she has been bitten by an adder and expires during the night without regaining full consciousness and being reunited with Clym. Even worse, her young companion arrives on the scene to inform Clym of his mother's last words.
After Mrs. Yeobright's death, Clym becomes ill as "Despair had been added to his original grief by the unfortunate disclosure of the boy who had received the last words of Mrs. Yeobright (Hardy 239). Clym's ramblings dramatically illustrate his tortured state of mind:
'I cannot help feeling I did my best to kill her [. . .] My conduct to her was too hideous--I made no advances; and she could not bring herself to forgive me. Now she is dead! If I had only shown myself willing to make it up to her sooner'. (Hardy 239)
Clym blames himself for her death and their failure at reconciliation. To Eustacia, who knows herself truly guilty for not letting in Mrs. Yeobright and therefore avoiding her death and facilitating a reconciliation, listening to Clym's self-denouncing speeches are agony. After monologues such as these, "There escaped from Eustacia one of those shivering sighs which used to shake her like a pestilent blast" (Hardy 239),but she cannot bring herself to tell the truth. Elliott describes Hardy's female heroines by saying, "They are undecided about telling it [their secret], and usually wait until confession only leads to disaster" (96). Eustacia's death and downfall could still have been avoided if she had immediately confessed to Clym after he woke on the day of his mother's visit and begged forgiveness. However, she stays proud and silent and Clym discovers the truth on his own, causing an irreparable breach between them due to her deceit.
All these events are guided by chance and chance to the worst possible outcome-death, and no reconciliation. If Mrs. Yeobright were not as elderly--if Clym had not fallen into such a deep sleep-if Wildeve had not come to the house--then the tragedy could have been avoided. However, all of these events did occur, proving to the reader that human "potentialities for happiness, satisfactions, [and] Good are seldom fully exercised" (Richards, Part Two, 270) by the universe's guiding force. The "shocking discrepancy between what happens and what should happen if Right prevailed in the world" (Richards, Part Two, 274) is brutally prevailed in Hardy's texts. When Clym discovers the part Eustacia played in his mother's demise, the two have a horrific fight and she eventually decides to fly to Paris, where she has always hoped to live, with her old lover Damon Wildeve. They will each abandon their spouses and live together. Their flight, however, is interrupted by a horrific storm and Eustacia plunges into the weir, whether by suicide or accident. Damon and Clym leap into the water to save her, but both Damon and Eustacia perish.
The Will is "blind and distributes good or bad without regard to merit" (Chapman 146) in Hardy's novels. Eustacia and Wildeve, Clym and Thomasin are all good people without evil intent. It is through misunderstanding and unfortunate coincidence that events drive Eustacia to her death and Wildeve to follow her. Clym's promising life has completely changed direction at the conclusion of the text, and he is now a roaming preacher on the heath. Of the principle characters in the book, only Diggory Venn and Thomasin find happiness. But for incredible coincidence, events could have unfolded in a completely different manner. Hardy would insist that his vision is true to life because the higher power does indeed influence humanity's life for the worse, using its agents of chance, change and coincidence. Unlike many other novels, The Return of the Native shows the workings of higher deity but does not offer the "assurance of a continuing restored stability or an explanation of why things are as they are" (Chapman 153). Other Victorian authors often preferred to end their novels with a happy coincidence, restoring right to the world and humanity's faith in providential justice. Hardy did not see that justice in the world around him, and so it is absent in this text. The ironic contradiction between what is and what ought to be reverberates The Return of the Native, marbling the characters' lives with 'if only's'. Various instruments of fate influence his characters' lives as he believed influenced all of humanity's, and this tragic novel lends great insight into Hardy's philosophy of the workings of our own world.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Toronto: Harcourt and Brace College Publishers, 1999.
Chapman, Raymond. "The Worthy Encompassed by the Inevitable': Hardy and a New Perception of Tragedy." Reading Thomas Hardy. ed. Charles P. C. Pettit. New York: Palgrave, 1998.
Elliott, Albert Pettigrew. Fatalism in the Works of Thomas Hardy. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966.
Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native: A Norton Critical Edition. ed. James Gindin. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1969.
Richards, Mary Caroline. "Thomas Hardy's Ironic Vision, Part One." Nineteenth-Century Fiction III (1948-1949): 265-279.
Richards, Mary Caroline. "Thomas Hardy's Ironic Vision, Part Two". Nineteenth-Century Fiction IV (1949-1950): 21-35.
Oxford Dictionary of Current English. 3rd ed. Ed. Catherine Soames. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Last modified 29 April 2004