Tartarean Imagery of Hardy's The Return of the Native

Tartarean Imagery of Hardy's The Return of the Native

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario


Part 2 of the author's "Tartarus and Promethean Symbolism in Conrad and Hardy: The Return of the Native and The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'". In-text citations refer to the linked bibliography of selected readings.

Like Conrad, Hardy attempts to produce impressions through an orchestrated pattern of allusions, similes, metaphors, and images, investing certain characters, objects, and elements with powers not inherently their own. A case in point is the Tartarean imagery of The Return of the Native (1878) and The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' (1897).

Whereas Hardy builds his symbols upon associations with Egdon Heath, its inhabitants, and vegetation, Conrad works with connotations from the sea, its ships, and its men. Hardy confines his stage to the Heath, which, like the Rainbarrow that approximates its centre, is a accretion of generations of humanity, animals, and plants, age piled upon age.

. . . all things merge in one another -- good into evil, generosity into justice, religion into politics, the year into the ages, the world into the universe. With this in view the evolution of species seems but a minute and obvious process in the same movement.

In Hardy's terms, the action of the first five books of The Return of the Native occurs not in a year and a day, but in a fraction of the time that humanity has inhabited the planet. As Dale Kramer remarks, Hardy dwells upon the "contrast between the profound permanence of Egdon Heath and the transitory importance of its human inhabitants [, and thus] points to an analogous correlation between nature's and man's notions of time." Like his persona of the Heath, Hardy views human actions in a continuum, so that future and past are connected immediately in the present.

The Hardyan paradox that what is past and dead still impinges upon the present and the living is well illustrated by his poem "The Moth Signal," in which the lovers' passions are doomed to the brief existence of the insect that in the novel Wildeve employs to signal Eustacia. While Hardy's characters egocentrically believe that their emotions are important and that their works will endure, they themselves are as easily "burnt and broken" as the moth in the poem (Vol. 2, 111-112; line 27). The grinning Ancient Briton, serving a chorus and commentator from one side of the stage foregrounded with the business of the living, applies a second narrative perspective as he points out that the human condition is immutable, that people love "In these days as in mine!" (line 36). In the novel the moth signal must be appreciated in the context of the fire imagery, which, as John Paterson notes in "The 'Poetics' of 'The Return of the Native'," is "by inference Promethean." For Paterson the novel's furtive lovers, Eustacia and Wildeve, are "Consumed in the flames of their own passion and in effect by their own aggressive humanity" (220), drawn by their overweening desires and a fatal attraction analogous to the that of a moth for a flame.

The fires that illuminate the darkened form of the "Titanic" Egdon Heath at the opening of the novel are at first associated with the life force, the "Festival fires to Thor and Woden" (12) that demonstrate humanity's eternal rebellion against the dark. At the opening of the story the heath-dwellers light bonfires which "are rather the lineal descendants from the jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot" (12). Egdon joins with the menacing darkness to become representative of "the eternal natural forces which control the destiny of man" (Kramer 305) and the standard by which the reader is to judge the struggles, desires, and passions of both the individual and the human species: though different in temperament and life- span, the Heath and humanity are alike in their changeless natures. Where once Celts constructed a burial pyre for a chief, now Grandfer Cantle and his cronies dance around a blaze of furze. The dead are trampled under foot; their monuments and works, the Rainbarrow and the Roman via , are neither venerated nor understood. Man is as unknowing, as insentient as nature. The barrow is "but as a wart on [the Heath's] Atlantean brow" (9), and a human being is as of little consequence relative to the whole universe. As the Romans conquered and subdued the ancient Britons, so too does the Heath overwhelm their puny works; where once, as Hardy remarks in the lyric "The Roman Road," "Helmed legionaries" marched, a mother and her child now walk, oblivious to the road's origins and significance (Vol. 1, 320; l. 7). The Heath becomes, then, both change agent and symbol, the sum total of decay and rebirth, of past, present, and future, affecting humanity but apparently unaffected by it.

Other Sections of this Discussion


Victorian Web Joseph Conrad Thomas Hardy Bibliography

Last modified 6 December 2000