Defending Hardy's Classical Symbolism to Describe Eustacia Vye
Part 4 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.
Michael Millgate in his chapter on The Return of the Native in Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist (1971) is highly critical of the classical context, the allusions and language, through which Hardy attempts to aggrandize Eustacia, to render her character noble and her struggle ennobling. Millgate finds that "The classical apparatus is . . . obvious and indeed obtrusive, the frame it provides both too heavy and too ornate" (131). In particular Millgate finds fault with the nexus of Promethean allusions and the hyperbolic language surrounding the heroine, whom Hardy described to his Belgravia illustrator Arthur Hopkins as "wayward & erring" (8 February 10, 1878; Vol.I, 53) rather than tragic. Millgate feels that the sustained "allusions are . . . excessive in themselves and [tend to draw] attention to precisely those features in the novel which prove recalcitrant to analogical cross-referencing: the inappropriateness, for example, of any serious application of the term "Promethean" to the self- consuming passions of Eustacia Vye" (131). Her suffering, after all, is the consequence of neither a Christ-like self- sacrifice or a violation of unjust dictates. Rather, it is the result of her inability to adjust to circumstances and accept an unequal marriage.
Although the progress of Eustacia from alienated romantic to outcast Titan is hardly logical, it is poetically and connotatively effective. Hardy connects her to the Tartarean heath by speaking of her first as "the raw material of a divinity" (53) exiled from Olympos (the beau-monde represented by the provincial resort of Budmouth) and cast through the whim of her grandfather into the cultural and social gloom of Egdon Heath, which has affinities with the Shakespearean heaths of King Lear and Macbeth , and more proximately with the setting of Wuthering Heights . Hardy endows her with "Pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries" ( RoN 53), which, with her tendency to "utter oracles of Delphian ambiguity" (58), render her a sort of Cumaean Sibyl, the priestess whom Hecate, Goddess of the Underworld and Witchcraft, appointed to superintend the Avernian grove, according to Virgil in The Aeneid , Book Six, line 564. Hardy's description of her soul as "flame-like" (53) suggests the torment that the fraudulent counsellors Ulysses and Diomedes suffer in Limbo, "as viewed from the brink by the sublime Florentine," Dante Alighieri, in his Inferno (12). However anguished, her language is hardly Sibylline. Her passions may be unruly; her temperament may chafe against the bonds of her liminal social status; but her utterances, conceived of by a male writer, do not emanate from any wild zone.
Although the series of images is coherent, that they should literally apply to the daughter of a bandmaster in south-west England in 1842 makes a large demand upon the reader's credulity, as Millgate has suggested. How, then, does Hardy intend his reader to interpret these images and allusions? By conjuring up visions of that grim region of the Underworld where spirits such as those of Prometheus and Ulysses suffer eternal agony for their opposition to the laws of the universe, Hardy makes the reader respond imaginatively to Eustacia's torment. However, to suggest that Hardy means these allusions to constitute a sort of external reality is specious. As Charles E. May points out in "The Magic of Metaphor in The Return of the Native ," critics in the twentieth century have made the mistake of approaching fictional characters from literary works of the nineteenth "as either psychologically-motivated real people acting within a novelistic social similitude or as mythically- motivated archetypes acting with a psychologized allegory code" (111). Hardy was hardly a modern symbolist; although, as his notebooks suggest, he "was aware of the problem of the novel-romance dichotomy" (112), as May asserts, he was interested in synthesizing the two, so that the reader may have in Eustacia both a naive, romantic nineteen- year-old and a would-be pagan deity. Only her death can resolve this tension between her anomalous natures:
The eternal rigidity of death freezes her into a transitional state between the fervour of her psychological character and the resignation of her archetypal position in the fable of her own making. (May 118)
Eustacia's conflict with the spirit of the heath is an aspect of her rejection of the community and her changed circumstances; however, she does not reject only what it symbolizes or stands for in her mind. Through the mechanism of allusion, association, and metaphor "the psychological passes into the mythical" (May 113). Supplementing Eustacia's spiritual and physical opposition to the Heath as place of residence, as home, is her conflict with the denizens of the place, who sincerely suspect her of being a witch who is employing her dark powers against them. Throughout the course of the story, Eustacia senses that, no matter how she tries to avert it, her end will come as a victory not only for Egdon Heath but also for the community that has imbibed its spirit. Her death in the Narcissistic pool of Shadwater Weir reinforces her 'marginalized' witch-identity: attempting to escape her socially-sanctioned union, she drowns in the "boiling caldron" ( RoN 288) -- total immersion being by tradition the test for one accused of practicing witchcraft. That which brings life to the Heath extinguishes her flame-like soul. Although such Pateresque effusions as that which opens the "Queen of Night" chapter (Book First: The Three Women -- VII) are rare in the book, they leave their mark, partly through their exuberant exoticism, and partly through the sheer accumulation of images and allusions.
Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman. (53)
There is the hallmark of Hardy's style: even in the midst of an effusion, he cannot resist the ironically humorous, undercutting parenthetical remark. Her extended tresses may render her Sphinx-like, and her "Pagan eyes" may be "full of nocturnal mysteries," but with gentle raillery Hardy sums her up with the litotes "at times she was not altogether unlovable" (57-8).
The new moon behind her head, an old helmet upon it, a diadem of accidental dewdrops round her brow, would have been adjuncts sufficient to strike the note of Artemis, Athena, or Hera respectively, with as close an approximation to the antique as that which passes muster on many respected canvases. (54)
Again, the colloquial "passes muster" has a deflating effect, as if the narrator cannot take his own effusion seriously, but must poke fun at such language and such a heroine. Her classical lineage proves but another practical joke by Hardy's 'purblind doomsters', the rulers of the Darwinian universe, for "celestial imperiousness, love, wrath, and fervour had proved to be somewhat thrown away on netherward Egdon" (54). Possibly a consciousness of his own hyperbole prompted Hardy after serial publication to cut the line: "She differed from Demeter's daughter as a queenly bondswoman differs from a bondaged queen" (). It is certainly inconsistent with the ironic equipoise of the narrative voice in these paragraphs, which are in a sense an elaboration of the proposition that "Egdon was her Hades" (54). To make her a suitable antagonist for the spirit of the Heath, Hardy adorns Eustacia with the golden trappings of classical myth. She becomes a Greek princess with "true Tartarean dignity" (54), a descendant of "Alcinous' line, her father hailing from Phaeacia's isle," being "a Corfiote by birth" (55), although in the original version of story, as serialised in the magazine Belgravia , "She was the daughter of the bandmaster of a regiment which had been quartered there [at Budmouth]; a Belgian, who met his future wife during her trip thither. . . " (Vol. 34: 504). Hardy's process of transforming Eustacia from a Bovaryesque adolescent to a Sophoclean heroine is thus laid bare if one compares the final text with the serial version at this point. The likeness of Hardy's heroine to female deities from classical myth is present in the text from the first, when Hardy describes her beauty as a painterly commodity, as is indicated in the visual emphasis of such expressions as "her general figure," "The new moon behind her head, an old helmet upon it, a diadem of accidental dewdrops round her brow," and "respected canvases" (Vol. 34: 503-4, and Norton 54). If the reader dismisses the narrator's jocular tone, "Egdon was her Hades" may be taken as implying an analogy to Persephone, but Hardy nominates no one goddess for Eustacia's Olympian counterpart: she may an Artemis (goddess of the moon, virginity, and hunting), Athena inappropriately for Hardy's heroine, goddess of wisdom and handicrafts -- although in her capacity of sponsor of military strategy Athena may be a suitable analogue for the scheming Eustacia), or Hera (the temperamental Queen of Olympus and patron of marriage and statecraft).
The similes and metaphors implying a connection between Graeco-Roman goddesses, then, cannot be taken literally; rather, these constitute an artistic similitude, a context, a 'canvas' of the pseudo-antique designed to stir the reader's emotion and evoke a certain quality of feeling for this dark heroine. As we have seen with respect to Hardy's endowing Eustacia with Homeric rather than merely Belgian antecedents in revisions conducted after the serial version, Hardy employs his allusions consciously to give his heroine's plight universal significance. The accretion of classical allusions heightens the novel's tragic effect, giving Hardy's Egdon the feel of Sophocles' Thebes. By comparing Eustacia to no particular classical deity, Hardy makes her a synthesis of the quintessence of four. Eustacia is virgin huntress, patron deity of the chase, the vengeful goddess who transformed the careless Actaeon, violater of her privacy, into a stag to be attacked and slain by his own hounds. She will allow herself to be mastered by neither man nor the rugged, masculine environment of the heath. Then, too, for Hardy she is analogous not to the patron goddess of crafts or common sense, but of wiles and strategies, fond of disguise and deviousness. She, like the Homeric Hera, is queenly, fond of power, and chafing under male domination; however, Eustacia is unable -- unlike Collins' Magdalen Vanstone in No Name (1862) or Conan Doyle's Irene Adler in "Scandal in Bohemia" -- to utilize her deviousness to assert herself against such domination. Finally, she is in emotional bondage, confined to Egdon as Demeter's daughter was to the kingdom of Hades; Eustacia suffers the fate (life in death) with which Coleridge's Ancient Mariner was threatened not for violating natural but patriarchal law. No marriage of the heart can save her as it does Collins's wayward heroine in No Name: Wildeve proves no Kirk, for he encourages rather than rescues her from her own duplicity in order to exploit her, and does not have her welfare at heart when he arranges to carry her off.
To her the heath is a version of "Homer's Cimmerian land" (Norton 42), a desolate plain at the ends of the civilised world, a desert place "surrounded in mist and cloud" (Odyssey XI: 15). She deems the place fit only for such worshipers of Dionysus, such "Maenades" (Norton 11) as Grandfer Cantle, Susan Nonsuch, and Olly Dowden to tread their "demoniac measure." Dissatisfied with the savage surroundings and crude society in which she finds herself entrapped but from which by herself she believes herself unable to escape, Eustacia dreams of the gaiety of the outer world, as represented by Paris and Budmouth. And again Hardy provides a classical analogy: "her moods recalled [the] lotus-eaters" (Norton 54) whom the hero Odysseus encountered, a people wholly given over to fantasy, daydreams, and avoidance of hardship, striving, and responsibility. Like Tennyson in the celebrated dramatic monologue, Hardy intends that the Lotus-eaters connote a desire to escape from duty and an unwillingness to face workaday reality:
Hateful is the dark-blue sky, Vaulted o'er the dark-blue sea. Death is the end of life; ah, why Should life all labor be? [ll. 84-87)]
In Homer's Odyssey , some of the hero's crew, desiring release from the rigours of their arduous homeward voyage, respond to the narcotic influence of the African lotus fruit by shunning their loyalty to their craft and their fellows. In pleading to be left among the Lotus- eaters, they abandon all hope of seeing their homes and families again. Daunted by the terrors of sea, they settle for less than their proper goal. Hardy thus implies that the Lotus- eaters are a fit emblem for Eustacia's emotional state. Her hero has not only failed to release her from her Hades, but has also attempted to chain her further, in bonds of social obligation, of marriage, and of patriarchally-determined respectability. Clym has forced upon her a mature, adult role for which she is emotionally unprepared and ill-equipped, and now deprives her of even her dreams of release. Her only escape, as forecast by her earlier dream of drowning, is in the oblivion of death.
Last modified 6 December 2000