Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Return of the Native’ serves only one purpose, and that is to prove that just because a book is old doesn’t mean it’s worth reading. In most classic novels, there’s something–an idea, a single sentence even–in the narrative that justifies the time spent on it, but nothing redeems ‘The Return of the Native.’ A flavorless plot, a cast of entirely one-dimensional characters, and Hardy’s annoying prolixity make this book awful to the point of being offensive.
There’s nothing wrong with a book coming to a slow boil, but Hardy takes it a little far: only after a quarter of the book are all of his protagonists on the scene. The introduction involves two of them, Thomasin and Wildeve, who are supposed to be getting married. Due to a technicality, the wedding falls through and Thomasin runs back to her aunt’s house to describe the situation as humiliating in one sobbing breath and as trifling in the next. The aunt says a few mean things about Wildeve, causing Thomasin to relapse to her teenage years and wail, in effect, “But I LOVE him!”
Things only get worse when Protagonist Number Three enters the story in a fog of melodrama. Eustacia Vye’s sole desire in life is to spend it snorting the cocaine of infatuation. She wants to love and be loved obsessively–that’s it. She whines at Wildeve for marrying Thomasin; Eustacia and Wildeve had a fling before Thomasin, and in Eustacia’s mind, since she’s hotter, she should get the guy. This argument fails to woo Wildeve back. “I’ll die without you!” she announces, and proves it by chasing after someone else the next day.
This someone is Clym Yeobright, Thomasin’s cousin, recently returned from Paris. He coasts on his mysterious, big-city allure for a while, marries Eustacia, and has a huge fight with his mom. After three weeks of the silent treatment, Mom Yeobright walks across the moor to her son’s house in the heat of summer to patch things up. Inside, Clym’s napping, and Eustacia’s having a secret pow-wow with Wildeve (they’re planning to run away together, since Wildeve has decided that Eustacia is hotter after all). Eustacia refuses to answer the door and Mom Yeobright walks back home. Unfortunately, the heat is too much for her and she dies.
Hardy pulls out all the theatrical stops he can as the book closes. Clym freaks out about his mom’s death, first blaming Eustacia and driving her from the house, then suffering from an attack of conscience and inexplicably blaming himself and writing Eustacia a spineless letter asking her to please come back. Eustacia’s already made up her mind, though; she and Wildeve cut and run one night, planning to live happily ever after by clogging their senses with how much they love each other. But, blinded by their sentiments, they fall into an oddly Jacuzzi-like pool and drown. Shucks.
Weaving in and out of ‘The Return of the Native’ are long-winded descriptions of the moor on which the book takes place. Hardy tries to use this setting as a literary foil for his characters, contrasting their romantic insanity with the unfeeling nature of the moor, but even this (his only idea with any potential) falls flat through overworking. Simply put, the book is dull where it isn’t entirely over-the-top. Hardy was aiming to write a tragic love story; what he ended up writing was a soap opera.