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Feminist Reading of Hardy’s the Return of the Native Essay

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Most of Hardy’s novels or better to say all of them are considered to be modern. In fact, one can notice so many features of modern novels in his fiction. By referring to Robert Schweik’s article (1994) pertaining to the idea that Hardy has influenced so many modern novelists such as D.H. Lawrence, one of the key critics of Hardy novels, chiefly in the notion of feminine and treatment of women which is one of the distinguishing features in his fiction. One can regard this type of treatment of women in Jude the Obscure, the sixth and the last of his major fictions, in a way that Sue, the heroine of the novel, is a liberated, unconventional and broadminded feminine who rebels against the conventions of the Victorian society.

Although at the end Sue thrusts upon the social laws and ideologies, she is very much a modern type of woman or as Elaine Showalter stated the obvious in her division of the female literary tradition into three stages . Here the second stage is immensely relevant that is the stage of protest against the standards and the values and, a call for autonomy (Literature of their own, 13) Hardy established in his fiction. Moreover, by making a female character like Tess, in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Hardy tries to criticize the Victorian society, the very strict one with that particular Victorian code and respectability which is a traditional type of dealing with women in the community in which the only way to protest is to commit suicide.

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While many critics have disagreed with the matter that Hardy treats with his heroines in a kind and tender way, Rosemarie Morgan gives us evidence regarding this idea: “While he [Hardy] was writing the Return of the Native…he was reading the works of a woman he greatly admired, whom he regarded as one of the “Immortals” of the literature, and who has happened to be highly unconventional—he was reading George Sand Mauprat and was taking notes.”(Morgan, 1988: 41)

Hence, this statement tells us that Hardy’s favorite novelist was an openly and defiantly unconventional and liberated woman whose writings Hardy thinks highly of. Morgan also goes on with this idea and bestows on us a nice statement from Sand’s novel which were Hardy’s notes: “Men imagine that a woman has no individual existence, and that she ought always to be absorbed in them: and yet they love no wo- man deeply unless she elevates herself, by her character above the weakness and inertia of her sex.” (Morgan, 1988: 41-42)

Interestingly, the “existence” of such a female resulted in many heroines in novels of Hardy and those come after him. The Return of the Native is perhaps the strongest example of Hardy’s demonstration of struggle of women to establish their identities. In fact, it is the document of their attempts and battles against natural and social laws. The purpose of this paper also is to have a feminist reading through using the recurrent theme of individual as Eustacia versus society as patriarchal society with its own ideologies and conventions. By considering Wollstonecraft’s concept “women’s duty”, the idea that is mostly applicable to Victorian women and mostly the folk people of Hardy’s novels like what one sees in characters like Thomasin or Susan Nunsuch or Olly (what simply they call her “besom-maker”), his heroines like Eustacia are against this notion.

In fact, there is a redefinition of that very concept in his fiction The novel demonstrates a restless passionate woman searching for fulfillment in the monotonous surroundings of Egdon Heath, where the inhabitants are steeped in the older traditional ways of life. Eustacia considered being a discontented and passionate dreamer who dismisses the opinions of society. She is mysterious by nature and has “Pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries…..assuming that the souls of men and women are visible essences, you could fancy the color of Eustacia’s soul to be flame-like” (The Return of the Native: 51) Certainly, Eustacia has a reputation on Egdon Heath of witchcraft, as a person whose only desire is to use her beauty as a means of attracting the men.

One can observe how the folk women hate her, that how they talk behind her or also there is almost no conversation between Eustacia and the other female characters throughout the novel. As evidence, there is a scene in the church, exactly the time of Wildeve and Thomasin marriage, “Susan had pricked Miss. Vye with a long stocking needle” (RN: 149), as a means of her hatred. But, just in opposite, whatever is thought by the folk people is not Hardy’s objective. He attempts to criticize the narrow-mindedness of such people, their counterfeit superstitions particularly religious ones. Using Althusser’s “Ideology”, here, it is very much pertinent to the social laws, the church and what the “Fathers” are establishing. By reading closely the chapter called “Queen of Night”, the mysteries regarding Eustacia is unfolded. The common element in the chapter is the high spirited woman rebelling against the constructions of her prescribed “woman’s lot” and seeking a life of wider personal freedom than customarily granted to women: “she had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman.” (RN: 55)

Through studying the relationship between the men and the women in the novel, Eustacia and Wildeve and also Eustacia and Clym, any other mystery of such a woman will be resolved. First of all, the relationship between Eustacia and Wildeve is discussed. What is found in the character of Wildeve is that he is only a “womanizer”. What he does in the novel, is playing with women and mostly with Thomasin through procrastinating their marriage and preserving his affair with Eustacia. Oddly enough, only a letter being the reason to leave this woman and go for the marriage, however, later Wildeve returns to her all over again. Furthermore, the name he has chosen for his bar is also debatable which is “Quiet Woman Inn”. It symbolically presents the nature of a Victorian woman. As a matter of fact, not to go too far, Thomasin may be the main focus in this notion. She is “quiet lady-like little body” (RN: 19) as Susan calls her, also an obedient, devoted, passive one that later in the essay will be discussed more.

The object of study of their relationship here is the matter of strength of Eustacia. Her nature proves that she is stronger than Wildeve, for she captivates and declines him in accordance with her tendency. She even threatens him to quit the legacy of passion she has presented upon him, “I had given you up, and resolved not to think of you anymore.” (RN: 52) thus, the belief that women are the “weaker sex” is eroded by Eustacia. In regard with the “power” and strength, also another interesting statement of Eustacia is bearable: “I determined you should come, and; you have come! I have shown my power. A mile and half hither, and a mile and back again to your home—three miles in the dark for me. Have I not shown my power?”(RN: 54) Moreover, in another important relationship in the novel between Eustacia and Clym, everything changes for Eustacia. Clym has come from Paris, a city of ambitions for Eustacia, in fact, what she was really waiting for. But in an opposite way, an idealist and intellectual Clym is not very much interested in what her beloved thinks of.

His core intention to return is just to improve his hometown, to educate them. He has forgotten that his hometown deals only with furze-cutting. Mrs. Yeobright tells him that “after all the trouble that has been taken to give a start, and when there is nothing to do but to keep straight on towards affluence, you say you will be a poor man’s schoolmaster. Your fancies will be your ruin” (RN 147), however, Clym is too idealistic to recognize that the rustics need material comfort before achieving spiritual contentment. It is intriguing that Clym is trying to uplift mankind rather than to recognize what has really happened to his own life or to Eustacia. It is obvious that he has only attracted to her physical beauty and just has thought of her as a helpmate for his idealistic job. Stave asserts that “Clym assumes marriage will relieve him of the distress of passion and will provide him a helpmate in his mission to educate the Egdon folk” (Stave, 1995: 60).

Or also in another scene he tells his mother that “she is excellently educated, and would make a good matron in a boarding-school.” (RN: 161-162). One can also say Clym defied and denied Eustacia’s desires in order to attain his personal ambitions. Oddly enough, the more she fights to avoid the hostility of the heath, the further it dominates her. She marries Clym to save her body and soul from hostile environment around her by leaving heath for Paris but, as it seems, she is quite unaware of the fact that in the patriarchal Victorian society, once a girl is married, she becomes the man’s estate, and is made to satisfy his desires. Actually, Eustacia’s hopes are shattered by her husband’s selfishness. Additionally, the main character foil in the novel is Thomasin, as Hardy calls her “a good heroine”. She is intriguingly defines herself “a practical woman, I don’t believe in hearts at all” (RN: 130). She symbolizes the ideal partner, an agreeable and devoted woman which is immensely in contrast to Eustacia.

Thomasin, in the first eleven chapters of the book one, reveals her true purpose for marrying: it is not for love but for the family reputation she says: “But I don’t care personally if it never takes place,” she added with a little dignity; “no, I can live without you. It is aunt I think of. She is so proud, and thinks so much of her family respecta- bility, that she will be cut down with mortification if this story should get abroad before— it is done.”(RN: 37) Hence, as it is said, she is a very idol of a Victorian woman who makes the men, like Wildeve, to tread the path of abusing the women as their own possession and property.

In concluding what is said till now and by taking into account the most important female of the novel, one can say that from her first appearance till her tragic end, Eustacia is agonized because she does not consent to man’s desires and principles. Hardy desires her to commit suicide rather than be debased to living in a cottage with an indecisive idealist, and a blind man as Duffin observes “yields little allegiance to emotions” (Duffin, 1991: 201). Her tragic end is an indication of refusal to be an obedient, conventional and passive man. In fact, Hardy’s greater heroines are not static at all but are very much dynamic and just attempting to advance through the interaction of anything out the domestic world.

Works Cited:

Deen, L.W.1960. “Heroism and Pathos in The Return of the Native. ”Nineteenth century Fiction,Vol.15,No.3,p.211.
Duffin, H.1991. Thomas Hardy:A study of the Wessex Novels, The Poems, And The Dynasts, Anmol Publication, New Delhi.
Hardy, T. 1995. The Return of the Native, Wordsworth Editions Limited, Hertfordshire.
———- . 1995. Jude the Obscure, Wordsworth Editions Limited, Hertfordshire
Harvey, G. 2003. The complete critical guide to Thomas Hardy, Routledge,, London
Millgate, M. 1971. Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist, The Bodley Head, London and Sydney.
Morgan,R.1988. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy,Routledge,London.
———-, 1992. Cancelled words: rediscovering Thomas Hardy, Routledge. London.
Showalter, E. 1977. A literature of Their Own, University Press, Princeton.
Schweik, R, 1994. “Modernity in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure” in Bloom’s Modern
Critical Views: Thomas Hardy. Ed. Harold Bloom 2010. Infobase Publishing.
Wolstonecraft, M: Vindication of the Rights of Women, Everyman Library, London.

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