Saturday, May 12, 2012


I've been rereading Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native (1878) for the first time since college.

Hardy's novels always raised a bit of a sensation when they were published in Victorian England, although today, we see nothing scandalous whatsoever in them.

In particular, Hardy is quite critical of the sexual mores of his time: the repression of women and the effects that existing social and sexual double-standards have on the lives of his characters is a typical theme of his novels.

No one would go so far as to call Hardy a feminist, however. His female characters tend to cluster around two dramatic poles: the thoughtful, kind, "good" women, who tend to let their minds rule their hearts, and the passionate "bad" women, who willingly surrender themselves to the first dude who comes along and insists that they're in "love."

Although broadly stereotyped and melodramatic, Hardy's point is nevertheless an interesting one: what is love? Is it passionate and abandoned self-sacrifice, or is it something more temperate and enduring?

The Return of the Native's protagonist, Eustacia Vye is a case in point. She has "given" herself to a typical Thomas-Hardy-douchebag-character: the irony of Hardy's novels is that the fiery and feisty female protagonist always "gives" herself to the guy that everyone in the neighborhood (except the woman herself, of course) knows is a player.

This is part of the drama: the heroine's unyielding "they don't know him like I do" and "I'm sure he loves me like no other" and "we've gotta get outta this place" diatribes always override common sense and common knowledge.

Hardy's narrator remarks on this quality in Eustacia: she's sick of living out in the middle of nowhere, doing nothing, so she finds the local jerk--and he finds her--and they have an affair. As the narrator points out,

To be loved to madness--such was her great desire. Love was to her the one cordial which could drive away the eating loneliness of her days. And she seemed to long for the abstraction called passionate love more than for any particular lover.

In short, any guy will do: Eustacia just thinks she's supposed to be madly, abandonedly in love or she isn't fulfilling her life's purpose. As the narrator notes,

Fidelity in love for fidelity's sake had less attraction for her than for most women; fidelity because of love's grip had much. A blaze of love, and extinction, was better than a lantern glimmer of the same which should last long years.

If she remains faithful to a guy, it's not because she believes in fidelity, it's because the drama of love--and the part she wants to play--requires it.

I think that, in Eustacia, you can hear echoes of so many young women's expectations of the experience of love: it isn't supposed to be a "lantern glimmer" that will "last long years"--it's supposed to be an all-consuming blaze. If it isn't, it isn't love.

The problem is, Eustacia, like many women, seeks the blaze, irrespective of the blazer. When she finds out the guy she "loves" is keeping company with another woman that he may or may not marry, she "has" to get him back. He "has" to love her more than he loves the other woman, or... well, he just has to, it's that simple.

So, she sort of gets him back. But then, once she does, she starts to think, well, if he's some other girl's reject, then I shouldn't want him either. If another woman wants him, she can't have him, if another woman doesn't want him, she can have him.

Eustacia's spent so much time calling her rival a loser, she's painted herself into quite a corner: she's now in complete possession of the guy this "loser" of a woman doesn't want after all.


In the narrator's words, "He loved her best, she thought; and yet ... what was the man worth whom a woman inferior to herself did not value?"

I think that, in Eustacia, Hardy depicts the social machinations and egoism at work in individuals who have been led to believe that love is something it is not. Eustacia claims to "lose" herself in love, and yet she is nothing if not fickle and selfish.

And tragic. Eustacia chases after something that cannot bring her happiness, ever, because it simply doesn't exist in the way in which she conceives of it. She is convinced that, as she grows older, the opportunity for "love" diminishes because "love alighted only on gliding youth" and she believes that all "love" is destined to burn out over time.

She thought of it with an ever-growing consciousness of cruelty, which tended to breed actions of reckless unconventionality, framed to snatch a year's, a week's, even an hour's passion from anywhere while it could be won. Through want of it she had sung without being merry, possessed without enjoying, outshone without triumphing. Her loneliness deepened her desire.

Eustacia is out there, even now, today, tonight. Because she never stops to question what it is that she is looking for (and why), she is doomed to pretend she has found what doesn't exist.

The more she looks, the lonelier she becomes.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."