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I must admit that when I first held "The Return of the Native" by Thomas Hardy in my hot little hands weeks before even reading it, I was less than enthusiastic about undertaking the task of reading a 463-page book that I was sure to be less than capable of captivating my attention, let alone be interesting. Nevertheless, with deadlines looming over my head, I cracked the binding and began what I was sure would be a long and tedious process of trying to stay awake while grasping the general plot of the book. Yet, somewhere in between the 461 pages that separate page 1 from page 463, I changed my mind. I found myself excited as I turned the pages, impatiently anticipating the upcoming events that would dictate the futures of the ill-fated characters. But, what is it--you ask--that is established throughout these pages that would cause me to change my mind? It was the plethora of elaborate, fictitious characters whose real-life qualities made me feel as though I had met them somewhere before. And it was the catchy plot filled with love triangles, marriages intertwined by love affairs, and all the other aspects that made me feel as though I was reading a Shakespearean drama--complete with British accents. Moreover, it was Thomas Hardy’s use of a different Shakespearean element that had the ability to entice and captivate my attention--irony.
Irony is defined as the “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result.” Irony is a commonplace “poetic” element that exists in romantic literature--particularly in tragic romantic literature. Tragic romantic literature is exemplified by the works of William Shakespeare, particularly in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and the tragedy of all tragedies, King Lear. Aside from the great known tragedies, there is another piece that can be classified as a “tragedy” --Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. However, discrepancies exist in defining The Return of the Native as a true “tragedy.” The events which transpire throughout Book Six (the end) give the novel such lighthearted undertones that it can be described as “comical.” Conversely, from the events that occurred in conjunction with the main character, Eustacia Yeobright, and specifically through her death in Book Five--this book can be regarded as a tragedy. Most, if not all, of the events surrounding Eustacia can be classified as tragic, and since it is from Eustacia’s perspective that I will primarily focus, this book can be referred to as a definitive tragedy, regardless of the events that transpired in Book Six. In fact, it is around this character--Eustacia--that most of the irony is centered. For these reasons, readers can regard The Return of the Native as a tragedy--a tragedy in which irony serves as the prominent literary element that surrounds the main character, Eustacia, portrays her as a victim to the readers, and can be accredited to her ultimate downfall.
The essence of irony stems from Eustacia’s motives throughout the novel--what drives her actions and feeds her ambitions is that she wants to escape the place in which she lives, Egdon Heath. However, this remains unknown to the readers in the initial chapters, and in fact, the only “character” they become familiar with at this time is Egdon Heath. Personification runs rampant through these chapters as the heath takes on such human-like qualities as talking, displaying emotions, and having friends: “then, and only then, did it tell its true tale...then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend” (2-3). And upon the first reading these images maybe regarded as tedious, arbitrary, and even pretentious of the author, but these chapters do serve an invaluable service to the novel. As further reading unfolds, it becomes evident that Eustacia’s motives are derived simply from the fact that she wishes to escape what she despises the most--the heath. Ironically, through the thick images displayed in the initial chapters, the qualities of the heath are reflected and enhanced by those same qualities that exist in Eustacia. Both characters contain so many of the same characteristics and mannerisms that they could almost be referred to as the same character, synonymous, one in the same.
Initially, the heath’s dark and mysterious complexion draws comparison to the same dark and mysterious nature that is apparent in Eustacia: “the face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, added noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread” (1). And as the book plunges forward, Eustacia’s mind becomes a mysterious puzzle to the readers--a dark maze--and similarly the heath itself becomes increasingly mysterious--a puzzle with winding roads, hidden paths, steep cliffs next to treacherous waters leading up to arduous hills. Also, Eustacia displays particular habits of roaming the countryside late at night when all is still: “The solitary figure who walked this beat took no notice of the windy tune still played on the dead heath bells” (62). Similarly, the heath only shows its true colors when it rises for the night: “The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to wake and listen” (2). But, the most intriguing and significant comparison drawn between Eustacia and the heath is that they are both depicted as being extremely lonely. The words “single,” “lonely,” and “monotony” are used multiple times to depict the heath: “but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony” (4). Likewise, Eustacia is described as being lonely--her loneliness felt by the readers and echoed by the heath: “the extraordinary fixity, her conspicuous loneliness, her heedlessness of night, betokened among other things an utter absence of fear” (58). The irony is entangled in the idea that Eustacia wants to escape the very characteristics that exist in her. Every trait that Eustacia dislikes about the heath is a trait that she, herself, possesses. This can imply that Eustacia is trying to escape her own inner-conflicts--yet, the reality remains that there exists no strange and distant land where she can escape to escape from herself.
With that in mind--the heath being representative of Eustacia’s character--her death in Book Six is overcast with irony. The nature of her death remains forever unknown by the readers, although there are many viable versions. A logical theory is that Eustacia committed suicide--willingly plunged herself from the cliffs of the heath into her watery grave below. However, it can also be said that she fell by accident, although this is an unlikely situation being that she is so familiar with the heath. On the other hand, it must be taken into consideration that the storm on that particular night was strong enough to disorient even those that are very familiar with the heath: “If the path is well known the difficulty at such times of keeping therein is not altogether great, from its familiar feel to the feet; but once lost it is irrecoverable” (414-415). So the storm could possibly be accredited to Eustacia’s death. However, we must not forget that Eustacia has contemplated suicide prior to this incident: “Her eye was arrested by what was a familiar sight enough, though it broke upon her now with a new significance. It was a brace of pistols” (380). Another version of her death, despite its far-fetchedness, can be connected to the witchcraft--or counter-witchcraft--of Susan Nunsuch. And being that the origins and validity of witchcraft are rather obscure and somewhat skeptical during this time period and is virtually unheard of in modern times, this version poses as an unlikely situation for Eustacia’s death. Nonetheless, whether she plunged into the water by her own will or accidentally fell, Eustacia killed herself. Since the heath reflects such a strong image of her, in this sense, an accidental falling would still indicate suicide. The irony exists such that in the midst of her escape she was killed--by the heath, by herself--stating once again that Eustacia can try to escape the miseries of the heath, but she can never escape from herself.
Aside from Eustacia’s apparent connection with the heath, an ironic element exists in the marriage between her and Clym. It is already known that what feeds Eustacia’s motives and drives her actions lies in her hopes of leaving the heath for a better life. She sees an opportunity to escape with Wildeve to America but denies this offer to pursue Clym. It is Clym, having lived, worked, and succeeded in Paris, who is the only man who offers her true hopes of escape, in her mind. These ideas cause her to dress as a male mummer and roam the heath so frequently in the hopes of meeting Clym by “accident”: “The fact only could be detected, her true motive never. It would be instantly set down as the passing freak of a girl whose ways were already considered singular. That she was doing for an earnest reason what would most naturally be done in jest was at any rate a safe secret” (143). Eustacia is even willing to give up her high economic status and move to a small house hidden in the heath--for what she thought to be a few short months--in the hopes of eventually leaving for a glamorous life in Paris. Ironically, despite all of her clever plotting, Clym turns out to be the only man that cannot fulfill her desires to escape the heath--for his desires are fed by a more humanistic cause to stay at the heath and educate the uneducated. Eustacia makes painstaking sacrifices only to discover that the one man thought to have held promise of her escape is just the opposite.
All of the above ironical situations can portray and lead the readers into believing that Eustacia is a victim--falling into the twisted and tangled web of fate, a victim of circumstance, a victim of herself. And it was due to her irreversible nature as a rebel and her unfulfilled desires to lead a glamorous life that Thomas Hardy has chosen for her to be punished by fate. It is through this seemingly unfair punishment that Eustacia has the ability to evoke sympathy from the readers and draw them into believing that she is, in fact, intrinsically good. However, it cannot be ignored that just as she has fallen victim to the heath she has also fallen victim to herself and is therefore not truly a victim.
So what is it--you ask--that is established throughout the pages of this book to make me change my mind into thinking that this book is fulfilling and exciting rather than pure boredom? It was the kinetic characters and tangled love triangles that caught my attention. But, more importantly, it was the way that Thomas Hardy designed the story so eloquently--filled with elaborate characters, coated with a catchy plot, and laced with irony.

York: Washington Square Press, 1955.