My reading companions and I made a New Year’s Resolution: No more waiting around to do the WEM questions once a novel is finished.
The three of us lost Eustacia in the weir and married off Thomasin to the Reddleman before Christmas, but the questions somehow got put on the back-burner next to the wassail. So when 2013 rang in, our journals were showing more than a proverbial clean slate. Despite that, we mustered enough intellectual juice to work our way through them one snowy evening over Roasted Pear and Chocolate Scones in Jeannette’s immaculate living room.
After catching up, and exchanging some small tokens of our WEM progress and friendship we hit the books. We shared our retitling of the novel, something we all dread at every wrap-up session. Part of our problem this time around was in deciding who possessed the role of main character. In Hardy’s title the distinction goes to Clym, but none of us felt that was accurate. In fact, all three of us named the major player in this work Egdon Heath.
When my friends flew by the chronicle/fable question with a quick answer to the former, I threw up a red flag, and they kindly listened to my crazy theory about the Reddleman being a fantastic element to this novel just as the call across the moors was to Jane Eyre, and the nocturnally burning A was to The Scarlet Letter.
The wants and obstacles in ROTN seem some of the most clear cut we’ve encountered. Hardy uses sentences like “What Eustacia always wanted was . . .” and “Clym wanted three things, at best he could only have two.” Never mind the fact that in the end he loses all three. And do you know what stands in his way? The heath. After a while in our wrap-up session we sounded a lot like those Sunday School kids who pipe up with “Jesus” as the response to every inquiry. So in order to branch out we added that miscommunication and a lack of forgiveness also mess up situations and cause undue angst.
Of all the novels we’ve read on our WEM journey our stop at the heath rivals only our trip across Melville’s seven seas in terms of importance of setting. The heath is everything. Egdon acts on people. It suffocates Eustacia, makes Cymn its servant, bites Mrs. Yeobright, and pulls Wildeve under it’s tumultuous darkness. Only Venn and Thomasin, those who are content and respectful of their home, find peace within it’s scrubby terrain.
Despite my lack of Classic Word of the Day posts no novel has given me a more papercuts than Hardy’s work. I madly flipped from text to dictionary, from text to glossary, from text to footnotes, all the time astounded at his complex and yet simple style. His narratives described the people and places with rich complicated metaphors and details, while the stretches of dialogue were so colloquial that pressing your finger on the kindle nearly always gave the same result, “no entry found.”
Our classy friend, Norma, told Christine that as she worked through the novel she imagined it as a black and white film with flashes of red. We think she’s on to something. The red of fire, Venn, blood, and even Eustacia’s ribbon blaze against the stark dark vs. light relief. It’s quite an image.
Jeannette opened our eyes to see the theme of vision and lack there of. Sure, Clym goes physically blind, but others also are impaired and unable to see the truth. Mrs. Yeobright fails to see the desires of her son and the intentions of his bride. Eustacia cannot see the danger that awaits by ignoring the knock of her mother-in-law. And finally the lack of sight causes her to fall (or jump if you like) into her death.
The question that monopolized our discussion of the book’s beginning and ending (although Jeannette pulled through with another astute observation that the book began with singing for a wedding that didn’t happen, and ended with singing for a wedding that did) was this: Should Hardy have written a Book Sixth? We all know he didn’t want to, and that his Victorian audience pressured its composition after Book Fifth appeared in its serial installment.
About this we all resolutely agree: No Book Sixth. It’s as bad as an epilogue, and we all know how Christine feels about epilogues. (In case you don’t: she doesn’t like them. Not a bit.) We think that the end of Book Fifth is more in keeping argument of the novel.
So what is the argument of the novel? Well, provided my internet keeps working correctly you can tune in tomorrow for the Rhetoric portion of The Return of the Native wrap-up session.
P.S. Bonus points if you can correctly identify the novels depicted in the beautiful WEM ornaments made by Christine.