n The Poetics, Aristotle contends that the tragic hero will most effectively evoke both our pity and terror if he [or she] is neither thoroughly good nor thoroughly evil but a mixture of both; and also that the tragic effect will be stronger if the hero is "better than we are," in the sense that he or she (as in the case of Sophocles' Antigone) is of higher than ordinary moral worth. Such a person of high degree or social standing is exhibited as suffering a change in fortune from happiness to misery because of a mistaken act, to which he is led by his hamartia — his "error of judgment" or . . . tragic flaw. (One common form of hamartiain Greek tragedies was hubris, that "pride," arrogance, or overweening self-confidence which leads a protagonist to disregard a divine warning or violate an important moral law, according to M. H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms.
One wonders what Hardy's intention was in that, although he identified with the experienced young man returning to the isolated village after some time away in a great European metropolis, from the first to the last his focus seems to be the sensitive, constrained, and rebellious heroine. In a letter to his Belgravia illustrator Arthur Hopkins, Hardy rated Clym Yeobright as the most important character in the book. Moreover, he the story's second most significant figure, described Eustacia Vye, as "wayward" and "erring" (Collected LettersI: 53), perhaps in contrast to the dutiful female principal, Thomasin. In Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist (1971), Michael Millgate accuses Eustacia of "impulsive actions . . . which drive the couple finally apart" but describes Clym as "Self-absorbed, isolated, humourless, . . . incapable of sympathetic communication with anyone outside himself" (139). In other words, Millgate contends that, for much of the story, Clym does not provoke the reader's sympathy as a protagonist should. Is it possible to determine whether the book's tragic protagonist is either Eustacia or Clym (or both), using the points that Abrams and Millgate have raised?
Michael Millgate in his chapter on The Return of the Native in Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist is highly critical of the classical context, the allusions and language, through which Hardy attempts to aggrandize Eustacia, to render her character noble and her struggle enobling., so that she becomes a tragic heroine not through self-sacrifice but rather through the writer's descriptions of her. Millgate finds that "The classical apparatus is . . . obvious and indeed obtrusive, the frame it provides both too heavy and too ornate." In particular, Millgate finds fault with the nexus of Promethean allusions and the hyperbolic language surrounding the heroine, whom Hardy described to his Belgravia illustrator as "wayward & erring" (8 February 10, 1878) rather than specifically "tragic." Millgate feels that the sustained "allusions are . . . excessive in themselves and [tend to draw] attention to precisely those features in the novel which prove recalcitrant to analogical cross-referencing: the inappropriateness, for example, of any serious application of the term "Promethean" to the self-consuming passions of Eustacia Vye" (131). Her suffering, after all, is the consequence of neither a Christ-like selflessness nor a tragic will to self-destruction like Lear's nor the relentless unfolding of past circumstances that reveal an Oedipus-like guilt; rather, she makes a foolish choice (marrying Clym) based on a faulty premise (that, having lived in Paris, he will not long be able to tolerate the lack of mental stimulation afforded by the society of the heath).
The classical allusions and Pateresque effusions aside, does Eustacia meet the standards established by Aristotle for the tragic hero? Although she is responsible for much of her own suffering and meets her death attempting to run away from her husband, she is hardly the sort of influential personage that Aristotle had in mind, nor is she introduced to the reader at the height of personal prestige and power. In this respect, Clym is more consistent with the tragic trajectory prescribed by Aristotle in that he enters the story with an aura of sophistication acquired in Paris, becomes a schoolmaster, goes blind while harvesting furze, and ends his days as an itinerant preacher. However, but her death in the weir Eustacia does resolve issues that plague her society and help to restore social equilibrium by her drowning with her lover, Wildeve.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Heinle & Heinle, 1988.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy, Cantica I: L'Inferno. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.
Bulfinch, Thomas. Mythology. Ed. Edmund Fuller. New York: Dell, 1966.
DeMille, Barbara. "Cruel Illusions: Nietzsche, Conrad, Hardy, and the 'Shadowy Ideal." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 30, 4 (Autumn, 1990).
Hardy, Thomas. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, ed. Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate. Oxford: Clarendon, 1978.
_____. "Philosophical Ideas in Fiction." Autobiography. 26 June ), as given in Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native. Ed. James Gindin, Norton Critical Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969. 359.
_____. "Book One." The Return of the Native. Belgravia. Vol. 34 (January, 1878).
_____. The Return of the Native. Ed. James Gindin, Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969): 3. All subsequent references to this edition will be designated as RoN, until the introduction of material from the Belgravia serial, at which point references to the Gindin edition will be designated as "Norton."
Kramer, Dale. "Unity of Time in The Return of the Native." Notes and Queries 12, 7 (July, 1965): 305.
Lillard, Richard Gordon."Irony in Hardy and Conrad." PMLA 50 (March, 1935): 317.
May, Charles E. "The Magic of Metaphor in The Return of the Native." Colby Library Quarterly 22, 2 (June 1986): 117.
Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist. London and Toronto: Bodley Head, 1971.
Paterson, John. The Making of The Return of the Native. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.
_____. "The 'Poetics' of The Return of the Native." Modern Fiction Studies 6, 3 (Autumn 1960): 219.
Entered the Victorian Web 20 June 2014