A Great Northern Peat Fire Novel?
Last year I read and really admired three of Thomas Hardy's short stories. One of my 2011 reading goals was to read at least one of his novels. I recently found an 80 percent off sale on Barnes and Noble Classic Editions (a series with good production values). One of the books I acquired was Hardy's (1840 to 1928-UK-there is some back ground information on Hardy in my prior posts) very famous, widely read The Return of the Native.
In pondering what to post on this very powerful novel I have decided to dispense with much plot summation. (If you want one you can find a decent one HERE.)
Basically it is a tragic story of star crossed love and deception.
The descriptions of the natural beauty of the English country side are very beautiful and serve to set the mood for the story. Sometimes it seems Hardy loved writing parts of these book more than anything else.
I thought Hardy's treatment of the relationship of the central male character and his mother was totally brilliant. Their relationship reminded me somehow of a peat fire (the novel is set in English peat country in Hardy's imagined community of Egdon Heath). In fact the whole novel is almost like a peat fire!
Peat has a high carbon content and can burn under low moisture conditions. Once ignited by the presence of a heat source (e.g. a wildfire penetrating the subsurface), it smolders. These smoldering fires can burn undetected for very long periods of time (months, years and even centuries) propagating in a creeping fashion through the underground peat layer. (from Wikipedia).The scene where the lead character tells his mother he is marrying a woman she knows is very wrong for him was very moving to me. You could feel the mutual heartbreak and feel the very powerful emotions at play just below the surface. I know not everyone will agree, but I found this the best realized relationship in the novel. The moral confusion of the lead character, Cylm Yeobright is conveyed in a very subtle fashion. I wonder if this name is meant to suggest he is a yeoman (meaning a dependable worker or more narrowly and old fashioned and minor worker in a royal household) of intelligence.
As I was reading The Return of the Native I was struck numerous times by some of the amazingly insightful observations of Hardy. As I was reading I said to myself numerous times that Hardy knows some important truth the learning of which are alone enough to mandate the reading of his work.
At times I did not quite see the extreme attraction of the female lead character. (The cynical side of me thought that perhaps there is not an over abundance of beautiful women in the English peat countryside!) Maybe this is meant to signal the limits in the intelligence of the lead character (though she has other admirers also). I also think the sexual fixation on one woman is a part of the puritanical background of the ethos of the world of the novel. I wondered if Hardy is of this ethos or if he is looking down on it from a higher perspective. This is a very guilt driven novel.
The ending of the novel in which Clym finds his true vocation was very intriguing. It felt a bit forced to me.
The Return of the Native is a very good novel. D. H. Lawrence in a blurb at the end of the book says the real tragic power of the novel is from the setting. I think he is right.
I am starting to think more and more about how climate effects literary productions. I think this is a cold weather harsh environment book about a place where you have to work to see beauty.
With the understanding that the novel is one that many will find depressing, I recommend it to those who like Victorian era novels. It is not a happy days feel good book. It is a deeply insightful work of the northern zones mentality (OK new term I made up today!) with wonderful nature scenes. The depiction of the relationship of Clym and his mother is pure brilliance. I have never seen the relationship of an adult man and his mother in conflict done in a better fashion.
I have in my possession two other Hardy novels, Tess of the D'Ubervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge. I hope to read them within the next year. If you are new to Hardy or not sure you would like him, I suggest you start out with the short stories I have posted on. (There are links to the stories in my posts.)
Do you have a favorite Hardy novel or short story? Is it accurate to call his work "depressing"?