Hateful Heroines

July 3rd, 2011

What is it with Thomas Hardy and heroines so unsympathetic that we actually cheer their downfall? I thought Bathsheba Everdene was a pill (at least until the very end), but I must say that Eustacia Vye takes the cake. Written 4 years later, perhaps Eustacia was the product of the writer’s growing confidence in his ability to sell novels despite their being about truly horrifying people.

Return of the Native
An original illustration, showing Eustacia’s cruelty.

I read Return of the Native (1878) on the plane home from California, and found myself repelled by nearly all the characters, with the possible exception of the insipidly sweet “Tamsie”, but by none so completely as Eustacia. I think it was Hardy’s gift to shine unflinching daylight on the very worst in the name of representing things as they were, rather than to hold up the dim and flickering candle by which his predecessors attempted to show us the often imaginary, nobler side of man’s nature. I have a perverse pleasure in watching the suffering of his characters, as I can’t help enjoying the feeble death throes of a roach I’ve just stepped on. I wonder if Hardy felt the same way while he was writing them? Or did he love them as fellow sinners and fellow countrymen, blaming their shortcomings on the darkening of the world as it slipped away from rural simplicity?

Although I continue to be entranced by Mr. Hardy’s quaint viewpoint, I am taking a breather before diving into The Mayor of Casterbridge or Under the Greenwood Tree, both of which are waiting patiently on my shelf (the one a paperback purchased last week, the other a 19th-century edition and gift from a dear friend).

  • Zoh says:

    You’ve inspired me to check this novel out — yet I am doing it in audio form due to limited time (and need of something to listen to while I drudge away in the studio before a fashion show later this month). Happily there is a version with Alan Rickman reading! Ahhh! http://www.amazon.com/The-Return-of-the-Native/dp/B002BFZOVM/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&qid=1309795553&sr=8-2

    It’s quite enjoyable so far (both the reading and the writing).

    I really love the part in the third chapter, with the image of the Celtic barrow, the queenly shadowy figure gazing across the heath atop the barrow, then stealing away before the townsfolk come to light the traditional festival bonfire.

    It seems really awesome so I will probably have to actually read it after I am done listening to Mr. Rickman read it to me. :)

    • eva says:

      Hurrah! I will give you my copy whenever you are ready to read it. Though I have a feeling Mr. Rickman’s version may be quite as much as you really need.

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