This is probably the weirdest book I've ever read - or at least read for a long time. I found it hard to get into at the beginning, so subtle is the writing, and by end I couldn't really fully comprehend what had happened.
I've always found Hardy's books to be highly unusual, even though they describe simple rural life. Plus the book has no real moral compass, you don't know what to think of all that occurs. You're certainly not pointed in any direction to make judgements on his characters.
The book I'd describe as some kind of excavated relic from another time and place - you know the object is strange yet beautiful, yet you can't understand it.
The Return of the Native is about unhappy marriages, most notably that of Eustacia Vye (where does he get these names from?) to Clym Yeobright. He is the native of the book's title, who has returned from his 'effeminate' work in Paris selling jewelry. He now longs to be a teacher and do good.
Eustacia dreams of passionate love (you could probably read into this that she is highly sexed; she's described as a Godess) and hopes that Clym will take her to Paris for a romantic lifestyle. This comes crashing down when she finds out that Clym hopes to be a teacher and stay in his native Egdon Heath.
Meanwhile, Eustacia has been having clandestine meetings with an old flame, Damon Wildeve.
In an extraordinary climax in the book, Wildeve comes to visit her, just to have the pleasure of 'looking' at her, no more. Clym is in the house at the time, dead to the world sleeping. Then, as luck would have it, Clym's mother comes to visit. Eustacia secretly escorts Wildeve to the back door and presumes that Clym will answer his mother at the door.
He doesn't, and continues to sleep. Mrs Yeobright (the mother) walks off, heartbroken. She is bitten by an adder while making her way home and dies.
The novel ends in tragedy with Eustacia dieing by drowing, and Wildeve succumbing to the same fate while trying to save her.
The tone and real substance of the novel is impossible to put into words. You never condemn Eustacia - for some strange reason. As I said earlier, the book doesn't lead you to make moral judgements on the characters.
Surely this is a very pessimistic novel about human sexuality. It seems a given from the beginning that bad choices will be made, as a matter of course.
I couldn't help but think while reading the novel of Anthony Trollope, and what he would have made of the Return of the Native. He was very matter of fact about marriage - people made far too much of finding the right partner. He believed you should just choose someone passable and make do.
Too much dilly-dallying could lead to disaster, in his view. Too much fretting over what you might be missing was foolish.
So it was for Eustacia, dark Godess of Egdon Heath.