Eustacia Vye and Jeremiah

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.
Psalms 139:7-10

The Return of the Native is one of Thomas Hardy’s best and most interesting novels. Like all great works of literature there are many ways of looking at it and thinking about it, sometimes it just takes finding a sympathetic approach to help start that connection. Fanda suggested one way, thinking about the novel as a Shakespearean tragedy. The novel’s original five books follow the classic five act structure (the happy ending in the sixth book was a compromise with popular taste in the era of serialized literature). It follows the unities of time, place and action that Aristotle describes in his Poetics as well as the familiar themes of conflict, hubris and tragic flaw. This approach will probably work well for Fanda, but may be less interesting for you.

But there are other ways of looking at The Return of the Native. In addition to mirroring classical tropes and structures there are strong biblical overtones particularly of the Old Testament prophets. Hardy shares with the ancient Hebrews a certain view of history and its relationship to ethics, individual desire and divine will. The ancient, mystic and unfathomable Egdon Heath is in many ways reminiscent of the stern and recondite Eloah of Job. One might imagine the description from Job 38-40 describes the unyielding Egdon Heath as well. And this irresistible Heath propels much of the action by the characters relation to it. Like the divine will of the Old Testament, you cannot defy it, you cannot hide from it.

O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.
Jeremiah 17:13

Eustacia Vye plays the roll of Zedekiah or Jonah in her revolt against the Heath. She violates the moral dictates of the Heath. Like Zedekiah she is proud and individualistic. She has the blasphemous qualities of “celestial imperiousness, love, wrath, and fervor” and even the “raw material of divinity” and is thought to be a witch. Like Zedekiah, she flees the wrath of God/Fate/the Heath, and like Zedekiah those who fight against God/Fate/the Heath suffer all the more for it.

“I shall also spread My net over him, and he will be caught in My snare.”
Ezekiel 12:13

The uncanny reddleman, Diggory Venn could be a later day Jeremiah or Ezekiel. His appearance is unusual, even otherworldly. His abilities and insight often seem beyond his humble profession. He is watchful and prophetic. There is something miraculous about him.

And while these characters enact this combination biblical epic and tragic drama, they are in some ways more human and sympathetic than a Zedekiah or a King Lear. They are drawn in such rich hues we could imagine running into them in a rural English landscape. In doing so he brings this universal and mythic struggle out of the realm of kings and prophets and into the homes of regular humans where we are more likely to imagine ourselves.


~ by severalfourmany on November 15, 2012.

2 Responses to “Eustacia Vye and Jeremiah”

  1. Thank you for commenting on this; now I want to go back and start over again. I did not really want to give up, but I was already so lost that it seemed easier to just leave it. I noticed that there is also an overtone of Greek mythology, which I like, but I now want to go back with a different set of eyes and look at it as you have suggested. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. I’ve been thinking about reading this for a while – thank you for this insight 🙂

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