Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native | Concepts of the Visible

3449 words (14 pages) Essay in English Literature

08/02/20 English Literature Reference this

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“’The second half of the nineteenth century lives in a sort of frenzy of the visible’ (Jean Louis- Comolli). Discuss ideas of the visible and /or seeing in ‘Going to See a Man Hanged’ or any other text studied on this module.”

In Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native vision is unreliable with characters unable to see clearly or misinterpreting what they perceive. Egdon Heath “could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen,”[1] consequently unclear vision becomes a characteristic of its inhabitants. Egdon is a place of voyeurism where characters are constantly watching while being watched, never free from the gaze. Characters try to interpret each other’s internal psychology while looking at their external bodies which generates misinterpretations that entail repercussions. Consequently, seeing becomes a powerful state, where the subject is passive to the watcher’s imagination. Characters are delusional, channelling their vision to what they choose to perceive at the cost of generating true visual impressions. Vision provides individuality, with everyone perceiving the world differently. Consequently, the reader does not necessarily receive a true portrayal of Egdon and its visual representations. Hardy’s novel was written at a time when technological developments such as the camera, and increasing opportunities for travel by steam train, gave people new methods for viewing the world. Flint states there was “expansion of diverse opportunities for differing sorts of spectatorship, [and] a growing concern with the very practice of looking, and with the problematisation of that crucial instrument, the human eye.”[2]  Increasing opportunities for interpretation was synonymous with a rise in spectatorship that generated problems of perception and its reliability that are prominent in The Return of the Native.

The inability to see clearly is most distinguishable in Clym who incurs blindness from reading in the dark, “acute inflammation, induced by Clym’s night studies” (p. 241). Coombs states “Reading is a narrowly focalized mode of perception […] Its concentrated cognitive activity depends on the subject’s ability to block out a larger field of stimuli.”[3] Clym had become delusional, his attention narrowly focused on becoming a teacher. He had lost sight of the world around him, forgetting the need to earn a respectable living and losing contact with his mother. He becomes intolerant to the light that permits people to see distinctly, “The sun was shining directly upon the window-blind, and at his first glance thitherward a sharp pain obliged him to quickly close his eyelids” (p. 241). Clym had become so narrowly focused on his career and marriage with Eustacia that he had forgotten how to see broadly with an open mind-set; the light becomes painful, threatening his narrow focus.

Clym became self-absorbed and isolated like Egdon Heath, “He was permeated with its scenes, with its substance, and with its odours. He might be said to be its product” (p. 171). The heath becomes visible in Clym’s countenance, he embodies it as it projects onto his skin showing he had learnt to feel Egdon by refusing to clearly look at it. Clym’s embodiment of the heath is exemplified when he begins working as a furze-cutter, a job which did not require the same narrow focus as reading. Clym’s “life was of a curious microscopic sort, his whole world being limited to a circuit of a few feet from his person. His familiars were creeping and winged things” (p. 244). The irony of Clym’s punishing blindness for his short-sightedness is that his world becomes even smaller, as he is isolated in the natural environment of the heath, only seeing what is immediately in front of him, or blind to anything visible. The metaphorical shrinking as he associates with insects also represents a degrading in society, where his career has been reduced from that of a successful diamond seller, to an agricultural labourer. However, Clym’s shrinking from society is what he wanted, “In returning to labour in this sequestered spot he had anticipated an escape from the chafing of social necessities” (p. 191). While he has become indistinguishable from the heath he has not escaped the gaze. Mrs Yeobright watches her son furze cutting, as does the narrator, and consequently the reader. The reader sees through the lens of the narration, only seeing what is perceived by the narrator and the characters. The reader’s vision is obscured, never able to see the full picture. When Clym descends into blindness, so does the reader, who can no longer see what he saw, with images withheld from view.

Clym’s blindness also symbolises castration where he is punished for gazing intently at the female body without correct interpretation. Gazing at the female body provides men power where they are in an active role compared to women. Consequently, Clym’s blindness prevents him from asserting his masculine power. Before his blindness, Clym looks at her “moon-lit face, and dwell on every line and curve in it. Only a few hair-breadths make the difference between this face and faces I have seen many times before” (p. 193). Gossin argues that “What Clym should see by reading her face is evidence that the terrain of Eustacia’s psyche is composed of the same contradictory elements as that of the lunar surface.”[4] The moon illuminates the Egdon’s topography with the “Bay of Rainbows, the sombre Sea of Crises, the Ocean of Storms, the Lake of Dreams” (p. 191). Clym can discern the unstable emotions that emanate from the terrain, such as happiness, sombre, anger and desire, but he fails to interpret the same meaning in Eustacia’s physiognomy. He perceives Eustacia’s countenance differently than the face of the moon, he does not see these negative emotions, as he is distracted by her beauty.  The moon’s eclipse of the sun symbolises Eustacia’s beauty masking her emotions, and Clym distracted by this mask, therefore his vision warped. He fails to recognise the threat Eustacia’s feminine sexuality poses to his masculinity. He also ignores the signs that their marriage will be destructive to his relationship with his mother. Clym was described with “an inner strenuousness was preying upon an outer symmetry” (p. 135). While he is thoughtful, his outlook is misdirected, thinking too pensively that he ignores the broader picture. Hardy presents the female body as something that should be studied closely and regarded cautiously, which Clym fails to do. Clym regards Eustacia with the same narrow-mindedness as reading, he forgets to observe the warning signs surrounding her beauty. The face comes to portray an inner psychology where Clym’s internal struggles are “preying” on his body, threatening his eyesight, and reflected in his exterior.

Clym’s inability to see clearly, means he must perceive his surroundings auditorily and using his imagination, “his ear became at last so accustomed to these slight noises from the other part of the house that he almost could witness the scenes they signified” (p. 367). This generates many problems with spectatorship, as it suggests vision does not require the use of the human eye. Clym’s blindness stimulates his imagination, where he begins to construct his own world, and is driven to solidarity. Like reading, seeing becomes an active and imaginary process. Blindness denies people the opportunity to read, not only books but the world around them. Clym can no longer find meaning in the landscape or in people’s faces, he relies on sound.

Clym’s myopia leads him to become a preacher, “others again remarked that it was well enough for a man to take to preaching who could not see to do anything else” (p. 390). Ironically, Clym teaches morality which he had failed to achieve in his own life, failing to see the bigger picture among channelled vision. Clym “could be seen from all adjacent points as soon as he arrived at his post” (p. 389). Clym is no longer visibly small as he delivers the message of a being that transcends the isolation of Egdon, providing him a purpose. Preaching is liberating, but still subjects him to the gaze of others. Working in the heath positively affected his health, “His eyesight, by long humouring in his native air, had grown stronger, but not sufficiently strong to warrant his attempting his extensive educational project” (p. 385). While weakened by his sight, Clym now finds internal strength, preaching shows a realisation that people are metaphorically small compared to God.

Similarly, to Clym, Eustacia does not require her eye to generate images, “overhearing furnished Eustacia with visions enough to fill the whole blank afternoon” (p. 108). Eustacia is attracted to the unknown and the unseen, as she imaginatively constructs images that do not exist. Consequently, Eustacia’s vision and outlook on life becomes unreliable.

Eustacia patrols the hills, seeking a physical and metaphorical viewpoint, and subsequent power. Eustacia commands the highest position among the terrain, “Above the figure was nothing that could be mapped elsewhere than on a celestial globe” (p. 17). Eustacia goes for her walks in the darkness, declining to a figure, with no discernible features. Eustacia is closely associated to darkness and it becomes a physical representation of her “depression of spirits” (p. 71). However, by seeking to view things in the dark, Eustacia does not want to see clearly at all, but would rather perceive the world through her imagination. The narrator positions the reader below Eustacia, where we are not only looking at her, but she looks down upon the reader, emphasising the complexity of the gaze, but also generating further problems of perception, because again Eustacia appears to regard something that does not exist in the realm of Egdon Heath.

Eustacia has a desire to escape Egdon, and view the unseen, notably Paris. Clym returns from Paris, the wider world, and Eustacia views him as her escape, “A young and clever man was coming into that lonely heath from, of all contrasting places in the world, Paris. It was like a man coming from heaven” (p. 108). Eustacia does not have an image of Paris, so compares it to heaven, which is also concealed, and unobtainable. However, heaven is also the desirable place of rest for Christian souls; therefore, Eustacia suggests Paris would provide her eternal happiness. Defined as “the centre and vortex of the fashionable world” (p. 109). Eustacia believes Paris will provide her a sociable life free from the isolation of the heath. However, Clym never takes Eustacia to Paris “she had mused and mused on the subject, even while in the act of returning his gaze” (p. 234). Clym’s physiognomy comes to represent the outside world as Eustacia’s inability to see Paris with her physical eye requires imagination. Eustacia perceives Clym’s physiognomy as representing freedom, contrasting others who view excessive thought. However, Eustacia’s inability to physically view Paris, presents it as an image that never truly existed, suggesting her vision is unreliable.

Eustacia’s dislike for Egdon Heath results from inability to fully perceive and understand it, “The subtle beauties of the heath were lost to Eustacia; she only caught its vapours” (p. 70). Despite Egdon “could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen” (p. 9), Eustacia fails to see any of its substance, or emerge herself within its offerings, which Clym can do as a furze-cutter. Eustacia fails to engage with the heath because of a constant desire to leave. In moments of recurring pathetic fallacy Eustacia projects her depression onto the heath where there were “to Eustacia, demons in the air, and malice in every bush and bough” (p. 349). Coombs suggests “The intrinsic meanings of Egdon are incomprehensible to Eustacia because she perceives the heath as echoing her own feelings” (p. 960). Eustacia is self-consumed and unable to see clearly, she chooses her fantasy over true perception.

Eustacia also uses a telescope to spy on people, suggesting observations using the human eye are insufficient. Eustacia distances herself from others, entering their world as an outsider, “raising it to her eye directed it exactly towards the light beaming from the inn” (p. 56). Eustacia looks from darkness towards light, signifying her hope to leave Egdon Heath. Gossin suggests the telescope represents “her desire to transcend the immediate space around her, if only in the abstract, as far as her field of vision will allow her to imagine” (p. 147). Eustacia relies on the telescope, a medium through which she can look at other people. The telescope zooms in, focusing on detail rather than the whole picture. Eustacia uses the telescope to ignore the reality of the whole image and focus her interest on the detail which interests her. The use of the telescope suggests Eustacia’s own eye fails her desire to see, linking to Eustacia’s need to imagine things which are not there. Eustacia’s telescope allows the viewing of the invisible, using the telescope allows her to enter her own fantasy where she crafts her own vision.

Eustacia is so consumed in her fantasy, that it is perceptible in her countenance, as she becomes a mythic being, separate from the heath. Clym is frightened and angry after his mother’s death, “Don’t look at me with those eyes, as if you would bewitch me again” (p. 316). Clym’s blindness and metaphorical castration have rendered Eustacia’s eyes more powerful and threatening. Furthermore, Eustacia’s imagination becomes her eyes, as she is unable to see anything but her internal fantasy.

Like Clym, Eustacia’s inability to see clearly is problematic, eventually driving her to suicide. Eustacia’s suicide symbolises her inability to live and carry on seeing in the real world, which had psychologically destroyed her. Eustacia’s death allows her to escape into permanent fantasy where she finds peace, “The stateliness of look which had been almost too marked for a dweller in a country domicile had at last found an artistically happy background” (p. 361). For Hardy, the world is metaphorically a painting, where Eustacia in the foreground never fitted in with the background setting of the heath, emphasising her need to escape. However, Eustacia’s corpse is gazed upon by Clym, Venn and Charley, so she never escapes the male gaze. Malton suggests “Eustacia finally renders herself an erotic spectacle entirely submissive to ocular penetration and, thus, to social control.”[5] While Eustacia’s soul escapes Egdon Heath, her body will remain there indefinitely, regarded by men who can assert masculinity over her now wholly passive body.

While Mrs Yeobright does not suffer physical optical problems, she misinterprets what she sees. Like Eustacia, Mrs Yeobright is isolated by the heath, generating problems in her perception, “She had a singular insight into life considering that she had never mixed with it” (p. 186). Mrs Yeobright is certain in her understanding, often resulting in prejudice, where she judges Eustacia unfit as Clym’s wife without knowing her, “’I have no proofs against her, unfortunately. But if she makes you a good wife there has never been a bad one’” (p. 199). Mrs Yeobright’s vision is compared to looking at a painting, “Communities were seen by her as from a distance: she saw them as we see the throngs which cover the canvases of Sallaert, Van Asloot” (p. 186). These artists produced landscapes or paintings where the subjects’ features were not distinguishable, showing Mrs Yeobright has an overall picture at the expense of detail. While she has an outlook on the world, she does not understand it. Consequently, her vision becomes unreliable like art, the artist or Mrs Yeobright depicts what she wants to see that can lead to misrepresentation. Cohen states “Paintings do not look back, do not see themselves being seen.”[6] Mrs Yeobright’s optical subjects become passive like a painting, they are subjected to a view which they are unable to contradict. Consequently, the viewer’s outlook becomes powerful, while often inaccurate.

Mrs Yeobright becomes haunted by Eustacia, “two sights were graven; that of Clym’s hook and brambles at the door, and that of a woman’s face at the window” (p. 275). Mrs Yeobright looked through the window, which connotes her seeking a viewpoint on the door was not opened. However, Mrs Yeobright assumes her Clym rejects her, not realising he was asleep, generating a misunderstanding, connoting problems with vision.

Mrs Yeobright leaves Clym’s house destressed and enters the natural world, where she attempts to understand people despite their absence, “a colony of ants had established a thoroughfare […] To look down upon them was like observing a city street from the top of a tower” (p. 278). Mrs Yeobright is presented in a position of power as she realises people are small in the world. Hardy alludes to Darwin’s recently produced On the Origin of Species which generated a new outlook on life, with humans denoted from a central position becoming just like ants in the process of natural selection. However, ironically, the novel encourages the reader to care about individuals. People’s comparative smallness to the heath means it can become all consuming, disrupting their true vision of the world. This is the first time Mrs Yeobright gains perspective on life. However, looking up provides her relief, “While she looked a heron arose on that side of the sky […] where he was seemed a free and happy place” (p. 278). Mrs Yeobright views the earth as a prison, and the sky symbolises freedom, foreshadowing her imminent death.

In conclusion, Hardy presents issues with vision, as characters use alternative senses and their imagination to replace the physical act of seeing. Clym’s myopia reduces his physical vision to match his psychological short-sightedness; however, he learns to perceive his surroundings through sound and memory. Similarly, Eustacia can construct images of things she has never seen such as Paris. These examples denote the use of the human eye at a time when technological developments provided alternative methods for viewing the world, like photographs. It also suggests the eye is insufficient in providing people complete spectatorship. Vision provides people power, but also an individual method for viewing the world which can result in misinterpretations, as seen through the character of Mrs Yeobright. Vision becomes unreliable as images are generated that do not truly exist. Consequently, Hardy uses vision to blur the lines between reality and fantasy, with the reader left questioning what they perceive, through the act of reading.

Bibliography

  • Cohen, William A, “Faciality and Sensation in Hardy’s The Return of the Native”, PMLA, 121 (2006), 437-52.
  • Coombs, David Sweeney, “Reading in the Dark: Sensory Perception and Agency in The Return of the Native”, ELH, 78 (2011), 943-66.
  • Flint, Kate, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Gossin, Pamela, Thomas Hardy’s Novel Universe: Astronomy, Cosmology, and Gender in the Post-Darwinian World (London: Routledge, 2016).
  • Hardy, Thomas, The Return of the Native (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • Malton, Sara A, “’The woman shall bear her iniquity’: death as social discipline in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native”, Studies in the Novel, 32 (2000), 147-64.

[1] Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 9. All further references will be to this edition and will be given in parentheses.

[2] Kate Flint, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 2.

[3] David Sweeney Coombs, “Reading in the Dark: Sensory Perception and Agency in The Return of the Native”, ELH, 78 (2011), 943-66 (944). All further references will be to this edition and will be given in parentheses.

[4] Pamela Gossin, Thomas Hardy’s Novel Universe: Astronomy, Cosmology, and Gender in the Post-Darwinian World (London: Routledge, 2016), p. 149. All further references will be to this edition and will be given in parentheses.

[5] Sara A Malton, “’The woman shall bear her iniquity’: death as social discipline in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native”, Studies in the Novel, 32 (2000), 147-64 (163).

[6] William A Cohen, “Faciality and Sensation in Hardy’s The Return of the Native”, PMLA, 121 (2006), 437-52 (443).

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