The Other Eustacia
“Hardy summons into us a graphic dimension, and then, apparently without realizing the danger in doing so, he allows another Eustacia to enter his novel. This Eustacia emerges, through a consistent patter of speech and action as a creature unfit for the lonely peaks of tragedy.” In his essay “The Other Eustacia,” Robert Evans holds that through allusions to Greek tradition, Hardy sets the stage for a classical tragedy, but then disappoints his readers with a character more on the level of the average teenage rebel. Evans writes, “This then, is the other Eustacia, an emotionally unstable adolescent girl given to self pity and melancholy, basically cold and selfish.” He supports his arguments with examples of Eustacia’s behavior. She loves Clym as a source of momentary passion and fails to comfort him in his time of need because of her own self-pity. Additionally, Evans accuses Eustacia of “petulance and childishness” in her willingness to trample Thomasin Yeobright to achieve her own personal pleasure. Because Evans’s analysis concludes that Eustacia’s fall is the result of her own shortcomings as an immature romantic and melancholy adolescent, in his opinion The Return of the Native lacks the greatness of true tragic fiction.
Robert Evans fails to produce a viable explanation of Hardy’s portrayal of Eustacia because he chooses to concentrate on the contradictions rather then the connections between the “queen of night” and the “courtly pretender.” Eustacia the social rebel and the tragic heroine work together to produce a thematic representation of the conflict between individual and community. This interpretation of the dual image of Eustacia realizes the potential of the novel and supports the tragic proportions suggested throughout the work. The “courtly pretender,” who Evans criticizes for undermining the tragedy of the novel, plays a key role in developing a realistic human picture of Eustacia. As an author interested in presenting an authentic representation of the human condition, Hardy explores the tragic clash between Eustacia’s passionate dreams and the harsh reality of the world in which she lives. Careful examination of her background and situation refute criticism of her actions as selfish or ridiculous. Evans attacks her lack of concern for Thomasin when trying to seduce Wildeve. Her actions may appear self-centered, but in actuality her reaction is natural for someone lacking communal influence.
The women of the heath hate Eustacia because her beauty endangers the security of their marriages and their sons’ futures. Trying to protect her son from Eustacia, Mrs. Yeobright voices her suspicion: “Miss Vye is to my mind too idle to be charming. I have never heard that she is of any use to herself or to other people. Good girls don’t get treated as witches even on Egdon” (Hardy 237). Eustacia does not practice witchcraft, but her ability to charm men turns her into the avowed enemy of the women around her. Although she captivates men, their idolatry does not provide her with normal relationships either. For them she represents the goddess far above their own earthly existence, “a romantic and sweet vision, scarcely incarnate” (397).
Living with her withdrawn grandfather, Eustacia does not have a normal family to provide the human relationships she lacks because of her separation from the heath people. As a social outcast and an orphan, Eustacia finds herself isolated from the people who might teach her the values of Christian charity. Eustacia understandably does not feel compelled to sacrifice her own happiness for people with whom she feels no connection. When she seems unconcerned about the social repercussions of her efforts to steal Wildeve from Thomasin, Hardy emphasizes that social rebellion does not reflect an inherently evil character. He writes, “This did not originate in inherent shamelessness, but in her living too far from the world to feel the impact of public opinion… As far as social ethics were concerned Eustacia approached the savage state”(149). Eustacia naturally does not care about the effect of her actions on Thomasin Yeobright, a woman she neither knows personally nor cares about. On a concrete level, the “courtly pretender” emerges as a rebellious teenager ignorant of human relationships, which would teach her the importance of compromising her own desires for the good of others.
Although criticized by Evans as naive, Eustacia’s desire for passion, rather than the continuity of a monogamous marriage, merely reflects her separation from the practicality of the heath wives. For Eustacia, love is an escape from the mundane existence of the heath, not a way of marrying a secure existence. As Hardy writes: “Love was to her the one cordial which could drive away the eating loneliness of her days. And she seemed to long for the abstraction called passionate love more than any particular lover” (121). Though she marries Clym, she fears the consequences of her decision. She muses to Clym: “Nothing can ensure the continuance of love. It will evaporate like a spirit, and so I feel full of fears…I do not think I shall be the one who wearies first” (255). Since the marriage Eustacia was familiar with generally led to the loss of what little freedom a woman had, she understandably prefers “passionate love” and is suspicious of the confinement of marriage. She has an accurate understanding of the harsh reality of marriage on the heath, a realization that further divides her from the rest of the community.
As a character whose defense of the individual manifests itself as social rebellion, Eustacia the “courtly pretender” and Eustacia the “queen of night” are not contradictory images, but rather the concrete and symbolic manifestation of the same character. As a young woman without the support of people around her, Eustacia follows her own social ethics rather than those of her community. She longs for a “passionate love” as an escape from the limits of life on the heath. Through Eustacia, Hardy attempts to realistically portray the struggle of an orphan and social outcast. Beyond exploring Eustacia on a concrete level, Hardy also places her in the context of a thematic struggle between individuals and their community. Hardy uses lofty language, historic allusions, and images of the “queen of night” to emphasize this symbolism. This dual portrayal of The Return of the Native’s heroine plays a fundamental role in the tragic style of the work. The novel successfully incorporates elements of the Greek tragedy while also advancing a more modern view of the empathetic tragic heroine. Through Eustacia the “queen of night,” Hardy inherits the legacies of the Greek tragedians and suggests the historic context of the conflict between man and his community in human society. As the more human and fundamentally flawed “courtly pretender,” however, Hardy’s Eustacia challenges the element of Greek tragedy that elevates tragic heroes to unreachable Olympian heights.
Evans, Robert. “The Other Eustacia.” Nineteenth Century Fiction. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1968. 39-48.
Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native. London: Penguin Books, 1985.
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