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Eustacia Vye: A Remarkable Creation
Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native may be seen as the first of Thomas Hardy’s irresponsible and mildly neurotic hedonists. The novel, set in the backdrop of the sombre and barren Egdon Heath, is a portrayal of how human beings negotiate with the forces of nature, both external and internal. In Eustacia Vye, this negotiation emerges as a conflict which leads to fatal errors of judgement on her part and an eventual tragic nemesis. A desperate clawing for love, a recklessly masculine intellect and a direct assertion of self form the dominant note in Thomas Hardy’s portrayal of Eustacia Vye.
Queen of Night
In the chapter “Queen of Night,” Hardy dwells luxuriously upon Eustacia’s dark beauty, her moral isolation and her nocturnal mystery. In the words of A.J. Guerard, “The statement is so full as to threaten any further appearance of Eustacia with commonplaceness and redundancy.”
It gives the impression of a presence, equipped with bonfire and telescope, brooding dangerously over the lives of more docile persons in the valley below. This impression of unused suppressed energy, which would make any bargain to escape the heathland, is what the figure is all about.
Eustacia vs Egdon: Conflict and Complexity
However, such an appearance conceals her innermost vulnerabilities. An incurable romantic at heart, she is most unwilling to reconcile her idealism with reality. Her blind idealism leads to her idea of complete isolation: “She felt like one banished…but here she was forced to abide.” She despises Egdon Heath as a place of despair: “It is my curse, my misery and will be my death.”
Despite her formative years at Budmouth, and her constant reluctance to accept Egdon as her home, it is the heath which makes her conscious of her superiority. Her hatred does not reflect in her interaction with the heathland itself. She is comforted by the branches of the furze combing her hair; she does not tear away the brambles which catch her skirt but gently untwists them. She is instinctively in harmony with the natural surroundings. This passive harmony, in turn, fuels her active antagonism against Egdon. The isolation of Egdon allows her to imagine her worth and yet, as a prison, it triggers in her a desperate impulse to escape.
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To Be Loved to Madness...
Eustacia is perpetually driven by an intense desire “to be loved to madness”. Interestingly, her desire is neither concrete nor precise. “She seemed to long for the abstraction called passionate love,” Hardy adds, “more than any particular lover.” It is this longing which makes her magnify Wildeve to suit her imagination of the worthy lover. The relationship she had with Wildeve lacks authenticity and honesty. The artificiality of this relationship is evident from the predatory complexity and battle of ego which is seen during their secret rendezvous:
Eustacia: “Three miles in the dark for me. Have I not shown my power”
Wildeve: “ I think I drew out you before you drew out me”
Naturally, when Eustacia hears about Clym Yeobright’s return, she immediately turns him into a glorified knight, chosen for her rescue from the heathland. Subsequently, she falls in love with this imagined stature, not trying to understand the real person at all. The eclipsed moon, under which Eustacia and Clym embrace each other, points ominously at such a doom. Even after their wedding, Eustacia feels a void in herself which makes her confess to Wildeve: “…he (Clym) is a good man…but I do desire unreasonably much in wanting.” Interestingly, she knows how unreasonable her desire looks and is conscious of the limitations of her dreams.
Transgression and Tragic Catastrophe
In her attempt to break free, Eustacia repeatedly transgresses nature—by being unfaithful to Clym, by developing a false idea of fulfillment and by her unjustified hatred of Egdon Heath. She refused to learn the most vital lesson of Egdon, that of patient endurance, which is learnt by Diggory Venn, Thomasin, even Clym. The imprisonment of Egdon makes her an escapist and an epicurian, doomed to a ruthless extinction for the disturbance she creates in the natural order of Egdon.
Eustacia appears for the last time on Rainbarrow, as the heath is roused by a frightening tempest. Such a storm becomes a reflection of her inner turmoil: “Never was harmony more powerful than between the chaos of her mind and the chaos of the world without.” She feels a power drawing her into the barrow. There is no indication as to whether she commits suicide or faces an accident. There is rather a suggestion that Egdon claims her. It is this realization of being overpowered that made her revolt: “I was capable of so much; but I have been injured and blighted and crushed by things beyond my control.”
Eustacia goes on through the rain towards her death in Shadwater Weir while her wax idol melts in the fire of Susan Nunsuch. With her death, most of the darkness is removed from the novel, but almost all of passion and intensity recedes as well. The restrained energy that originated from Eustacia’s intense hatred of the heath and which she used so futilely in fighting it, gets eventually withdrawn. It is not important if Hardy passed any judgement in her portrayal. What is really important is how he portrays her with authenticity, honesty and intensity.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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