From Lauren Walsh’s Introduction to The Return of the Native
Who is Eustacia Vye? The question is more loaded than it seems at first, for Hardy changed his vision of her partway through creation of the novel. Although the distinctions between the 1878, 1895, and 1912 editions were minor at best, Hardy did significantly rework the course of the narrative in 1877 (at which point in time fifteen to sixteen chapters had been written), after an initial submission to Cornhill Magazine provoked a letter from Leslie Stephen, the magazine’s editor. Stephen “feared that the relations between Eustacia, Wildeve, and Thomasin might develop into something ‘dangerous’ for a family magazine”2 (Maitland, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen, p. 276). Eustacia began as a character named Avice (easy to read as “a vice”), who was sinister to the utmost. She was, in fact, indisputably witch-like, if not a witch outright. John Paterson in his excellent piece, “The Making of The Return of the Native,” explores in detail this transformation of Eustacia, comparing the original manuscript to the version submitted for print. “In her initial appearance, indeed,” he writes, “she was to have suggested a satanic creature supernatural in origin” (p. 17). This is a far cry from the romantic individual one meets in any of The Return’s published versions. Yet while the overt diabolical tendencies have fallen away, there still remain ominous attributes and allusions.
Indeed, Eustacia’s most striking epithet in the novel might be the reference to her as the “Queen of Night.” She both walks the nighttime heath and metaphorically embodies a “darkness” that predates the Christian culture of the Egdon peasantry. She appears initially as a regal silhouette standing upon the barrow as twilight sets along the heath. This fuses her from the first with a Celtic pagan history and with associations of death, the barrow being an ancient burial site. Behind those “Pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries” lies a soul with a sometimes demoniacal nature. She is, of course, rumored by Susan Nunsuch to be a witch, but that charge never rises much above petty gossip. Yet as much as Hardy discredits Susan, he craftily presents to us a witch-like Eustacia nonetheless. On the opening night of the novel, she “conjures” Wildeve, metaphorically transforming him from a frog into a man. She beckons him to her fire, comparing herself to the Witch of Endor: “‘I determined you should come; and you have come! I have shown my power’.” This scene, it should be noted, presages its later, more fatalistically determined repetition: Wildeve, signaling to Eustacia, releases a moth, which incinerates itself in her candle flame. Such uncanny, occult recurrences are woven throughout the text, never overt enough to convict Eustacia of witchery nor ever rationalized enough to render her innocent.
This beauty who possesses a “true Tartarean dignity,” whose flowing hair “a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow,” is shrouded in language of opacity, not only in her remnant diabolical associations, but also in her unreadability. As a being of contradiction, her “night-side of sentiment” speaks as much to the “witchly” as to the pitiable. Indeed, her associations with the mournful night and with elements of morbidity are also clear indications of her role as a tragic figure. She is helplessly and hopelessly trapped on Egdon Heath, and referring to her inability to tolerate this land, she naively utters her own ominous fate when she states, “I cannot endure the heath.” To be sure, she cannot, and the heath will eventually kill her.
More than anything, Eustacia desires to move away from this place. Bovary-like in her wants and demands, she has sculpted a fantasy world to which she aches to belong. She attaches the highest values to Paris, “the centre and vortex of the fashionable world”; she imagines that city as the epitome of freedom and happiness. When the cosmopolitan Clym returns from France’s capital, Eustacia drops Wildeve for her new and (temporarily) unswerving goal: “She had come out to see a man who might possibly have the power to deliver her soul from a most deadly oppression. What was Wildeve? Interesting, but inadequate. Perhaps she would see a sufficient hero [Clym] tonight.” She will, so she believes, affix herself to this worldly traveler and finally find her way out of the heath.
It is this self-serving and changeable nature that has motivated many critics to view Eustacia as petulant and adolescent. Seemingly setting out to achieve tragic status, she pines for an inconstant lover: “‘I should hate it to be all smooth. Indeed, I think I like you [Wildeve] to desert me a little once now and then. Love is the dismallest thing where the lover is quite honest.’” But more than she desires such vicissitudes, she pines for an adequate lover at all: “‘[Wildeve] does not suffice for my desire! . . . And I have no money to go alone! And if I could, what comfort to me? I must drag on next year, as I have dragged on this year, and the year after that as before. How I have tried and tried to be a splendid woman, and how destiny has been against me! . . . I do not deserve my lot!’” And while the emotions are probably genuine for this young woman of unfulfilled passions, one cannot help but note the whiny tone of self-absorption with which she views herself and her situation. She is inexperienced and selfish, and her childish side comes to the fore at times such as these.