The epigraph for this chapter, taken from one of Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters, details neatly her unconventional outlook on English culture’s social and political stance concerning the status of marriage both as an idealized social ritual and powerful and persuasive economic/political institution. More specifically, the letter provides an explicit statement in which Wollstonecraft bitterly complains about the fact that women have the worst part to bear when entering into marriage, a complaint that energized, too, the writing of the realist novelist Thomas Hardy almost a century later.
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Hardy was very much a thinker who might align himself with Wollstonecraft’s thinking about the institution of marriage. Influenced, in part, by his reading of the French socialist Charles Fourier, Hardy “was deeply opposed to the liberal feminist idealisation of marriage” (Morgan, 1988: xv) which, despite its strong emancipationist platform, continued to promote that view “that woman’s true destiny lay in fulfilling the role of wife and mother.
Indeed, [such prominent] liberal feminists” as Millicent Garrett Fawcett “regarded marriage as a woman’s highest vocation, as in a calling to the religious life with complete abdication of the self to the institution” (Morgan, 1988: xv).
Reflecting, in part, his own “intense feelings of isolation, [and] his deep sense of alienation from the Victorian middle-class world he had entered as a popular, if controversial, novelist” (Morgan, 1988: xv), Hardy had a very immediate and personal understanding of the social scripts governing women in both narrative and social terms within Victorian culture.
These scripts became densely-coded sites of contestation throughout the nineteenth century as women increasingly raised their voices against a sociocultural configuration that understood women as being “plotted” within “an ideology that code[d] feminity in terms of sexual [and social] vulnerability” (Miller, 1980: xi) and that, ultimately, defined a “cultural ideology that [underwrote] certain narrative strategies” and, particularly, certain narrative endings in novels that dealt with strong female characters.
Stories of non-traditional women, like Wollstonecraft herself, that ended in marriage and the successful intergration of the female protagonist into a traditional, and often idealized, role as wife and mother characterized the “euphoric” text. Such novels can be seen as a kind of moral and social road map that reveals the path to success for female readers while reinforcing the dominant views of social integration through marriage.
For a female character who demonstrated that she valued options or priorities other than those dictated by the social scripts within which she was embedded, the end of her “narrative” lay the “dysphoric text”; that is, within a narrative that unfolds by way of accentuating the apparent “weaknesses” of the woman in question and her “failure” to negotiate a traditional and happy ending to her life (Miller, 1980: xi).
As Simone de Beauvoir iterates in The Second Sex (1949), such social scripts were, and in many ways continue to be, impositions upon a woman’s life rather than a process of self-discovery or self-definition that arises organically from some definable characteristic of her biology or emotional composition. Put another way, these scripts weave together to form a densely-configured matrix of expectations, codings, and pressures that are imposed by society upon women with the singular goal of shaping their cultural and historical reality. As de Beauvoir suggests:
It must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilisation. The intervention of others in her destiny is fundamental… Woman is determined not by her hormones or by mysterious instincts, but by the manner in which her body and her relation to the world are modified through the action of others than herself. The abyss that separates the adolescent boy and girl has been deliberately widened between them since earliest childhood; later on, woman could not be other than what she was made, and that past was bound to shadow her for life.
(1988, 710) Writing at a time when this constellation of scripts was at once particularly rigid and particularly vulnerable to revisions (through suffrage, for instance), Hardy proved himself especially open to exploring the implications of his female characters’s physical, mental, and emotional susceptibility to convention, and their consequent capitulation in the face of apparently overwhelming social pressures.
Acutely aware that this complex scripting of female options within the marriage culture of the day was a powerfully subjugating tradition, Hardy made the tensions informing this debate central to many of his novels, culminating with the very vocal anti-marriage crusader Sue Bridehead. Although Bridehead is the most fully realized embodiment of the anti-marriage script to be found in the Hardy oeuvre, “she is nascent in earlier incarnations of his more dissident, rebellious women” (Morgan, 1988: xv).
Indeed, the subject of marriage (as institution, as social expectation, as failed vision) is one to which Hardy returns repeatedly through his career, beginning with Far from the Madding Crowd before evolving dramatically in The Return of the Native and continuing with The Major of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the D’Urberville, and the aforementioned Jude the Obscure.
In The Return of the Native, Hardy begins a kind of narrative and philosophic quest that engaged him throughout his writing career; namely, how to bring to literary life the deeply philosophic and intensely political questioning of how marriage, considered by the many men and women of the day to be the supreme source of female happiness, might just as readily be understood, at best, as a delusory paradise and, at worst, as a emotional and intellectual prison for women.
But “Hardy’s polarization of Eustacia and Thomasin… in terms of such rigid moral absolutes blurs some basic [and important] affinities between these two young women” (Dutta, 2000: 37). As this chapter will show, the seemingly polarized representation of women that Hardy seems to foreground in Return is, upon closer reading, shown to be a false dichotomy that he exploits employs as a means of rendering his social realist interrogation of the marriage script even more potent, more powerful, and, in the end, more tragic than in any previous novel.
It is for this reason that Return can be recognized “the first great tragic novel of [a] literary career” (Dutta, 2000: 37) defined by great tragic novels. In this respect, The Return of the Native, Hardy’s first novel in which he tries to elicit sympathy of the reader for the struggles of women within the densely-coded scripts that shaped Victorian culture, establishes a pattern of interrogation that he will return repeatedly throughout his writing.
Presenting Thomasin Yeobright and Eustacia Vye as apparently binary opposites, Hardy establishes the two women, too, as representatives of two distinct, and in many ways antithetical, Victorian scripts: Thomasin, whose life is defined by the “euphoric” script of marriage and effective integration, and Eustacia, the “dysphoric” woman who would rather cross the limits inscribed upon her script than to capitulate to the pressures to conform.
The Hardy himself conceived of the two women within this almost simplistic moral framework is made clear in the plot outline for the novel that he submitted to the editors of Belgravia, the journal in which the novel was serialized. “Perhaps it is well for me to give you the following ideas of the story as a guide,” Hardy writes: “Thomasin … is the good heroine, & she ultimately marries the reddleman, & lives happily.
Eustacia is the wayward & erring heroine – She marries Yeobright, the son of Mrs Yeobright, is unhappy, & dies” (Purdy, 1978: 1. 53). But as this chapter will show, the simple dichotomy that Hardy seems to inscribe is a false one that collapses when one understands that Return argues for the victimization of both women, and by extension, for the ultimate failure of both scripts to secure for women a viable position within the social narrative that is Victorian culture.
In Thomasin, Hardy depicts a woman denied access to any social role beyond that of angelic housewife and mother, while in the more radicalized Eustacia he sees, as he would in such a later character as Tess, the dismal end to which resourceful, resistant women are inevitably doomed. It is, in the end, a novel in which neither conformity nor resistance prove viable alternatives to the female characters, and in which the most profound questions must address not the range of social scripts available to women of the day but the very presence of social scripts themselves.