First Place: Robert E. Reiter Prize for Critical Analysis


Nellie Smith

Dr. Beth Sutton-Ramspeck

English 564.02

3 December 2008

Mimetic Desire and the Violent Primitive in The Return of the Native

            Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native is a book which, upon first reading, does not seem to easily cohere into an organic whole and thus yield itself to interpretation.   Within the novel's pages, Hardy constructs a tale of life and death in a strange and often disordered corner of England called Egdon Heath, in which time passes without heed to the rest of the world and the forces of civilization seem to be in constant tension with the forces of raw paganism. In his construction of the narrative, Hardy includes a mélange of references to ancient traditions, deities, and myths, thereby making an analysis of the work's mythological underpinnings pivotal to developing a coherent reading. One of the most puzzling questions for critics of the novel, then, is how to interpret the deaths of Eustacia Vye and Mrs. Yeobright—which are symbolically very similar, despite their different situational contexts—in light of these overtones.  After all, other than the symbolic connections between their demises, the two characters share very little in common except their desire for Clym.  Why should the fates of these characters, who are so radically unalike on the surface, be so entangled in the implied mythos of the narrative?  René Girard, a philosopher and anthropologist, would argue that the answer to this question may, in fact, be inextricable from the two characters' shared desire for Clym—in the deep, universal human phenomenon which he dubs “mimetic desire.”  Viewing Hardy's book through the lens of Girard's model, then, may provide the key to understanding the common theme which ties together the myth and reality on Egdon Heath, as well as supply new insights into Hardy's portrayal of the tension between Christian civilization and primitive forces.

            Since the respective journeys and demises of Mrs. Yeobright and Eustacia Vye are, arguably, crucial to the understanding of the mythic strains of Hardy's novel, clearly establishing the symbolic connection between the two deaths is important.  The two deaths do, in fact, yield surprising similarities upon close inspection and even approach a narrative doubling.  First, and most obviously, both women are connected with Clym; a central tension throughout much of the book revolves around their strained relations with each other and the alienation from Clym that it eventually causes for each of them.  Moreover, Clym names himself as a link between their two deaths: "[Eustacia] is the second woman I have killed this year. I was a great cause of my mother's death, and I am the chief cause of hers” (361).  The Nunsuches are another link between the two deaths; both Johnny and Susan are directly involved in the deaths of both women and are, in fact, present at Mrs. Yeobright's.    However, what is perhaps the most telling similarity between the two women is of a more symbolic nature: the emblematic wounds which they receive at the hands of primitive forces.  After Susan's attack, for example, Eustacia is left with a “bright red spot” of blood, a “ruby on Parian marble” (182), a physical harm which seems to foreshadow the pinpricks her effigy will later receive at the hands of the same character.   Mrs. Yeobright, meanwhile, receives a similar mark at the time of her death, a “scarlet speck” that consists of a “drop of blood” that rises above the “smooth flesh of her ankle in a hemisphere” (284).  Despite the seemingly divergent aims and personalities of the two women, the imagery connecting their deaths is clearly and strikingly similar.  But why?

            There has been no shortage of critical evaluation of the deaths of Mrs. Yeobright and Eustacia Vye, but little to no discussion of the narrative doubling between the two women's individual character arcs.  Jennifer Gribble, for example, has pointed out the prominent symbolism inherent in the “Quiet Woman” inn, which threads throughout the novel and draws attention to, as she puts it, “sexual disgrace” and “female unruliness” (235).  Although Gribble concedes the fact that the two characters are indeed among Hardy's “least quiet women” (235), she seems most interested in exploring their silences (251).  Her interpretation is set primarily in the context of gender politics and the exploration of Hardy's sense of narrative.  Therefore, although she does connect the deaths of Eustacia and Mrs. Yeobright, the connection is one that is only “mysteriously felt” (251); although she acknowledges ritual as an element, Gribble gives it no absolute motive, no defining boundaries, and therefore no causal power.  Sara A. Malton, meanwhile, discusses the deaths of the women in the context of social transgression.  In contrast to Gribble, Malton draws attention to the “tension between modern and primitive punishment” and shows that the pricking of Eustacia by Susan is essentially the symbolic choice of Eustacia as a “subject of judgment and punishment” with religious and primitive overtones (154).  However, although Malton recognizes the presence of these themes, she contextualizes them solely in terms of transgression of societal and gender norms.  The ritual primitive present in the book is therefore reduced to a method of judgment; the weight of causation is thrown entirely on the actions of Eustacia's character.  Because Malton also fails to comment on the narrative doubling and does not establish a relationship between the two deaths, the role and symbolism of ritual and sacrifice inherent to the novel is marginalized.  In the end, both Malton and Gribble touch on the influence of primitive and ritualistic forces while failing to give them sufficient weight as core elements of the novel.

            To truly understand why these primitive forces are indeed pivotal to the novel's meaning, however, we must first examine Hardy's original intentions for his book, as well as outline the theoretical underpinnings of René Girard's work, by which we will then analyze the narrative.  In his essay, “The Return of the Native as Antichristian Document,” John Paterson argues that, while the current editions of the book contain much ritual and pagan symbolism, Hardy's original manuscript of the novel was far more obviously rife with anti-Christian sentiment, which was reduced in later editions via textual changes to “a subversive content no longer visible to the naked eye” (112).  The phrase “Mediaeval doctrine,” for example, which stands in current texts of Return, was originally and more explicitly “mediaeval Christianity” (Paterson 111). Paterson goes on to elucidate more changes:

In the final terms of the novel . . . the highly charged dancing . . . was to be defined as a recrudescence of paganism: “For the time Paganism was revived in their hearts, the pride of life was all in all, and they adored none other than themselves.”  In the original terms of the manuscript, the dancing was defined not only as a reaffirmation of the pagan but also, and more specifically, as a rejection of the Christian: “Christianity was eclipsed in their hearts, Paganism was revived, the pride of lie was all in all, they adored themselves & [sic] their own natural instincts.” (Paterson 111)

According to Paterson, these changes are only a few examples of what appears to be a forced purge of anti-Christian sentiment from the novel.  The censorship of 1878 was pervasive and authoritative; Hardy likely had no choice but to comply if he wanted to see his book in print.

            Despite the textual changes, however, many vestiges of such sentiment remain in the revised novel; certainly, the permeation of religious, primitive, and pagan imagery throughout even the later editions book gives sufficient reason for investigation into their import.  Indeed, Egdon Heath is depicted from the beginning as a place of mystery and without definite geographical context; it is an undefined space in which all manner of spirits and malevolent forces can work.  Hardy describes it as “singularly colossal and mysterious,” an “untameable, Ishmaelitish thing,” the “home of strange phantoms,” which exhales darkness and is untouched by time (11). Against this backdrop are repeated references to ancient deities and primal forces, “fettered gods” and “nocturnal mysteries” (21; 66).  Hardy places special emphasis on the primitive, ritualistic behavior of the citizens of the heath—their maypole ribaldries and bonfire celebrations—and does not hesitate to draw connections between the behavior of the Egdon Heath villagers and ancient religious rituals:  “Indeed, the impulses of all such outlandish hamlets are pagan still—in these spots homage to nature, self-adoration, frantic gaieties, fragments of Teutonic rites to divinities whose names are forgotten, seem in some way or other to have survived mediaeval doctrine” (369).  In addition to the pervasive nature of primal instincts and rituals, it is clear that the organized Christian church is far from being the locus of communal social action or psychology.  Indeed, most residents of the heath seem to ignore its presence: “going to church, except to be married or buried, was phenomenal at Egdon” (86).  Hardy, it seems, has taken great trouble to paint a landscape on which the civilized and societally accepted forms of religion are largely overshadowed by the mysterious and ephemeral nature of primeval beginnings. 

            Perhaps the most obvious example of this theme, of course, is Eustacia Vye, whom Hardy introduces as she stands on top of an ancient burial mound, seemingly at one with the darkness.  Eustacia is Hardy's “Queen of the Night,” a woman with “pagan eyes” and “the raw material of a divinity” (66).  Eustacia's connections with dark powers do not stop there; John Paterson points out that “nothing more sharply defines Eustacia's antichristian implications than her persistent identification as a black witch, that immemorial antagonist of the Christian faith” (114).  In Paterson's opinion, Eustacia Vye was originally “conceived by Hardy as a witch in virtually the literal sense of the term” (114n), and indeed, this assertion does have some textual support in even the later editions of the novel.  The relationship and schemes between Eustacia and Damon, in particular, contain much imagery of the dark arts.  For example, Eustacia's playful reference to herself as the “Witch of Endor” takes on increased significance through the lens of Hardy's original intent (65).    Damon himself, as Paterson points out, is also implicitly a member of this dark circle.  Besides the suggestion implicit in the name—“Damon Wildeve” suggests demonism and wild nights—Damon's association and close relationship with Eustacia indict him in her allegedly dark associations (Paterson 115).   Hardy's imagery supports this assertion as well; when found by Diggory, for example, Damon is said to start “like Satan at the touch of Ithuriel's spear” (Hardy 148; Paterson 115).  All in all, according to Paterson, Eustacia—and, by association, her dark underling, Damon—seem to suggest a sort of “pagan exile” (116).  Their presence, against the backdrop of the inscrutable and often dangerous Egdon Heath, cements the tenor of the novel as a work which is intensely interested in the primal undertones of human society at the expense of civilized and modernized religion—in this case, the Christian faith.

            It is in this context of subversive anti-Christian sentiment, then, that the work of René Girard begins to arise as a suitable explanatory mechanism for the themes of ritual and sacrifice which pervade the novel.  Girard's work, which encompasses many disciplines, focuses on the concept of mimetic desire, which is, he asserts, the root of human violence and as such is deeply imbedded in myth and in human anthropology.  Mimetic desire is, in its simplest form, the desire for what belongs to someone else (Cobb 103).  As humans, Girard argues, we learn what to do by copying the actions and desires of others, who become our models.  If the desire to be like a model is sufficiently strong, we will want to be what that model is—or have what they have.  If there are no checks in place to hold back this desire, then we become a rival of the model or models (Williams xi).  Periodic manifestations of human violence can, therefore, be explained through Girard's theory as cycles of mimetic rivalry which escalate until they threaten the social fabric of a community (Cobb 103).  This occurs because sustained rivalry within a community will, left unhindered, escalate to the point at which rivalry within society is so fierce that everyone prevents everyone else from succeeding.  At this point, those involved must necessarily “let off steam” or the community will self-destruct (Williams xi). 

            Here, at the point of mimetic crisis and extreme disorder, is where the cycle of violence accelerates: at the height of the “sacrificial crisis” (Fleming 44), the crowd—ostensibly spurred on by an accuser, embodied in the concept of Satan—converges upon and murders a victim, who is traditionally innocent from any wrongdoing and is often called a “scapegoat” (Cobb 104). In this way, the war of “all against all” is morphed into a war of “all against one”: a system which Girard terms the “single victim mechanism” (Cobb 103).  In this way, by transferring the collective frustration of thwarted mimetic desire onto the physical body of a representative of the community, the society itself can be preserved.  This murder typically, if not overtly, resembles blood sacrifice, and its purpose is to produce a catharsis which unites the community once again.  Through this mechanism, the community's uncontrollable violence and rage before the ritual killing turns to a profound peace afterwards.  As Girard says:

Once the victim is killed the crisis is over, peace is regained, the plague is healed, all the elements become calm again, chaos withdraws, what is blocked or locked or paralyzed is opened, the incomplete is completed, gaps are filled, and the confusion of differences is restored to a proper differentiation. (65)

Girard's overarching context for this theory is his belief that this single victim mechanism arising from a sacrificial crisis is what defines human social behavior.  Left to its own devices—that is, without the moderating and restraining influences of religion, law, and culture—human primal instincts will naturally lead to a sacrificial crisis.  Indeed, it is only in Christianity, Girard believes, that the cycle of violence is uncovered for what it is, and therefore deconstructs.  In other words, according to Girard, the Christian sacrifice and its accompanying philosophy is the antidote for the human cycle of mimetic violence (Girard 189).

            Putting aside the purely theoretical, however, Girard's theories of human violence can conceivably shed light on the narrative doubling in the deaths of Eustacia and Mrs. Yeobright.  Indeed, the story itself would seem to invite such a comparison, if only because the plot is driven largely by a compendium of mimetic rivalries between characters.  Hardy highlights this fact not only with overt depictions of competition, but with more subtle depictions of the inherent disorder and confusion within the community.  In the opening sequence of the novel, for example, Hardy takes the reader on a dizzying journey throughout the web of the connections on the Heath, which draws attention to the relational and mimetic entanglements of the characters in a way which is both understated and effective.  Plunged into Egdon Heath, blackened by an almost palpable darkness and spotted with bonfires (ancient symbols of desire), we are forced follow Captain Vye to Diggory Venn, Diggory Venn to the image of Eustacia Vye on Blackbarrow, from Eustacia to the gathering of Egdon locals around the fire, from the community to Mrs. Yeobright, and so on.  The barrage of different viewpoints is disconcerting and disorienting, and, puts the reader on edge; here, just where the reader expects the establishment of the boundaries of characters and interpersonal relationships, Hardy goes out of his way to paint a world with no moral or psychological center.  Indeed, he even initially seems to deny the comfort of a protagonist's viewpoint, by which a reader may orient himself.  Instead of a society with a clear hierarchy and perimeter, Hardy presents only an intricate twining of volatile human relationships which seem poised to break at any moment.   It is a deeply unsettled society—one which seems to bear strong resemblance to a community on the verge of mimetic crisis.   

            As the book progresses, concrete evidences of mimetic rivalries emerge, grow in intensity, and spawn other rivalries until it seems there is no relationship on the Heath that is not inherently competitive—a strong symptom of Girard's violent community.  From the first hint of Venn's thwarted love for Thomasin, an intricate web of desire grows: Venn and Wildeve and Mrs. Yeobright desire Thomasin, Eustacia and Thomasin desire Wildeve, Wildeve and Clym desire Eustacia, and—in what turns out to be arguably the most important rivalry in the text—Eustacia and Mrs. Yeobright desire Clym.  The underlying mimetic nature of these relationships is implied strongly throughout the narrative, and in some cases is overt.  Eustacia and Wildeve's passion for each other, for example, never seems so strong as when they must compete with another admirer.  In Wildeve's case, the obstacle of Eustacia's husband is as “a ripening sun to his love” (254), and throughout the novel he is predictably uninterested in that which is easily his.  Because of his penchant for only desiring what another man possesses, he is easily manipulable, a weakness which Mrs. Yeobright exploits to persuade him to marry Thomasin.  Eustacia, too, recognizes that her attraction to Wildeve may be the “result of antagonism” when she discovers that Thomasin no longer wants Wildeve:

Thomasin no longer required him. What a humiliating victory! He loved her best, she thought; and yet—dared she to murmur such treacherous criticism ever so softly?—what was the man worth whom a woman inferior to herself did not value? The sentiment which lurks more or less in all animate nature—that of not desiring the undesired of others—was lively as a passion in the supersubtle, epicurean heart of Eustacia. (99)

Clearly, both of these characters are so dependent upon mimesis that when the rivalries are taken away their desires are invalidated.  Hardy's statement that such sentiment “lurks more or less in all animate nature” seems to suggest his recognition of the universality of this human dynamic.  It is a dynamic which pervades Egdon Heath and is intrinsic to the mechanisms of the plot.

            According to Girard's model of violence, in such a climate of mimetic conflict and complicated societal relations, a scapegoat must emerge and a sacrificial crisis must occur.  In the very beginning of the novel, however, it is not immediately clear who this scapegoat must be.  Johnny Nunsuch, at first, is not an altogether implausible choice.   In a way, Johnny is an “other”--the prerequisite for the traditional scapegoat—but he is not exempt from the results of social discord; he is, in fact, bodily harmed on his way home from tending Eustacia's bonfire.   Of the three who shed blood during the course of the plot, Johnny is the first, and significantly, he does so upon his involvement with the mysterious Diggory Venn.  His meeting with Diggory, who looks as if he has been “dipped in blood” and whose appearance arguably is the harbinger for the mimetic crisis which subsequently engulfs the heath, sets up Johnny's involvement with the rest of the characters, his vulnerability to the consequences of conflict within the community, and his connection with the sacrificial forces on the heath (30).  From that moment, Johnny is integral to the plot; he is directly involved in the death of Mrs. Yeobright and only somewhat less directly involved in Susan Nunsuch's indictment and attacks on Eustacia Vye.  In the wild transference of guilt that takes place in the days and moments leading up to Eustacia's death, he is a necessary link.

            He is, however, not the only contender for the part of the scapegoat; Eustacia Vye, in fact, has perhaps the greater claim.  Hardy, in fact, seems to go out of his way to set her up in this role by painting her as a witch; in the context of other primitive elements in the plot, it is hard not to surmise that Hardy did not envision her in the role of the sacrificial victim.  At the time the novel is set, after all, the witch trials and hangings of 16th and 17th century England were not so far in the past.  An accusation of witchcraft was a common method of popular scapegoating in earlier British communities, and the psychology is obviously present in Hardy's Egdon Heath.  For example, the story of Jane Wenham, who was accused of witchcraft in 1712, bears some recognizable similarities to the situation of Eustacia (Guskin 94); both Jane and Eustacia were subject to communal gossip and both were stabbed with a needle or other sharp object in order to draw blood and prove their witchery.  Intentional or not, Hardy establishes clearly in the first third of the book that Eustacia is, if not an outcast, certainly a person viewed with suspicion by the community.  The villagers refer to her as a witch as they sit around the bonfire, and Eustacia herself refers to herself in seeming playfulness as the “Witch of Endor” (65).  Of the people in the community, Mrs. Yeobright is among the most suspicious.  “People say she's a witch,” Mrs. Yeobright notes, early in the book.  Later, when relations between Eustacia and herself have soured considerably, she warns Clym that “[g]ood girls don't get treated as witches even on Egdon” (65). Eustacia is, therefore, set up from the beginning in the traditional role of the scapegoat, one informed by collective British consciousness and memory.

            If Eustacia is in the role of scapegoat, however, it is Susan Nunsuch who sits in the chair of the accuser, an integral part of Girard's cycle of violence (Williams xii).  Although Susan professes Christianity, her actions toward Eustacia indicate her true allegiance to the method of pre-Christian catharsis present in Girard's sacrificial model; she is the embodiment of the primitive forces that permeate the Heath.  If many in the village suspect Eustacia of witchcraft, it is Susan who is compelled to act upon these suspicions, driving a stocking-needle in Eustacia's arm in the middle of a church service—another of Hardy's subtle digs at the potency, or lack thereof, of Christian culture.  Susan, more so than any other character in the novel, has an instinctive recognition of the primal forces working on Egdon Heath.  Early in the book, Susan's inclinations are hinted at through her “death's head” dream (34), and her later attempts to end Eustacia's life through image magic cement her position as a practicer of dark arts and a disciple of ancient superstitions.  Susan's primitive knowledge allows her to sense—albeit subconsciously—the mimetic crisis that is descending upon the community.  Thus, when her own son, Johnny, becomes ill, she immediately perceives it as a symptom of that larger illness, the “plague” of Girard's model (Girard 53).  As she recognizes the danger, she has no thought of natural causes; instead, in accordance with Girard's model, she immediately suspects that Johnny is serving as the sacrifice for communal guilt.

            Susan, however, clearly believes that the primitive and sacrificial forces on the Heath are as manipulable as they are potent, and she therefore turns to the remedies provided by ancient human knowledge and superstition.  For the community to return to a state of equilibrium, someone must die.  Therefore, to save Johnny, she must transfer the responsibility for the community onto someone else's shoulders—the one that she believes to be the true “other” in their society: Eustacia Vye.  To do this, Susan returns to the primitive methods of marking a witch: drawing blood with a stocking-needle, leaving a small but telling physical blot upon Eustacia's ostensibly flawless skin.   The symbolism of blood here is important:  in the Girardian model, the shedding of blood is the means by which guilt is imputed to a scapegoat and thus excised from the community (Cobb 104).  Also important is the fact that Susan's symbolic role as accuser equates her with the role of Satan—the ultimate accuser—in Girard's model.  Susan's marking of Eustacia therefore has far more importance within Girard's theory of mimetic crisis than it does out of such context; she is, within this model, providing a physical manifestation of Eustacia's “otherness”—and, thereby, establishing to the community her eligibility for the role of scapegoat—and imputing guilt in order to mark her for the sacrifice itself.  In essence, then, the episode in the church is Susan's endeavor to sacrifice Eustacia for the good of the community and her son.  Although Susan likely believes that such a symbolic sacrifice is sufficient to achieve the desired ends—after all, the conscious basis for her schemes is only village superstition—Hardy has painted Egdon Heath as a world in which the superficial practice of an ancient ritual will not be adequate to appease the malevolent forces at work.  Susan's son remains ill, and the mimetic rivalries within the community continue to intensify. 

            Indeed, the primitive forces of the heath pushing towards a sacrifice, rather than diminishing, also seem to increase as the novel progresses towards a climax.  It is, outwardly, these forces that unexpectedly claim the life of Mrs. Yeobright as she returns from her foiled attempt to visit her son.  Since she has not been singled out as a scapegoat, this death seems curious in light of Girard's theory.  Her death is neither required for communal harmony nor executed by communal forces; it is, in terms of mimetic theory, inherently gratuitous.  However, as established, Hardy clearly connects the two deaths, necessitating a closer look.  Prominently, Mrs. Yeobright's death occurs immediately after a major event in the book's most important set of mimetic rivalries: Eustacia's refusal to allow Mrs. Yeobright into her home.  All of the central players in the mimetic rivalry are involved in this event, and it is at this point that relationships are at their most convoluted and dissatisfaction is rampant.   Hardy links the escalating mimetic tension with the shifting moods in the landscape: “stinging insects” haunt the air, the trees keep up a “perpetual moan,” and the “maggoty shapes of innumerable obscure creatures” are seen in the “vaporous mud”--the heath itself seems to be rising to take a victim (266; 267).  The presence of Johnny Nunsuch, the manifestation of the plague and the personified impetus for Susan's initial attack on Eustacia, also signals that a pivotal point in the single victim model is likely to transpire.

            However, the mark of the sacrifice itself—and its source—provides what is perhaps the most important clue to the greater context and symbolism of Mrs. Yeobright's death.   The mark, like Eustacia's, is that which is indicative of blood sacrifice, of the imputation and bearing of guilt on behalf of a community.  What is perhaps more intriguing is the source of that mark: it is not given to her, as is Eustacia's, by human hands.  “She has been stung by an adder!” exclaims a villager, upon observing the wound (284).  Later, Christian Cantle muses on the significance of the snake: "Neighbours, how do we know but that something of the old serpent in God's garden, that gied the apple to the young woman with no clothes, lives on in adders and snakes still?” (285).  This, combined with the imagery of an angry heath—Mrs. Yeobright walks through “Devils Bellows” on her way to the home of Clym and Eustacia—adds new elements to Hardy's treatment of primitive forces and mimetic crisis.  First, of course, it draws direct relationships between the forces on the heath, the death of Mrs. Yeobright (and, by extension, Eustacia), the mimetic crisis in which the characters find themselves, and Satan himself—the ultimate evil of Christian tradition and the accusational force within Girard's model.  No longer do the mimetic crisis and its consequences seem instigated and perpetuated by purely human forces; rather, the supernatural—which has been hinted at throughout the novel—seems to be a primary influence in the outcome of human events on Egdon Heath.  Placed into this frame of reference, Girard's theory seems to be thrown out of balance; on Egdon Heath, it seems, Satan is so powerful that communal human sin is no longer necessary to incite a mimetic crisis.  As shown by the fate of Mrs. Yeobright, the malevolent force which abides on the Heath has the power to choose and sacrifice its own scapegoat in a rapid and grotesque parallel of the single victim mechanism.  Here, then, Mrs. Yeobright's death is both a manifestation of the sacrificial model and a disturbing extension of it—an extension in which the mythological Satan is powerful enough to negate the need for human participation in the sacrifice.

            The symbol of this malevolent supernatural within the mimetic crisis, however, has broader implications within the framework of Hardy's intention to write an anti-Christian novel.  If the central tension in the novel is the influence of Christianity versus the power of the primal and pagan, the symbolism inherent in the adder's successful attack on Mrs. Yeobright is arguably pivotal to a complete understanding of the novel.  The success of the snake in wounding and killing Mrs. Yeobright, despite the best efforts of those who try to save her, is arguably a commentary on the true power which lies behind the ancient paths of human knowledge and behavior.  In stark contrast to the Christian assertion that the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Satan, has been rendered impotent by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Hardy represents a world in which the ancient forces are undeniably the most powerful forces.  On Egdon Heath, the single victim model has not been undermined by Christian doctrine and culture, the dark arts are the strongest, and the snake still has dominion over the woman—his head has not been crushed by the forces of good.  Essentially, then, Mrs. Yeobright's death symbolizes the resurgence of that which  Christianity claims to have destroyed—or at least to have dominated; clearly, the true power on Egdon Heath stems from forces which are inherently opposed to a Christian divinity.  Mrs. Yeobright's death is, therefore, a departure from the Girardian model, but it is an important and revealing departure.  By portraying her death as the consequence of a voracious sacrificial appetite on the part of unseen primitive forces rather than a distinct human community, Hardy is able to portray a world which is anti-Christian not only in its practice, but in its very essence—Satan, it seems, is in full force on Egdon Heath—and, by extension, in human affairs.

            Eustacia's death, afterwards, continues in this vein; although it is the more communally motivated and executed sacrifice and the one which most closely fits into mimetic theory, it also has distinct elements of the demise of Mrs. Yeobright.  The actual causes of Eustacia's death, however, are more complicated than they appear at first glance.  Susan's influence is, of course, fundamental; as the personification of primitive forces (or, in light of Mrs. Yeobright's death, of human primitive forces), her machinations function on two levels: as the surface practice of superstition to rid herself of Eustacia and as an attempt to sacrifice the ritual victim in order to free her family and community from the throes of mimetic crisis.  Intrinsic to her endeavors, however, is her dependence on the same forces which caused Mrs. Yeobright's end; she does not directly attack Eustacia, but uses image magic in order to unleash natural powers against her, a well-known superstitious practice in rural England.  When Eustacia dies, therefore, the success of Susan's sacrifice is as eerie as it is complete; once again, as in the case of Mrs. Yeobright, the heath has risen up with the full force of sacrificial vengeance—but this time seemingly at the bidding of a human.   However, the question of Eustacia's responsibility for her own death complicates matters; if her death is a suicide, then Eustacia herself has become inextricably involved in the process of the sacrificial mechanism alongside Susan and her primitive forces.  Because Hardy refuses to specify the agent of Eustacia's fall, however, her death and the forces which cause it remain ambiguous; the cause seems an undefined mixture of the agenda of a larger, malevolent force, Susan's superstitious plotting, and, perhaps, the psychological weight of Eustacia's own feelings of guilt.

            Despite these permutations, however, Eustacia's death and its aftermath fit the Girardian model very well.  It is the sacrifice of her, after all, and not of Mrs. Yeobright which brings the sacrificial crisis to its end, resolving the conflicts between characters and restoring a sense of communal peace.  Diggory Venn, who, earlier in the novel, walked blood-red onto the heath as the symbol of the impending crisis, returns after Eustacia's death as a sign of its resolution: “[T]here stood within the room Diggory Venn, no longer a reddleman, but exhibiting the strangely altered hues of an ordinary Christian countenance, white shirt-front, light flowered waistcoat, blue-spotted neckerchief, and bottle-green coat . . . . Red, and all approach to red, was carefully excluded from every article of clothes upon him” (368).  The absolute absence of red in this case is striking; considering the pervasive symbolism of blood throughout the novel to this point, Venn's rejection of its symbolic color in the end signposts the community's return to a state of health.  The mimetic conflicts which had sickened the entire society are now completely excised from the Heath.  Venn's way to Thomasin and her child is now clear; Damon Wildeve is no longer around to desire either Thomasin or Eustacia.  And, of course, the two women who bitterly contended over Clym are both dead, claimed in the same sacrificial ritual.  What is perhaps most indicative of the state of affairs at the end of the novel, however, is Clym's occupation as “itinerant open-air preacher and lecturer on morally unimpeachable subjects” (389).  Although his “want of spiritual doctrine” indicates that his vocation is not necessarily a return to orthodox Christianity, it does seem to represent the reinstatement of Christian civilization and control on Egdon Heath and the surrounding villages.  Clym, who was at the center of the mimetic conflict, has now withdrawn from the community and is totally absolved of desire; he stands alone on Blackbarrow.  Also telling is the fact Susan Nunsuch and her son do not appear again in the novel after the death of Eustacia; the primal forces with which they are equated seem appeased—for now.  The cycle of mimetic conflict and sacrificial violence may be complete, but no guarantee exists that it will not emerge again in a new form later; the Heath, after all, is a place which transcends time, and the forces which rose to kill Mrs. Yeobright and Eustacia are still present—should mimetic rivalries on the Heath escalate once again, they too will reemerge.

            It is, in the end, these shifts in balance from one polarity to the other that characterize The Return of the Native; the novel is, first and foremost, a nuanced portrayal of the struggles of a society in limbo between primitive forces and Christianity.  Hardy's presentation of this struggle, however, is clearly not impartial, as his comment at the end of the book indicates: “Human beings, in their generous endeavour to construct a hypothesis that shall not degrade a First Cause, have always hesitated to conceive a dominant power of lower moral quality than their own; and, even while they sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon, invent excuses for the oppression which prompts their tears” (366).  Here, with surprisingly little subtlety, Hardy implies that the charitable, loving God of Judeo-Christian belief is purely a human construct, built to steel humans against the harshness of their fates.  If there is, indeed, a First Cause, Hardy seems to think it likely that it is not a generous divinity.  Such a statement, especially in light of the malevolent forces which seem intrinsically involved in the sacrificial deaths of Mrs. Yeobright and Eustacia, seems especially revealing.  By emphasizing the possibility of a malevolent supernatural which affects human dealings in both his plot and his commentary, Hardy paints an even more pervasive picture of primitive violence than does Girard.  Hardy's primitive violence—embodied in Satan—is powerful enough to both co-opt Girard's single victim mechanism and, as demonstrated in the case of Mrs. Yeobright, even be independent of it and its requirement for human conflict.  By showing Egdon Heath's reversion to a sacrificial victim culture, Hardy essentially undercuts the foundation of Christian culture, the alleged antidote for the single victim mechanism.  In his world, Christianity may exist on the exterior of human dealings, but the disorder of native and primal forces is always lurking within, threatening to return. 























Works Cited

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Fleming, Chris. René Girard: Violence and Mimesis. Malden, MA: Polity, 2004.

Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Trans. James G. Williams. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001.

Gribble, Jennifer. “The Quiet Women of Egdon Heath.” Essays in Criticism. 46 (1996): 235-257.

Guskin, Phyllis J. "The Context of Witchcraft: The Case of Jane Wenham (1712)." Witchcraft in             England. Ed. Brian P. Levack. Vol. 6. New York: Garland, 1992.

Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native. World's Classics-Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.

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): 147-164.

Paterson, John. “The Return of the Native as Antichristian Document.” Nineteenth-Century         Fiction. 14 (1959): 111-127.

Williams, James G. Forward. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. By René Girard. Trans. Williams. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001. ix-xxiv.