Book III, "The Fascination," begins with a more detailed description of Clym Yeobright than we have yet been given. Clym is a thoughtful and morose young man, who tolerates life rather than truly enjoying it. It was believed from Clym's youth that he had great potential, and he became something of a local celebrity, widely discussed among the peasants. The narrator's investigation of Clym's personality and history is interrupted by a discussion among the peasants about why Clym has remained in Egdon Heath for so long. Clym himself happens on this discussion, and reveals his plan, to the disbelief of the locals: he is dissatisfied with his work as a diamond merchant in Paris, and wants to return permanently to the heath, to start a school for the local children. He is motivated in this by his native love of the heath and its inhabitants, for whom he is willing to sacrifice his personal financial advancement.
Clym's mother, Mrs. Yeobright, is at first confused and then angry when Clym reveals to her his plan not to leave Egdon Heath again: "It is right," she says, "that I should try to lift you out of this life into something richer, and that you should not come back again, and be as if I had not tried at all." Their argument over Clym's future is interrupted by a local boy, Sam, who arrives to tell them that in church that morning Susan Nonsuch had pricked the mysterious Eustacia Vye with a knitting needle, to break the imagined spell that the "witch" had cast over her son Johnny.
Clym soon has an opportunity to speak with Eustacia directly. He goes to her house, Mistover Knapp, to help some of the locals fish a bucket out of the Vye well. Afterwards he and Eustacia meet, and her beauty entrances him. He begins a schedule of reading throughout the day--in preparation for his duties as a schoolteacher--and visiting Eustacia at night; his mother, unsurprisingly, disapproves. She believes that he is ruining his life by staying in the heath, and that he is only staying because of his infatuation with Eustacia; in the course of their argument, Clym maintains his composure, but Mrs. Yeobright becomes furious and abusive. Despite her vociferous disapproval, however, Clym continues to meet with Eustacia. One night, while watching an eclipse, they discuss their future together. Even though he feels that she loves him "as a visitant from a gay world," as a means to escape from the heath to Paris, he still proposes marriage to her; and eventually she accepts, although not without first expressing her preference for leaving Egdon Heath and moving to Paris.
As has been noted, The Return of the Native is a peculiarly modern book. It is, indeed, almost prophetic in its characterization of the modern attitude, which is typified by Clym and shared to a certain extent by Eustacia. Hardy calls Clym's face "the typical countenance of the future." He explains that Clym's face evidences "the view of life as a thing to be put up with." Clym is afflicted with a peculiarly modern world-weariness that has replaced the "zest for existence which was so intense in early civilizations." With the growth of knowledge that accompanied the flowering of the modern era, Hardy writes, "old- fashioned reveling in the general situation grows less and less possible as we uncover the defects of natural laws." This is a complaint that has been echoed and re-echoed throughout the 20th century: modernity--characterized by the burgeoning of civilization, complication and knowledge--robbed life of originality and vitality. The Return of the Native, to a certain extent, celebrates the pagan and the primitive while mourning the emerging modern cynicism that, in Hardy's view, makes life a thing to be tolerated rather than celebrated. Hardy has a definite tenderness for the primitive lifestyles, the earthy humor, the superstitions and the incessant celebrations of the working people who live on the heath; they represent a dying breed, vanishing in the face of modernity.
Indeed, the humor with which the locals are treated contrasts sharply with Clym's stoic dourness. Just after Hardy's exposition of Clym's typically modern attitude, we are given a scene of relaxed comedy, in which Timothy Fairway is clumsily cutting the hair of the local workers. Hardy pokes fun at the rustic practice, but a certain fondness peeks from behind his gentle irony: "A bleeding about the poll on Sunday afternoons was amply accounted for by the explanation, 'I have had my hair cut, you know.'" Hardy often treats the locals ironically, and exploits them for comic effect, but he never passes vicious judgment on them, or looks down on them for their ignorance and superstition.
The narrator's ironic voice, which he employs regularly throughout the novel, is an intriguing betrayal of personality from a narrator who generally seems emotionally removed from the events of the plot. He uses his irony to denote a humorous or ridiculous attitude in his characters, without referring to these qualities overtly. His irony is yet another instance of his refusal to speak in a consistent tone, or from a consistent perspective. At times he is all- knowing, as when he renders a lengthy disposition on Clym's psychological makeup. At other times he is reticent, revealing gradually and coyly what an omniscient narrator might have revealed instantly, as when he describes Eustacia only obliquely until she reveals herself to Damon Wildeve. Hardy layers his narrative not only via irony, but also by speaking in many voices (another method typical of modern narratives): he writes from many perspectives, allowing himself the luxury of omniscience while preserving the integrity of each character through a rendering of their own perceptions, and a use of their own voice.
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