Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Woman Shall Bear Her Iniquity":(1) Death as Social Discipline in Thomas Hardy's the Return of the Native

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Woman Shall Bear Her Iniquity":(1) Death as Social Discipline in Thomas Hardy's the Return of the Native

Article excerpt

"How could there be any good in a woman everybody spoke ill of?"(2) In the most emotionally charged scene between husband and wife in Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, Clym Yeobright thus finally succumbs to the view of Eustacia Vye's identity that has been constructed by public surveillance and conjecture. Deemed a witch, a temptress, and even a murderess by the voice of the social "every-body," Eustacia is liable to the terms of such judgment, the consequences of which are most obviously literalized in her suicide by drowning. Yet punishment itself also definitively shapes identity on Egdon Heath. The numerous forms of punishment applied to Eustacia--stabbing, torture of her effigy, expulsion from her marriage--serve to confirm social interpretation, unequivocally defining her as a witch, rebel, and, in short, fallen. Insofar as it confirms the conclusions drawn by public speculation and gossip, punishment is shown to be inextricably linked to observation and utterance.

This tension in The Return of the Native between self-inflicted and socially-enacted discipline thus deserves examination. While critical attention has frequently been given to "that socially approved method of subordinating women: the inculcation of guilt"(3) that Hardy's novels expose, the very way in which social discipline is applied is equally significant. The Return of the Native is particularly revealing in regards to Hardy's view of the capacity of speculation and blame to shape public identity and induce self-destruction. Discussing Hardy's use of coincidence, Lawrence Jay Dessner cites T. S. Eliot's telling discernment of the intense preoccupation with punishment evident in Hardy's work: "to Eliot, Hardy `seemed to be deliberately relieving some emotion of his own at the expense of the reader. It is a refined form of torture on the part of the writer, and a refined sort of self-torture on the part of the reader.'"(4) This transition from externally- to self-enacted torture is mirrored in The Return of the Native, where ongoing physical and emotional torment leads ultimately to self-destruction, where the social readings of the heroine lead her to rewrite her plot in accordance with the identity that such readings have constructed.

Yet the self-destructive function of this seemingly primitive enforcer of social discipline-torture-points to an evolution toward a more subtle, yet potent, method of control in The Return of the Native. In "Observation and Domination in Hardy's The Woodlanders," a notably rare interpretation of Hardy that directly invokes Michel Foucault's theories of social discipline, Cates Baldridge observes that "In the world of The Woodlanders ... modernity arrives not amidst coal smoke or dragging a steam thresher, but rather emerges from optics-both moral and manufactured-whose very composition relentlessly transforms acts of seeing into projections of power."(5) The traceable tension in The Return of the Native between primitive and modern forms of authority positions Foucault's theory of discipline as a fitting analogy by which this novel's preoccupation with surveillance, judgment, transgression, and retribution can be examined.

In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault's example of the quarantined town illustrates how, under conditions of isolation, surveillance and power operate:

   This enclosed segmented space, observed at every point, in which the
   individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements
   are supervised, in which all events are recorded, ... in which power is
   exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure,
   in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed
   among the living beings, the sick and the dead-all this constitutes a
   compact model of the disciplinary mechanism.(6)

A self-contained social unit, Egdon exhibits the capacity for stringent control that is accessible through perpetual confinement and surveillance. …

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