Tragic, Rebellious Eustacia

Continuing with “Nasty Women Month”, I decided to choose a decidedly Romantic literary figure whom I greatly admired as a teenager … Thomas Hardy’s Eustacia Vye.

In case you’re unfamiliar with The Return of the Native, it is, in my opinion, Hardy’s most evocative book in terms of setting. Edgon Heath in his Wessex is described with the sensuality of a lover and depicted as a raging, passionate character itself … the epitome of nature, if you will.  The novel fits more squarely into the Romantic tradition than Hardy’s other masterpieces (I’ve read everything he’s written—he’s been my favorite writer for most of my life), and much of the tension and conflict stems from Eustacia’s struggle against what she feels is the “prison” of Egdon Heath.

Hardy also experiments with his “Destiny” themes in  The Return of the Native, as he does most profoundly in Jude the Obscure and most movingly in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Eustacia  not only yearns to escape, but she yearns to be loved—and not only loved, but to be “loved to madness.”

As a young girl growing up in a remote, rural community—one in which physical hardship was part of survival—I resonated with Eustacia. She was urban and urbane and wild and passionate, and yearned to escape the confines of the admittedly beautiful, rugged and equally passionate environment in which she found herself trapped. She spoke to me. And what teenager doesn’t wish to be “loved to madness”?

Eustacia is also described—a theme in other Hardy works—as more quixotic deity than mortal female.  But for me, she’ll always be a top-notch literary “nasty woman” … one who could have benefited from a “creative resistance” in her own time and place.  And who better to play her than Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the actress did in 1994?