I first read Thomas Hardy's 1878 novel The Return of the Native twenty years ago in an upper-level undergraduate course taught by the erratic but personable Reg Terry, from whom I'd earlier taken a second-year survey course (Medieval to Victorian; motto: "We read it all, thinly!") that I'd enjoyed enormously. The Victorian novel course was a bit of a slog, to be honest, with nine novels in thirteen weeks. Sir Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian, for example, takes up precious little of my memory banks, though I suspect there was quite a bit of Action and Drama in it, and I'm still unsure whether I've actually read Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, though I did own a copy for many years that I'd bought for the course.
But Hardy's Return of the Native was, as the cliche has it, a revelation. I'm teaching the novel this fall at my university, so I've just finished reading it again, and my goodness.
The book's representation of a socially claustrophobic small community hit me very hard on first reading, and it hit just as hard again. There are so few people in the novel, but they deliberately enforce - and sometimes against themselves - what they believe to be the standards of the much larger society. Utopic fiction often starts from a small community that's somehow able to evolve standards that suit themselves, that allow an escape from an oppressive larger social structure in order to move forward into a (relatively) stable private reality: that's not at all what happens in The Return of the Native, where the private reality remains inexorably linked to the larger world even though the larger world remains invisible and seems to most characters scarcely imaginable.
And the representation of place itself as an agent of change; metaphors (and actualities) of vision and blindness; character self-awareness and self-ignorance; accidents of circumstance: I really do find this novel astonishingly satisfying, even with (because of?) all the tragedies large and small that develop through its pages.
That's not to say that I don't have concerns about teaching the class. For example, I'm a little anxious about how the pacing will line up with student interests more broadly, since the long-ago undergrad experience of someone who becomes a literature prof isn't a reliable indicator for a book's popularity now. Perhaps more specifically, I'm also anxious whether the book's narrow social milieu (only a few dozen people living across a fairly large desolate area) will resonate with those accustomed to social media's hypothetically infinite community. With luck, and the support of some engaged students, it just might work - and it'll be the last book we read, so by then maybe I'll know how to sell it!