This study of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878) examines the context of the 1840s when the narrative is set, when the celebration of November Fifth had become an annual occasion of radical violence. Through the symbol of the bonfire The Return of the Native examines contemporary fears of violence in England in the wake of the French Revolution against an indigenous, age-old culture of economic unrest and rebellion. This division between political and economic radicalism is figured in the distinction between Eustacia Vye’s association with bonfires and Paris and the Egdon laborers whose bonfire burning is an age-old act of rebellion that, in the 1840s, had associations with radical violence on account of economic grievances. Bonfire Night in The Return of the Native thus gives expression to the political and economic issues that underlie the narrative and the economic issues that remain unresolved, thus reflecting the complex and divided radical climate of England in the wake of the French Revolution. This reading of the significance of the 1840s as a setting for the narrative provides a coherent framework for understanding the seemingly disparate elements in the novel, namely bonfires as a structural motif, Clym’s return from Paris and his educational program, the breakdown of the Yeobrights’ marriage, the death of Eustacia, and Hardy’s addition of the epilogue, “Aftercourses,” as a revised ending.
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