Hardy has been called the Shakespeare of the English novel and the four great Hardian tragedies, Tess of the D'ubervilles, Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Return of the Native have been likened to the four great Shakespearean tragedies. But Hardy's conception of tragedy is radically different from that of Shakespeare.
Hardy's Tragic Hero
In a Shakespearean tragedy, as Bradley has pointed out, the tragic hero is a man of high rank and position. He may belong to the royal family or he may be some great general and warrior indispensable for the state. He is not only exalted socially but he has also some uncommon qualities of head and heart. He is in short a rare individual. When such a person falls from greatness and his high position is reversed, the result is "Kathartic'. His fall exciates the tragic emotion of terror and the readers are purged of the motion of self-pity.
This was the traditional concept of Tragedy upto Hardy. But Hardy has how own concept, he is the innovator of a new form of tragedy, His tragic hero and heroines are no exalted personages. They are neither kings nor queens. They belong to the lowest ranks of society. Thus in the present novel, Clym is humble by birth, and he takes to furze-cutting as his profession, and Mrs. Yeobrighl is the wife of an humble farmer. But these humble people have exceptional qualities of head and heart which raise them above the common run of mankind. Thus Clym is the idealist, and Mrs. Yeobright is prudent, strong and loving.
Hardian Tragedy: Apotheosis of the Human Spirit
When these humble heroes and heroines of Hardy suffer and fall from grace the effect is as "Kalhurtic' as that of a Shakespearean tragedy. A Hardian tragedy is an apotheosis of the human spirit. It reveals to us the essential nobility and heroism of the human soul. The nobility of Mrs. Yeobright is brought out by her death, and Clym suffers because of his idealism.
Tragic Waste in Hardy
Like a Shakespearean tragedy, a Hardian tragedy .also creates the impression of tragic waste. Evil is eliminated in the long run, but always at the cost of much that is good and desirable. The real tragedy is this waste of good. Much good is wasted when Eustacia comes to a tragic end. Similarly, the real tragedy is not that Mrs. Yeobright dies, but that in her death so much of love and prudence are wasted.
Hardian Tragedy, Elevating
But Hardian tragedy does not discourage or cause despair. "It is elevating and stimulating. It does not shake our faith in life, all the more it strengthens us; it does not make us light-hearted, but makes -us wiser and better." Thus, The Return of the Native, is not depressing. Hardy has introduced a note of meliorism by showing the happy end of Thomasin's love story.
No Tragic Flaw in Hardy
The Shakespearian hero has some fault of character, some strong tendency to act in a particular way, which is the cause of his undoing. Bradley has called this weakness of the hero as the "tratic flaw' of his character. This tragic flaw results in the fall of the hero, it is the cause of the tragedy. Though at a later stage the course of action is complicated by other factors — chance, abnormal state of mind, some supernatural force, etc.-yet primarily action issues out of character. Character is responsible for tragedy.
"Character is Destiny in Shakespeare." But this is not so in Hardy. His Tragic heroes and heroines are free from any 'tragic flaw' in the Shakespearean sense. They do not have any obsession or a marked tendency to act in a particular way. Thus the tragedy of Clym and Eustacia is the result of chance to a very great extent. Mrs. Yeobright's death is also brought about by chance events.
Destiny, and Not Character, the Cause of Tragedy
"Character may be destiny" in Shakespeare, but in Hardy, "Destiny is Character." In all his novels, chance events happens throughout. Fate expresses itself as chance. However in the. Return of the Native character too plays a significant role in bringing about the tragedy. Eustacia' tragedy results from her excessive love of the glittering city life and from her extreme hunger for love. Isolation in Egdon makes her rebellious, morose and gloomy. It intensifies her hunger for love, and for the pleasures of city life. Similarly, Clym's idealism is responsible to a very great extent for his tragedy. He is unpractical and lacks worldly wisdom. Character and environment play a larger part in causing tragedy in this novel, than in other novels.
Considered as a tragedy, TJie Return of the Native has other peculiar features as well. For one thing, while in a Shakespearean tragedy both the hero and the heroine die at the end, in this novel the heroine, Eustacia, alone dies, and the hero lives on a life of deep anguish, virtually a life-in-death. This is another instance of the relentless cruelty of destiny.
Secondly, the Return of the Native has a double-ending. While Eustacia, Wildeve and Mrs. Yeobright come to a tragic end and Clym too suffers terribly, the end of Thomasin's love-story is a happy one. We find her in the end married to the faithful Venn, and likely to enjoy a happy life ever afterwards. In this way, the novelist has introduced a note of meliorism in the novel. He has thus shown that a limited happiness is possible even in this sorry life of ours. The happy end of the Thomasin story does not reduce the tragic intensity of the Catastrophe, rather it enables the novelist to present his vision of life truthfully and honestly.