Summary and Analysis
Book 4: Chapters 5-6
On an extremely hot day at the end of August, Mrs. Yeobright sets off across the heath to visit Clym and Eustacia, but loses her way to the unfamiliar village of Alderworth, where they live. Seeking directions, she is told to follow a furze cutter going along a path. She does so, only to realize finally that it is her son Clym. Resting in a clump of trees near Clym's house, she sees a man come to the house before she can get there.
It is Wildeve, come to call on Eustacia in the daytime. Eustacia admits him, and they talk in a room where Clym is asleep on the hearth rug. They discuss her marriage, Wildeve hinting that he is still in love with her. When Mrs. Yeobright knocks on the front door, Eustacia doesn't know what to do, finally deciding that Clym will probably awaken and answer the door. She quickly lets Wildeve out the back. When she returns, she finds Clym still asleep and Mrs. Yeobright no longer at the door.
Mrs. Yeobright has already started for home, previously overheated and exhausted and now shocked because Clym has apparently allowed Eustacia to refuse her entrance. The older woman encounters Johnny Nunsuch, who goes a short distance with her and is upset by her appearance. When he leaves her, she finally sits down to rest, watching a heron flying gracefully in the sky.
Hardy makes the oppressive heat of the late August day a tangible factor in Mrs. Yeobright's journey to her son's house. He shows how it affects the plant and animal life that she encounters on the way. It takes its toll of the older woman, literally slowing her pace and placing a great strain on her constitution. Hardy demonstrates this effectively through the eyes of Johnny Nunsuch, with his comments about her "white and wet" face, her head "hanging-down-like," her movements like the "jerk and limp of an invalid," and her breathing like that of "a lamb when you drive him till he's nearly done for." The heat is virtually a character in these chapters, even almost a symbol.
Wildeve's arrival just before Mrs. Yeobright is ready to appear at her son's house after an exhausting walk is a coincidence like many others in the novel. It is convenient for Hardy to have some excuse available for Eustacia so that she doesn't admit Mrs. Yeobright but is not clearly at fault. On the other hand, Wildeve's appearance may be meant to suggest the operation of chance, or something more malign, in human life.
The scene between Eustacia and Wildeve here makes an instructive comparison with their encounter in Book First, chapters 6–7. In both scenes, Eustacia and Wildeve are meeting after a long separation; however, the second scene occurs after Eustacia's marriage. In the first, Eustacia is trying to make Wildeve measure up to the image she wants to have of him, knowing all along she doesn't really desire him. Here, Hardy reveals her acutely aware of the disadvantage to which Clym shows simply by physical description of the two men: beside the sleeping Clym are his "leggings, thick boots, leather gloves, and sleeve-waistcoat"; Wildeve is "elegantly dressed in a new summer suit and light hat." At a superficial glance, Wildeve appears to Eustacia more nearly to satisfy her desire in life: "what is called life — music, poetry, passion, war, and all the beating and pulsing that is going on in the great arteries of the world." No amount of rationalization of what Clym is, not even calling him a St. Paul, eases Eustacia's sharp sense of having lost out by marrying him. In fact, neither Clym nor Wildeve is what she wants.
Johnny Nunsuch is a very believable child. He tags along after Mrs. Yeobright by instinct, as Hardy says. He is a keen observer of her condition, and is both frightened and awed by the condition she is in. He doesn't know what to do: he'd like to help but he wants to get home. With only a few details, Hardy has the boy complete. He is an important character later when he repeats a remark Mrs. Yeobright makes to him on this occasion to Clym, in the scene in which the older woman dies. The sure touch with which Hardy presents this character is typical of the way he handles most of the minor characters in the novel.
For a set piece to illustrate Hardy's narrative style at its best, nothing serves better than the description of the heron Mrs. Yeobright watches in flight at the end of chapter 6. It is not a purple passage not overwritten; the language is controlled and the imagery appropriate. Furthermore, it serves admirably to help express Mrs. Yeobright's feelings at this point in the story.