Thomas Hardy’s works reflect the impact of 19th century evolutionary thought and naturalistic doctrines. He saw man as an alien in an impersonal universe, at the mercy of environment, heredity, and blind chance. Most of his fiction poignantly presents tragic human situations, and thus Hardy earned a reputation for pessimism.
The theme of this novel reflects Hardy’s concept that human fate is shaped by accidents and natural forces over which there is no control. The heroine, Eustacia Vye, is a smoldering, unfulfilled girl who is motivated by a desperate desire to escape from the desolate heath region where she feels trapped. She first pins her hope for getting away on Damon Wildere, the local ladies’ man, but he throws her over to marry Thomasin Yeobright. When Clem Yeobright returns from Paris to attend his cousin Thomasin’s wedding, Eustacia becomes interested in him as a way to leave Egdon Heath, and shortly afterwards they are married over the protests of Clem’s mother.
Clem, who has become disillusioned with the civilized life of the city, decides to stay on the heath and live among the simple, virtuous peasant folk, much to Eustacia’s chagrin. Events take a tragic turn as Eustacia becomes estranged from her husband and resumes her affair with Damon Wildere. While attempting to elope in a storm, both lovers drown in a flooded weir. Their fate reinforces a dominant idea of the book, that those who do not adapt to their habitat will perish.
At every turn in the novel, chance plays a sinister role. The characters’ desires are thwarted by unforeseen events, and their dreams are incompatible with reality. In the end, the omnipresent heath remains, a stolid and somber witness to the fate of hapless mortals.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Hardy’s “The Return of the Native.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Introduction addresses the relation of Arthur Schopenhauer and Percy Bysshe Shelley to Hardy, then discusses the “transformation” of Eustacia. Contains essays Brooks calls the “best modern interpretations” written by Lawrence, Howe, Brooks, Eggenschwiler, Meisel, Gregor, Fleishman, and Johnson.
Gindin, James, ed. Thomas Hardy: “The Return of the Native.” New York: W. W. Norton, 1969. Contains the novel, twelve of Hardy’s poems and the portion of his autobiography related to the novel, five contemporary criticisms, and fourteen later critiques on the characters, themes, and techniques of the novel. Ends with a selected bibliography.
Jewell, John. “Hardy’s The Return of the Native.” The Explicator 49, no. 3 (Spring, 1991): 159-162. Focuses on Hardy’s symbolic use of red through his use of the reddle. Concludes that, because of the red dye’s location on the ewe, the “reddle functions as a kind of scarlet letter.” Explores the character of Diggory Venn as a symbol of evil.
Lawrence, D. H. “Study of Thomas Hardy.” In Selected Literary Criticism, edited by Anthony Beal. New York: Viking Press, 1956. Published after Lawrence’s death. Provides an early psychological study of Hardy’s characters, focusing on what Clym and Eustacia desire. Explains why The Return of the Native is the “first tragic and important novel.” Probes into the tragic effects of the heath on its inhabitants.
Tighe, Mary Ann. “The Return of the Native: Self-Improvement Leads to Literary Judgment.” English Journal 70, no. 5 (September, 1981): 30-32. A teacher describes her success with having her students role-play three predicaments, later studying Hardy’s portrayal of the same conflicts, the theme of fate, and Greek tragedy traditions.