Welcome to Egdon Heath, which Hardy describes in great detail. We meet Eustacia Vye, who longs to be a big-city girl and hates being stuck in podunk Egdon. She is having a clandestine romance with Damon Wildeve, but Damon is a player and ends up seeing another lady, Thomasin Yeobright, on the side. Thomasin and Damon try to elope, but botch it. A scandal ensues and Damon isn't sure which woman he wants after all. Thomasin is also loved by Diggory Venn, but she refuses his advances. Diggory tries to interfere in Eustacia and Damon's relationship, but it works itself out without him.
Meanwhile, Thomasin's cousin, Clym Yeobright, returns home from Paris, hence the title of the novel. Eustacia decides to fall in love with him since she loves Paris. Clym is likewise enchanted by Eustacia. But Clym's mother is less than thrilled with the situation. She and her son fight and then part ways on bad terms.
Clym and Eustacia get married and are happy for all of five seconds before Clym goes partially blind and the couple falls on bad economic times. Eustacia starts getting close to her former flame, Damon, once again.
Mrs. Yeobright tries to make amends with her son, but a series of misunderstandings leads to her death. To make matters worse, Eustacia is partially responsible for her death. After a tense period, Clym finds out what happened and has a horrible fight with Eustacia. The two separate and Eustacia considers running away with Damon, who offers to take her to Paris after he inherits a bunch of money.
Damon and Eustacia prepare to leave, but Eustacia remains very reluctant. On the night of their departure, a storm arrives and the two end up drowning. Clym is devastated, as is Thomasin, who is now a widow with a newborn baby. Time passes and the cousins recover. Thomasin marries Diggory Venn after all and Clym becomes a preacher.
Contemporary readers tend to take for granted the notion that literature does not convey, or even attempt to convey, absolute truth. Since the modernist movement at the beginning of the 20th century, literature has tended to pose questions rather than define answers. One of the hallmarks of modern literature can be said to be unreliability: authors and readers recognize that literature is difficult; it is not to be trusted, or to be taken at its face value. In 1878, when The Return of the Native was first published, ambiguity was hardly understood to be the cornerstone of the novelistic edifice. And yet, while The Return of the Native is formally conventional, thematically it thrives on doubt and ambiguity. With its extensive narrative description, abundant classical and scriptural references and stylized dialogue, the book adheres closely to the high Victorian style. Thematically, however, the novel is original and ingenious: not trusting perceptions, the book questions moral and ethical truths, implying the superiority of relative to absolute truth. It is an eminently unreliable novel, peopled with unreliable characters; even its narrator cannot be trusted.
Take, for instance, the example of Egdon Heath, the first "character" introduced into the book. The heath proves physically and psychologically important throughout the novel: characters are defined by their relation to the heath, and the weather patterns of the heath even reflect the inner dramas of the characters. Indeed, it almost seems as if the characters are formed by the heath itself: Diggory Venn, red from head to toe, is an actual embodiment of the muddy earth; Eustacia Vye seems to spring directly from the heath, a part of Rainbarrow itself, when she is first introduced; Wildeve's name might just as well refer to the wind-whipped heath itself. But, importantly, the heath manages to defy definition. It is, in chapter one, "a place perfectly accordant with man's nature." The narrator's descriptions of the heath vary widely throughout the novel, ranging from the sublime to the gothic. There is no possible objectivity about the heath. No reliable statement can be made about it.
For Clym, the heath is beautiful; for Eustacia, it is hateful. The plot of the novel hinges around just this kind of difference in perception. Most of the key plot elements in the novel depend upon misconceptions--most notably, Eustacia's failure to open the door to Mrs. Yeobright, a mistake that leads to the older woman's death--and mistaken perceptions. Clym's eventual near- blindness reflects a kind of deeper internal blindness that afflicts all the main characters in the novel: they do not recognize the truth about each other. Eustacia and Clym misunderstand each other's motives and true ambitions; Venn remains a mystery; Wildeve deceives Thomasin, Eustacia and Clym. The characters remain obscure for the reader, too. When The Return of the Native was first published, contemporary critics criticized the novel for its lack of sympathetic characters. All of the novel's characters prove themselves deeply flawed, or--at the very least--of ambiguous motivation. Clym Yeobright, the novel's intelligent, urbane, generous protagonist, is also, through his impatience and single-minded jealousy, the cause of the novel's great tragedy. Diggory Venn can either be seen as a helpful, kind- hearted guardian or as an underhanded schemer. Similarly, even the antagonistic characters in the novel are not without their redeeming qualities.
Perhaps the most ambiguous aspect of the novel is its ending. The novel seems to privilege a bleak understanding of human nature. Given the tragedy of the double drowning, it seems impossible that the novel could end happily. And yet, Diggory Venn and Thomasin are contentedly married. This is not, however, the way the novel was first conceived; Hardy was forced to give the novel a happy ending in order to please the Victorian public. In an uncharacteristic footnote, Hardy remarks, "The writer may state here that the original conception of the story did not design a marriage between Thomasin and Venn But certain circumstances of serial publication led to a change of intent. Readers can therefore choose between the endings." Thus, even the true conclusion of the novel is left in doubt, a fitting end for a novel that thrives on uncertainty and ambiguity.