Places: The Return of the Native

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1878

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Tragedy

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Places DiscussedWessex

Wessex. Return of the Native, TheImaginary English region that was the setting for Hardy’s major fiction. Born in Dorsetshire, one of five counties in southern England, Hardy re-created this region in his novels as “Wessex.” This unsophisticated rural area is never entirely absent in his fiction or poetry. Late in his life, Hardy returned to Dorset and a new home for himself and his wife.

Egdon Heath

Egdon Heath. Gloomy wasteland in southern England. Against this majestic but solemn, brooding background a small group of people work out their tragic drama in the impersonal presence of nature. The heath’s grim face, its twisted topography–hills, valleys, rivers, ponds, paths, and open wasteland, a composite of several heaths–is a dominant symbol of primitive, timeless, and uncultivated nature. In this untamed place, nature’s four basic elements–earth, air, fire, and water–control this microcosm of a completely indifferent land. Earth is unalterable. Humans grow nothing; they only harvest the land’s natural furze. At times, even humans appear no more distinguishable from the landscape than “the green caterpillar from the leaf it feeds on.”

To the heath itself, people seem to be just another crop growth. Earthen paths serve as roads for constant travel around and back and forth over the nearly circular heath. Air, in the form of constantly blowing winds, whirls and buffets humans and assaults their ears with eerie sounds. Fire, a symbol of human passion, appears in ceremonial bonfires, signal fires, a black magic fire, and the summer sun’s fiery blazes. Rains flooding Shadwater Weir reveal the dual life/death aspects of the water symbol for humans or other creatures caught in the rapidly revolving whirlpool.

In death, humans finally become part of the heath, as the ancient tumulus or burial mounds testify. These elements, humans, and heath creatures share Egdon’s alternating faces of fall, winter, spring, and summer. Here, nature seems impervious to human or animal conflicts; only seasonal changes matter.


Rainbarrow. Hill that is the symbolic center and heart of Egdon Heath. Its name suggestively foreshadows water deaths. Near the beginning, a rebellious figure stands, ironically, “like an organic part” of the ancient grave mound at the hill’s apex. At the novel’s equally ironic ending, the returned native, surviving tragedy, stands harmoniously and indifferently on top of the same mound, symbolically almost as indistinguishable as an erect furze bush, surrounded by heathmen and women.

Quiet Woman

Quiet Woman. Inn on Egdon Heath that is the home of Damon Wildeve and his bride Thomasin. Hardy took the inn’s name, along with its sign and legend of a headless woman carrying her head, from a real inn northwest of the fictional one. Moreover, the inn’s name projects a contrasting view of the two young women in the tale, who symbolize the conflict between two value systems: the narrow provincial rules versus the new city freedoms and moralities. The victims of Shadwater Weir are brought to the inn along with the rescuers.


Blooms-End. The Yeobright house is filled with a lifetime of things, treasured objects and furniture, which the unsophisticated culture of the area accepts as a social birthright. The home’s place name, however, suggests that value systems and lifestyles are undergoing changes; the blooms of tradition are ending.


Alderworth. Temporary first home for Clym and his wife, six miles from Blooms-End, that is the setting for the crucial blunder that sets the final actions in motion.

East Egdon

East Egdon. Village near Alderworth which has a local festival with games and dancing. Eustacia watches the dancers moving in a rapidly rotating, whirling circular motion from the outer edge to the center of the circle. She realizes that the circular, whirling movement of the dance repeats the premonition of disaster that she has dreamed. This circular movement also repeats the winds’ circular efforts on Egdon Heath and foreshadows the final whirlpool deaths in Shadwater Weir.

Shadwater Weir

Shadwater Weir. Pool of water formed by a small dam where, on a windy night, the final struggle in this conflict of value systems occurs. The circular, rotational action of the weir’s whirlpool repeats again the foreshadowed movements at the dance and the winds buffeting of walkers on the heath.

Mistover Knap

Mistover Knap. Home of retired Captain Vye, which resembles a ship in harbor. Unlike any other house in the area, it stands as a symbol of the differences between local practices and values and outside codes and values that have appeared in Egdon Heath.

BibliographyBloom, 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.
Categories: Places