Thomas Hardy actually didn't consider himself much of a novelist, even though he is now super famous for his novels. Instead, Hardy thought of himself as a poet who just wrote novels on the side to make some cash. Whatever his motives for writing them, his novels are what most people remember him for, and his novels brought him fame (and notoriety) in his own lifetime.
Hardy was born in 1840 and died in 1928 – so he lived to be crazy old. But he pretty much stopped publishing novels and prose by the end of the nineteenth century. What's the deal? Well, Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure (1895) received such scathing reviews that he swore off the whole novel-writing business and decided to just go back to poetry for the rest of his life. And we can see some signs of things to come in Hardy's reaction to the criticism The Return of the Native received.
The Return of the Native was Hardy's sixth published and seventh completed novel – his first novel was apparently so crappy that he never published it, upon the advice of his friend and mentor George Meredith. This novel was published in a serial magazine called Belgravia in twelve installments during the year 1878. Belgravia was known for being highly sensational, or over-the-top, which may account for some of the more melodramatic elements in The Return of the Native. Overall, the novel got fairly mixed reviews. People generally were impressed with Hardy's writing chops, his skills with language, and his characters. But they also found him somewhat off-putting for his depressing attitude.
The Spectator magazine's 1879 review said that the book "treats tragedy itself as hardly more than a deeper tinge of the common leaden-colour of the human lot, and so makes it seem less than tragedy – dreariness, rather than tragedy."
People had fairly mixed reactions to how much of a downer the book was. However, Hardy was also put-off by his own audience. The interesting thing about The Return of the Native is that its ending is not what Hardy had in mind (you can read the juicy details in the "What's Up with the Ending?" section). Long story short, Hardy bowed to public pressure and demand for a happy ending and got rid of his original completely-and-utterly depressing ending. But he also added a rather snarky footnote that implies that his readers were too dumb to handle his original, and wildly depressing, ending. Hardy could be a bit elitist and wasn't always a fan of the general reading public, who failed to "understand" his ideas.
As a result of the tensions between Hardy and his readers, The Return of the Native can come off as rather strange in places, like a puzzle that doesn't quite fit together. It's definitely interesting to see the different elements that make up the novel – a mixture of Hardy's naturalistic interest in nature and the universe, and public demand for romance and drama. And that's not all – we can also see Hardy's decision to draw upon Greek and Shakespearean tragedies in this novel, the constraints of serial publishing (which turned chapters and volumes into mini TV-like episodes), and the odd historical position that Hardy occupied in the late Victorian era.
What was so odd about this historical position? Well, Hardy was sort of caught up between the Romantic movement (which was on its way out), Realism (which was on the rise), and Modernism (which would be coming down the pipeline in a few years). Hardy's novel seems to veer back and forth between over-the-top romance, harsh realism, an interest in character drama, and a focus on mythology and nature.
This focus on nature is definitely worth noting in this novel. See, Hardy set nearly all of his novels in the fictional county of Wessex in Southwest England, which is where Hardy himself was born and raised (in the real county of Dorset – that would be cool if he were raised in an imaginary county, though). Wessex is sort of like Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha county.
In the fake county of Wessex, Hardy explored social issues, the impact of industrialization on the countryside, his own ideas on nature and fate, and so on. It was sort of a laboratory for Hardy's ideas. The land and nature play a huge role in all of Hardy's work, but perhaps none more so than The Return of the Native. It's also worth noting that Hardy moved from London to a more rural area before beginning work on The Return of the Native, and Hardy's own "return" to a more natural zone may have influenced the direction this novel took.
One last thing to consider: why did Hardy set the novel about 25 years in the past? Well, this was actually a rather common thing to do among Victorian realist authors – George Eliot set many of her (yes, George Eliot was actually Mary Anne Evans – no nineteenth-century trend to name girls George, Harry, Richard...) novels in the past, as did Charles Dickens. The past was a way for these authors to explore social issues and to examine how the current way of doing things came about in the first place. So for realist authors concerned with social themes, it made sense to go back in time to explore them. Hardy is no exception to this Victorian novel trend.
It's easy to come away from this novel with a superficial impression of it. The Return of the Native comes off a bit like survivalist guide crossed with a love advice column, plus a large portion of National Geographic stirred into the mix. And what sort of wisdom do we get with this book? Well, we learn about pool safety, the perils of hasty elopements, hiking safety, and the fact that you really can't "change" your love interest (sorry, Grease).
So why care about this novel? Well, it's worth reading because it actually shows us how connected the Man vs. Wild survival guide and the romantic advice column really are. In this novel, human relationships aren't divorced from the realities of the natural world. We often ignore nature and the wider world around us, and we often have the luxury of doing so. But Hardy makes us acutely aware of how things like nature, history, and communities have a direct impact on individuals.