This novel is the stuff Masterpiece Theatre productions are made of – it's filled with brooding, attractive people who are all doomed. Like a good drama, this novel keeps you on edge with all the foreboding hints of the future and all the anguish of the past and present.
Life in this novel is largely serious and often miserable, and the focus of the story is on human interaction. This human interaction is embedded in a larger context, though, with themes such as nature, fate, history, and society swirling around the characters. So this novel is both a human drama, with a focus on characters, and a socially-conscious drama, with a focus on broader social issues and themes.
And there's even a third type of drama that comes into play in the novel's style: theater. We'll get into that more when we hit the "Tragedy" section, so stay tuned.
This novel is definitely a tragedy. But how are drama and tragedy different? We're glad you asked. As we noted above, dramas can be serious, moody, edge-of-your-seat experiences, as well as thought-provoking, emotional, and sad. Just check out the types of TV shows that get nominated for Emmys in the "Drama" category, and you'll see how varied the definition of drama can be.
Tragedies often do all those things too, but the key to tragedy lies in the ending – if the ending involves a huge amount of death and destruction and if happily-ever-afters are conspicuously lacking, then you are probably looking at a tragedy. Hardy was inspired by theatrical dramas and tragedies when he wrote this novel. (You can read more about that in the "In a Nutshell," "Style," and "What's Up with the Ending?" sections). Hardy especially drew upon the structure of Greek and Shakespearean tragedies in this novel. And those tragic plays generally ended with most of the main characters dead and everyone else fairly miserable. Granted, Thomasin and Diggory get a pretty happy ending by the end, but even their ending can't alleviate the overall tragic impression left by all the deaths and by Clym's miserable state at the end.
The cool thing about this genre is that it was also an influential literary movement back in the day (i.e., the late nineteenth century). As a genre and as a style of writing, Realism was becoming super popular when Hardy was writing The Return of the Native. Some of the key traits of Realism that you can see in this novel are a concern with social conditions and the lower class, a general lack of happy and idyllic human relationships, a focus on money, and a concern with the natural world. Realist novels try to depict life as it actually is, not as people wish it could be. And after reading this, you really can't accuse Hardy of wearing rose-tinted glasses – this book is a downer.
But Hardy also diverged slightly from straight-up Realism through his interest in Naturalism, a literary type of realist style that emphasized ideas of fate, nature, the impersonal and mean attitude of the universe at large, social Darwinism (survival of the fittest), and the fairly insignificant place of mankind in the universe. Overall, the very practical and socially-focused style of the novel make it a good example of Realism, but it's worth noting the Naturalistic elements at work too.
OK, so we just went on for a while about Realism and now we're bringing up its polar opposite. What gives? Well, Romance isn't diametrically opposed to Realism, meaning that the two can sometimes work together hand-in-hand. In The Return of the Native, Hardy uses a lot of romantic elements, often to create a sense of contrast and irony with his realist aspects. For more on what makes a description romantic, check out the "Style" section.