This title certainly seems straightforward enough – it's all about a native who is, well, returning. Somewhere.
All right, so that interpretation, brought to you by Captain Obvious, isn't going to get you very far. And, fortunately for us, Hardy really loves his metaphors and his deeper meanings, so this title is far from being completely literal. In fact, this novel explores more than one kind of "return."
But there really is a returning native in this book – a long-absent native of Egdon Heath returns from Paris and stirs up drama. The story of this returning native is kind of like the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, but with a twist. In the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), a son who loved to party and waste money finally partied himself out and came home, humbled, to ask for help from the family he had long ignored.
Hardy's returning native, Clym, was actually a better son than that while he was living abroad. But he also returns home only to enter into conflict with his family. Clym then falls upon increasingly hard times after returning home. So much for all those aphorisms (educational sayings) about how there's "no place like home," and "home is where the heart is," and "home is super great and you should go back there." We may have made that last one up. At any rate, the return home in this novel is a bit of a disaster. Apparently, Thomas Hardy has a lot in common with another famous Thomas – American novelist Thomas Wolfe, whose well-known 1940 novel taught us that You Can't Go Home Again.
This idea of not being able to go home again brings us to the deeper meaning of "Return," and "Native" in The Return of the Native. See, after the native returns in Hardy's novel, a question surrounds him: will this native son remain or will he leave once more to Paris? And how much of a "native" is he anymore? Will he "return" to being a native once more, or is he destined to be different? And Clym isn't the only one who inspires questions about what a return entails, or means. Questions about what a return means surround other characters in the novel, like our female protagonist who may or may not "return" to her ex-boyfriend, and our male antagonist who may or may not "return" some money to its rightful owner.
The word "return" has a lot of meanings in this novel and it's always surrounded by questions of longevity and intent. In other words, how long do returns last and why do people decide to return or not to return in the first place? This title conveys one of the major themes of the novel: choice. All returns are a result of a choice and all sorts of returns in this novel cause a lot of drama.