"Man and the Natural World" is arguably the central theme of the book. The heath functions as its own character in addition to being an evocative backdrop that has some sort of psychic link to the characters. The characters and the heath have an interesting relationship in which people and the heath reflect each other's moods. So, yes, the heath is doing a whole lot at once – it reflects the characters, and yet also has features, feelings, even dialogue (such as with the "wind" that seems to speak).
However, this is a book about how man exists within nature and not just alongside of it – certainly not just some chummy pals. In fact, man doesn't live side-by-side with nature as equals at all; the heath is not the friendly or romantic place that the highly-romantic language might imply. Instead, Hardy depicts people as small and even overwhelmed by nature. Nature is downright Darwinian – everything boils down to survival, competition, and evolution. Of course, this is rather fitting given the impact Darwin and his ideas had on nineteenth-century thinkers and people like Hardy. Yup, the heath controls the people, not the other way around.
The heath is a largely negative force in the novel and it dooms the characters that live upon it to lives of misery or death.
Though Eustacia hates the heath, she has the strongest connection to it, more so than any other character.
The Debate To End All Debates – does fate control our lives or do we have free will? – takes center stage in this novel. And in The Return of the Native we get frequent hints that free will is losing. People seem to play parts in a very old story here, and events and nature constantly conspire against people. Yet characters do make choices. Unfortunately for them, these choices usually make things even worse and seem to have little to no effect against the larger forces at work in the novel, such as the unaffected heath (which pays no mind to the people on it) or fate (which seems to constantly screw everyone over).
Free will is not so much absent as it is defunct and ineffective in this novel. No one makes very good decisions and the decisions they do make are perhaps dictated by a higher power of some sort. And what is this power? Maybe it's the weight of the past, perhaps it's human nature itself, or it could be the heath or even God. The novel never makes it entirely clear what fate is, but there's is a strong sense that our characters are living out events that are largely beyond their control and that their own choices either have little impact or only help to further doom them.
Fate is the major driving force of the novel, and the characters here largely lack free will.
The characters give too much credit to fate; their own poor decisions cause problems.
Romance in The Return of the Native is often not all that romantic or even nice. Love, for the bulk of the cast, is extremely painful. In fact, love is a fantasy for many of these characters. Characters fall in love based on their romanticized vision of another person, not on reality. And when reality comes crashing down, it's not pretty. Eustacia is blinded by her longing for Paris when she falls for Clym, while Clym blinds himself to Eustacia's real personality and desires. Meanwhile, both Damon and Eustacia seem bored by the idea of happy, conflict-free love. They clearly agree with Shakespeare's thoughts on how "the course of true love never did run smooth."
Diggory's love for Thomasin is the only honest love story in the novel – Diggory isn't blinded by his love, unlike everyone else.
Thomasin does not love Damon by the time they finally get married; she only marries him due to a lack of other options.
Families in The Return of the Native can be vicious. No one can hold a grudge quite like a family member and no one an offer up loyalty quite like one either. The family relationship at the heart of this novel is the intense, strained bond between Clym and his mother. Their relationship comes to a breaking point when Clym fails to meet his mother's expectations for him and he marries Eustacia. But the other families here are also far from neat and tidy. Thomasin and Eustacia have very shady backgrounds in terms of their parents, and the families we do see are plagued by distance (emotional and physical) as well as death. It's notable that we hardly see any examples of functioning nuclear families, with both a mom and a dad around. The only really successful parent we see is Thomasin with her daughter, but even that is a case of a broken home since Thomasin's husband nearly abandoned her and then died, leaving her a widow.
Clym has an Oedipus complex; he's a bit too fond of his mother and it borders on being unhealthy.
Clym has a normal relationship with his mother until after her death, at which point he begins to deify her in hindsight.
Egdon Heath definitely operates based on tradition and a good dose of expectations for certain social groups. In The Return of the Native we see people failing to performing their expected "roles" in this book, and we witness the ramifications of not playing by the rules and norms of such a traditional society: Mrs. Yeobright embarrasses herself and her family when she publicly refuses to support Thomasin's engagement; Eustacia is shunned and is even persecuted as a witch; Clym is seen as a disappointment for returning home from his fancy job; Diggory is an outcast because of his profession; and Thomasin is the subject of gossip and scandal after her failed elopement. Yep, society is a harsh judge in this book, given how much Egdon is ruled by the past and by very old customs and ideas. But there's a modern, urban world lurking on the fringes of the Heath and there's potential for conflict there. Egdon may be ruled by tradition and custom but the modern world is out there, and it's debatable whether or not tradition will be able to hold back change forever.
Overall, this novel reads like a fable that is removed from the present, modern world, and set in a distant, mythic past.
The real reason Thomasin married Damon was fear; she was afraid of bucking social conventions and opted to avoid a scandal and a ruined reputation.
Pride is the worst of the seven deadly sins for a reason (so says Dante, among others) – it leads to a ton of problems, not just for the prideful person but for the people around them. Pride and stubbornness are primary motivators (and failings) for Eustacia and Mrs. Yeobright – two characters who most harshly learn that pride can lead people to despair. The main way this occurs is through missed human connections – characters often refuse to reach out and speak to one another on account of their pride. As a result, people are often hurt and lonely in this book. We see this happen with Mrs. Yeobright and Clym, who each refuse to reach out and reconcile with the other until it's too late.
But The Return of the Native really questions what people have to be prideful about in the first place. If the heath tries to teach people anything, it's humility. Being human isn't much to brag about in this novel – people are dwarfed by forces in the world around them, are shown to be chock-full of faults, and generally end up doing themselves more harm than good. As such, the pride of these characters often contrasts with the narrator's take on their actual circumstances.
Pride, more than any other trait, links Eustacia and Mrs. Yeobright together.
Diggory is much more prideful than he seems. His choice of profession might appear humble, but it's really a sign of wounded pride, even more than a broken heart.
Clym is very prideful, even more than Eustacia.
The Return of the Native begins with some seriously old-fashioned communication techniques: signal fires. The communication strategy of choice for desert island castaways (like in Pirates of the Caribbean) and Middle-earth denizens trying to rally the troops (think The Return of the King). So what's with the use of signal fires in The Return of the Native? There's nothing epic going on as far as we can tell. Well, kicking off the book with signal fires and practically no dialogue for the first few chapters really helps to set the tone for the rest of it, which is often light on dialogue as well. Communication, when it occurs at all, is often unspoken and is heavily reliant on actions, interpretations, silences, and symbols. Objects often speak louder than actions and words here – see Mrs. Yeobright's reaction to seeing Clym's boots by his door, or Diggory's response to Thomasin's glove. These objects convey more meaning than a lengthy conversation could to these characters.
But when people do decide to start speaking, it's often astonishingly blunt and eloquent. The conversations in this book even border on theatrical – people speechify and deliver monologues and have very snappy dialogue. Yet no one seems to really hear anyone else when they speak – characters often speak at one another and not with one another. See Eustacia and Clym's courtship conversations, in which neither seems to really register what the other is saying. All communication boils down to subjective interpretation, which of course means that people have more than their share of misunderstandings. So it's really fitting that the novel concludes with Clym as a poor preacher who mainly talks to himself.
Non-verbal communication plays a more important role than verbal communication in this novel.
The letters that Clym never writes to his mother or sends to Eustacia epitomize the major flaws of Clym's character and the major theme of the book: miscommunication.
In The Return of the Native, memory is like a living, breathing thing on the heath. The heath might be memory personified in a way – it's constantly linked to ruins and artifacts and the past, like a living ancient being. However, nature isn't the only thing tied to the past – certain characters are, too. For example, Eustacia is often mentioned in the same sentence as ancient myths and imagery. But memory is also a powerful motivating force for these characters. Memory is something they experience and feel. We can see how memories of lost love drive the actions of Diggory Venn and Eustacia. And recollections of happier times in the past make the falling-out between Mrs. Yeobright and Clym that much more painful. In a way, the past is never really past in this novel – it lingers on in people's memories, in the ruins found in the heath, in the very atmosphere of the heath itself.
Due to her strong connection to the heath, Eustacia is most strongly linked to the past, despite her longing for the modern, urban world.
By choosing an outcast job, Diggory also chooses to renounce the present so that he can wallow in the past and never get over Thomasin.
If Eustacia had an iPod with an Egdon Heath playlist, then "Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones would be at the top of it. The Stones start off that classic song with, "I can't get no satisfaction." And Eustacia is certainly getting zero satisfaction from living in Egdon Heath. In fact, most of the characters in The Return of the Native are perpetually anxious, restless, dissatisfied, and feeling trapped. This book takes place over just a year, but it seems much longer in terms of our characters' emotional lives and longing – entire epic sagas play out in various individuals' dissatisfaction with life. We can safely say that dissatisfaction is an emotional state that links all the major characters of the novel together.
Eustacia would be dissatisfied no matter where she was – her personality is just naturally negative.
Eustacia is depressed and dissatisfied largely because of the heath; if she had managed to escape to Paris, she would have been happier.
Given the major traits that link the cast of The Return of the Native (dissatisfaction, poor decision-making skills, faulty judgment, depression, pride), it's no wonder that guilt and blame come into play in spades. In particular, these troublesome two define many of the relationships we see here. The bulk of Eustacia and Clym's marriage is dominated by feelings of guilt and blame, especially on Eustacia's part. The notable exception to this guilt-fest is Diggory Venn, who's upset about his situation with Thomasin, but doesn't feel guilty about it. Nor does he really seem to blame Thomasin for her decision not to marry him initially. Diggory may have the right idea here – in the end, guilt and blame usually amount to nothing. It certainly didn't get Eustacia, Clym, or Mrs. Yeobright (the ones doling out the most guilt and blame here) very far in life.
Eustacia handles her own feelings of guilt by blaming her problems on fate or destiny.
Diggory is one of the few characters who doesn't suffer from feelings of guilt or blame; he is sad over his situation with Thomasin, but he doesn't blame her for it, and he doesn't feel guilty about it.
In The Return of the Native we get frequent images of people walking alone. And while they're alone, they are generally silent and are often swallowed up by the heath. The entire world of this novel is a very lonely one. It is both isolated and isolating. We get a strong sense of distance from the outside world, thanks to the real, living presence of history on the heath and the antiquated customs and ideas of the heath residents. But isolation impacts characters on a highly individual level as well. Isolation is a root source of emotional turmoil (especially for folks like Eustacia) and of very modern ennui, or dissatisfaction and sadness.
Despite her depression, Eustacia at times likes and values her isolation since being alone is a way for her to be independent.
In the original ending of the novel, Hardy wrote that Diggory remained a loner for the rest of his life, which is more consistent with his character and with the novel's overall themes.