The Return of the Native | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Return of the Native | Symbols


Egdon Heath

The heath plays such a central role in the novel that some critics have called it a character. Virtually all the events in the narrative unfold there between 1840 and 1850. In the famous description in Book 1, Chapter 1 Hardy describes it as enduring and virtually immemorial. It is a face "on which time makes but little impression." For virtually all the major characters, the heath evokes strong emotions. Eustacia regards it as a prison, while Clym, Diggory Venn, and Thomasin seem comfortable with their surroundings. The heath is, in sum, a symbol of the unchanging natural world—more powerful than any human presence.

The heath is also important as the native ground for the book's "heath people"—the relatively minor characters whose gossip, folkways, and superstitions give Hardy's novel much of its local color. Thus, the Guy Fawkes bonfires, the mummers' playacting, and the Maypole festivities are closely related to the local context, as are such superstitious prejudices as Susan Nunsuch's suspicions of Eustacia as a witch.

The character most closely associated with the heath and its ways is Diggory Venn, the reddleman. Intriguingly, he is able to transcend this relationship in the end, surrendering his soon-to-be outmoded occupation to become a dairy farmer.


Like Egdon Heath, Paris is a symbolic place that evokes a wide range of responses from various characters. For Eustacia, it is a lodestar: a magnetic center of elegance and luxury. Her grandfather, Captain Vye, regards Paris as a "rookery of pomp and vanity." Clym, who knows the city better than any of the other characters, is more than ready to relinquish it as materialistic and vainglorious. His mother, Mrs. Yeobright, however, takes pride in Clym's material success there.

The events in The Return of the Native are set in 1842–43, at which time Paris was an elegant, cosmopolitan European capital. France was then ruled by Louis-Philippe, whose semi-constitutional monarchy was supported by the wealthy business class and granted limited rights to democratic groups and interests.

Yet London, in the 1840s, was almost half again as much the size of Paris, and a city considerably more prominent on the world stage, despite the loss of Britain's American colonies some two generations beforehand. An intriguing aspect of Paris as a symbol in The Return of the Native is what is not said about it. Beyond the generalities of fashion, glamor, and wealth, virtually no one offers any specifics about the enticements of life that would make Paris desirable: food, for example, or art, music, theater, literature, drama, climate, or architecture. One almost has the impression that Paris exists as a byword rather than as a real location. Such a hollow symbolism may be precisely what Hardy intended.


Rainbarrow is a prominent mound on Egdon Heath, associated with a number of the novel's characters and important events. It is, for example, the location of the November 5 bonfires and Eustacia Vye's first appearance in the novel. Symmetrically, it is the venue at the end of the novel for Clym Yeobright's inaugural discourse as an itinerant preacher. At the mid-point of the novel, it is at Rainbarrow that Clym and Eustacia meet to observe a total eclipse of the moon and to pledge to be married to each other.

On one level, Rainbarrow symbolizes the ancient landscape of the heath itself. As Hardy says in Book 1, Chapter 3 it "commands the horizon" for a great distance around. On another level, Rainbarrow serves as a meeting place and as a signal point. Thus, it occupies a central position in the lives of the heath people as well as in the more personal destiny of such characters as Eustacia Vye and Damon Wildeve.

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