Chapter 1- A Face on Which Time Makes but Little Impression
The first chapter gives a detailed description of Egdon heath as it appears on the afternoon of November 5th. The landscape is magnificent and imposing, but nevertheless remains simple and gentle. Hardy describes the heath as the enemy of civilisation, since it perseveres without ever allowing significant change to itself. Hardy concludes that the heath is the most enduring of the natural environments. The human presence remains apparent there, however, in the form of both the ancient road and the burial mound, or barrow.
Chapter 2 – Humanity Appears upon the Scene, Hand in Hand with Trouble
An old man - Captain Vye, though he is not identified until much later - walks along the heath road. He sees a red, covered wagon led by a driver stained equally red, and recognizes it as belonging to a
reddleman – a purveyor of red ochre, which was used to mark sheep. Hardy suggests that, having chosen such a solitary, outcast profession, the reddleman is clearly hiding from something in his life. The reddleman is Diggory, though he is not identified until later.
After hearing noises from inside Diggory's van, the old man questions him as to who or what is in his van. The reddleman reveals that he is helping a woman who is currently asleep therein. He preserves the woman’s integrity by not allowing the old man to look upon her, and he will reveal no details as to her identity or situation.
Diggory stops to rest his horses, and Captain Vye continues on. The reddleman observes the figure of a woman standing at the top of the barrow. As another person approaches her location, she quickly leaves, after which several other figures arrive. It is obvious that the woman does not wish to be seen, and is unlikely to return to that spot.
Chapter 3 – The Custom of the County
The scene shifts to the barrow summit that Diggory observed at the end of the previous chapter.
The Egdon heath locals arrive on the barrow carrying furze faggots, which are bundles of gorse used as kindling. They are preparing to light a bonfire in celebration of Guy Fawkes Night, and there are similar bonfires in sight all along the horizon, beyond Rainbarrow and across the parishes. Grandfer Cantle, an old man, begins to sing, showing more enthusiasm than talent, while the other locals discuss the particulars of a wedding that had happened earlier that day.
Details of the wedding - between Thomasin Yeobright and Damon Wildeve, yet to be introduced - and those involved come quick. The bride's cousin Clym is set to return to Egdon at Christmas, because Thomasin will be leaving her aunt and Clym's mother, Mrs. Yeobright, alone in the house after the ceremony. The whole union was surrounded by some controversy - Mrs. Yeobright had initially disapproved of Wildeve for her niece, and she announced as much one Sunday in church. Each member of the group reveals how infrequently he now attends church, since the journey does not seem worth the slim chance of redemption offered there
Olly Dowden, the besom maker, reflects how the controversy has passed, and how the couple had only hours before wedded in a different parish. The group then considers Wildeve’s position. Though he currently runs the Quiet Woman inn and pub, he is a smart man who had once been an engineer before circumstances lowered his prospects.
The group then briefly discusses the effect of learning on their community, and how education proves of minimal value there. Fairway, the barber, recalls how he read the marriage register on his own wedding day, only to discover the names of a couple whom he knew fought constantly. Christian Cantle, Grander Cantle's timid grandson, bemoans his inability to find a woman who will marry him. He believes this misfortune is an effect of having been born on a moonless night. The other locals tease Christian, claiming he will be prey to ghosts because he sleeps alone. They mention how a red ghost has recently been spotted on the heath.
The subject changes again, and the locals agree to Grandfer Cantle’s proposal that they sing together for the new bride and groom after they return from the ceremony. As they observe the fires around the parish, they see one near Captain Vye’s secluded home, and deduce it was lit by his granddaughter, Eustacia. Fairway and Susan Nunsuch dance noisily in the embers of the fire, along with Grandfer Cantle and Olly Dowden.
The party is then startled by a visitor. It is the reddleman, looking for a shortcut to Mrs. Yeobright’s house. He is guided on his way, but Mrs. Yeobright herself arrives at the bonfire ten minutes later. They explain that Diggory was looking for her, and that she will be able to meet him on his return. The remaining revellers set off to serenade the new couple, while Mrs. Yeobright leaves on her journey, now escorted by Olly Dowden because it is growing dark.
Chapter 4 – The Halt on the Turnpike Road
Olly and Mrs Yeobright descend from the barrow. Olly indiscreetly questions Mrs. Yeobright about Thomasin's wedding, but Mrs. Yeobright dodges his questions. They reach Wildeve’s Patch, and part ways.
There, Mrs. Yeobright meets the reddleman, who is named for the first time as Diggory Venn. He explains that Thomasin is asleep in his van, after having earlier approached him in distress, claiming her wedding plans had gone awry. They wake Thomasin from her slumber, and she prepares to walk home with her aunt.
Mrs. Yeobright recognises Venn, and asks why he has changed professions. He does not answer, but rather looks to Thomasin, who blushes, and it is obvious that she understands the reason.
Chapter 5 – Perplexity Among Honest People
Thomasin tells her aunt about the morning's events. She and Wildeve could not be married because the marriage licence had accidentally been issued for another parish. Thomasin was embarrassed by Wildeve's error, and did not wish to travel back with him unmarried. Soon after setting off alone, she saw Diggory Venn and asked him for a lift.
The two women reach the Quiet Woman inn, which is owned and managed by Wildeve. Hardy describes him as a man whose character repels men, but attracts women. They confront him there. Mrs. Yeobright expresses skepticism over the license issue, and Thomasin explicitly asks him if he intends to marry her. Wildeve sulkily reminds Thomasin that Mrs. Yeobright originally opposed the union, but now demands it in order to avoid scandal. Thomasin insists that Wildeve is incapable of causing pain, so she knows he will marry her.
As they talk, the locals arrive and sing for the couple. Thomasin is initially terrified of suffering further humiliation through a "skimmity ride," which was used to punish a nagging or adulterous spouse. As a result, she and her aunt escape through a back window. The locals, however, are unaware that the marriage has not taken place, and so Wildeve gives them free drinks in support of a toast for the couple.
Grandfer Cantle offers memories of Thomasin's father, and his musical talents. Christian Cantle grows morose when he thinks of Mr. Yeobright's sudden death, and quickly confesses his superstitious fears. The party notices a distant bonfire through the window of the inn, and Fairway speculates that it has something to do with the witch-like creature who live on the hill.
The well-wishers leave, and Wildeve notices a bottle of mead which he had planned to give to one of the locals. He leaves the inn on the pretext of delivering it, though he is actually attracted by the sight of the fire, and an unspecified female whom he wishes to see there.
Chapter 6 The Figure against the Sky
On the barrow, Eustacia Vye waits alone. She is the figure Diggory had seen earlier. Hardy describes her as mournful. She uses a telescope to look out over the heath, and an hourglass to record time, strange because she also has a watch.
She walks along the foot track as she thinks. Her fire is composed of hard wood, so it burns longer and brighter than the neighbouring furze fires. It is tended by a young boy, Johnny Nunsuch, whom Eustacia has convinced to do her will. Captain Vye, her grandfather and guardian on the heath, chastises his granddaughter for using their best wood, but she insists she did so to please Johnny, who in his innocence contradicts her claim.
When Johnny asks for permission to leave, Eustacia offers him a crooked sixpence – a traditional good luck charm – as bribe to stay longer and tend the fire. She tells him to listen for the sound of a hop-frog jumping in a nearby pond, which she says will signify rain and hence give him license to return home. Finally, he hears the sound, and she gives him him reward and sends him off.
Wildeve comes out from the darkness. It is quickly apparent that they were once in a relationship. Eustacia has heard that his marriage was not finalized, and believes this is sign that he remains devoted to her rather than to Thomasin. He is surprised at her assertion, and they argue over who was responsible for the end of their relationship.
Eustacia is angry, but recovers when she realizes that Wildeve remains attracted to her. He tries to save face by insisting it is she who is still attracted to him, but she knows she is in control and so is not bothered by his assertions.
Chapter 7 – Queen of Night
Hardy describes Eustacia as having the passion and demeanor of a goddess. After describing her singular beauty, he briefly tells her history. She was originally from Budmouth, a fashionable seaside town. When her parents died, Eustacia moved in with her grandfather, Captain Vye, who subesquently moved to Egdon upon his retirement. Eustacia, used to the flurry of life in Budmouth, felt trapped in Egdon from the very beginning.
Hardy further describes her as a passonate woman, desperate for love and for attention. He also notes that she is a contrary soul, who often sympathizes with figures that others despise, like the Philistines or Pontious Pilate.
Bored and trapped by her surroundings, Eustacia does not appreciate the heath's beauty, but instead spends her days longing for a hero to sweep her off her feet. The closest she came to finding such a figure was with Wildeve, though she acknowledges that her passion for him came less from his own virtue than from a lack of other suitable options.
Chapter 8 - Those Who are Found Where There Is Said to Be Nobody
Johnny Nunsuch is returning home after being dismissed by Eustacia. He sees an unusual shape in the gloom, and, frightened, returns to Rainbarrow to ask Eustacia to send an escort home with him.
When he arrives back at the barrow, he sees Eustacia talking with Wildeve, and hides in the shadows. Realizing it is imprudent to interrupt, Johnny attempts the journey again. This time, he sees Diggory from afar, and slips from fear. When Diggory helps Johnny by bandaging his wounds and finding his lost sixpence, they talk. Diggory dispels the common rumors about reddlemen, and explains that their red color is just an occupational hazard, and not a sign of evil.
Johnny then tells Diggory about his time with Eustacia and about the meeting he observed, all of which makes Diggory suspicious. When the boy adds that he overheard discussion of another meeting, Diggory begins to understand that Wildeve is betraying Thomasin.
Chapter 9 – Love Leads a Shrewd Man into Strategy
This chapter describes Diggory's unique and isolated position in society.
After Johnny leaves for home, Diggory Venn opens and reads an old letter. It is from Thomasin, and reveals that he had once proposed marriage to her, but that she rejected him. She explains in the letter that she cares for him, but only as a friend. She compares her affection for him to her affection for her cousin Clym, whom her aunt had perhaps intended for her husband. Finally, she believed that his position as a small dairy farmer would not meet her aunt, Mrs. Yeobright's, approval.
After being spurned by Thomasin, Diggory quit his family farm and became a reddleman, a trade in which he grew somewhat wealthy. Though the job requires much travel, he endeavors to stay near Egdon and Thomasin.
He considers the news Johnny has told him. Initially, he believes Eustacia is attempting to steal Wildeve from Thomasin, and so he begins to stake out their meeting place. A week later, he is there to observe their meeting.
Wildeve asks Eustacia whether he should marry Thomasin, since Thomasin will be judged harshly if the marriage does not take place. Eustacia is initially haughty, and insists that she has first claim to Wildeve, whom she insists abandoned her for Thomasin. However, she soon realises how much she enjoys the intrigue of the love triangle. Wildeve mourns his dilemma, and teases Eustacia that his passions can alternate as frequently as hers if he pleases. Both agree that they would like to leave Egdon Heath, and Wildeve asks Eustacia to escape to America with him. She asks for time to consider the idea.
Chapter 10 – A Desperate Atttempt at Persuasion
One week after the postponed wedding, Venn confronts Eustacia about the situation. He calls on her at Captain Vye's home, and, intrigued by the strange invitation, she walks along the heath with him. He is initially subtle in suggesting that Wildeve will never marry her. When she refuses to confront his meaning, he admits he overheard their meeting. She insists that she will not give Wildeve up.
Venn then offers to help Eustacia escape from Egdon, as he knows she hates it. He explains that a lady in Budmouth is seeking a country-bred companion, but she is insulted by the idea of working as a servant.
Once Diggory leaves, she realizes that she is again attracted to Wildeve now that he is in demand and her pursuit of him will bring excitement.
Chapter 11 – The Dishonesty of an Honest Woman
Diggory is disappointed about his failure with Eustacia, and sees Mrs. Yeobright approaching the Quiet Woman inn. He intercepts her, and learns she plans to confront Wildeve about his intentions. Diggory then offers to marry Thomasin himself, and explains the circumstances of his first proposal. Mrs. Yeobright is unmoved, and insists Thomasin should marry Wildeve.
When Mrs. Yeobright speaks to Wildeve, however, she uses this other proposal as leverage. Wildeve is surprised to learn of it, and asks for time to consider whether to renounce his claim to her hand. She agrees, provided that Wildeve does not communicate with Thomasin in the meantime.
That evening, Wildeve visits Eustacia, who keeps him waiting a while before meeting him outside. He tells her of Thomasin's new suitor, and she accuses him of using her as a "stop gap" (82). They agree to discuss the issue further on the following Monday, but once he leaves, Eustacia feels her affection decreasing now that Wildeve is less in demand.
When she returns indoors, Captain Vye tells her the news from the inn: Clym Yeobright, who has been living in Paris, is returning to Egdon. This news intrigues Eustacia.
In many ways, the main character in The Return of the Native is the heath itself. It is a complicated place, both empty and profound, and serves as both setting and symbol for the passions that drive the plot. Hardy reveals the dominance of the heath from the opening of the novel. He uses oxymoron and antonym to reveals the diversity and complex nature of this wild environment, describing it as "majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity" (3).
His novel is about tragic emotions and large personalities, but he posits these as ultimately small in contrast with the environment of the heath. He personifies the heath when he describes it as wearing an "antique brown dress" that it has never traded for another (4). This stands in stark contrast to the ever-changing fashions of humanity, to the point that the heath's constant "brown dress" provides a "satire on human vanity in clothes" (4). Hardy is not writing a nature book, however. Instead, the constancy of the heath provides a perspective on the emotional vacillations of his characters. If they are wise enough to allow it, they can realize that their petty squabbles are ultimately dwarfed by the greater forces in the world - time and death, both symbolized in the heath.
Book 1 also introduces most of the main characters, as well as Hardy's omniscient point of view. Consider the first characters he introduces - Captain Vye and Diggory Venn. The former is initially compared to the mountain, which implies either that he is part of the landscape, or that the landscape is a universal reference for all things. Regardless, we can sense the author's perspective tightening onto a limited human tale from the larger canvas of time and nature. By establishing this omniscient point of view, Hardy is free to both empathize with his characters and judge them from a detached place.
Diggory Venn is initially introduced as a complicated character. He is representative of a dying trade, one that necessarily ostracizes him both because of a nomadic existence and a debilitating red color that stains his skin. Hardy gives us some indication that such solitude is a self-penance for not having convincing Thomasin to marry him. Having been rejected by the woman he loves, he chooses to live amongst nature instead of amongst humans. This decision in part explains the nobility he continually shows in the novel. He is not corrupted by the selfishness and squabbling of humanity, but instead remains purely devoted to the heath that he wanders. Though he does have bitter feelings about Thomasin's refusal, he reveals a pure love through his attempts to secure her social reputation even though it does not directly benefit him. His strange appearance is ironic, because though it feeds superstition, it is a sign of his honesty, whereas Eustacia's beauty serves as sign of her disloyalty.
Before introducing any other main characters, Hardy immerses the reader in the lifestyle of the heath through its inhabitants. Near the bonfire, the heath residents serve as a type of Greek chorus, who discuss backstory through a particular vernacular. They are lively, excitable, and prone to gossip. Christian Cantle introduces the supernatural quality of the heath, which connects to the ultimate power of the heath itself. Hardy will return to this group throughout the novel, usually to add local color to life on the heath, and to give the reader insight into how his main plot is viewed by the larger society. Here, they all know about the wedding that has (supposedly) taken place, and discuss the history of Wildeve and Thomasin alike.
Perhaps the character who most exemplifies the complications of the heath is Eustacia Vye. Venn considers an apt similie when he compares her to the tiger beetle, which can appear dull but is actually splendid when viewed in the correct light. Her beauty is singular, and her character is only magnificent when understood. Otherwise, she can seem dour and mean.
However, what most complicates Eustacia - and will partially lead to her tragic downfall - is her unique perspective as a woman. Venn assumes she is driven by the same desires that drive other women - the desire for a good husband, social standing, etc. However, Eustacia is fiercely independent, and willfully contrary. She wants a dynamic life full of excitement, but her options are limited because of her femininity. These two forces are clear in this first Book. Though she pretends to be a maiden in search of love with Wildeve, she is actually playing a power game. It is clear that she does not love him, but rather is intrigued by the excitement flirtation can bring. Hardy does tell us that she ultimately wants love, but she has been hardened by a life where finding love and contentment seems impossible. Her reputation - a woman's most valuable asset in finding a husband in this period - is far less important to her than her happiness is. While a modern reader might find this easy to understand, it is far stranger given the historical context.
In fact, Hardy gives Eustacia an almost supernatural air that will continue to resonate throughout the novel. She is first seen in silhouette, which establishes her as otherworldly. Her power over Johnny Nunsuch, her grandfather, and Wildeve paints her as bewitching. His comparisons, which link Eustacia to both a contemporary actress and an ancient Greek writer, emphasize her timeless qualities. Further, her use of a telescope is symbolic - she is forever looking to the distance, the world beyond. Similarly, her use of an hourglass (even though she has a watch) connect her to the ancient passage of time. The fact that both items came from her grandfather's seafaring days suggest a connection to life in the distance. She is far greater than her physical being; she is instead defined by her almost otherworldly passion.
Eustacia’s physical and psychological descriptions further emphasize her mystical qualities. She is said to have a ‘flame-like’ soul, if such a thing were visible." Her "queenly" appearance belies the passion which lies beneath. Eustacia desires to be "loved to madness", and she is looking for a blaze of passion rather than a constant steady flame (55). This flame explains her behavior in Book 1, in which she is more interested in temporary, powerful feelings than in the steady attraction of a long-term commitment. These intense emotions both distinguish Eustacia, and lead to her tragic downfall. Ironically, while she embodies the most contradictions and is therefore emblematic of the heath, she is bored by it and wants most of all to escape it.
Wildeve is also a complicated character, though he is clearly self-involved. When the reader first learns that Mrs. Yeobright opposed his marriage with Thomasin, it makes her seem too strict, but details later suggest that her disapproval showed wisdom. One symbol that helps understand Wildeve is Wildeve's Path, which Olly Dowden explains is land that was tamed and cultivated by others before Wildeve came, but was given his name once he arrived and took credit for it. This image suggests he is one who usurps and uses, rather than labors and conquers. Wildeve is already cast in a negative light before he has even been officially introduced to the reader. His vacillations with Eustacia - atop his very clear acknowledgment of how his decisions can hurt Thomasin's reputation - illustrate his concern with self-image over nobility. In many ways, he is a good match for Eustacia because of his vacillations and desire to escape, but he lacks her fiery emotional quality.
Thomasin, in contrast to Wildeve, is beautiful, simple, and pure. However her distress is clear in Hardy's initial description, which contrasts her hopeful air with a "film of anxiety and grief" (30). She offers a more traditional depiction of a lady in this time period, and as such stands in contrast to Eustacia. Thomasin merely wants a good husband and a strong reputation, and as such has far less agency in the novel. She rather quickly becomes a tool towards judging the nobility and goodness of other characters, rather than a strong, complicated personality in her own right. Her greatest fears are that she will be shamed (by something like a "skimmity-ride," which would never happen because neither of them are in a position to commit adultery).
It is useful to understand the historical nature of the bonfires. While they were ostensibly burnt in celebration of Guy Fawkes Day, which commemorates a 1606 plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, Hardy insists they are grander, and imitate ancient funeral pyres and offerings to the gods Thor and Woden. His desire to place them in a more ancient context conforms to his tragic sense, which tries to see his plot in its larger context of time.
Finally, the conflict between a traditional and modern world is introduced here. Eustacia embodies it, but only in terms of herself. The local Chorus considers it more fully in discussing education and church. They admire education, but do not believe it holds the keys to life that modern thought claims. Further, the benefit of church is open to doubt, since they do not believe it impacts their lives as workers. In terms of both, they would rather put their present before an uncertain future.