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Irony arises throughout the novel, especially in the disparity between intent and performance. Hardy conceives of humanity in relation to ultimate destiny: "Destiny is an inscrutable force; we do not understand its nature or its intentions . . . its acts always show themselves in the guise of inexplicable unexpected blows of chance." Mrs. Yeobright intends reconciliation with her son at the one moment when, by an unlucky combination of circumstances, Eustacia cannot admit her. She departs without seeing her son and dies on the way home, unreconciled with him.
When Clym finally learns the circumstances of this mother's death, he is furious with Eustacia. When his wrath subsides, Clym writes to his wife and asks her to come back. The letter miscarries by a few minutes. Clym, not knowing this, waits expectantly. He flushes hot when he hears a woman's footstep. He opens the door and finds Thomasin come to tell him of Eustacia's ill-fated flight with Wildeve. Ironically, the journey never takes place, for Eustacia throw herself in the stream, and Wildeve dies trying to rescue her. From start to finish of the novel, irony is linked to fate and plays a key role in the action of the plot.
Hardy asserted that "tragedy always underlies comedy." In this novel, there is always tragedy behind every scene. Egdon Heath, which forms the setting for the Return of the Native, is described as "a place perfectly accordant with man's nature . . . like man, slighted and enduring." The nature of existence in the novel is always discordant. Like the harshness of the heath, the characters in the book live in harshness, leading to despair. Hardy seems to say that mankind works hopelessly against destiny, for nothing will modify the will of fate. In spite of themselves and their good intentions, the characters in the novel do not succeed in changing their sorrowful existences. It is a grim picture of life in a grim setting; therefore, it is not surprising that the story ends in tragedy for most of the characters. Clym loses his mother and his wife, and Thomasin loses her husband. Only the harsh heath is constant and foreboding, a symbol of the darkness of life itself.
The ordinary men and women of the heath have their daily work, but their preoccupation is with life and human nature, which they see through the clear country air with a humorous and sometimes cynical eye. Playing no part in the action, this chorus of heath folk stands aloof, offering their critical commentary on the principal characters and actions of the novel. The function of this group of rustics closely parallels the Greek chorus; the main difference is that the humorous detachment of this chorus generally does not create sympathy with the characters like the Greek chorus created. Instead, they often provide comic relief and serve in helping to weave the plot of the story into a tightly knit whole.
Treatment of Nature
Nature, with its unbelievable strength, independence, and darkness, is symbolic of those impersonal forces of Fate that mankind must endure. And the natural world described in the book is never a pretty picture of nature. It is dark, somber, and stormy. In keeping with the gloominess of the plot, nature often turns ugly and putrid. In the darkness of a stormy night, Eustacia comes across "fleshy fungi which at this season lay scattered about the heath like the rotten liver and lungs of some colossal animal." It is also in the darkness of night that she plunges herself into a dark stream. Her stormy nature is swallowed up by a natural world that neither Clym nor Wildeve can master. Like the theme, the plot, and the characters, the natural setting is dark and tragic.