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Return of the Native, like Hardy's other novels, is constructed in a series of scenes. The novel opens with a description of Egdon Heath, in its past and its present. Eustacia, who lives in misery on the heath, is awaiting somebody "greater" than Wildeve whom she could love and who would love her to madness. When Clym Yeobright returns to his native place, Eustacia is certain that this man from Paris is her special somebody and her ticket out of her dreary existence on the heath. The marriage of Clym and Eustacia takes place. For a couple of months they live an idyllic existence, in spite of the fact that Clym is estranged from his mother, who does not approve of the marriage. The mother, hoping for a reconciliation with her son, decides to visit him. The oppressive summer heat exhausts her as she comes in sight of the house, where she sees another man being let in by Eustacia. When she arrives at the door, she sees Clym's furze cutting implements by the door, but her knock goes unanswered; then she sees Eustacia looking out the window, but she doesn't open the door.
Concluding the worst, heart-weary and desolate, the mother retraces her way, is bitten by an adder, and dies. Clym, hearing that his mother has said that she has been cast off by her son, is guilty and remorseful. But when he later reconstructs and pieces together the "crime," he denounces Eustacia and accuses her of deliberate cruelty and infidelity. Eustacia, numbed by shock and grief, returns to her grandfather's house and aided by Wildeve, plans to flee Egdon. Struck by the wretchedness of her plight, she commits suicide instead.
The above plot closely follows the bell-shaped curve of literature. The introduction comes in the first chapters when Egdon Heath is described in detail. The rising action develops the relationship between Eustacia and Wildeve, the marriages of Wildeve to Thomasin and Clym to Eustacia, the breech between Mrs. Yeobright and her son and daughter-in-law, and Eustacia's increasing despondency. The climax occurs when the harsh and rigid Clym, without knowing the circumstances, accuses his wife of infidelity and denying his mother admittance to their home. These accusations cause Eustacia to flee from Clym and seek refuge with her grandfather and to seek help from Wildeve. When she realizes, however, that fate will never let her reach her goals, she plunges herself into the water to commit suicide. Wildeve also dies trying to save her. In the conclusion, Hardy tries to tie up the remaining loose ends related to the remaining characters. Thomasin marries Venn and Clym becomes an itinerant preacher.
Even in minor motifs, there is repetition in the plot. At the first of the book the bonfires are lighted on the fifth of November. Wildeve sees Eustacia's bonfire and reads it as a signal for him to come. At the end of the book, it is again the fifth of November and the bonfires are lighted. Once again, Clym sees a bonfire at the Vye household, and, assuming it is another signal from Eustacia, he comes running to her side. In a similar manner, the story begins in the darkness of night with Eustacia and Wildeve meeting out on the heath. The action of the story concludes in the darkness of night with Wildeve and Eustacia meeting, under very unfortunate circumstances, out on the heath. These repetitions are obviously a successful means of weaving the events of the plot closely together. In spite of the fact that Hardy wrote the novel in a series of scenes that could be easily serialized, he has masterfully pulled the story together to work as a whole.