Thomas Hardy's long literary career witnessed and encompassed the most important artistic and literary changes of the modern era. Hardy was born in 1840 near Dorcester, England; before his death in 1928 at the age of 87, the genre of the Victorian novel had flowered and faded, and the erstwhile avant-garde movement known as modernism dominated the English literary landscape. In his ornate, wordy style and his sensitivity to issues of class, Hardy seemed a characteristic Victorian novelist. But his writing increasingly revealed a sensibility and a moral code that seemed to discard the strict Victorian social and sexual mores, and that tended towards atheism and subjective morality rather than an absolutist Christianity. His philosophy was out of place in Victorian England, and presaged the coming social and cultural upheaval of modernism.
Trained as an architect, Hardy was at first unsuccessful in breaking through in the London literary world. His first poems and novels went unpublished or unappreciated. It was only after Hardy's return to his native Bockhampton that his novels began to attract attention and commercial success. Far from the Madding Crowd, published in 1874, ushered in his most productive period; it was soon followed by many other novels, including The Return of the Native--published serially in monthly installments in an English magazine--in 1878. Controversy over the moral stance of his later novels Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1896) led Hardy to abandon writing novels, and to concentrate on poems and--to a lesser extent--short stories, for which he also won deserved fame.
It is not at all coincidental that Hardy's success as a novelist followed his return home to Dorcester. Setting is of crucial importance in Hardy's novels, and his finest novels are all set in the region of "Wessex," which, while fictional, is based upon Hardy's own native corner of England. Wessex follows the geographical contours of Dorset, England, with only a few changes made by Hardy: it is not hard to see how the culture, language and geography of Hardy's home country shape his novels. The Return of the Native takes as one of its central themes--and, arguably, as its central character--the tract of windswept upland in Hardy's Wessex known as Egdon Heath. The novel is deeply rooted in the folk customs of the residents of the Heath, and attempts to imitate their attitudes and even their patterns of speech. It is the return to the heath of the educated Clym Yeobright that supplies the novel's title and catalyzing crisis. This surely derives from the experience of Thomas Hardy himself, who only a few years before the publication of the novel made his own return to his native country.