Mrs. Yeobright, honoring her agreement with Diggory Venn, sets off across the heath to visit her son Clym and her daughter-in-law Eustacia, in an attempt to reconcile with them. It is the hottest day of summer, and the older woman becomes exhausted. On her way, she sees an anonymous furze-cutter walking in front of her: she soon realizes that this man is her son, and she bewails how low he has sunk. Sitting in the shade of some trees near Clym's house, she sees first Clym, and a little while later another man, enter the house.
The other man, as it turns out, is Damon Wildeve, who--frightened out of his nighttime visits by the machinations of Diggory Venn--has resolved to visit Eustacia in broad daylight. Eustacia lets him into the house, where Clym is fast asleep on the hearthrug. The two former lovers discuss their predicaments. Eustacia is unhappy in her marriage, living in a tiny cottage on the heath with an invalid, furze-cutter husband; Wildeve imagines himself still in love with Eustacia, who does not entirely rebuff his advances. While they are speaking, Mrs. Yeobright knocks on the door. Looking out the window, Eustacia recognizes her, and decides that she cannot open the door for her, because of their enmity and because she is afraid that Mrs. Yeobright will be suspicious of Damon's presence within the house. Withdrawing into a back room, Eustacia waits for Clym to wake up and open the door; indeed, she hears him moving, and hears him say the word "Mother." She is shocked when, after letting Damon out the back and waiting a little while, she comes into the front room to find Clym still asleep--he was merely talking in his sleep--and Mrs. Yeobright long gone.
Mrs. Yeobright is heart-broken. She knows that Eustacia saw her out the window, and had seen Clym enter the house; unaware of the confusion within the house, she imagines that the couple consciously decided to turn her away. She walks home across the heath, and finding Johnny Nonsuch instructs him to tell his mother that he has "seen a broken-hearted woman cast off by her son." Soon afterwards she collapses, too exhausted to continue. Back at his house, Clym, awaking from his nap, resolves to go visit his mother; he is unaware that she visited and was not admitted to the house. Eustacia does not tell him about his mother's abortive visit, but tries unsuccessfully to convince him not to go. Walking across the heath, Clym comes across the prostrate form of an unconscious woman: his mother. Clym picks up his mother and carries her to a cottage, before running to get help. Not only is she exhausted and stricken by heat, she has been bitten by an adder; the locals, assembled to help, try the folk-cure of rubbing her wound with the fat of fried adders.
Eustacia, in the meanwhile, leaves her cottage, intending to walk towards Blooms-End and meet Clym on his return. She runs into her father, Captain Vye, who tells her that Damon Wildeve has just inherited a substantial fortune--11,000 pounds. Soon afterwards she runs into Wildeve himself. Her attraction to him is all the more powerful because he now has the means of effecting her great dream: a move to Paris. As they walk together towards Blooms-End, they come upon the cottage in which the locals are gathered to minister to Mrs. Yeobright. They listen as, despite the efforts of the local surgeon, Mrs. Yeobright dies; just afterwards, Johnny Nonsuch arrives at the cottage and tells them Mrs. Yeobright's last words, that she is "a broken- hearted woman cast-off by her son."
One of the most troubling aspects of this novel's tragic element is that it is caused not by evil or bad intentions, but by misperception, misunderstanding and unfortunate coincidence. As the novel progresses, Clym will blame first himself and then Eustacia for his mother's death. But in fact, as the reader well knows, the tragedy is not really anyone's fault. The worst of which Eustacia can be accused is confusion and misunderstanding: she honestly believed that Clym would open the door for his mother. And she could not have known that the consequence of not opening the door immediately would have been Mrs. Yeobright's death. Indeed, throughout the novel the narrator goes out of his way to observe that the characters--even Eustacia or Damon Wildeve--rarely act with any planned malice or immoral intentions. Of all the characters, it is most often Diggory Venn and Mrs. Yeobright who actually plot; the others merely follow circumstance and passion. The meeting between Eustacia and Damon at the dance is pure coincidence; the bonfire which draws Damon to Eustacia late in the novel, when they plan their escape, was set by Charley, who did not understand the significance of his actions; Damon himself never tells Eustacia of his newfound fortune.
Although The Return of the Native abounds in romantic and fantastic elements, it is in some senses a quite naturalistic novel as well. The school of naturalism was one of the dominant novelistic schools in the last quarter of the 19th century. Naturalist novels sought to portray reality without filters, plainly and pitilessly, without literary euphemism. They often depict a world in which characters are placed at the mercy of the unseen and infinitely powerful forces that govern society. The Return of the Native partakes of the naturalist perspective. With its unflinching look at a tragedy that--arguably, at least--seems to have no villains, the novel places its characters at the mercy of larger forces.