Thomasin is deeply shaken by the sudden death of her husband, Damon Wildeve, whatever his faults. She moves to Blooms-End, to live with Clym. Predictably, given his mournful demeanor and deep sensitivity, Clym is shattered by the death of his wife Eustacia. He withdraws deeply into himself, living in solitude in his half of the house. With the passage of time, Thomasin begins to recover from her sadness, and to take joy in her infant daughter. One summer, nearly two years after the tragic deaths of Damon and Eustacia, Diggory Venn makes his reappearance at the house. He no longer works as a reddleman, having bought the dairy that belonged to his father; consequently, he is no longer entirely red. He secures Thomasin's permission for the local people to set up a maypole near Blooms-End, although she does not join in the revelry. That evening, after the maypole dance is over, Thomasin finds Venn waiting for moonrise by the maypole, so that the light might enable him to find a glove that some girl has dropped. Thomasin, whose interest in Diggory is rising, wonders which local girl Diggory could be so concerned about as to wait hours to find her lost glove. She eventually discovers, however, that the glove was her own, dropped by her servant Rachel. When she sees Diggory one day while strolling with her daughter, she asks for the glove back, and they begin talking rather flirtatiously.
Clym, meanwhile, has become concerned that Thomasin's girlhood affection for him has rekindled. In obedience to his dead mother's wish, he resolves to ask Thomasin to marry him, even though his own capacity for love has been largely extinguished. Thomasin pre-empts him, however, by asking whether she should marry Diggory. Clym is surprised, and he is inclined to tell her not to marry, out of respect for Mrs. Yeobright's long-held belief that Diggory was not gentlemanly enough for Thomasin. Eventually, however, Thomasin convinces Clym that the marriage is less objectionable now that Diggory is no longer a reddleman, and the two become engaged.
The final chapter of the novel shows the local workers--Fairway, Christian Cantle, Sam and the others--stuffing a feather mattress as a gift for the newlyweds, who have a joyous wedding and celebration which Clym does not feel like attending. Instead he goes for a walk, and finds himself at Mistover Knapp, Eustacia's old home, where he meets Charley, the servant who developed a love for Eustacia. They return to Blooms-End together, and Clym gives Charley a lock of Eustacia's hair. Looking into the window of Thomasin's half of the house, Charley describes the party to Clym: the celebrants appear to be enjoying themselves, without a thought to Clym's absence.
Diggory and Thomasin depart for Diggory's home, and Clym is left alone in the house, where his mother's memory remains a tragic presence. He becomes an itinerant preacher, giving lectures to local peasants about moral subjects; his listeners have mixed feelings about his preaching, but as a tragic figure he is received with sympathy wherever he goes.
Given the tragedy that pervades the great majority of The Return of the Native, the novel's happy ending seems a bit jarring. And, indeed, the original plan for the novel did not call for the marriage with which Thomasin, the novel's most virtuous and perhaps least interesting character, is rewarded. In a footnote to the text, Hardy comments on the change; it is worth reprinting the entirety of the footnote:
The writer may state here than the original conception of the story did not design a marriage between Thomasin and Venn. He was to have retained his isolated and weird character to the last, and to have disappeared mysteriously from the heath, nobody knowing whither--Thomasin remaining a widow. But certain circumstances of serial publication led to a change of intent. Readers can therefore choose between the ending, and those with an austere artistic code can assume the more consistent conclusion to be the true one.
As was common with British novels of the time, The Return of the Native was originally published in serial form, with part of the novel appearing in a magazine each month. To please the popular readership of the magazine, Hardy was advised to give the story a happy ending. It is commonly assumed among critics--and easily inferred from the text--that the happy ending was not the ending he would have given his novel.
It is noteworthy, however, that whatever Hardy's personal preferences, he makes no sort of authoritative moral judgment in his footnote. He merely advises the reader to choose his or her own ending, based on aesthetic criteria, implying that a more "austere" aesthetic would yield a more "consistent conclusion"--presumably, the conclusion that does not involve a marriage between Thomasin and Venn. But the brilliance of this novel is in its ambiguity and its multiplicity of meanings. Would Venn's mysterious disappearance and Thomasin's eternal widowhood really have constituted a more "consistent conclusion"? After all, it can be argued that all the characters in this novel are served with their proper rewards. If Eustacia and Damon Wildeve are seen as vicious conspirators, if Mrs. Yeobright is understood to be an inflexible and bitter old woman, if Clym is a shortsighted and somewhat foolish ingénue, then they all receive their just deserts--and Thomasin, who was never anything but kind and faithful, deserves her reward as well. When reading The Return of the Native, it is important not to be tricked into accepting a single interpretation of the characters, or presuming the existence of a single moral message.
Even if the novel had ended without Thomasin and Venn's marriage, it is to be presumed that Clym's fate would not have changed. He becomes an itinerant preacher, spreading not Christian religious ideas but humanistic moral notions. He is a figure not entirely to be admired or heeded by his listeners. In the picture we have of him as the novel ends, he is preaching atop Rainbarrow, and his listeners are hardly paying rapt attention: "they listened... while they abstractedly pulled heather, stripped ferns, or tossed pebbles." The novel ends with the information that "Some believed him, and some believed not." It is only his tragic history that assures Clym a kind reception wherever he goes. He was a man of vast potential, referred to at times throughout the novel in almost Christ-like terms, willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the multitude. His speeches from Rainbarrow are referred to--somewhat ironically--as "Sermons on the Mount." His mission to the people has not been entirely successful; he has been weakened and lessened by his tragedy. The "Native" of the title must be seen as a tragic hero if he is a hero at all.