What is the role of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native?
Egdon Heath is not simply the setting of Hardy's Return of the Native. Rather, in some ways, it is another character, symbolic of an all-seeing, uninvolved god. Hardy personifies the heath in his first chapter (devoted entirely to a description of the heath) by calling the chapter "A Face on Which Time Makes but Little Impression" and using phrases such as the heath "embrowned itself" to demonstrate that the heath alone in the novel is in control of itself and others. Similarly, the heath is timeless because it survives while humans merely work around it (Diggory Venn) or succumb to its isolation (Captain Vye and Clym)
As a Naturalist writer, Hardy's focus on elements of nature which control and often punish humans is overwhelming in Native. Eustacia and Wildeve long to escape the drudgery of the heath, but in the end, nature draws them back in death to the heath. Characters who do not fit the plainness or barrenness of the heath do not fare well there. At the novel's end, Clym lures followers to his non-confrontational lectures in the open air because they feel pity for the man from whom the heath had taken so much.