The Return of the Native Questions and Answers
by Thomas Hardy

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What is the role of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native?

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Egdon Heath acts as a constant reminder of what is permanent and enduring in this world of ours. The lives of the various characters that take place against its majestic backdrop, on the other hand, are fleeting and ephemeral. Long after these men and women have shuffled off this mortal coil, Egdon Heath will still be there, as imposing and as beautiful as ever.

The dominance of Edgon Heath in The Return of the Native is reflected in the fact that all of the characters are, to a considerable extent, defined by their relation to it. Even the strongest characters in the story have no real identity apart from the Heath. This extraordinary feature of the natural world inspires love and hate in fairly equal measure, leading some scholars to see the Heath as the story's protagonist. In one particularly poignant exchange, Damon openly proclaims his hatred for the Heath. Eustacia concurs, describing it as her misery, her cross, and her death.

What this exchange reveals is the extent to which all of the characters in the story experience the almost quasi-mystical relationship with Egdon Heath. They don't just walk upon it or live against its backdrop; Edgon Heath has entered into their very souls, for good or ill. That being so, it becomes impossible for anyone to escape the Heath; wherever they go and whatever they do, this awe-inspiring wonder of the natural world will forever remain a part of them.

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McKinstry Rose eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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.

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