The Timelessness of Egdon Heath
Upon delving into any number of essays focused on Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, one is almost certain to come across a few important issues. The first issue is the character of the setting, Egdon Heath, which Hardy establishes in that long, lovely description in the first chapter and then comes back to throughout the book. More than most novels, even the bulk of Victorian romances, this book uses the setting as a character, a living presence, and not just as a buffer to linger over in between scenes. It seldom fails to impress. Critics who do not think much of Hardy’s attributes as a novelist will usually point out, to soften the tone of their criticism, how he brings Egdon Heath to life— it’s their way of paying homage to the man whose literary reputation is firmly established. Similarly, critics often point out his greatest weakness as a fiction writer: that he often stretched credibility too far by expecting his readers to believe that awkward twists in the plot happened because of coincidence.
These two outstanding aspects of The Return of the Native, though often mentioned just in passing and almost always separately, are in fact supports bracing one another—wedges of the same frame that Hardy used to present a unified worldview. The timelessness of the heath, and the unlikely confluence of the events that go on there, blend to create a unique place where nature itself is unnatural.
Stories, of course, have to happen somewhere; moreover, the stories that are the most artistically sound use their settings to manifest what is happening to the characters. Some novels, especially if they are set in the present and under familiar circumstances, can take their settings for granted, offering up names of towns and streets and occasional descriptions of the surroundings. When the location will probably be unfamiliar—most notably in science fiction or fantasy or historical fiction—the writer is obliged to paint a fuller landscape. What is notable about The Return of the Native is that Hardy could have effectively set the scene with far less detail than he did in fact use. It is a desolate area; the people there live as their ancestors did; the railroad has not arrived yet. That covers all that needs to be covered.
Instead, he opens the book with a haunting description that extends from sky to ground, from dark to light, and from the present to the past. Other novels occur in settings that have evolved in ways corresponding to the laws of history, but the rules of physics don’t apply to Egdon Heath.
In his study of Hardy’s career, Richard Carpenter cites John Patterson as identifying the heath as Limbo or the Cimmeron of Homer—places that are balanced between this world and Hades—not miserable but certainly not places of life. Hardy writes that the heath has the ability to “retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause and dread.” The character of this place is so crucial to telling this story that it is expanded across six pages, which is an incredible amount of space for a novelist to spend on a description of anything. Also telling is the fact that it is situated first in the book, establishing its importance before any specific human characters are introduced.
Carpenter describes this setting as more than an image: it is a convenient narrative tool, allowing Hardy’s characters to summon one another across miles with signal fires and also to bump into each other unexpectedly as they wander the twisted paths through the furze. “By confining nearly all of his action to its terrain,” he writes, Hardy “achieves a unity of place which markedly aids in the creation of dramatic effects.” It is a handy set- brought together in order to make the story work, but it is in no way a superbly successful one. If Egdon Heath were flawless in drawing readers into the novel’s magical spell, the reader would be left...
(The entire section is 7,402 words.)