illustration of Eustacia standing in the forest

The Return of the Native

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 is the fictional part of Wessex (also fictional) in which The Return of the Native takes place. It is a large, uninhabited expanse covered with gorse and heather and few trees. The heath, which Hardy describes as isolated and lonely, resists civilization and is the dwelling place instead of the natural and the Celtic, pagan history of England. Edgon Heath has a way of resisting outside forces and keeping its inhabitants from leaving.

Eustacia Vye is a native of the heath but yearns only to escape it. However, in the end, she cannot escape, which shows the power of the heath over people. In many ways, Eustacia is like the heath, as she is described as a kind of goddess drawing her beauty from nature. Like the heath, she is dark and isolated, as she does not connect well to the people around her. The heath functions as a kind of natural parallel of Eustacia and her inner darkness. While she detests the heath, Eustacia is very much like it.

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Egdon Heath is the setting of the novel and is integral to the events in it. The book begins with a vivid description of the heath, emphasizing the flat, infertile land. Nothing can be grown there that is of worth to anyone. This heath then symbolizes the people who live at Egdon Heath. They are unable to produce anything while living there, and the only way anyone gains anything is to inherit it. To have any kind of advantage in the world, a resident of Egdon Heath must move away to find opportunities.

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Broadly describe the cultural background of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native.

You might like to consider the way that Egdon Heath is linked to some sort of primeval past in the novel. This effect is achieved through the description we are given of the Heath in Chapter One on Guy Fawkes Night:

In the valleys of the heath nothing save its own wild face was visible at any time of day... None of its features could be seen now, but the whole made itself felt as a vague stretch of remoteness... Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round.

Note the way that Egdon Heath is presented as some sort of remote universe by itself. Often characters comment upon the way that Egdon Heath seems to be a universe on its own and they say that it is all they can see. The quote above includes a metaphor presenting Egdon Heath as its own galaxy, with the bonfires acting as the suns in the solar system of the Heath.

The bonfires also function in another way by linking the Heath to a more ancient, primeval past when bonfires were used for light and warmth in addition to celebration. The cultural background of the Heath is therefore linked to the dark ages (note the darkness in the quote above) and ancient times such as when the Celts and Romans variously dominated the land. This sense of age and timelessness is something that is deliberately refered to in Chapter One in the description of the Heath:


To know that everything around and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the irrepressible New. The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim.

Not only is Egdon Heath "prehistoric," according to this quote, and we can imagine that Celts celebrated there just as the characters in this novel celebrate there now, but Egdon Heath is also timeless in the way that it remains unchanged by the ages that have gone by. The Heath is therefore presented as almost being outside of time and beyond the reaches of time and the way that it changes and withers everything else. This sense of permanence explicitly contrasts the Heath with the fate of individual humans, who so quickly fade and die.

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

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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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.

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In The Return of the Native, how does Egdon Heath exert an influence on the characters?

It is clear that in this novel, Egdon Heath in some ways is presented as being more of a character than some of the characters themselves. Note the time and space that is devoted to describing Egdon Heath to us at the beginning of the novel before we even meet any characters at all. In addition, not only is Edgon Heath presented as something of a character itself, but it is also a powerful force in the novel that impacts the actions and thoughts of other characters. Consider the following description of Eustacia Vye and her relations with the Heath:

But celestial imperiousness, love, wrath, and fervour had proven to be somewhat thrown away on netherward Egdon. Her power was limited, and the consciousness of this limitation had biassed her development. Egdon was her Hades.

Note the way that the language used presents Eustacia Vye as being almost a celestial character as Egdon Heath is depicted as dragging Eustacia Vye down into her own personal hell.

For another example, consider the way that the Heath impacts the character of Clym in this following quote:

As he watched the dead flat of the scenery overpowered him, though he was fully alive to the beauty of that untarnished early summer green... There was something in its oppressive horizontality which too much reminded him of the arena of life; it gave him a sense of bare equality with, and no superiority to, a single living thing under the sun.

Note the overwhelming impression of the flatness and emptiness of the landscape, and how this becomes an oppressive force on Clym. Note the "sense of bare equality with, and no superiority to, a single living thing under the sun." The flatness of the Heath teaches Clym that he is equal to everybody else on earth and that any sense of superiority is but an illusion.

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