The entire opening chapter of The Return of the Native is devoted to a lengthy description of Egdon Heath, the setting of the novel. The heath must be significant in terms of the themes and the continue progress of the novel. The author of the novel, Thomas Hardy, made the heath so significant to the point that it can be look upon as a character like any other in the novel. The heath?s constant correlation with the plot and its ?personality? even transformed it into the major antagonist of the story.
In the opening chapter the heath is introduced just as how a major character of most novels would be introduced with detail. In fact, the way Hardy devoted the entire first chapter just to describe it gives it the level of importance that is over any other characters in the book. This seems to suggest that the heath is like the ?ruler? of the story, it is the King, and it is more powerful than any person is. The heath demonstrates the idea that fate is more powerful than the desires of individuals. This theme can be seems throughout the novel. The biggest effect of this theme is on Eustacia. The fact that Clym delayed sending his letter to Eustacia, coupled with the fact that Captain Vye unwittingly kept the letter from Eustacia until it was too late, suggests that perhaps destiny is against her. It is under the downpour of the rain, on the rugged heath where Eustacia laments her fate. Eustacia?s own remark, ?how destiny is against me!? (354) and ?I have been injured and blighted and crushed by things beyond my control!? (354) affirm the existence of such a force, the power of fate.
On Egdon Heath, night and darkness comes before its ?astronomical hour? (11). This presents the idea of Egdon Heath?s unchangeable place in time. This early arrival of darkness gives Egdon Heath a sense of gloom. Dominance of darkness is clearly ominous and Hardy also says of the heath that it could ?retard the dawn, sadden noon?and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread? (11-12). It is also inferred that the Heath itself creates the darkness ?the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it? (12). This description of the Heath gives it not only a human like, but in fact, a monster-like quality. We see an image of a giant creature of darkness breathing out darkness. The atmosphere or tone created here is verging on evilness.
The Heath is as hostile as it is gloomy. The place is ?full of a watchful intentness?for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen? (12). The Heath is personified as some sort of nocturnal predator and in the later progress of the novel, we see that the Heath is indeed hostile, perhaps ?indifferent? would be the appropriate adjective, to the characters. Mrs.Yeobright’s journey across the Heath after being turned away by Eustacia comes to mind. The conditions of the Heath under which Mrs.Yeobright makes her journey is described as ?a torrid attack? (260) and ?the sun had branded the whole heath with its mark? (260). ?Brand? suggests pain and possibly torture and we find this is not far from the truth when Mrs.Yeobright makes her ill-fated return journey.
However, the Heath is at its most hostile and cruel in darkness. It is in the middle of the night that the climax of the tragedy is reached, as Eustacia commits suicide amid the ferocity of the storm. In the opening chapter there is a forewarning of this, as we learn of the Heath that ?the storm was its lover and the wind its friend? (13).
As mentioned before, it is appropriate to describe the Heath as ‘indifferent’. There is a feeling of helplessness that runs through the novel, as the characters fall prey to chance or fate. The tone is ironic, because we are watching the actions of the characters with superior knowledge. For instance, Clym’s blaming himself for his mother’s death is ironical: he does not know the conditions responsible for it and he is unaware that his mother did indeed call on him. It is possible to read this helplessness and irony as a result of the Heath’s indifference to the characters. It is also an intended theme: man lives his life in a universe that is at least indifferent to him and may be hostile. The opening chapter is without doubt the most significant in terms of showing this.
The sub-title of the opening chapter, ?A Face On Which Time Makes But Little Impression?, establishes the unchangeable nature of Egdon Heath directly. The Heath is said to be eternally waiting and ?unmoved? (12) in its ?ancient permanence?(12). It is suggested that the Heath’s existence dates back even into times of legend??its Titanic form? (12)–and will last until the ?final overthrow? (12), or Armageddon. Egdon Heath is as indifferent to man as it is to time. It may even be hostile, as ?Civilization was its enemy? (12). In its ?antique brown dress? (14) may be seen a ?satire on human vanity in clothes? (14). Even in its indifference the Heath is mocking towards humans. The Heath is ?inviolate? (15) and ?even the trifling irregularities were not caused by pickaxe, plough, or spade? (15). Man cannot change Egdon Heath for it is indifferent to man. Hardy uses Egdon Heath as a portrayal of the larger scale of things, that is, the universe’s indifference to man.
Egdon Heath is treated as a character in the novel. It involves in everyday lives of its inhabitant. It also has relationships with each character: some likes it, like Clym, some wants to escape from it, like Eustacia. The relationship of Egdon Heath to the characters greatly influenced out the plot of the story. It is because Hardy chose to use Egdon Heath to carry out his themes. Overall, Egdon is portrayed as a member of the novel, not just a setting. Its participation as the role of antagonist greatly carried out The Return of the Native.