The fact that Hardy devotes the entire opening chapter to a lengthy description of Egdon Heath speaks for itself. The opening chapter must be significant in terms of the continued progress of the novel. The atmosphere and tone of the opening chapter is in one word, negative, and this permeates the rest of the novel. RON is not the only novel in which Hardy demonstrates his ability to immerse us in a locality and atmosphere. In A Pair of Blue Eyes, for instance, Hardy uses its setting of sea and moorland and desolate cliffs to produce an odd and poignant effect of youthful clumsiness and pathos.
Egdon Heath lends itself very well to the kind of story Hardy wanted to tell in RON. It is meant as a tragedy (at least through the first five books) and the ‘gaunt waste’ provides an appropriate setting. On Egdon Heath, night and darkness comes before its ‘astronomical hour’. In addition to reinforcing the idea of Egdon Heath’s unchangeable place in time (as will be discussed later), this early arrival of darkness is well in tune with the overall atmosphere of tragedy. 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’. The images conjured are explicitly ominous and suggesting tragedy. It is also inferred that the Heath itself creates the darkness – ‘the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it’. This description of the Heath gives it a human like, in fact, 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. Moreover, we can perhaps go so far as to say that the Heath is contending with heaven, in its ‘exhaling of darkness’. Earlier, there is inferred a distinct division between the Heath and heaven: ‘The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting line at the horizon was clearly marked’. The tone and atmosphere here is very dark (and not just literally) and sombre – even the description of heaven, ‘pallid’, suggesting lifelessness, is negative. This negativity is foreboding and is proved true in the tragedy that is played out during the rest of the novel.
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’. 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 more appropriate – 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’ and ‘the sun had branded the whole heath with its mark’. ‘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, it is with no surprise that 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 (or does she?) amid the ferocity of the storm. In the opening chapter may be read a forewarning of this, as we learn of the Heath that ‘the storm was its lover and the wind its friend’. The atmosphere of hostility is perhaps not confined to the Heath alone, certainly, there are moments of hostility between the characters as well. The strife between Eustacia and Mrs.Yeobright is one, and the hostility that most of the other Egdonites (especially Susan Nunsuch) show towards Eustacia is another.
As has been 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 doesn’t know the conditions responisible for it; 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. Or more in tune with Hardy’s intended theme: that 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 straight away. The Heath is said to be eternally waiting and ‘unmoved’ in its ‘ancient permanence’. It is suggested that the Heath’s existence dates back even into times of legend – ‘its Titanic form’ – and will last until the ‘final overthrow’, or Armageddon. Egdon Heath is as indifferent to man as it is to time. It may even be hostile, as ‘Civilization was its enemy’. In its ‘antique brown dress’ may be seen a ’satire on human vanity in clothes’. Even in its indifference the Heath is mocking towards humans. The Heath is ‘inviolate’ and ‘even the trifling irregularities were not caused by pickaxe, plough, or spade’. Man cannot change Egdon Heath – 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. This is the main theme (or at least one of them) that Hardy wanted to demonstrate in the RON and Egdon serves as a convenient microcosm.
This atmosphere of indifference can be felt throughout the novel. It is well to remember that no human beings appear in the novel until the second chapter and even then they are not named. When human figures do finally appear, they seem insignificant against the backdrop of the indifferent, if not hostile, Egdon. Often, Hardy’s treatment of the physical surroundings swamps that of the characters, the inhabitants of the Heath. At the end of the third chapter, the human figure atop the Rainbarrow is described as ‘an organic part of the entire motionless structure’. The human is just a part of the unchangeable Egdon. Many times during the course of the story, Clym is shown to appear like a tiny insect moving across the face of nature. For instance, as Clym makes his way back to Alderwood, ‘he appeared of a russet hue, not more distinguishable from the scene around him than the green caterpillar from the leaf it feeds on’. Clym ’seemed to be of no more account in life than an insect. He appeared as a mere parasite of the heath, fretting its surface in his daily labour as a moth frets a garment’. The idea of man’s world in relation to the universe is also demonstrated in the gambling scene and the atmosphere of indifference (or of greater things than man) felt. ‘Amid the soft juicy vegetation of the hollow in which [Wildeve and Venn] sat, the motionless and the uninhabited solitude, intruded the chink of guineas, the rattle of dice, the exclamations of the reckless players’. In short, the actions of men scarcely ruffle the surface of the great world around them. This is consonant with the several times Hardy shows Clym aware of his insignificance in the universe.