It has been said by many critics, that the main focus of Hardy’s pre-19th century novel “The Return of the Native”, is none of the characters, but the almost animate heath land upon which it is set. Hardy’s methods of describing the heath, allows us to view it as several different things to several different characters, for example, Eustacia Vye, to whom the heath is a prison, or Clym Yeobright, husband of Eustacia, who views Egdon Heath as an area housing the commonest man, a group of people who have been transformed into simplicity by the heath, who he can educate.
One possible reason of this is because the heath is written to seem almost ancient, thus has had time to adapt to the way nature shapes the landscape at its will, “at present, a place perfectly accordant with mans nature “. With features such as barrows, Hardy has created a religious, almost pagan feel to the heath land, with on which the main characters congregate in the first few scenes, to hold a bonfire, giving the night air upon the land an eerie feeling throughout the rest of the book.
The weather upon the heath through the early chapters is somewhat harsh, “the storm was its love, the wind was its friend” yet still the characters persist to roam the heath at night, Eustacia especially, searching endlessly for an escape. One good example is where Eustacia awaits Wildeve upon a barrow, but she utters a sigh as she waits, pondering whether he will arrive, “thrown out with the winds, it became twined in with them”. It is events like these which Hardy gives us insight to, that we can see the development of the characters, for example, this is just another step of Eustacia becoming even more heavily buried within the land.
Hardy also uses inanimate objects other than the heath, to create an atmosphere, such as the fire which burns between Wildeve and Eustacia as they speak,” The revived embers of passion glowed clearly in Wildeve now”. However, Eustacia does not light a communal bonfire for the sake of community, nor for the sake of sanity, similar to the locals who feel that communication through bonfire separates them from the heath,” perhaps as many as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole bounds of the district”.
She lights her fire, and attempts to communicate with something which will set her free from the realm – a man, to either take her from Egdon to America, such as Wildeve promises, or back to Paris, the location from which her husband has come. Another interesting feature of Hardy using objects, rather than words or actions to describe how a character feels, is Eustacia constantly viewing the heath from her telescope, as if she is hoping for some kind of miracle, a ‘knight in shining armour’ to come and whisk her from her feet.
Another good example of a similar event is her checking her hourglass while waiting upon the heath. These two items, the telescope in particular being from distant places (of which she wishes she could travel to), differ significantly from peasant tools or items, from which she is eager to disassociate herself from. However Hardy is again referring to the vastness of the heath, by implementing a telescope, and the immense age of the heath, by an hourglass, however, for Eustacia, the hourglass diminishes the vastness of the heath, almost providing her with something she’s wished for.
The heath folk seem to exist in a more than comfortable relationship with the heath, and the heath in a comfortable relationship with civilisation, as it becomes overgrown; the humans cut the furze and faggots, and put them for good use – fire. The folk seem to be driving off the darkness, upon November 5th, Guy Forks night, upon a barrow used for burials in the past, “the ashes of the original pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread”.
The ‘locals’ don’t even appear to be celebrating this fact, more so finding comfort in the spotting of other fires lighted in the district. The people here are highly superstitious, and due to the size of the community, and involvement with other communities (very little), the heath only fuels their ideas, as is shown in the third chapter, when the heath folk are talking about Christian – a man who no man would marry, for the reason of the date he was born upon having no moon,”No moon : hey neighbours, that’s bad for him”?
This early superstition in the novel serves many purposes, the main ones being reader interest, and plot evolution – for it is a form of superstition, voodoo, which a heath folk uses against Eustacia as she finally tries to negate the heath, causing her death. Another pastime which suitably provides the heath inhabitants when they are not creating fire is gossip. The heath only fuels the peoples desire to talk about others’ business, because the community is very small, so hence everybody is aware of the news of everybody else, for instance, the news of Clyms success as a scholar travels for miles before he has even reached the age of three.
Personally, I do not subscribe to the belief that the heath is a character within its own right, even though Hardy inspires such thoughts with phrases such as “The storm was its lover, the wind was its friend”. I believe that Hardy’s immense concentration upon the heath is merely a sign of two its importance to the play, and as a method which he can use to develop the rest of the characters, such as Eustacia, helping her to constantly arrive at a “state of enlightenment which feels that nothing is worthwhile”.