Hardy’s picture of Wessex is the most elaborate study of landscape in English Literature. No one before Hardy has made the landscape a part of the story. He sees Egdon Heath not only with reference to space but also with reference to time. For instance, he points out that Heath had remained unchanged since the time of Julius Caesar. His attitude to Egdon Heath shows a rich complexity. Egdon influences all the characters moving them to love or hate, to despair or to the philosophic mind. Egdon is symbolic of Hardy’s philosophy. It neither ghastly, not hateful, common place, tame, but it is like man slighted and enduring. Egdon is the premier and most extended instance of Hardy’s habitual personification of Nature. Hardy himself lived on the fringes of Egdon Heath and was perfectly with this environment. In no other novel of his does background come up as lively and breathing as NR. It appears as a working character. Most of the story takes place on the Heath. It symbolizes the whole cosmic order. If we need to understand the human aspects of RETURN OF THE NATIVE, we must first know Egdon Heath. These significant and vital features of the RETURN OF THE NATIVE make it a Wessex novel.
Symbolic of Hardy’s philosophy: RN has been called “The Book of Egdon Heath”. With most of the other novels of Hardy, the scene could be transposed to other part of Wessex without affecting the story except RETURN OF THE NATIVE where Egdon Heath is the dominant factor. Wessex was an old name for a territory in the south-west of England. Hardy revived this name for a region of which he himself was a native.
The function and role of Egdon Heath: EH is all-pervasive, without it the novel would be inconceivable, for it provides it with the special dimension and holds the action of the novel and its characters. The function of the EH is to emphasize the real circumstances in which man lives. What the individual may feel about those circumstances is irrelevant for he never escapes them. The Heath is an extended image of the Nature of which man is a part, in which he is caught, which conditions his every being. His life in relation it is as short-lived as the bonfires which the peasants make of the furze that grow on the heath. The nature of human beings is fleeting and insignificance as compared to the permanence of the heath. It has its own life and provides livelihood to the furze-cutters who work on it. He shows us the heath through all the seasons of the year.
Characters as part of the Heath: The human inhabitants of the heath are seen by Hardy almost from an anthropologist’s point of view. When the peasants dance in August, time seems to be telescoped; the countries slip by, and the men behave as their ancestors did “for the time Paganism was revived in their hearts, the pride of life was all in all.” Christian Cantle, Grandfer Cantle, Timothy Fairway and Sam – the rustics are as much a part of Nature, and of the life of the heath, as the toads in March that croak like big ducks. Heath influences the principal characters of the novel especially Eustacia. She feels great hatred for the Heath. “Egdon was her Hades.” She was an outsider on the Heath, not born or bred there. Its environment was most hostile to her. This environment could make a woman poet, novelist etc, but it makes Eustacia saturnine. She longs to live a fashionable life in Paris. In talking to Wildeve, she says, “’Tis my cross, my shame and will be my death.” Clym, unlike, Eustacia, is the product of Egdon and its shaggy hills are friendly and congenial to him. Heath swallows him up and absorbs him into its furze and other creatures. If Clym is the child of heath, Eustacia is haunted by the heath, the reddleman haunts the heath. He knows every nook and corner of heath. The heath does irreparable damage to Mrs. Yeobright and kills her. Thomasin thinks it an impersonal open ground. She calls it “a ridiculous old place.” But confesses that she could live nowhere else.
How the heath influences the plot: The influence of Egdon on the course of events in RETURN OF THE NATIVE is considerable. — describe chance and coincidence…
Rustics on Egdon Heath and their lifestyle: Hardy establishes firmly his imaginative world of Wessex – geography, landscape, folkways, agricultural pursuits as the background for his main characters. These are rustic characters – an integral part of the Heath through whom we become acquainted with the beliefs, customs, habits, bonfires, the Maypole celebrations, turf and furze-cutting. All these are described by Hardy in relation to the rustic characters represented by Grandfer Cantle, Christian Cantle, Fairway, Humphrey, Sam, Susan Nunsuch and others. Through these characters we learn some of the superstitions that were current at that time such as beliefs in ghosts and witches. Susan Nunsuch, who believes Eustacia to be a witch, pierces her with needles at the church, and afterwards makes a waxen effigy of her, sticks pins into it and puts it on the fire to melt. She adopts this device to bring about Eustacia’s and a little later she dies. These rustic characters convey to us the spirit of the country-side in Wessex. They lead a conventional life. Eustacia, Clym and Wildeve suffer but the rustics go on. Although they are men of very limited knowledge, but have wisdom and logic of their own. One striking feature of these rustic characters of Wessex is their zest for life and a capacity to make jokes and enjoy jokes. They provide much humor in the novel and are a source of unconscious humor. Grandfer Cantle’s egotism and vanity greatly amuse us. He says that even if he had been stung by ten adders, he would not have lost even a single day’s work. “Such is my spirit when I am on my mettle.” Christian Cantle amuses us by his over-whelming inferiority complex and by his cowardice. He is afraid of ghosts and haunted places. He complains that no woman is prepared to marry him.
Rustics as part of the background: Rustics figures in all of Hardy’s novels except the last two, Tess and Jude the Obscure. These characters are a part of the background. They play a critical role and are presented here as a group. These characters are part and parcel of Egdon Heath. They are a source of information about the principal characters. They usually comment of the main characters and bright out certain information and develop plot. It is actually rustics who cause development in the life of main characters. According to one critic, the rustic characters play an essential role, “Their part is organic, not decorative, they are much more than the Greek chorus which they have been called. They are in fact the basic pattern to which other characters conform or from which they differ.”
Over-emphasis of the Heath: According to one critic, Hardy’s use of the heath as a background is not excellent. The use of clichés and jargons make it worse. Some critics have not reacted favorably to the prominence which Hardy has given to Egdon Heath. One critic, for example, says, “The difficulty with the heath is the way in which it constantly threatens to move from background to the foreground to claim an importance.”