Egdon Heath and characters of The Return of the Native
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In Hardy’s The Return of the Native Egdon Heath is all-pervasive, without which the novel would have been inconceivable. The Heath, in fact, is an extended image of the Nature of which man is a part, in which he is caught ,which conditions his very being. His life in relation to it is as short-lived as the bonfires which the peasants make of the furze that grows on the heath. The fleeting nature of man’s life and the insignificance of his being are brought out time and again in the story , generally by reference to the brooding permanence of the vast heath.
The heath influences the principal characters of the story greatly. Hardy emphasizes the reaction and attitude of each of the principal characters and especially of Eustacia towards the heath. Eustacia is unable to reconcile herself to her life on the heath and she feels a deep hatred for it. This ambience is most uncongenial to her temperament. Eustacia is no nature-lover ,she dreams of living a fashionable life in Paris and the solitariness of Egdon Heath makes her miserable.
When Wildeve points out that she hates the heath keenly, her reply is, “I do. “Tis my cross, my shame and will be my death.” And her words prove prophetic. The heath does indeed kill Eustacia or she allows the heath to kill her. And yet Eustacia herself is very much like the heath in her utter selfishness and indifference to others. Unlike Eustacia , Clym Yeobright is the product of the heath and its shaggy hills are friendly and genial to him, exhilarating, strengthening , soothing.
If Clym is the child of the Egdon heath, the reddleman is its spirit. If Eustacia is haunted by the heath the reddleman haunts the heath. The reddleman knows every nook and corner of the heath because he has wandered all over it many a time. Not only can he not lose his way on the heath, but the heath is his very home. Any passerby can see the reddleman’s van parked for the night almost anywhere on the heath. The reddleman is as lonely as the heath but he does not feel so. He is friendly to the heath and makes use of the heath as an ally against Wildeve whom he looks upon as an enemy. The reddleman is perfectly in tune with the heath and the heath plays no trick upon him.
The heath does irreparable damage to Mrs. Yeobright by exhausting the heart-torn wandering woman and then slaying her with a venomous creature from its bosom. For pretty Thomasin alone has Egdon Heath no ghost , to her it is an impersonal open ground: “her tears of it are rational ,her dislike of its worst moods reasonable.” She calls it a “ridiculous old place”, but confesses that she could live nowhere else.
Eustacia has been meeting Wildeve on the Rainbarrow , the spot where the Egdon folk gather on the fifth of November to light a commemorative bonfire. The game of dice ,first between Wildeve and Christian Cantle and then between the reddleman and Wildeve, takes place on the heath first in the light of a lantern and then In the light of glow-worms.
The gambling-match is an important incident because it leads to a bitter quarrel between Eustacia and Mrs Yeobright. Again, Wildeve and Eustacia are walking across the heath after attending a village festival when the reddleman observes them in each other’s company. The reddleman then creates a suspicion in Thomasin’s mind and himself begins to spy on Wildeve’s movements ,subsequently frightening him away from Eustacia’s door by firing a gun. It is in the course of her journey across the heath, too, that Mrs. Yeobright meets her tragic death.
Egdon heath approximates to the kind of setting which Hawthorne found necessary to the writing of a romance. As a place where Paganism and witchcraft flourish and church-going is rare , the heath constitutes a kind of moral wilderness where the standards of value and behavior observed by the major characters have o be imported from elsewhere.
In the ensuing confrontation with the realities of the world of Egdon heath ,it is mostly the alien values which are surrendered. Wildeve, Eustacia and Mrs. Yeobright all raise moral issues to themselves or to others, only to contravene almost immediately the standards of what they know to be sensible, humane and right. This ephemerality of man, the insignificance of his being is brought out time and again in The Return f the Native generally by reference to the brooding permanence of the vast heath.
1.Hardy,Thomas:The Return of the Native, Pnguin, London, 1974.