The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy was first published in 1878. The story takes place in the fictional Egdon Heath, a picturesque area of moorland in rural England. The tale centers around several characters and their romantic entanglements. The book also puts great focus upon Egdon Heath itself. Some have called this geographical area an additional character in the novel.
The native of the title is Clym Yeobright. Clym, always known to be bright and different, has gone off to Paris, where he is pursuing a commercial career. When he returns home, presumably for a holiday, there is a lot going on in Egdon. Damon Wildeve is bouncing between two women: Thomasin Yeobright, who is Clym’s cousin, and the mysterious and exotic beauty Eustacia Vye. After several near marriages, elopements and rejections, Wildeve eventually marries Thomasin. Clym and Eustacia are also attracted to one another and eventually wed. Mrs. Yeobright is both Clym’s mother and Thomasin’s aunt. She opposes both of their marriages. Another character, Diggory Venn, known as “The Reddleman,” is both odd and virtuous. He also wants to marry Thomasin and spends a lot of time wandering the heath at night trying to prevent the unscrupulous Eustacia and Wildeve from hurting and betraying others.
To the dismay of everyone, Clym, who loves Egdon Heath, announces that he will not return to Paris but will instead stay in Egdon to start a school. This dismays Eustacia, who wants to escape Egdon and live a glamorous life in Paris. When an eye injury forces Clym to take on physical labor in the countryside, he actually embraces the work and takes it on with joy. This brings further consternation to Eustacia.
The book is full of magnificent descriptions of nature. Egdon Heath, as well as animals, plants the moon, the stars, etc., are described in fantastic language. Hardy also embodies nature with all sorts of human characteristics. I love Hardy’s prose style. The opening description of the heath is famous but parts of it are worth quoting here.
The most thoroughgoing ascetic could feel that he had a natural right to wander on Egdon— he was keeping within the line of legitimate indulgence when he laid himself open to influences such as these. Colours and beauties so far subdued were, at least, the birthright of all. Only in summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the level of gaiety. Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. Then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend. Then it became the home of strange phantoms; and it was found to be the hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flight and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream till revived by scenes like this.
And a little later,
It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man's nature— neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have long lived apart, solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.
The above contains a suggestion of melancholy, mystery and profundity that typifies the heath throughout the novel. It is both surprising and ironic that the heath is, in some ways, drab and subdued, a place that an ascetic would feel comfortable in, yet at the same time lending itself to such powerful description. As the passage indicates, the intensity of Egdon lies in its solemnity. The above is also full of connections and similarities between the heath and humanity. Both human life and Egdon are “lonely” and full of “tragical possibilities.” The landscape is more connected to the shadowy aspects of the human psyche as the above references to phantoms and dreams indicate. I quoted just two paragraphs of description and allusion. There is much more throughout the novel.
So much has been written about Egdon Heath. I have read a little bit online, and the consensus of opinion is that the heath is a symbol for the universe, and that the book’s characters see it as they view the universe as a whole. These views ring true to me.
A little research on my part indicates that while such heaths do exist in England, at no time was there one as large as Egdon Heath seems to be. Thus, like the human characters in the book, Egdon is a plausible but fictional creation. I would also argue that, like a well-crafted human character, Egdon Heath is a complex creation.
Many other characters in this book are complex and interesting. Eustacia is self-centered, fickle and dishonest. Yet she is not completely malevolent, and at times the reader genuinely feels empathy for her.
Clym is an impressive figure. Though he is virtuous, he also shows some flaws and makes some serious mistakes. The Reddleman, though not really complex, is interesting because of his unusualness. “Reddleman” refers to the fact that he is a seller of red chalk to farmers for their use in the marking of sheep. The Reddleman has taken on a red complexion due to overexposure to the substance that he peddles. His behavior, though honorable, at times borders on the bizarre as he interferes in the affairs of others during his night time expeditions.
On a personal note, I grew in a rural area. When I was young, I spent a lot of time wandering around isolated places at night. Much of the narrative also involves characters doing the same. The atmosphere that these passages exude seems realistic and comforting to me. If I lived in Egdon, without a doubt I would also have loved the place, and I would have found a lot of enjoyment in nighttime forays.
This book is worthy of its classic reputation. It has a compelling plot, and it is filled with superbly drawn characters. At the same time, this story and character development all take place under the grand backdrop of Egdon Heath. This amazing, fictional landscape, is one of literature’s greatest creations.