The Role of Egdon Heath in The Return of The Native

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Introduction

      Egdon Heath plays a major role in The Return of the Native. The book is, indeed the story of Egdon Heath. In this novel Nature receives more prominence than in any other novels of Hardy. Hardy has put so much life in Egdon that he spent less effort on the human figures, with the result that the characters in this novel are not drawn according to the high scale of Far from the Madding Crowd. Egdon Heath is the background of the action and often it plays more than the role of a mere observer to an active participant. Sometimes, it dominates the plot and determines the characters. Egdon is sentient, it feels, it speaks, it kills. Egdon presents a face upon which time makes but little impression.

The Opening Chapter

      Hardy is famous for his picturesque, elegant natural description. Egdon Heath is the Wessex of his own life. He exquisitely describes the Heath either in a panoramic way or in brief passages such as his description of the Devil's Bellows. In the very opening scene itself, Hardy conveys to us an impression of the black, inhospitable moorland stretching as far as eye can reach beneath the gathering winter twilight "the harsh heath, unaltered in the memory of the human race. Its somber nature intensifies the sad hours of day and night, ana is enigmatic, needing explanation".

      Egdon has a colossal human existence. It was ar present a place perfectly in accordance 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." It barely heeds to the changes of the season. No absolute hour of the day is reckoned by the dwellers on its monotonous surface and only in midsummer does it flames in crimson and scarlet.

Personal Element

      Hardy's habitual personification of Nature can be seen in its best when he describes Egdon Heath. Hardy himself was born on the edge of the Heath, and "it was his playground when his genius was germinating." The lines which Hardy used on Clym that "he was permeated with its scenes, with its substance, and with its odors, he might be said to be its product His estimate of life had been colored by it" is obviously autobiographical. It is eminently symbolical of Hardy's philosophy.

Symbolic Significance

      Egdon Heath plays a major role in the destiny of the characters in this novel. The characters are related by temperament to the Heath. Their personalities are derived from, or are reflected by some aspect of the Heath itself. For Eustacia the Heath is indifferent, feline and untamed. She hates it. She laments that "Tis my curse, my shame, and will be my death." Her words come true as she drowned. Ironically she is like the Heath in her utter selfishness and indifference to others. The passage that follows after Mrs. Yeobright lies down on the Heath to rest is of high symbolic significance: "While she looked a heron arose on that side of the sky and flew on with his face towards the sun. He had come dripping wet from some Pool in the valleys, and as he flew the edges and lining of his wings, his thighs, and his breast were so caught by bright sunbeams mat he appeared as if formed of burnished silver. Up in the zenith where he was seemed a free and happy place, away from all contact with the earthly ball to which she was pinioned, and she wished that she could arise uncrushed from its surface and fly as he flew then." Here in this passage, the ants, stand for the 'bustle' of earthly life. Heron, the most lovely of birds, is an image of freedom and release from life itself. These two images are beautifully coined by the author, drawn with the sharply selective eye of a poet. Only a nature observer whose mind is in harmony with Nature can write these kinds of descriptions. When Hardy sticks most closely to strict truth of fact, as he does here, he achieves his most moving effects.

      Egdon Heath is all pervasive and it holds the action of the novel. It is an extended image of the nature in which man is a part, in which he is caught, which conditions his very being, and which cares nothing for him. The Heath, apart from other functions has a larger significance, as a symbol of inhumanity.

      "The gypsying" at Alderworth, where Eustacia danced with Wideve, and the festivities round the maypole in front of Thomasin's house, are both drawn from original happening that must have been common enough in Hardy's youth. Less common, doubtless, is the spectacle of the frying of adders to obtain oil for the cure of snakebite; and least common of all, but most interesting, the ghastly incantation, wherewith Susan Nunsuch cursed Eustacia, mutilating and burning a waren image of hers. Hardy's introduction of this real and ancient theme from folklore into the crescendo of his own composition, culminating in Eustacia's death, is a clever piece of work."

Nature as Background

      Nature is the background to almost all the novels of Thomas Hardy. Without Egdon Heath, The Return of the Native would not hold together. Thus, this book has been called the book of Egdon Heath. Egdon in this novel influences all the characters. It is not indifferent to the actions of human beings, but it plays an active role in the novel. Egdon in symbolic of Hardy's philosophy. It is "perfectly accordant with man's nature-neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning nor tame; but like man, slighted and enduring."

Its Characteristics

      The function of the Heath in the novel is to emphasize the real circumstances in which man lives. The entire action of the novel takes place in the Heath and it provides a special dimension to the story. Without the all-pervasive Egdon Heath, the novel is incomplete.

      In The Return of the Native, Nature enters more than into any other novel of Hardy. Hardy has put so much life into Egdon that he spent less effort on the human figures, with the result that the characters in this novel are not drawn according to the high scale of Far from the Madding Crowd. Egdon Heath is the background of the action and often it plays more than the role of a mere observer to an active participant. Sometimes it dominates the plot and determines the characters. Egdon is sentient, it feels, it speaks, it kills. Egdon presents a face upon which time makes but little impression.

The Rustics

      Hardy portrays the rustic people as the human inhabitants. Only these rustics remain unhurt at the end of Hardy's novels since they have no ambitions and high aspirations. The rustics are as much the part of Nature, and of the life of the Heath, as the toads in March that make noises like very young ducks. These rustics provide some realistic effects to the story.

Heath and Major Characters

      The Heath often assumes the role of a major character who is above all the other characters. The characters are related by temperament to the Heath. Their personalities are derived from, or are reflected by, some aspect of the Heath itself. For Eustacia the Heath is indifferent, feline and untamed. She laments that it is her curse, shame and death. Her words later become prophetical. The Heath is also hostile to Mrs. Yeobright.

Conclusion

      Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native is all-pervasive and it holds the action of the novel and its characters as though in the hollow of its hand. It is an extended image of the nature of which man is part, in which he is caught, which conditions his very being, and which cares nothing for him. The Heath, apart from other functions, has a larger significance as a symbol of inhumanity. In a way, the tragedy that occurred to Eustacia and Clym was a result of their attempt to live alone, ignoring others, though not from the same motives. But they cannot be like the Heath in its 'vast impassivity' and 'imperturbable indifference' and their attempts to escape the consequences of their common humanity fail because, just as Venn's and Wildeye's dice game "amid the motionless and uninhabited solitude-intruded-the battle of dice, and the exclamations of the reckless players". So Hardy suggests that the Heath will remain unchanged, and indifferent as ever when all these human antics, comical and tragic, are over. Hardy stressed much on the transience of man and the insignificance of his being generally by reference to the brooding permanence of the vast Heath. "This obscure, obsolete, superseded country" is the world of nature under the aspect of time, geological and historical alike. Sometimes the Heath "seemed to belong to the ancient world of the Carboniferous period, when the forms of plants were few, and of the fem kind; when there was neither bud nor blossom, nothing but a monotonous extent of leafage, amid which no bird sang."

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