“What is the real stuff of tragedy in the book? It is the Heath” –D. H. Lawrence
Every tragic art needs a spetial dimension, the omnipotent reality which broods over the action of the characters and in The Return Of The Native, this omnipotent presence is the Egdon Heath, awaiting in its “brown dress”, “the final overthrow of civilization”. Egdon Heath 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.
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.” The rustics are as much a part of Nature, and of the life of the heath. We become acquainted with them through beliefs, customs, habits, bonfires, the Maypole celebrations, turf and furze-cutting that goes on in the Heath. All of these are described by Hardy in relation to the rustic characters represented by Grandfer Cantle, Christian Cantle, Fairway, Humphrey, Sam, Susan Nunsuch and others.
Heath also 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 a poet, 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. But ironically the Heath swallows him up and absorbs him into its furze. If Clym is the child of heath and Eustacia is haunted by the heath, the reddleman haunts the heath. He knows every nook and corner of Egdon Heath. The heath does irreparable damage to Mrs. Yeobright and kills her. Thomasin thinks it is an impersonal open ground. She calls it “a ridiculous old place”, but also confesses that she could live nowhere else.
However, Hardy’s use of the heath as a background has not been universally convincing. Some critics have not reacted favorably to the prominence which Hardy has given to Egdon Heath. Lionel Johnson, 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.” But perhaps nobody can deny that the simple everyday actions of the inhabitants were unified and were under the watchful eye of the heath, delivering a greater depth to the reversal and upheaval in their lives.