Hardy’s Egdon Heath

After re-reading Hardy’s The Return of the Native I’m still not sure what originally attracted me to it, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the plot. In fact, it’s a sign of Hardy’s genius that he managed to make the novel as believable as he did. The plot is melodramatic, little more than soap opera. I was a little shocked when I read comments on the movie where people raved about the love affair because I had not remembered that at all. Now it may well be that it’s plots like this that held his mass audience and made him a wealthy author, but they have never appealed to me.

After several days of reflecting on the novel, I realize that what I most remembered from the novel was Egdon Heath itself. The more I thought about the novel, and I thought a lot, the more it reminded me of the much later American novel Giants in the Earth, where the protagonist Per Hansa is killed by the Prairie because of his love for his wife Beret who had been destroyed by their life there.

From the very beginning Egdon Heath’s solemn beauty dominates the novel:

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.

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.

Surprisingly, not everyone is a “thoroughgoing ascetic” and may not appreciate the beauty found there, though they may well suffer its “tragical possibilities.”

It doesn’t take long for the reader to discover that the beautiful Eustacia is one of those who doesn’t fit in this environment:

Such views of life were to some extent the natural begettings of her situation upon her nature. To dwell on a heath without studying its meanings was like wedding a foreigner without learning his tongue. The subtle beauties of the heath were lost to Eustacia; she only caught its vapours. An environment which would have made a contented woman a poet, a suffering woman a devotee, a pious woman a psalmist, even a giddy woman thoughtful, made a rebellious woman saturnine.

And it’s never a good thing when someone as beautiful as Eustacia becomes gloomy.

Part of what seems to attract Eustacia to Wildeve is their mutual hatred of the heath and those who live there:

“So I would!” said Wildeve. “Such strange thoughts as I’ve had from time to time, Eustacia; and they come to me this moment. You hate the heath as much as ever; that I know.”

“I do,” she murmured deeply. “‘Tis my cross, my shame, and will be my death!”

“I abhor it too,” said he. “How mournfully the wind blows round us now!”

She did not answer. Its tone was indeed solemn and pervasive. Compound utterances addressed themselves to their senses, and it was possible to view by ear the features of the neighbourhood. Acoustic pictures were returned from the darkened scenery; they could hear where the tracts of heather began and ended; where the furze was growing stalky and tall; where it had been recently cut; in what direction the fir-clump lay, and how near was the pit in which the hollies grew; for these differing features had their voices no less than their shapes and colours.

“God, how lonely it is!” resumed Wildeve. “What are picturesque ravines and mists to us who see nothing else? Why should we stay here? Will you go with me to America? I have kindred in Wisconsin.”

“That wants consideration.”
“It seems impossible to do well here, unless one were a wild bird or a landscape-painter…

Unfortunately for both, their mutual hatred of the heath is not enough to convince Eustacia to run away with Wildeve.

Hardy understands human nature far too well to blame Clym and Eustacia’s tragedy on one element, but the source of many of their problems is seen in the following conversation, though they, but not the reader, seem unaware of it:

“You are lonely here.”
“I cannot endure the heath, except in its purple season. The heath is a
cruel taskmaster to me.”

“Can you say so?” he asked. “To my mind it is most exhilarating, and
strengthening, and soothing. I would rather live on these hills than
anywhere else in the world.”

“It is well enough for artists; but I never would learn to draw.”

“And there is a very curious druidical stone just out there.” He threw a
pebble in the direction signified. “Do you often go to see it?”

“I was not even aware there existed any such curious druidical stone. I
am aware that there are boulevards in Paris.”

Yeobright looked thoughtfully on the ground. “That means much,” he said.

Both get married believing that their love will win the other to their view, a dangerous, and unlikely, proposition as the rest of the novel proves.

Ironically, when Clym’s eyesight fails and he is unable to pursue his dream of becoming a schoolmaster, he seems perfectly satisfied with being a sod-cutter:

His daily life was of a curious microscopic sort, his whole world being limited to a circuit of a few feet from his person. His familiars were creeping and winged things, and they seemed to enroll him in their band. Bees hummed around his ears with an intimate air, and tugged at the heath and furze-flowers at his side in such numbers as to weigh them down to the sod. The strange amber-coloured butterflies which Egdon produced, and which were never seen elsewhere, quivered in the breath of his lips, alighted upon his bowed back, and sported with the glittering point of his hook as he flourished it up and down. Tribes of emerald-green grasshoppers leaped over his feet, falling awkwardly on their backs, heads, or hips, like unskilful acrobats, as chance might rule; or engaged themselves in noisy flirtations under the fern-fronds with silent ones of homely hue. Huge flies, ignorant of larders and wire-netting, and quite in a savage state, buzzed about him without knowing that he was a man. In and out of the fern-dells snakes glided in their most brilliant blue and yellow guise, it being the season immediately following the shedding of their old skins, when their colours are brightest. Litters of young rabbits came out from their forms to sun themselves upon hillocks, the hot beams blazing through the delicate tissue of each thin-fleshed ear, and firing it to a blood-red transparency in which the veins could be seen. None of them feared him. The monotony of his occupation soothed him, and was in itself a pleasure. A forced limitation of effort offered a justification of homely courses to an unambitious man, whose conscience would hardly have allowed him to remain in such obscurity while his powers were unimpeded. Hence Yeobright sometimes sang to himself, and when obliged to accompany Humphrey in search of brambles for faggot-bonds he would amuse his companion with sketches of Parisian life and character, and so while away the time.

Of course, both his mother and wife are mortified that he can stoop to such work. The only thing they seem to agree upon is that Clym’s work is beneath him and reflects badly on them for neither would have willingly married a furze-cutter.

After Clym and Eustacia separate, and Wildeve offers her the chance to leave, she again states her belief that it is “This place I live in,” not Wildeve that is responsible for her despair:

This outbreak of weeping took Eustacia herself so much by surprise that she could not leave off, and she turned aside from him in some shame, though turning hid nothing from him. She sobbed on desperately; then the outpour lessened, and she became quieter. Wildeve had resisted the impulse to clasp her, and stood without speaking.

“Are you not ashamed of me, who used never to be a crying animal?” she asked in a weak whisper as she wiped her eyes. “Why didn’t you go away? I wish you had not seen quite all that; it reveals too much by half.”

“You might have wished it, because it makes me as sad as you,” he said with emotion and deference. “As for revealing–the word is impossible between us two.”

“I did not send for you–don’t forget it, Damon; I am in pain, but I did not send for you! As a wife, at least, I’ve been straight.”

“Never mind–I came. O, Eustacia, forgive me for the harm I have done you in these two past years! I see more and more that I have been your ruin.”

“Not you. This place I live in.”

“Ah, your generosity may naturally make you say that. But I am the culprit. I should either have done more or nothing at all.”

“In what way?”
“I ought never to have hunted you out, or, having done it, I ought to have persisted in retaining you. But of course I have no right to talk of that now. I will only ask this–can I do anything for you? Is there anything on the face of the earth that a man can do to make you happier than you are at present? If there is, I will do it. You may command me, Eustacia, to the limit of my influence; and don’t forget that I am richer now. Surely something can be done to save you from this! Such a rare plant in such a wild place it grieves me to see. Do you want anything bought? Do you want to go anywhere? Do you want to escape the place altogether? Only say it, and I’ll do anything to put an end to those tears, which but for me would never have been at all.”

“We are each married to another person,” she said faintly; “and assistance from you would have an evil sound–after–after–“

Try as she might to be faithful to Clym, her hatred of Egdon Heath and her love of Paris, though she’s never been there, inevitably leads her to accept Wildeve’s offer of assistance and to the novel’s tragic ending.

Just before Wildeve’s fatal last meeting with Eustacia, Thomasina, his faithful wife, confronts him over his gloomy walks on Egdon Heath:

“No–I don’t mind waiting–I would rather stay here twelve months longer than run any risk with baby. But I don’t like your vanishing so in the evenings. There’s something on your mind–I know there is, Damon. You go about so gloomily, and look at the heath as if it were somebody’s gaol instead of a nice wild place to walk in.”

He looked towards her with pitying surprise. “What, do you like Egdon Heath?” he said.

“I like what I was born near to; I admire its grim old face.”

“Pooh, my dear. You don’t know what you like.”

“I am sure I do. There’s only one thing unpleasant about Egdon.”

“What’s that?”

“You never take me with you when you walk there. Why do you wander so much in it yourself if you so dislike it?”

I don’t think it’s coincidence that Clym and Thomasina, who love the heath live, while Wildeve and Eustacia perish.

Nor is it entirely irrelevant that Wildeve’s and Eustacia’s death are brought about by Egdon Heath:

Here Wildeve waited, slightly sheltered from the driving rain by a high bank that had been cast up at this place. Along the surface of the road where lit by the lamps the loosened gravel and small stones scudded and clicked together before the wind, which, leaving them in heaps, plunged into the heath and boomed across the bushes into darkness. Only one sound rose above this din of weather, and that was the roaring of a ten-hatch weir to the southward, from a river in the meads which formed the boundary of the heath in this direction.

He lingered on in perfect stillness till he began to fancy that the midnight hour must have struck. A very strong doubt had arisen in his mind if Eustacia would venture down the hill in such weather; yet knowing her nature he felt that she might. “Poor thing! ’tis like her ill-luck,” he murmured.

Hardy makes no claim that Egdon Heath has conspired to defeat these two, and the reader surely realizes that the people who live in Egdon Heath are as responsible for their destruction as the land itself. Of course, one might argue that the people who live there have also been shaped by their environment, but that would require an even longer essay, I’m afraid.

I’m pretty sure that the whole concept of Naturalism was new to me when I read this in high school. I was probably young enough to still believe that human beings were capable of becoming almost anything they wanted to become if they put enough effort into it, though facing the fact I couldn’t afford many of the colleges that recruited me and realizing I’d have to work as a janitor in order to put myself through UW might have helped me to reign in my idealistic beliefs.

I’m sure it wasn’t until my experiences in the Army and overseas that I began to fully understand just how much people’s lives were shaped by their environment. If I hadn’t learned it by then, my year working as a caseworker taught me many of the same lessons I should have learned from Hardy’s novels.

5 thoughts on “Hardy’s Egdon Heath

  1. I was intending reading along with you, and bought the book, but, what with one thing and another, I haven’t yet got beyond the opening Egdon Heath chapter, I’m afraid.

    Thanks for the summary. What do you think is Hardy’s actual symbolical or metaphorical intention in his description of the character of the Heath as he so individually portrays it?

  2. Actually I plan on doing two more entries on The Return of the Native once I’ve recovered from the flu/cold that I came down with Thursday night. So far, I’m finding it challenging just to stay up for more than a couple of hours.

  3. In reviewing your question, sw, I think Hardy uses Egdon Heath to symbolize REALITY, the Nature of things. It is our reaction to reality, and not to our stereotypes of Reality, that determines our happiness.

    Reality is not always a pleasant place, so at best people are going to be unhappy and miserable at times, but they have their best chance for happiness if they understand and adapt to that Reality.

  4. Loren:

    I first read Return of the Native as a callow freshman in 1958, and at that age, was too naive to know that it was good literature. The instructor persevered with me, something entered into my soul, and I’ve maintained a life-long love of especially this, and almost all of Hardy’s other works, notably his poetry. His somber view of things, life, human nature, whatever, resonates with me. I’ve always wanted to visit Egdon Heath, whatever may be left of it today, and may do so before the “Final Overthrow”. That particular Wessex landscape appeals to my soul.

    Best regards,
    Dan

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