I bade good morrow,
And thought to leave her far away behind;
But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind,
I would deceive her,
And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and so kind’ – John Keats
Thomas Hardy begins Return of the Native by invoking John Keats in a poem that sets the tragic tone for the novel. Even so, free choice is implied in the protagonists’ demise through the second half of the poem. Sorrow is not totally inevitable, but human choices lead there.
The first chapter of Return of the Native is devoted to the description of the setting: Egdon Heath, and by extension, a major theme of the novel: naturalism vs contemporary (Victorian) civilization.
Egdon Heath represents Thomas Hardy’s conception of naturalism, as he describes, “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” (6).
This naturalism, and the heath that it represents are both rooted in primitive history and coming into being in Return of the Native. Hardy roots naturalism in primitive history, “civilization was its enemy; and ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the same antique brown dress, the natural and invariable garment of the particular formation” (6). Nature is always there for Hardy, but he hopes for people to come more into line with nature (instead of attempting to conquer it). He hopes, “human souls may find themselves in closer and closer harmony with external things…The time seems near…when the chastened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind” (5). Thus, at least most thinking men and women will have attitudes more in accordance with nature than Victorian society, as Hardy hopes naturalism will take hold.
Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native. New York: Bantam, 1981. Print.