The Return of the Native
Man and the Natural World Theme
"Man and the Natural World" is arguably the central theme of the book. The heath functions as its own character in addition to being an evocative backdrop that has some sort of psychic link to the characters. The characters and the heath have an interesting relationship in which people and the heath reflect each other's moods. So, yes, the heath is doing a whole lot at once – it reflects the characters, and yet also has features, feelings, even dialogue (such as with the "wind" that seems to speak).
However, this is a book about how man exists within nature and not just alongside of it – certainly not just some chummy pals. In fact, man doesn't live side-by-side with nature as equals at all; the heath is not the friendly or romantic place that the highly-romantic language might imply. Instead, Hardy depicts people as small and even overwhelmed by nature. Nature is downright Darwinian – everything boils down to survival, competition, and evolution. Of course, this is rather fitting given the impact Darwin and his ideas had on nineteenth-century thinkers and people like Hardy. Yup, the heath controls the people, not the other way around.
Questions About Man and the Natural World
- Which characters are not largely characterized by their relationship with the heath? How is this significant for understanding both these characters and this theme as a whole?
- Do any characters have a completely positive relationship with the heath, or does everyone have a mixed relationship with it? How are the characters' relationship with the heath important to the structure of the novel and to how people are characterized?
- How does the imagery of the heath in the book affect the characters? Does its portrayal make the humans seem small and insignificant or powerful and important?
- In what ways does the natural world control and influence the characters? How does the diction and imagery used in the novel convey the idea of the heath as some sort of master?
- How does the description and depiction of the heath affect the overall tone of the book?
Chew on This
The heath is a largely negative force in the novel and it dooms the characters that live upon it to lives of misery or death.
Though Eustacia hates the heath, she has the strongest connection to it, more so than any other character.