We actually feel a little weird talking about Egdon Heath as just a setting – it's really more of a character. In fact, Hardy goes to a lot of trouble to set up the heath as a character at the beginning of the novel. We start out with some very lengthy descriptions of the heath and absolutely zero people. And we go even longer without any dialogue. The way the heath is described in this introduction is crucial.
The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn [...] and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking dread. (1.1.2)
In it lay what may be called the linguistic peculiarity of the heath; and being audible nowhere else on earth off a heath, it afforded a shadow of reason for the woman's tenseness [...]. (1.6.4)
The heath is personified here, which is a fancy way of saying that Hardy describes an inanimate object (the heath) as if it were a living person, with a "face" and a "voice." But what kind of person is the heath? To find out, we're going to check out the various "faces" of the heath, so to speak, and see what its role is in the novel overall. Let's go.
We first meet Egdon Heath at night, with an introduction that really helps set the tone for the entire novel. In the above quote, the heath is a little bit sinister, what with its ominous, black-hole-like ability to suck the light out of things. The heath is an untamed place and the people on it seem very small in comparison. In fact, the heath doesn't just swallow up light; it can swallow up people as well!
The form was so much like an organic part of the entire motionless structure that to see it move would have impressed the mind of a strange phenomenon. (1.2.46)
We also get a strong sense of the isolating effect of the heath during the chapters featuring the Guy Fawkes Night bonfires (1.3). The bonfires seem like little islands in the dark heath:
In the valleys of the heath nothing save its own wild face was visible at any time of day [...] None of its features could be seen now, but the whole made itself felt as a vague stretch of remoteness. [...] Red suns and tufts of fire one by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round. (1.3.3-4)
The heath's "wild face" crops up again here. But the heath is also cast as a sort of universe, which is hugely significant. Characters often note that the heath is all they can see, that it seems to be the entire world (see Eustacia at 5.7.1 and Clym at 3.5.69). Egdon functions as an all-encompassing universe. And in this scene, the dark heath is like a night sky and the bonfires are like tiny suns in the heath's solar system. This is definitely fitting since the heath just swallows things up and almost blots them out; it's no mistake that in certain areas the heath is all that people can see.
But it's worth noting the role of the bonfires here as well. They harken back to a sort of ancient, primitive past where people used bonfires for light and warmth, not just for celebration. This is definitely fitting since the heath is also directly linked to ancient pasts throughout the book, particularly to the Celts and the ancient Romans. The darkness here acts like a sort of literal "dark ages," and ties into all the ideas of ancient pasts and age that are swirling around the heath. But, often, the narrator comes right out and says "the heath is old" (it's more poetic than that, though), which is nice and helpful.
[T]o know that everything around and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the irrepressible New. The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim. (1.1.11)
There's an interesting dichotomy set up here. The heath is "prehistoric," and is always there, which implies that it's very old – much older than the folks prancing around on it. But the heath is also "unaltered," which suggests that the heath isn't so much aging as it is outlasting everything around it. So the heath becomes almost god-like here, immortal and unchanging. And just like on Survivor, Egdon Heath outlasts and outplays everything around it and on it, including those pesky little people with their bonfires, which inevitably burn out.
We see evidence of the heath's resiliency, or ability to last, throughout the novel:
But as for Yeobright [...] he could not help indulging in a barbarous satisfaction at observing that, in some o the attempts at reclamation from the waste, tillage [...] had receded again in despair, the ferns and furze-tufts stubbornly reasserting themselves. (3.2.8)
There's something competitive about Egdon Heath here. It often seems to fight back against the people inhabiting it and changing it (recall its dislike of anything "new"). Maybe the heath should see a therapist for its fear of change. At any rate, this competitive spirit ties into another very important theme in the novel: Social Darwinism.
What is Social Darwinism, you ask? Let's start off with the Darwinism part. So, Darwinism is the system outlined by Charles Darwin that proposes things like evolution, survival of the fittest, etc. Social Darwinism basically applies the ideas that Darwin had about nature to society and people. The idea here is that people evolve, some get to be superior, and they compete against one another.
Social Darwinism also tied into another important philosophy: Naturalism. The two schools of thought overlapped a fair bit. Both emphasized competition, harsh reality, nature's mean streak, and so on. And all of these ideas play a huge role in how the setting is depicted in this book.
Aside from being old and ancient, the heath is also callous, meaning that it's uncaring. Eustacia in particular hates the heath and thinks it is cruel. But Eustacia has a lot more in common with the heath than she's ever prepared to admit, and this connection is crucial to our understanding not just of Eustacia but of Egdon.
Egdon was her Hades, and since coming there she had imbibed much of what was dark in its tone, though inwardly and eternally unreconciled thereto. Her appearance accorded well with this mouldering rebelliousness, and the shady splendour of her beauty was the real surface of the sad and stifled warmth within her. (1.7.7)
Egdon and Eustacia are both dark and volatile, or emotional, in their own way. And they're both explicitly tied to night or "shade." There's something inscrutable, or hidden, about them both. But, unlike the heath, Eustacia is very young and is quite rebellious. The heath is old, unchanging, and seemingly immune to Eustacia's angry and emotional outbursts of rebellion. Eustacia is not a threat to the heath, but the heath is definitely a threat to her and to those around her.
We noted before that the heath has a definite edge – it's dark and broody and stubborn. So it makes sense that the heath frequently places people in danger. Yes, it's a danger zone.
The most notable scene of danger in the book is the rainy night when Eustacia and Damon drown in the flooded pond. The heath contributes to the dangerous atmosphere with its dark, uncaring attitude and its total lack of sympathy. Egdon is so ancient that it has seen everything before and is unmoved by anyone's plight. In fact, it rolls out the funeral trappings for Eustacia a few hours before she dies:
The gloom of the night seemed funereal; all nature seemed clothed in crepe. The spiky points of the fir trees behind the house rose into the sky like the turrets and pinnacles of an abbey. (5.7.16)
Given how old and unsympathetic the heath can be, it really is a bit like a god of sorts, which is fitting given how preoccupied Hardy is with his Greek references in this book. And Greek gods and goddesses in epics like the Odyssey and the Iliad were notoriously unsympathetic to the measly little humans that they manipulated and used and ignored at will.
But we also have scenes of danger that take place in the daytime. Egdon is a place of love and beauty and dreams during the day, but it is also a place of cruel exposure and heat, like a sort of hell. Check out these two contrasting scenes of the daytime heath:
It was the one season of the year [...] in which the heath was gorgeous. This flowering period represented the second or noontide division in the cycle of those superficial changes which alone were possible here; [...] to be displaced by the dark hue of the winter period, representing night. (4.1.1)
On the present heated afternoon, when no perceptible wind was blowing, the trees kept up a perpetual moan [...]
Here she sat for twenty minutes or more ere she could summon resolution to go down to the door, her courage being lowered to zero by her physical lassitude. (4.5.15)
In the first scene, the beautiful heath is the stage for Clym and Eustacia's (literal) summer of love, but it still carries the hint of winter and night with it. The narrator points out that the heath changes with the seasons to emphasize how nothing lasts and to hint at unhappy endings for our resident couple.
The second scene here really demonstrates the heath's capacity for cruelty. The day of Mrs. Yeobright's death is viciously hot and bright, all the better for her to see her daughter-in-law refuse to open the door for her. The heath on that day exposes a lot of very unpleasant truths to the cast of characters, even as it strips them of things like "courage."
Nature itself and Egdon in particular are not safe places, and they are not to be taken for granted. So ultimately, what sort of character is Egdon Heath? We're going to try to sum it up in one word: impervious. Impervious means something that can't be disturbed or affected in any way. And this ancient setting is definitely impervious. It's just always there, trumping everyone and everything around it. In a way, it really is the star of the novel.