Near twilight on a Saturday in November, Egdon Heath slowly turns dark. It has changed little from the way it was described in ancient times. The only evidence of activity is an old highway and an even olderbarrow (a heap of earth piled over ancient burial sites).
An old man in clothes of nautical style makes his way along this highway and presently catches up with another traveler walking alongside a van. By the red color of his complexion, his clothes, and his van, the second man is identified as a reddleman, a seller of a red chalk substance sheep farmers used to make identifying marks on their flock.
During a brief conversation, the old man discovers that the reddleman has a young woman in his van, but the reddleman will say little about her. He leaves the old man to pull off the road and rest, and while he does, the reddleman sees a figure on top of the highest point in the heath, a Celtic barrow. He can tell the figure is a woman. He is surprised to see her place taken by several other figures.
It is significant that Hardy devotes the entire first chapter of his novel to a description of Egdon Heath; even more significant is the way he described it. It is said to be eternally waiting and "unmoved" in its "ancient permanence." The "storm [is] its lover, and the wind its friend." "It [has] a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities"; and its characteristic vegetation gives it an "antique brown dress." Hardy gives animation and a personality to Egdon. Some critics have gone so far as to speak of the heath as one of the main characters in the novel, and in this light other critics suggest that this landscape becomes the personification of the area's ancient, pagan past, making it small wonder that one of the locals will later accuse one of the main characters, Eustacia Vye, of being a witch.
It helps our reading of the novel to think of Egdon Heath as a symbol. Hardy himself suggests that such a "gaunt waste" with its "chastened sublimity" may come to represent a new ideal of beauty for modern man. But this is, of course, an indirect way of commenting on modern people and their views of the universe. No beings appear in the novel until the second chapter and even then they are not named. At the very least, Egdon is shown to be inhospitable to man, even as it is almost untouched by him.
When human figures do finally appear, they seem insignificant against the backdrop of the indifferent, if not hostile, Egdon. Many times during the course of the story, for instance, Clym will be shown to appear like a tiny insect moving across the face of nature. These elements — the heath as a setting and a symbol, and the way the first people to appear are shown in relation to their surroundings — demonstrate Hardy's theme: Man lives his life in a universe that is at least indifferent to him and may be hostile.
Many events to come in the story are foreshadowed in these opening chapters. The fact that the old man is returning to his home and the reddleman is bringing the young woman to hers (these characters are later identified as Captain Vye, Diggory Venn, and Thomasin Yeobright) hints at the more important homecoming of Clym Yeobright. Hardy raises questions about the reddleman and about the woman on the barrow (Eustacia Vye), and he implies that the young woman in the van is in some kind of difficulty. Without identifying them yet, Hardy has presented most of the main characters about whose future the events of the novel will be concerned.
Hardy has sometimes been accused of inept handling of plot, partly because of his preference for developing his story through a series of short scenes. Such series do often occur in this novel, and it is sometimes distracting to be pulled from one scene to another so quickly, especially with the accompanying shift in point of view. Yet, in chapter 3 occurs one of several long scenes developed in rather great detail. It is true, however, that the short scene gets more frequent use than the long.