Setting of The Return of the Native
Egdon Heath lends itself very well to the kind of story Hardy wanted to tell in the novel. It is meant as a tragedy, at least through the original five books, and the "gaunt waste" provides an appropriate setting. It is also a convenient microcosm, limited in physical extent and containing all types of human beings. Both its history and its character can be made meaningful parts of the story. Indeed, some critics go so far as to look upon Egdon as a character like any other in the novel. To do so, however, is to ignore the usual expectations the reader has of the nature of any novel.
The characters in Hardy's novel can be grouped by their attitudes toward the heath. Clym, Mrs. Yeobright, Thomasin, and Venn are products of Egdon and understand it: Clym is frequently shown, for instance, to have an intimate knowledge of its natural features; Thomasin, though well off after her husband dies, has no desire to leave it; Venn is shown to be so familiar with it that at night he can walk at full speed across it without losing his footing. On the other hand, both Eustacia and Wildeve look upon the heath as a place to leave with all deliberate speed, making it ironical and appropriate that both should die in a stream near Shadwater Weir.