Summary and Analysis
The figures on Rainbarrow are the heath folk come to build the traditional Fifth of November bonfire. The group includes, among others, Timothy Fairway, Grandfer Cantle, Christian Cantle, Humphrey, Sam, Olly Dowden, and Susan Nunsuch. As they watch the fire, they discuss the marriage of Thomasin Yeobright, Mrs. Yeobright's niece, and Damon Wildeve, an engineer turned innkeeper, which they all assume took place that very day. They also discuss Mrs. Yeobright's earlier disapproval of the marriage and then go on to mention the impending arrival from Paris of Mrs. Yeobright's son, Clym. The bonfire in front of Captain Vye's leads to comments on him and his granddaughter, Eustacia. And Christian's ineptness with women comes in for extended discussion. When their fire dies out, Fairway leads the way with Susan Nunsuch in a wild dance through the embers.
The dance is interrupted by the arrival of Diggory Venn, the reddleman, who inquires the way to Mrs. Yeobright's house. Mrs. Yeobright herself comes by, looking for Olly Dowden, and the two women go off together toward the Quiet Woman Inn, which is now to be Thomasin's home.
Of the bonfires lighting up the heath this night, Hardy says that they "are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot." The Gunpowder Plot refers to Guy Fawkes, and Fifth of November is Guy Fawkes Day in commemoration of a plan to blow up Parliament. Though apparently the custom of observing this day is dying out elsewhere, on Egdon Heath, remote and provincial, it is still observed, along with other traditional or customary practices, as shown later in the novel.
The occasion of the bonfire also gives Hardy the opportunity to show the heath dwellers as traditional, superstitious, and likely to believe in folk wisdom. They all seem to believe the saying "No moon, no man" as it applies in general as well as in particular to the case of Christian Cantle. They all appear to believe, also, that ghosts do exist (the one mentioned is said to be red) and that they appear only to "single sleepers," like Christian. Not even Fairway, who is looked up to by the others, questions any of these beliefs.
Certainly Christian Cantle's life is dominated by such wisdom and superstition; he says of himself that he is a "man of the mourn-fullest make." Hardy uses him as a ludicrous figure, a grotesque, who is defined solely by his shortcomings and fears. In him the fears of all the provincials or rustics are given open expression. Grandfer Cantle, Christian's father, is also a grotesque but of a different sort. If Christian is all fear, Grandfer is all self-advertised courage, as in his repeated references here and elsewhere to his service in 1804 as a soldier. He is also a parody of senility in his songs and wild jigs. Between these two and the less demonstrative Humphrey and Sam, stands the pompous and self-important Fairway. Hardy uses the father and son for slapstick humor. Fairway is deflated as a stuffed shirt, as shown, for example, in the way he is presented in his telling of the tale about Mrs. Yeobright's earlier objections to Thomasin's marriage.
Certainly the conversation and gossip of these characters is used to describe events that have happened in the past, an older technique partly replaced in the modern novel by the flashback. They also comment on events and people in the present as well as look to what will happen in the immediate future. Their opinions are important for Hardy's purposes because they represent the community in which the main characters live out their lives. Few of them are likely to get more than a few miles from the heath.