The form of The Return of the Native is a strange experiment of Hardy’s, an attempt to mesh the novel with a five act play and the classical unities, yet also aligning the pacing, and even the chronology, with that of the novel’s serialization. I take the experiment as a big success, clever and effective.
Thus the first quarter of the novel is one long action that covers not much more than twenty-four hours, introducing all of the major characters but one (and announcing that one – the native who returns in Act II, scrambling the status quo).
The starting date is November 5, Bonfire Night, a blend of Guy Fawkes Day and a pagan celebration. The entire novel covers a year, or just a bit more. Hardy pegs the big scenes to holidays whenever he can. Or if no holiday is available, how about something astronomical:
While he watched the far-removed landscape a tawny stain grew into being on the lower verge: the eclipse had begun. This marked a preconcerted moment; for the remote celestial phenomenon had been pressed into sublunary service as a lover’s signal. (IV, 4)
The seasons and holidays provide one logical structure, the five “acts” or big scenes another. Yet Hardy keeps things loose. The Zola novel I am reading now, Nana (1880), is stricter – one chapter is usually one scene. Hardy allows himself more cuts and edits.
The first chapter is all landscape, the place first, not the people. Egdon Heath, a semi-fictional semi-wilderness, empty of humans for four pages, the sun setting, the bonfires not yet lit.
In fact, precisely at this transitional point of its nightly roll into darkness the great and particular glory of the Egdon waste began, and nobody could be said to understand the heath who had not been there at such a time. It could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen… The obscurity in the air and the obscurity in the land closed together in a black fraternisation towards which each advanced half-way. (I, 1)
Those last two lines are the psychology of many of Hardy’s romantic couples projected onto the landscape, or in this novel vice versa.
The description is so strange. Hardy moves so quickly to metaphor. No one is expected to visualize the landscape, but rather to see it in some other imaginative sense. For example, it is personified in several ways. The heath is a Titan who has “waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries.” What is it waiting for? “[O]ne last crisis - the final overthrow.”
It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.
Civilisation was its enemy. Ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the same antique brown dress, the natural and invariable garment of the formation.
Hardy’s imagination is simultaneously mythic and geological, even is his geology is wrong. It must be wrong – no change since “the beginning of vegetation,” that can’t be true can it? Well, it is true in this novel, for this place.
Chapter 2 is titled “Humanity appears upon the scene, hand in hand with Trouble.” Its first line is “Along the road walked an old man.” Those tragical possibilities suggested by Egdon Heath begin to become actual and the story begins.