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The Seasons of Love

The Role of the Heath in Hardy's "The Return of the Native"

"Nature is the most thrifty thing in the world; she never wastes anything; she undergoes change, but there is no annihilation, the essence remains - matter is eternal,? philosophizes Horace Binney. Egdon Heath, in Thomas Hardy?s Return of the Native, behaves as Nature does in this quotation -- it undergoes seasonal shifts, but its essential quality remains. The heath takes on the role of a static influence on the characters? relationships and circumstances, demonstrating the unchanging nature of human experience through its own seasonal shifts, but still unaltered essence of tragedy.
As the story opens, it is November fifth, in the early winter. The beginning of winter is also the beginning of a troubled time for Thomasin. She goes with Wildeve to Anglebury to marry him in the morning of November fifth, but returns that evening, unmarried, in the back of the reddleman?s wagon. Mrs. Yeobright, Thomasin?s aunt and guardian, expresses her grief -- ?When it gets known there will be a very unpleasant time for us? (49). Though it was not Thomasin?s fault that she did not marry Wildeve, as there was a problem with the marriage license, people still consider it a scandal and a great disgrace to her and her family. This time of depression, in which Thomasin does not even leave the house out of shame, lasts until Thomasin finally does marry Wildeve, after an extended period of waiting. It is not until after Christmas that they finally wed. The depressing quality of the winter season reflects this dreary and disheartening time. Nature and seasonal changes reflect human nature and situations on the heath.
As spring, ?the green or young fern period?, begins, so does a relationship between Clym and Eustacia.
The pool outside the bank by Eustacia?s dwelling, which seemed as dead and desolate as ever to an observer who moved and made noises in his observation, would gradually disclose a state of great animation when silently watched awhile. A timid animal world had come to life for the season. (194-5)
Around the heath, new life is springing up. This new-sprung life on the heath personifies Clym and Eustacia?s new-sprung love. Similar to the pond, it is not evident to the casual observer that a relationship exists between them; they keep their relationship hidden. Later in the spring, however, the buds of love begin to open, and Eustacia accepts Clym?s offer of marriage. She seems to realize that this stage of their love is only a season, and will change. The night of the proposal, she points towards the moon, which is undergoing an eclipse, and says, ?See how our time is slipping, slipping, slipping!? (202). The moon is another aspect of nature on the heath that reflects their relationship -- soon the night sky will return to its original state and the eclipse will fade. Eustacia subconsciously observes that their passion will fade as well. Just like the new fern of spring, their infatuation cannot live forever. The seasonal changes on the heath reflect the shifts in relationships and situations among Hardy?s characters.
The summer brings the one entirely happy period in Clym and Eustacia?s relationship, but soon overheats to tragedy. ?The July sun shone over Egdon and fired its crimson heather to scarlet. It was the one season of the year, and the one weather of the season, in which the heath was gorgeous?(241). The positive atmosphere of the heath rubs off on the love of Clym and Eustacia. The beauty of the heath demonstrates itself in their passion. Even changes in weather do not phase them; they concern themselves only with each other. ?When it rained they were charmed, because they could remain indoors together all day with such a show of reason; when it was fine they were charmed, because they could sit together on the hills?(241-2). They use any excuse they can to be together; like the flowers on the heath, their love comes into full bloom. They could not be happier together than they are in this season of splendor. Unfortunately, as the summer gets too hot, the flora eventually wilts. After such a seasonal high, Clym and Eustacia?s relationship can only worsen. When Clym nearly loses his eyesight and is reduced to cutting furze on the heath to generate income, Eustacia is devastated as well as humiliated by his new, lowly position. Clym realizes what is happening; he interprets it to Eustacia, ?And so love dies with good fortune!?(257). The true nature of Eustacia?s infatuation becomes apparent -- status concerns her more than Clym himself. The final heat of summer strikes when Mrs. Yeobright dies in her attempt to visit the unhappy couple. The season of the heath influences the relationships and situations among characters, causing both highs and lows.
As fall comes, light fades quickly in Eustacia and Clym?s marriage. Fall is the ?brown period, when the heathbells and ferns would wear the russet tinges of evening?(241). Clym falls into a deep depression over the death of his mother, for which he blames himself. When he discovers Eustacia?s true faultiness in the tragedy, their relationship shatters. It is the beginning of the end, just as the evening is the beginning of the much darker night. On the heath, ?mile after mile?[there are] dying ferns and?wet white spiders? webs?(331). The dying ferns symbolize the death of Eustacia and Clym?s passion and love. The spiders? webs represent the past, which is slowly returning. The nature on the heath reflects the relationships and circumstances in the story.
The return to ?the winter period, representing night? brings the situation back to its original depression (241). The story has come full circle. This time it is Wildeve and Eustacia, instead of Thomasin, as it was a year ago, who are trying to go away together, as they had discussed fleetingly at their secret meeting last November fifth. Now it is one year and one day later, and again the plan is not fated to work; the winter once more brings despair. However, this time the night is darker, and the despair is greater. The heath ends Eustacia and Wildeve?s life in Shadwater Weir as darkness closes in on the heath for the winter. The characters cannot control nature; it instead reflects their own relationships and situations.
The seasons have come full circle and so has tragedy. The heath is back to its original state, as are Clym and Thomasin -- merely a bit older and a bit sadder, just as the heath itself. While the seasons change things for a time, the situation eventually reverts to its original state. The essence of the heath is tragic, and will always recover to that condition, just as human experience is unchanging. Indeed, ?the untamable?thing that Egdon now was it always had been? and will always continue to be (14).

Works Cited
Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native. New York: Signet Classic, 1987.

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