A whole lifetime can be lived on the heath. That’s what the old Victorian masters taught us. From the barrow mound to the river and back again, the entire gamut of the human experience. Birth, love, jealousy and rage. At the end of it all death. But it can have meaning, even if nobody ever leaves the heath. Even if the greatest adventure is had by a wayward son who went to Paris for a season; but didn’t he even come home? The heath was calling, and that is not a call to be refused.
Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy is about this. About all this. It is marinated in descriptions, the colors and sounds and smells of Wessex. You get to know the characters; their proclivities and their fears. The whole range of human existence, even to the accident that ends it all. But was it even an accident? Even those on the heath contemplate suicide; find their lives unfulfilled; yearn for more and fear lest they lose all they have – though to us it might seem paltry. I read a study somewhere that most people in England still live within 50 miles of where they have for generations. If that is true, and we go now to the heath, we will still find people like Eustacia and Clym, locked in a desperate love from which there is no escape and no salvation. And we might even still see the Reddelman, selling his wares lonely and forlorn along the unpaved roads of England.