The Return of the Native opens with a chapter describing sundown on Egdon Heath, the stage upon which the drama of the novel unfolds. The heath is a "vast tract of unenclosed wild," a somber, windswept stretch of brown hills and valleys, virtually treeless, covered in briars and thorn-bushes: "the storm was its lover, and the wind was its friend." It is characterized by a "chastened sublimity"--impressive but not showy grandeur--rather than any obvious aesthetic appeal. The heath is described as "a place perfectly accordant with man's nature... like man, slighted and enduring... It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities." It is an ancient space shaped by nature, seemingly impervious to the efforts of man.
Along a road on the heath walks an old man, who soon encounters a "van"--a wagon--driven by a reddleman (we later learn that these characters are Captain Vyeand Diggory Venn, respectively). Fishing for gossip, the old man discovers from the recalcitrant reddleman that there is a young woman asleep in the back of his wagon. The two men, still nameless, part ways, and the reddleman proceeds through the darkening heath. Raising his eyes towards the highest point on the heath, Rainbarrow, the reddleman sees a woman, standing alone, profiled against the sky, "like an organic part of the entire motionless structure."
The woman leaves Rainbarrow, and is replaced by a gathering of local men and women, who, in observance of local custom, are involved with building a huge bonfire on top of the barrow; all the villages for miles around do the same, and the night-sky is illuminated by the many torch-like fires. The locals-- including Timothy Fairway, Grandfer Cantle and his son Christian Cantle, and Susan Nonsuch--gossip in their clipped local dialect about the latest news: the marriage of Damon Wildeve and Thomasin Yeobright, which they presume to have occurred that same day. We learn that the girl's aunt, Mrs. Yeobright did not approve of the wedding, and that Clym Yeobright, Mrs. Yeobright's son, is returning from Paris in a few months for Christmas. The locals also notice that towards the end of the evening, the only fire that remains lit is a small one nearby at Mistover Knapp, where Eustacia Vye lives. The gossipers begin to dance and sing reels in the local custom, but are interrupted by reddleman encountered earlier, who asks for directions to Mrs. Yeobright's house, Blooms-End. Just minutes after the reddleman departs, Mrs. Yeobright arrives at the bonfire.
Walking home from the bonfire, Olly Dowden has a conversation with Mrs. Yeobright in which they discuss Mrs. Yeobright's resistance to her niece's marriage, and eventual acquiescence. When they part ways, Mrs. Yeobright runs into the reddleman, whom she recognizes as Diggory Venn, the son of a local dairyman, and who reveals to her that Thomasin Yeobright is the woman asleep in the back of the wagon. It turns out that Thomasin and Damon Wildeve were not married that day: they had gone to Anglebury to be married, but there was a technical problem with the marriage license, and Thomasin, upset, had run away. Mrs. Yeobright believes that the family, and especially Thomasin, will be disgraced by this failed marriage; they go to Damon Wildeve's home, the Quiet Woman Inn, and insist that Damon go through with marrying Thomasin. He is somewhat casual about the whole affair, but eventually agrees. The serious discussion in interrupted by the entrance of the local farmers and workers, who sing wedding tunes in honor of the couple, believing them to be already married. After everyone finally leaves, Damon notices that the bonfire at Mistover Knapp is still burning, and resolves, "Yes, by Heaven, I must go to her."
It is fitting that the novel open with a chapter characterizing Egdon Heath. Throughout the novel, the rugged and unforgiving terrain of the heath plays a crucial role, not just in shaping the culture and attitudes of the local peasants but also in motivating the main characters and even in shaping the outcomes of crucial events. The residents of the heath might imagine themselves to have civilized their native terrain, but in truth the heath remains wild, with a character of its own that asserts its will over its human denizens. Mrs. Yeobright dies of exposure due to the ruggedness of the heath; Damon Wildeve and Eustacia Vye are drowned during one of the frequent storms that sweep the heath. More subtly, all of the characters seem defined, emotionally and even physically, by their relationships to the heath. The heath is named before any of the characters are: indeed, in the second chapter, Diggory Venn and Captain Vye remain anonymous, merely outgrowths of the heath (especially the nomadic Diggory, who, dyed entirely red, seems an incarnation of the savage heath itself). And the reader soon realizes that the unnamed woman who Diggory sees standing on Rainbarrow in the second chapter, looking like "an organic part" of the great mound, is in fact Eustacia Vye, who, despite her loathing for the heath, nonetheless embodies or symbolizes--by virtue of her powerful, tempestuous passions and her dark beauty--the untameable nighttime heath.
But even while the heath as a physical object is described as "inviolate," untouchable and unalterable by man, as a symbol it is highly pliable: it becomes what the various characters want to make of it. It is ugly for Eustacia, beautiful for Clym Yeobright, comforting for Thomasin Yeobright, and home for Diggory Venn. And it is described differently by the narrator at different times, depending on the perspective of the character being focused on; it is not just the attitudes of the characters that change, but, in the narrator's perspective, the entire heath itself that seems changeable. It is both "an installment of night" and an object of delicate, intricate beauty. This may be seen as an instance of the unreliability of the narrator, but it may also be seen as proof of the heath's evasion of all simple descriptions: it is so much greater than civilized man that it defies his attempts at limiting and defining it.
In this first section, too, we are introduced to the supporting cast of the novel, the working-class locals who live on the heath. When The Return of the Native was published, Thomas Hardy was criticized by many reviewers for the unnatural language he puts into the mouths of these uneducated locals. This criticism deeply upset Hardy, who placed great importance in a realistic depiction of local life, custom and language. A native returning to his own birthplace of Dorchester, the area in England on which the fictional Wessex is based, Hardy wanted to recapture the feel of the country in his novels. Thus he spends a good deal of time in these opening pages describing the locals, who seem more pagan than Christian in their attitudes: they never attend church, celebrate a pagan custom by lighting bonfires to ward off the oncoming winter, and enjoy dancing and drinking above all else. Paganism in general is a recurrent theme throughout the novel. It should not be ignored that Rainbarrow itself is a barrow--an artificial burial mound raised by the ancient pagan Celtic tribes--that has become a part of the landscape. There are frequent references made throughout not just to native British paganism but to Roman and Greek influences: the bonfire, for instance, is said to be "Promethean." Eustacia Vye, especially, is described as some kind of goddess or demigoddess, a pagan "Queen of the Night," and it is on Rainbarrow that she is first discerned, albeit anonymously. To a large extent, this novel uses the ancient, pagan world--unchecked by Christianity and civilization--as its psychological and physical setting.