Because of his injured hand, Walter doesn’t work in the threshing barns but is assigned to help Mr. Quill for the week. He has to be careful of his hand, because many villagers have lost limbs from wounds that didn’t heal correctly. His neighbors are jealous of his release from hard work, and he imagines they’ll make fun of him all day.
Although Walter injured himself protecting the village’s supply of hay, his neighbors see it as something that differentiates him from them and aligns him with the seemingly idle men of the upper class who don’t work for their food. This moment shows how suspicious the villagers are of any demonstrated differences.
Before the working day, everyone gathers at the gleaning field. Everyone feels weary, both from the feasting and the unexpected altercation with the strangers. During the night, the wind has spread much of the chaff across the village, and some of the barley has dropped onto the ground. Walter says there’s a “silent ripeness to the air” that is unique to Gleaning Day.
The Gleaning Ceremony is the crowning moment of the harvest, when the villagers celebrate what they’ve accomplished and prepare the land for another year of farming. However, this year the moment is tainted by the troubling presence of strangers and by Master Kent’s worrying announcement of changes to village life.
With the shock of Mistress Beldam’s appearance at the feast, the village still hasn’t nominated a Gleaning Queen. All the girls have adorned themselves with ribbons, garlands, and gold paste from flowers and are lined up, waiting to be judged. Master Kent arrives on Willowjack, his hat ornamented with green and yellow cloth.
It’s notable that the Gleaning Ceremony hinges on the selection of a woman to represent the harvest. The village’s rituals are closer to pagan religion, centered around female deities, than they are to contemporary Christianity.
This day is a chance for the villagers to give thanks, “not to some higher being but to the soil itself.” It’s also a chance for them to reflect on the changing of the seasons, marveling that it’s already been half a year since the spring when they seeded the land.
The villagers respect the land to the point of disregarding any other “beings” they’re supposed to worship. This moment emphasizes the village’s distance from the religion that dominates the outside world, but also shows that their culture depends on the integrity of their land.
When Walter first arrived in the village, he fell in love with its fertile soil and ancient way of life, marveling at its closeness with the surrounding nature. After meeting Cecily, he became determined to make a future there, and became a farmer as an “act of love.” He loved the fact that the village’s survival depends on the land and the weather, unlike the towns he grew up in, where such things seemed unimportant. Now that he’s widowed, he’s less content with his life here; he no longer loves the hard labor of farming and feels that without his wife he’ll never be fully tied to the village. The recent arrival of Mr. Quill and the other strangers has made him uneasy, reminding him of the existence of a wider world.
While Walter respects and even lionizes the villagers’ devotion to the land in and of itself, he has a slightly different relationship to it. Walter’s love of farming was connected to his love for his wife. Unlike the rest of the villagers, who function as a homogenous group, Walter is governed by individual attachments and passions. His individuality makes him chafe at the village’s closed lifestyle, while his neighbors don’t even seem to notice it.
Master Kent begins his speech, which follows the same pattern year after year. The barley the villagers glean from the fields is theirs to keep and cook throughout the winter. After the people are through, the livestock will root through the fields, from cattle to hogs “according to their station.” While he normally mentions that the plow follows the hogs, in order to prepare the land for the next crop of winter-wheat, he leaves this part out of the speech. This detail shows Walter that the plan to enclose the land is already underway, and that this might be their last harvest.
During the gleaning, the villagers work for individual gain, collecting barley to take home rather than for the communal stores. However, Master Kent’s typical speech, with its emphasis on the common dependence on the land, ensures that this is still a communal enterprise, one which affirms the village’s need to work together in order to produce enough food to survive the winter.
Master Kent says that Mr. Quill, as an honored guest, will choose the Gleaning Queen. Mr. Quill walks down the line of girls, and Walter notices that he lingers over the older and more shapely ones. In fact, all the men in the village are strangely “seduced” by the ceremony, seeing “their own daughters and their neighbors’ daughters in a new, inconsistent light.” Mr. Quill stands in an attitude of dramatic thought, looking into the distance, and the villagers wonder if he’s waiting for Mistress Beldam to appear so he can crown her the Gleaning Queen; some of the men turn to stare into the woods, where they expect she must be hiding. Walter wonders if one of them has found her and bedded with her in the night.
The Gleaning Ceremony makes clear that the village girls are growing into young women, soon to produce children of their own. This is a normal and essential part of village life, but it’s still discomforting, especially to those who have known them since infancy. On the brink of womanhood, the girls promise the continuity of village life, but also remind individuals that they are small participants in an inevitable cycle of life and death.
In the end, Mr. Quill makes an unexpected decision, choosing Lizzie Carr, a four-year-old. She’s delighted to be chosen but scared to hold his hand; to placate her, Master Kent gives her his green sash, making all the other girls jealous. Her father and uncle carry her to the edge of the field, and Master Kent whispers that she should go into the field barefoot and find a grain. She brings back a complete ear of barley, opening her hand to show it to the village. The winter’s food, held in a healthy child’s hand, marks the culmination of a year’s labor. Everyone cheers.
Lizzie’s new sash is too fine for her station as a peasant, just like Mistress Beldam’s shawl. Although it was given voluntarily, it will make her an object of suspicion later in the novel. These two incidents show that the suspicion and blame with which the villagers treat the strangers are revisited on them.
Mr. Quill approaches Walter and asks if he can walk him around the village bounds, telling him the names for the different pieces of land. Later, Walter will help him prepare his paints and the calf-skin vellum to make his charts. Usually, Walter would be reluctant to miss the gleaning, but he’s intrigued by Mr. Quill and hopes he can find discover some sign of Mistress Beldam during their tour of the village.
Walter doesn’t think much of his willingness to miss an important community event, but to his neighbors this will eventually prove a telling sign of difference and even disloyalty.
Master Kent stands watching the gleaning. He knows Walter hasn’t found Mistress Beldam, but he seems more troubled than this circumstance warrants. Earlier, he told Walter that the younger man shouted at him as he passed the pillory, as if he were the true criminal. Now, he instructs him to report to the manor house when he’s finished helping Mr. Quill.
The young man’s shouts, and Master Kent’s unease, heighten the parallels between the shackled men and the crucified Christ. In contrast, the villagers, generally characterized as egalitarian and peaceful, emerge as similar to the tyrannical Roman government who inflicted an unjust punishment on the innocent Christ.
Mr. Quill can’t move quickly, but he’s alert and intelligent. Walter takes him first the large marshland where the villagers discard animal carcasses and sometimes use as a privy (among themselves, they call it Turd and Turf). The path is neglected here, and Walter clears it for Mr. Quill until they reach the steaming marsh. The smell is terrible and there’s no sign of Mistress Beldam, but Mr. Quill is excited by everything in the village, exclaiming on its humble beauty and the many songs of the different birds. His naïve appreciation reminds Walter of himself, when he first arrived in the village and even the Bottom was beautiful to him. In those days, he “felt more like an angel than a beast.”
The marsh is the dumping ground of the village, but Mr. Quill still sees it as a bucolic idyll. This incident gently pokes fun at the genre of British pastoral, in which writers (usually wealthy and elite) praise natural beauty without really understanding it. This behavior seems ridiculous to Walter even though he’s displayed it himself; thus, Mr. Quill reminds him both how much he’s integrated into the village, and of his origins as an outsider.
The other villagers laughed at Walter’s amazement; to them, plants are important for their usefulness, not their beauty. Once he got married and became a farmer, Walter quickly adopted their mentality. He realized that the land is exacting and harsh, requiring the villagers to work constantly and leaving them no time to “stand back and comment on its comeliness.” Although the land provides sustenance, it also requires the village to work hard for it every year.
Walter’s reflection juxtaposes appreciation of the land by the educated elite, who describe and define it without truly living in it, and the peasantry who are immersed in the land but lack the skills to express themselves. Importantly, both these groups will ultimately be unable to protect the land they love.
Mr. Quill asks Walter for the marsh’s name, but Walter says it has none, since he judges both its names too vulgar for maps. Walter leads Mr. Quill on the route the entire village takes every spring, when they collectively survey the state of the land; they also knock their children’s heads against the boundary stones and make them taste the grass so that they remember where they belong, and they air and reconcile any grievances that may have arisen in the past year.
Like the Gleaning Ceremony, the spring rituals emphasize the village’s need to act communally rather than individually. They also show that even though they have little education and no formal government, they’re able to resolve problems peacefully and promote an egalitarian atmosphere when they’re untroubled by outside forces.
This tour is very different, since Mr. Quill doesn’t look at the land like a laborer or care about the local issues that dominate village life. He doesn’t have to worry about the land from the point of view of someone who relies on it for survival. Instead, he makes notes about the beautiful views and writes down the names of different plants. Walter knows all the herbs and their uses without having to name or list them. He explains that when they have to name things, they use directions or family names—for example, West Field or John Carr’s flax garth—in order not to complicate their lives. Even the village doesn’t have a formal title, which Mr. Quill says is unusual.
The villagers are only interested in the land insofar as it contributes to their survival. On the other hand, Mr. Quill is more alert to its aesthetic merits and economic usefulness. In some ways, his appreciation of the land is less limited, but it’s also much less intimate that that of the villagers, who don’t need to name or record the land to understand it.
More somberly, Mr. Quill says that Master Kent has asked him to convey some information to Walter. In fact, Master Kent does not own the land outright as all the villagers assume. The property belonged to his wife, Lucy, and was to be divided among her male heirs by blood upon her death. Since she produced no sons and Master Kent is not a blood relative, the land passes to a cousin, named Edmund Jordan. It’s Jordan, not Master Kent, who plans to introduce sheep and disrupt village life, and he’s arriving this afternoon to enforce his wishes.
It’s important that the impending changes to the village occur indirectly through Lucy Kent’s inability to produce a son, part of the village’s general population problem. While its rituals are focused around fertility, the village is more characterized by decay. This fact both predates and facilitates Master Jordan’s arrival to hasten the demise of the village.
As he absorbs this news, Walter looks out on the land from the top of a hill. After the harvest, there’s no sign of green life left. When they descend into the village, everyone is too busy in the threshing barn to pay attention to the two idle men. The villagers must separate the barley grains from the plant and stack them for storage in the barn. Walter thrusts his arm into a sack to test the quality of the grain; it’s neither as plump nor as puny as it’s been in previous years.
While the absence of greenery is normal, and actually signifies a successful harvest, in the aftermath of this disturbing news the sight troubles Walter and suggests that the cycle of renewal the harvest celebrates may be grinding to a halt.
Mr. Quill stands at the edge of the barn and watches the villagers process the harvested barley. Walter imagines he must be thinking how everything in the village “will pay for Mistress Lucy’s failure to produce a son.” He himself tries to look composed, so no one will guess he knows the unhappy news. He also lets his injured hand hang so it’s clear that he’s truly incapable of working, rather than trying to shirk. He already knows that they’ll tease him the next time they see him eating his portion of food.
While Lucy Kent’s infertility is ostensibly an individual problem, it actually has ramifications for everyone in the village. This emphasizes the intensely communal nature of village life; it also shows that, while Master Kent is a gentle and fair landlord, the system of absolute power under which he functions leaves the villagers extremely vulnerable should he be replaced.
Before leaving, Mr. Quill says goodbye to everyone, but they barely respond, too engrossed in their work. The two men walk toward the manor house; Walter is happy to have gained the stranger’s friendship and feels it could be a potential opportunity to him. As they approach the pillory, he realizes he’s forgotten about Mistress Beldam and feels suddenly disloyal. Right after this thought, he and Mr. Quill catch sight of Master Kent, riding in circles around the pillory on his horse. He’s reciting the prayers for the dead, and it’s clear that the older stranger has perished.
Walter claims to feel sympathetic and drawn to the strangers, but he’s not as attentive as he wants to be. Moreover, it’s probable that the old man died because he couldn’t keep from choking in the pillory, a problem Walter noticed the night before and vowed to fix in the morning. In this sense, Walter’s particular sympathy for the strangers gives him a particular culpability in the old man’s death.