Sheep in the novel represent an unfeeling yet unavoidable modernity, whose cost is the dissolution of a more communal way of life. When Master Jordan arrives to take control of his property, he announces a plan to enclose the common lands, previously used for farming, and convert them to a large sheep farm. Jordan describes this as a move towards progress, and in some ways he’s right; it would move the land away from subsistence farming, which barely provides enough food for the villagers, and instead link it to a large, modern economy with the promise of much greater profits. However, Jordan’s total lack of concern about the villagers’ fates shows that his idea of progress is entirely economic, with no considerations of ethics. In this sense, the arrival of sheep symbolizes the transition from an ancient, communally-centered life to an aggressively capitalistic modernity which harms more people than it helps.
Notably, there are several comparisons between the villagers and sheep. Jordan compares the perplexed villagers to “so many sheep,” and after they have fled he says mockingly that “the meek shall inherit the earth,” contrasting the villagers’ flight with the imminent arrival of his livestock. Playing on this, at one point Walter describes the villagers exchanging “sheepish” glances. Jordan’s cruel humor and Walter’s adoption of it emblematizes the villagers’ shift in their self-conception, from informal owners of the land to disposable tenants. In this sense, sheep imagery represents the tragic dispossession of the villagers, who by the end of the novel have lost not only their homes but their entire worldview.
Sheep Quotes in Harvest
I bring you sheep, and I supply a Holy Shepherd too. There’ll be a steeple, higher than the turret of this house, taller than any ancient oak that we might fell. This place will be visible from far. And I will have a bell cast for the very top of it to summon everyone to prayer. And hurry everyone to work.
There’s nothing like a show of heavy justice–and a swinging corpse–to persuade a populace not used to formal discipline that their compliance in all matters–including those regarding wool and fence–is beyond debate.
“Nothing but sheep,” he says, and laughs out loud. His joke, I think, is this: we are the sheep, already here, and munching at the grass. There’s none more pitiful than us, he thinks. There’s none more meek. There’s none to match our peevish fearfulness, our thoughtless lives, our vacant, puny faces, our dependency, our fretful scurrying, our plaints.
“I have the sense my cousin is taking pleasure from sowing these anxieties, in the same way we take pleasure in the sowing of our seed,” says Master Kent. “I fear his harvesting. I think he means to shear us all, then turn us into mutton.”