One of the novel’s chief preoccupations is the tension between the assertion of individual character and the preservation of the community as a whole. At the outset, most characters, especially Walter, scorn the idea of individuality; they identify more strongly as members of the village than as discrete beings, and their thoughts and feelings are oriented around the good of the community rather than personal aspirations. When Edmund Jordan announces his determination to find a culprit for the various “crimes” that have occurred in the village, however, he forces the townspeople to turn against each other in order to save themselves. The emergence of individual character thus occurs in a context of suspicion and blame. With the disintegration of the village at the end of the novel, its various families choose disparate paths, while Walter is alone after years of trying to find a place within the community. Ultimately, the novel presents individual development as a heart-wrenching, almost unnatural process; its final tragedy is that its characters are forced to assert themselves as individuals at the expense of the integrity of their community.
Walter’s loving description of the village rhythms shows that, at first, all the villagers prioritize their community over the development of individual characters. Since the community is based on collective enterprise for everyone’s benefit, no one needs to think for themselves; in fact, any assertion of individual aspirations would damage the community’s efficiency and cohesion.
The spirit of collective thinking is further reflected in the community’s remarkable homogeneity. Walter constantly remarks that everyone around him is blond. He also notes that since there are no mirrors, no one knows exactly what they look like; the lack of knowledge or even interest in their own reflection shows a remarkable level of individual effacement. In his narration, Walter also usually uses the pronoun “we,” couching descriptions of events and even thoughts and feelings on the community level. It’s especially notable that Walter presents such a communal narrative, given that he was born outside the village. As someone who has experienced other ways of life, Walter’s love for the village and desire to be completely subsumed in it provides an additional endorsement for this community’s way of life.
The villagers only develop individuality as a negative consequence of Edmund Jordan’s quest to dismantle their community structures in order to push them off their land. Jordan understands that the easiest way to overcome opposition to his plans is to investigate a largely invented series of crimes, encouraging the villagers to become more preoccupied with their personal safety than the good of the community. Understanding his days in the village may be numbered, Walter decides to seek employment with Mr. Quill. While this decision is logical, it inspires a lot of guilt in Walter; thinking on an individual level, even in terms of his own survival, feels like a betrayal of the community he loves.
This process is wrenching for the rest of the community as well, especially as Jordan intimidates them into naming the “culprits” in their midst. When Jordan tortures Anne Rogers and Kitty Gosse into confessing to witchcraft and naming their “accomplices,” the women accuse several of their neighbors. They later backtrack and say that they’re all “followers” of Mr. Quill, seeking to “redeem a little reputation for their men and friends” while casting the blame on someone outside the community. Here, the women wrestle for the first time with a conflict between their personal benefit and the benefit of the community at large. By portraying their first assertion of individuality in the context of torture and fear, the novel casts this development as a calamity and emphasizes its role in fracturing the community.
Amidst the break-up of the village, Walter loses the tight-knight community he loves. After everyone has fled the village, he fights against his new and unwelcome individuality by trying to preserve the customs of the community. Assisted by the Beldam husband, he begins to plow the common ground for winter wheat; however, he fails in this task because it requires the effort of all the village men and can’t be completed by a single individual. As he faces life alone, Walter tries to cultivate a friendship with Mistress Beldam and her husband, freeing them and allowing them to take supplies from the village because he hopes they’ll welcome him into his circle. His fantasy that “they will feed me, and I will leave this village in their company” shows his strong reluctance to think of himself as an individual rather than a member of a community, no matter how small.
However, the Beldams’ indifference to Walter, as well as the fact that they burn his beloved village after taking what they need, show that this dream of communal life is forever closed to him. As Walter leaves the village in the final chapter, he says that leaving “these common fields” is “heavy labor” for him. Saying that he’ll have to keep going “until I reach wherever is awaiting me,” he experiments with a singular pronoun instead of his familiar “we.” Correcting himself in the final sentence to “awaiting us,” he demonstrates not a renewed faith in his irrevocably broken community, but rather that his transformation from a member of strong community to a lone actor is difficult and wrenching.
Many novels, especially those of the contemporary era, feature a protagonist struggling to assert a positive individuality in the face of community norms. By instead focusing on the plight of people trying to preserve such norms against a new and destructive individuality, Harvest points out that the idea of strong individual character as inherently good is essentially a modern invention. Ultimately, the novel’s skepticism of individuality and nostalgia for the all-encompassing communities that vanished with modern life questions the wisdom of embracing modernity, especially when doing so involves disowning the mores of the past.
Individuals and the Community ThemeTracker
Individuals and the Community Quotes in Harvest
Our work is consecrated by the sun. Compared to winter days, let’s say, or digging days, it’s satisfying work, made all the more so by the company we keep, for on such days all the faces we know and love […] are gathered in one space and bounded by common ditches and collective hopes.
We know we ought to make amends for shearing her. That’s why she’s standing there, awaiting us. She’s asking us to witness what we’ve done […] For a moment, the temper of the barn is not that she has shamed our evening but that we’ve found our Gleaning Queen.
Their suspicion of anyone who was not born within these boundaries is unwavering. Next time they catch me sitting on my bench at home with a cup and slice, they are bound to wonder if it tastes all the sweeter for not being earned with labor.
The air was cracking with the retributions and damnations that, in my heart of hearts, I knew that some of us deserved. I prayed that this was just a dream and that soon the couldn’t-care-less clamor of the sunrise birds would rouse me to another day, a better day, a bloodless one, one in which, despite my hand, I’d do my common duty and drag up a log or stone to make that short man tall.
Our church ground has been desecrated by our surliness. Our usual scriptures are abused. This body on the cross is not the one that’s promised us. Yet, once again, it’s Mr. Quill who teaches us our shortcomings. It’s Mr. Quill who’s intimate and kind. It’s Mr. Quill who’s valiant. It will not make him popular.
He must realize I’m not truly a villager. He knows I used to be the manor man. He sees that I stand apart. I’m separate. Indeed, I haven’t felt as separate in years. Perhaps it’s just as well, this recent, saddening detachment from the drove. I almost welcome it. These loose roots might save me yet.
Frost and furrows. That’s the prompt. I know my duty now. I have to put the earth to the plow. The time has come to put the earth to plow, no matter what the Jordans say. The frost will finish what the plow begins. Winter will provide the spring.
This is my heavy labor now. I have to leave behind these common fields. I have to take this first step out of bounds. I have to carry on alone until I reach wherever is awaiting me, until I gain wherever is awaiting us.