Over the course of the novel, the village’s agrarian lifestyle quickly succumbs to the machinations of its new landlord Edmund Jordan, who decides to convert he land to more profitable sheep farming. Jordan enacts the policy of “enclosure,” which was widespread in England in the 16th and 18th centuries and involved landowners converting common lands (which villagers previously farmed to sustain themselves) into economic enterprises that produced a single item—in this case, wool.
Jordan describes enclosure as a movement toward “progress and prosperity,” and, in fact, the enclosure movement did strengthen England’s economy and move it closer to industrial development. However, by illustrating the harmony of agrarian life and focusing on the plight of villagers who are quickly ejected from land they’ve farmed for centuries, the novel makes clear that Jordan’s narrative of progress doesn’t apply to these villagers at all. Rather, Jordan establishes a sheep farm from which only he will profit, by dispossessing the villagers of their land and reducing them to an itinerant and unstable lifestyle. By contrasting the theoretical narrative of “progress” with the actual narrative of dispossession, the novel displays an intense skepticism towards the social and economic motivations of the elite classes, who claim to be acting on behalf of the entire society but actually enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.
The villagers’ lifestyle is primitive and sometimes harsh, but it’s also remarkably egalitarian and secure prior to Jordan’s arrival. It’s not easy to live in the village, though—Walter remarks casually that there’s only been “one appalling death from sweating fits” this year, his offhand attitude showing how accustomed the villagers are to calamity and death. The villagers are also uneducated, and England’s quasi-feudal landowning policies prevent them from owning their farms. Still, because they work all the land in common, the village has a remarkable atmosphere of equality and cohesion. There are no distinctions in rank among the villagers.
While everyone is subservient to Master Kent, his ability to abuse his power over them is limited by the fact that he relies on their labor for his sustenance and livelihood. Walter points out that Master Kent “would be the poorest man if all he had to work his property were his own two hands.” The agrarian system, which puts a premium on farm labor, allows the laborers to be “possessive of this ground” and provides them “common rights […] despite [their] lack of muniments.” Rather than worshipping or aspiring to wealth, the villagers seem to disdain it. They quietly scorn Master Kent’s soft hands and the ignorance of hard work they signify, and the villagers are proud that they don’t require the soft beds and other luxuries the manor house contains. While the villagers have very few legal rights, the agrarian system provides them with a sense of security and makes them feel a certain ownership of the land.
Edmund Jordan—and even, to some extent, Master Kent—phrase enclosure as a move that will benefit everyone. However, Jordan’s actions show that it actually serves to enrich the elite while robbing the poor of their few securities. Enclosure comes cloaked in flowery and optimistic language. Master Kent calls it “an organization to all of our advantages,” while Jordan refers loftily to “Progress, Prosperity, and Enterprise.” Their impressive but ultimately empty language heightens the contrast between enclosure and the agrarian system it replaces, which is outwardly humble but very substantial, based on work and actions rather than discussion.
The enclosure system does not enrich the village, as Master Kent nervously promises when he relates his “dream” of the peasants becoming “rich and leisurely.” In fact, the villagers become painfully aware that their “common rights” aren’t nearly as stable as they thought, and that their prosperity doesn’t depend on their ability to work but on the whims of their landlord. Interestingly, at one point Jordan laughs at the villagers and refers to them archly as “sheep.” Rather than considering them “friends and neighbors,” as Master Kent did when the agrarian system required him to respect the villagers, Jordan regards the villagers in the same light as the livestock he will soon import—as objects off which he can profit.
When he eventually frightens the villagers off the land, Jordan becomes secure in his rights as landlord, and satisfied that he won’t have to share his wool profits with many inhabitants. His increasing prosperity contrasts with the tragic image of villagers hurrying away from land they’ve farmed for centuries. They’re accustomed to being poor, but without common land to farm, they face not only poverty but instability. At the novel’s outset, the furtive and itinerant Mistress Beldam and her husband and father provide a contrast to the settled and complacent lifestyle in the village. However, by the end it’s clear that most of the villagers will have to take on the Beldams’ scrambling lifestyle; the family thus becomes a contrast between the increased prosperity of the landowning class and the deteriorating lot of the peasants.
Ultimately, Harvest’s examination of the enclosure movement argues that economic “progress” often confers its benefits on the elite classes while doing nothing to improve the lives of the poor, and cautions against blind optimism about such transformative movements.
Progress and Dispossession ThemeTracker
Progress and Dispossession 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.
But what are documents and deeds when there are harvests to be gathered in? Only toughened hands can do that job. And Master Kent, for all his parchmenting, would be the poorest man if all he had to work his property were his own two hands and no others […] Ours are the deeds that make the difference.
The organization to all of our advantages that the master has in mind–against his usual character and sympathies, against his promises–involves the closing and engrossment of our fields with walls and hedges, ditches, gates. He means to throw a halter round our lives. He means the clearing of our common land.
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.
Dissent is never counted. It is weighed. The master always weighs the most. Besides, they can’t draw up a petition and fit it to the doorway of the church as other places do. It only takes a piece of paper and a nail, that’s true. But, even if they had a doorway to a church, none of them has a signature.
“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.”
We’re used to looking out and seeing what’s preceded us, and what will also outlive us. Now we have to contemplate a land bare of both. Those woods that linked us to eternity will be removed by spring […] That grizzled oak which we believe is so old it must have come from Eden to our fields will be felled and rooted out.
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.
The plowing’s done. The seed is spread. The weather is reminding me that, rain or shine, the earth abides, the land endures, the soil will persevere forever and a day. Its smell is pungent and high-seasoned. This is happiness.