Jim Crace’s Harvest portrays a society that derives both stability and satisfaction from the cycles of death and rebirth occurring constantly in the surrounding land. Isolated and centered around subsistence farming, the villagers are always one bad harvest away from disaster; at the same time, their bountiful harvests have allowed them to survive for centuries without altering their way of life. When the village experiences a rapid decline, Walter, the narrator, blames Edmund Jordan and his plan for “enclosure,” a practice that swept through England in from the 16th to the 18th century, in which landlords assumed total control over common lands and displaced peasant farmers. Signs of decay are present from the beginning of the novel, however, long before Jordan arrives on the scene. By arguing that the village’s disintegration precedes Jordan, Harvest presents an ambivalent view of humanity’s place within nature: on one hand, the land provides a rhythm of life that can never be replaced by manmade innovations. On the other hand, nature is an impersonal force, indifferent to human welfare and sometimes contributing to human entropy.
The novel’s opening harvest scenes show the land’s perennial ability to sustain the village and the extent to which village life is structured around stewarding and celebrating the land’s renewal. The harvest season occurs at the cusp of winter, when the land will stop producing and most plants will die. However, the successful harvest ensures that the village will survive until spring. Before the frost, the villagers intend to plow the fields and sow winter wheat, already anticipating the promise of renewal in the spring.
One of the village’s most important rituals, the gleaning ceremony emblematizes the hope that the harvest provides. A young woman is selected as the “Gleaning Queen,” connecting the renewal of the land to the renewal of the village population. Walter’s description of the gleaned barley as “tokens of our bread and drink […] sitting on a child’s undamaged skin” explicitly links the renewal of the land to the vitality of the village. Walter notes that even Master Kent’s speech is the same every year, emphasizing that the end of the harvest coincides with the beginning of the spring planting. The speech’s pattern shows that, somewhat ironically, the constant renewal of the seasons permits the unchanging nature of the town and all its practices.
However, even before Jordan’s arrival, when village life seems to be proceeding as it always has, lurking signs of decay are present. For all its focus on sustenance through continuous planting and harvesting, the village population is dwindling, unable to renew itself. It’s notable that Walter is a childless widower, unsuccessful in perpetuating his own family. So is Master Kent—in fact, it’s Kent’s inability to father children that allows the village to fall into Edmund Jordan’s hands and makes it vulnerable to takeover.
Walter notes that the harvest mood is subdued because the crop has proved “frugal in the ear.” Similarly, the manor house, even before its destruction, has been slowly decaying since its mistress, Lucy Kent, died. The village’s physical decay mirrors the decline of Master Kent’s family and the general population. When three young men accidentally burn the dovecote while trying to steal birds, Walter attributes their mischievous impulses to the fact that the village lacks unmarried women; in his view, the young men are at loose ends instead of marrying and procreating, and this leads to destruction. Thus, despite Walter’s celebration of the land’s renewal and the unchanging nature of village life, it’s clear that the community is tending towards decline before Jordan introduces his sheep-farming plan.
The village’s simultaneous hopes for renewal and anxieties about decay are emblematized in its collective fascination with Mistress Beldam, the mysterious stranger who arrives in the village after enclosure has forced her to flee from her own. When she arrives, everyone sees her as a sign of renewal. Village women imagine her as a partner for their sons, while the men want her for themselves. This is partly a matter of sexual desire, but in a culture centered around renewal—sex is referred to as “sowing seed”—such desire is intimately linked to perpetuating the community and reversing its current population decline.
However, instead of living up to her initial reputation as a symbol of rebirth, Mistress Beldam proves a harbinger of destruction and instability. As revenge for her husband and father’s imprisonment, she kills Willowjack, Master Kent’s beloved horse. Her action gives Edmund Jordan an excuse to “investigate” and intimidate the villagers, resulting in their collective flight from the village. When Walter frees her husband and allows the couple to take abandoned animals and supplies, she responds by destroying the manor house and setting fire to the village cottages.
The destruction that Mistress Beldam inflicts is independent of Jordan’s schemes for the towns. After all, she has also left her village because of enclosure; rather than representing the ravages of economic “progress” like Jordan, Mistress Beldam is closely linked with nature, especially with her animal-like footsteps and the cropped hair which Walter often compares to fur. Through her, the novel contrasts nature’s ability to provide for humanity to its capacity to inflict wanton destruction.
The novel’s tragedy is that the cycle of village life, initially secure and unchanged for centuries, is destroyed in a matter of days by the enclosure movement. However, besides the threat posed by economic progress, the village also faces decay from within. Even as the novel glorifies pastoral life, with its manifold possibilities of renewal, it questions the stability of such a life and points out the dangers lurking in an existence so closely connected to the forces of nature.
Renewal and Decay ThemeTracker
Renewal and Decay Quotes in Harvest
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.
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.
But this was precisely what I most liked about this village life, the way we had to press our cheeks and chests against a living, fickle world which in the place where I and Master Kent had lived before only displayed itself as casual weeds in cracks or on our market stalls where country goods were put on sale, already ripe, and magicked up from God knows where.
The moment is always a rousing one. Our labors are condensed to this: a dozen tokens of our bread and drink, each tucked and swaddled in the oval of a grain, and sitting on a child’s undamaged skin. What should we do but toss our hats and cheer?
But none of these compare for patterned vividness with Mr. Quill’s designs. His endeavors are tidier and more wildly colorful–they’re certainly more blue–than anything that nature can provide. They’re rewarding in themselves. They are more pleasing than a barleycorn.
“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.”
I’ll not forget her blowing on the grains to winnow off the flake and how the barley pearls were weighty on her palm. But now she is like chaff herself. A sneeze could lift her up and take her off. She’s hollowed out and terrified.
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.
It is a warning–among country folk, at least–that life should be allowed to proceed in its natural and logical order. In other words, you do not eat before you cook, you do not weave before you shear, you do not attempt to light the fire until you have the kindling…
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.