Rivera’s “The Harvest” is a brief story, covering in some editions no more than three pages. However, springing up from this spare narrative are the archetypal themes of initiation and search, and one archetypal character, that of the Wise Old Man. These structural patterns are archetypal in the sense that they recur in many different myths and literatures of the world and seem to reflect universal human desires and life processes. Since the most prominent of these themes in “The Harvest” is that of initiation, the story can be classified as an initiation story.
The term “initiation” was originally employed by anthropologists to describe the rituals used in primitive societies to mark the passage from boyhood to manhood. Such rituals might include a period of seclusion, an ordeal involving the endurance of physical pain, or the killing of a wild animal. There may be ceremonies, feasts, and dances, all with the purpose of transforming a youth into an adult member of his tribe or community. There are also rituals involved in a girl’s rite of passage, often involving fasting and isolation, ritual bathing and purification.
The term “initiation” has been adopted by literary critics to describe a certain type of short story. Some initiation stories portray rituals similar to those in primitive societies. William Faulkner’s “The Bear” (1942), in which a young man kills a bear, is an example. But many stories contain no formal ritual element. The main feature of an initiation story is that a young person undergoes experiences that teach him or her vital truths about human life, often about the adult world that the young person is about to enter. The initiate may also learn a lesson about the world of nature. In all cases, there is a passage from ignorance to knowledge or self-discovery. The protagonist learns something that he or she did not know before. Although many initiation stories show a young person coming into contact for the first time with evil or experiencing disillusionment with the complexities and unpleasantness of the adult world, not all initiation stories fall into this category. Some, like “The Harvest,” may be stories of awakening, in which, as a result of his experience, the protagonist perceives life as more rich and rewarding than before, rather than less so.
What is the nature of the initiation in “The Harvest?” The character who undergoes the initiation is a boy migrant worker. As such, he probably knows a lot about dislocation and alienation. Migrant workers move from place to place and are often isolated from the life of the community in which they work. When this unnamed boy follows his curiosity and reenacts Don Trine’s ritual immersion of his arm into the earth, he finds to his surprise that this simple act opens up a huge treasure trove of previously unknown experience. It is a treasure quite unlike the buried bags of money, which up to then has been the only way in which he and his friends could conceive of the idea of wealth.
What the boy has experienced is a kind of rebirth (a concept that underlies much of primitive ritual and is itself an archetypal theme). He has been reborn into an awareness of something that is much larger than himself. He realizes that the earth too has consciousness; it is a living being, not merely an inanimate thing that happens to produce crops. As he realizes this, he also understands that he can actually have a relationship with this living being, a being that is at once new to him and indescribably ancient. It is an experience that changes him forever: “What he never forgot was feeling the earth move, feeling the earth grasp his fingers and even caressing them.”
The boy has managed to achieve in a moment what English writer D. H. Lawrence, in his book, Apocalypse (1931), urged modern, materialistic man to do if he were to become fully human:
“What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, especially those related to money, and re-establish the living organic connections, with the cosmos, the sun and earth, with mankind and nation and family.”
These living, organic connections that Lawrence advocated are precisely what the boy in “The Harvest” discovers. Rivera explains as much in his essay, “Remembering, Discovery and Volition in the Literary Imaginative Process,” in which he comments on the type of character that appears in his work. At first he condemns the “cold, materialistic, inhumane system” that was responsible for the injustices suffered by Chicano migrant workers. But what saved them was their ability to cultivate a love of the land. Rivera comments:
“[M]an has a love for the land as well as his love for his neighbor. He engenders it. He gives love and from it generates life…. [T]he Chicano, when he knelt upon the land… felt a symbiotic existence with the land As long as this relationship with the land existed, the Chicano was not dehumanized.”
This in part explains the significance of the story’s moment of illumination. Rivera connects the Chicane’s love of the land with his love of his own people, his sense of community. Although this is not explicitly stated in the story, it suggests that through his moving, sensual contact with the earth, the boy will develop an awareness of the spirit and continuity of his people through their shared embrace of the land. It is easy to imagine the boy in “The Harvest” saying, with Rivera in his long poem “The Searchers”:
“How can we be alone, How can we be alone, if we are so close to the earth?”
“The Searchers,” as its title suggests, repeatedly presents the experience of the Chicano people in search of continuity and community, for self-knowledge and self-discovery. Search is an archetypal theme often present in initiation stories, and it occurs in somewhat muted form in ”The Harvest.” The boys who follow Don Trine are not conscious of searching for anything other than the solution to the mystery of what Trine does on his walks, but the boy who imitates Trine’s ritual is at some unconscious level propelled by more than mere curiosity. Although the spare narrative does not elaborate on his motivation, the fact that the boy is unnamed suggests that he can be understood not simply as an individual but as a representative of his people and their search for meaning and connection to nature and the earth. This search is all the more urgent for the Chicano migrant worker because often, due to the harshness of his work and life, nature is seen as an antagonist, as a force to be overcome, rather than as the warm, benevolent, responsive being that the boy discovers.
The final archetype present in “The Harvest” is that of the Wise Old Man. Psychologist Carl Jung identified this archetype. Jung theorized that such images welled up from what he called the collective unconscious and were found in the dreams, myths, and literatures of many different cultures. According to Jung, the archetypes embody universal patterns of human consciousness.
The Wise Old Man is usually a benevolent character who acts as a guide to someone younger. He embodies wisdom, insight, and knowledge. In Arthurian legend, for example, Merlin, the magician and counselor, fulfills the role of Wise Old Man. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Virgil performs the same function as he guides Dante through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Initiation stories often contain a Wise Old Man who teaches some vital knowledge to a younger person. Examples include “Open Winter” (1953) by H. L. Davis; “The Promise” (1938) by John Steinbeck; and two stories by Faulkner, “The Old People” (1940) and “The Bear” (1942), in which an old man tutors a young boy in the art of hunting. There is a similar relationship between the characters Manolin, a young Cuban boy, and Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1962).
In “The Harvest,” Don Trine is a variant of the Wise Old Man archetype. He is not a complete expression of it because usually the Wise Old Man possesses moral qualities such as goodwill and a willingness to help, which the grouchy, taciturn, private Trine does not embody at all. But he is a Wise Old Man nonetheless. Trine possesses knowledge that the younger workers do not have. He knows his connection to the earth, and he has devised a ritual of his own to maintain it. It is through Trine’s example that the youngster learns something that is extremely valuable to him. He would not have discovered it without Trine. Trine is therefore the vehicle through which wisdom is passed from the older generation to the younger. In that transmission of wisdom, Rivera seems to be saying, lies the hope for the Chicano migrant workers, a people who have otherwise suffered too much for too long.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Tomas Rivera, Published by Gale, 2002.
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on “The Harvest,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.