An old woman toils slowly up a hill from her village to the harvested field where she will glean scraps of stalks and rubble after the plowing, which has been a right traditionally reserved for the rural poor for many centuries in England. She reaches the gate of the field, passes through, and, sack in hand, bends to her gleaning. It is noon on an early autumn day, and the sun beats down mercilessly on the gleaner. She works quickly and anxiously; it is a race against time because her occupation is confined to the daylight hours, and she fears the arrival of other gleaners, competitors for these leavings that are essential to her survival.
As she labors alone in the center of the field, memories return of her childhood many years before, in an earlier century. Then, as a little girl, she did exactly the same work, made the same gestures as she does now, taught originally and prodded on by her mother, in a long generational line of gleaners. The old woman is the last survivor of this ancient calling.
It is late in the afternoon. The gleaner continues to work but more slowly now, bowed down by fatigue and by the success of her endeavor, the half-filled, heavy sack. A thistle wounds her hand, drawing blood. She continues her gathering, oblivious of the multicolored flowers through which she makes her way, but deeply content in her vocation.
Now she can do no more; it is dusk. The sack is almost completely filled and very heavy. She has reached the climax of her task: She must somehow get the burdensome prize, for which she has toiled so long, up on to her shoulder. She makes one great hoisting effort—but it fails, and the sack falls to the ground nearly upended. Righting the sack, she tries again, and with a last, stupendous attempt, brings her winnings up on to her shoulder, and tears of pain and weariness to her eyes. Slowly she turns, moves out of the field and down the road on which she came, disdaining to wipe her tear-stained face. As she moves homeward, the evening breezes dry her tears.