Themes and Meanings
In this story and in many others, H. E. Bates attempts to communicate his love and reverence for the rural working people among whom he grew up in the Midlands of England. The solitary character in “The Gleaner” is simultaneously a literal, clearly visualized, individual person and a mythic heroine whose trip up and back from the hill is a quest for both survival and meaning. Bates depicts it as a successful, triumphant quest; ranged against the gleaner are various elements of nature, as well as the weakness of her sex and advanced age. She works against time, the heat of the sun, and the denuded land, which does not yield up its substance without her strenuous effort, wounding her in the process. However, the gleaner never questions her role or her function in life. Working almost by reflex, she is part of nature even as she opposes nature and it opposes her efforts. A tiny figure as she bends in the center of the vast field, she nevertheless dominates her world as the only human presence in it.
Four cycles are interwoven in the story. The individual cycle of the gleaner’s life is limned from childhood memory to present old age; the cycle of her vocation, many generations of gleaners, spans the centuries, although with the present avatar’s death, this race will become extinct. Part of Bates’s sorrowful early life experience was to see the countryside that he loved increasingly ravaged by the factory-slum complex of the Industrial Revolution. In this story, however, nature is unchallenged; the gleaner moves through portions of two nature cycles: the daily one, from noon to dusk, superimposed on the seasonal shift from summer to autumn. Perhaps the most basic meaning of the story is its insistence on conflict and harmony in almost perfect balance in the natural world. The sun causes the old woman her deepest suffering through the heat of its rays, yet the light of the sun is absolutely necessary for the successful completion of her task.