Essays and Criticism
Examply of an Initiation Story
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 selfdiscovery. 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...
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