Themes and Meanings
For Toomer, one of life’s essential truths was that industrialized society had ground humankind down, destroying people’s natural goodness and sense of community. As industrialization increased, the world became more chaotic. In “Reapers” and in the longer Cane from which it is taken, Toomer explores the dichotomy between humans and machines and, by extension, between the human and the subhuman or nonhuman qualities of people. Humans can feel and care, they can make moral choices, but machines cannot. “Reapers” demonstrates this truth by setting two scenes side by side: a scene of men working in a field and a scene of a mowing machine. In the first scene, all the work is done by humans with hand tools. Notably, it takes more than one reaper to do the job; doing work by hand requires more workers and therefore builds or sustains a community. Toomer pointedly calls these men reapers rather than mowers or cutters. They are reaping, or cutting and gathering, with a purpose: to provide food.
The machine, on the other hand, is a mower cutting weeds. It is driven by two horses; the human driver, if there is one, is not seen and does not appear to be directing the action. Instead, the narrator presents only a mindless machine pulled by mindless animals with no sense of purpose and no human sensibilities. A machine cannot react to a squeal of pain or a stain of blood. It does not know what it destroys, and it would not care if it did know. Toomer believed that people who harm or oppress others do so because they have given up their human qualities and have become like machines.
The pessimistic tone of “Reapers” is typical of the section of Cane in which it appears. Just before “Reapers” is a short story, “Karintha,” about a beautiful and innocent child of the South who is ultimately destroyed by the sexual mistreatment of the men around her. “Reapers” is followed by another poem, “November Cotton Flower,” and a short story, “Becky,” both about victimized and defeated women. Throughout Cane, images of machines and factories always hint of decay or destruction. For Toomer, modern life—and particularly modern Southern rural life—was doomed unless humankind would turn its back on mindless industrialization and reclaim its humanity.