The Importance of the Reapers of Jean Toomer’s “Cane”

When the word “reaper” comes to mind, I often envision death, the grim reaper, and other deathly symbols.  After all, the rat in “Reapers” is described as injured, bringing a morbid image into the poem; one may assume that its injury is the product of a grim reaper, a bringer of death.  However, “reaper” as a general term can also refer to the agricultural practice of reaping and harvesting.  It does not necessarily mean that the reaper has evil intentions, though we often envision it that way.  The reapers carry an importance with them that defies our interpretation of the first time they were mentioned.  In fact, it could be argued that the reapers are key characters within “Cane”, though it may not be immediately obvious.

In Arc One, we read “Reapers” as a narration, albeit one from a neutral point of view.  Here, neutral means that the narrator recounts the event without opinion; the poem is told how the story unfolds.  Furthermore, one can only assume who is narrating the poem, as the narrator is not given an identity.  In Arc Two, the poem “Harvest Song” is essentially a different take on the “Reapers” poem, because this time it is told from a perspective – the perspective of an individual collecting and harvesting crops.  It is sensible to question if this individual is indeed one of the reapers mentioned in Arc 1; although “Harvest Song” is less broad in the situation it represents, it could connect to what “Reapers” explained to us, just on a much smaller scale.  Therefore, it can be interpreted as a recurring theme that is bound to the plot, represented in multiple ways.

The rat in “Reapers” suffers from a wound that the reapers have given it; one would assume that the reapers are evil.  However, “Harvest Song” shows that the reapers suffer as well, and that there is something above them – the work of the field – that causes them to suffer.  The hunger and filth that the reaper complains of can be seen as a sign of mortality and humanity; the grim reaper we may have thought of upon first read is a figure disconnected from what we commonly associate with “human”.  Does the grim reaper, the angel of death, suffer?  Does it hunger?  We cannot be certain.  But we can be certain that a reaper, a human reaper, suffers just as humans do; we are the same species.  In this way, as both rat and reaper suffer, in the cycle of life they are equal.  Neither is more evil than the other.  In the end, death always wins.

In this way, the reapers of Arc One and Arc Two are key characters because they embody recurring themes in “Cane”; hard work, humanity, and suffering, among others.  They are the humanization of these themes.  The reapers are compactions of forces much larger than themselves, as they manifest themselves in different ways throughout the book.  These manifestations are what make the reapers one of the foundations of “Cane”.

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