When Drew Erikson stops his car in front of a small white house and a nearby wheat field, his prayers and those of his destitute family seem answered. Erikson enters the house in search of food and finds an old man dressed in funeral clothes and lying dead upon his bed. Erikson reads a note written by the man entitling the ownership of both house and land to whomever next enters the cottage. Erlkson claims the farm for himself, and he and his family settle in to what seems to be a most fulfilling life. Not long afterward, Erikson notices a certain strangeness about his farm. The wheat matures in separate clusters and rots within hours after it has been cut. Then it begins new growth again, overnight. Also, his scythe is engraved with the strange words: “Who Wields Me — Wields the World!” Stranger still is the compelling power of the scythe upon him, forcing him to work even when he wishes to stop. Before long, in a startling revelation, Erikson perceives that each time his scythe cuts a broad swath, hundreds of people die. Now he can understand the words on the scythe and finds satisfaction in knowing that he discovered this truth before he accidentally cut down the lives of his wife and two children. On the day that he recognizes that the lives of his family are akin to the mature grain in the field, he refuses to cut it and determines never to harvest his wheat again. That night, Erikson’s cottage is totally destroyed by fire, yet his wife and children sleep on amid the flames. Although the fire does not harm them, no matter what Erikson does, he cannot awaken them. He now understands that they should have died yesterday, but he hindered their natural death when he did not cut their grain. He hurries to the field, wielding his scythe rapidly as he goes. When the story ends, he is still working “wildly, without even stopping, night and day, in the endless fields of wheat.”
“The Scythe” is based upon the biblical allegory of the grim reaper, whose name is Death. In the allegory as well as in Bradbury’s story, this reaper has absolute control over the bounds of life and death. “The Scythe,” then, depicts death incarnate. Furthermore, the scythe or the sickle itself is also linked with many allegories of death. Symbolically, it carries a double meaning. First is its function of cutting, paralleling the insatiable hunger of Death. Then, the scythe is also symbolic of the hope of rebirth, indicative of the continuity of the life force. This second meaning finds substantiation in the story when new grain sprouts magically from the old. This story is one of Bradbury’s earliest attempts at dealing with and ridding humanity of what he calls the “hairball” fears about death. Free from such fears, we can devote our energies to positive endeavors.