Before Christmas break, I began reading the novel Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck- a novel I had previously bought many months before but had continued to put off reading for various reasons. Once again, I found myself distracted by a certain Pickwick Papers. After getting through the first five or so chapters, the Grapes were placed on hold until the culmination of The Papers (for nothing else can or should be read while engaging in such a portentous work of art.) Thus, it was not until I received my Kindle for Christmas and was graciously given some books by my brother-in-law of which included The Grapes of Wrath. It being on my Kindle, I just had to continue reading the novel. Of course, I got distracted as a novice Kindle user and attempted reading Moby Dick at the same time. However, I left poor Ishmael on his boat as he was (finally!) setting sail. Grapes won out, and so I am now posting about Steinbeck’s masterpiece.
There is an insufficient amount of time and space to comment on everything the novel has to offer. As with many 20th century American novels the tendency to rant and rave about the politics of the work is of course present (one reason I do not care for modern literature is that it seems to be too politically overt). However, I feel that, though Steinbeck has his views, the book itself stands out in that it was written in such an objective way.
One of the first and most important observations the reader will have is the narrator in this book. The book is essentially divided up into two narrators. The first is the omniscient third-person narrator who brings the camera lens way out on the story and basically gives a summary of what is going on in a broader context of the story in which the reader is interested. That story is where the “second” narrator comes in – the one telling the story of the Joads and their plight. Now this narrator, though obviously present in the beginning out of sheer necessity, basically takes a backdrop in the story as every other story narrated in this voice is very strong in dialogue. The book essentially has one short essay chapter giving the summary followed by a long narrative giving the actual story. This switching of narrators in my view made the story much more interesting. I felt that although I was very interested in the Joad’s specific quandary, when Steinbeck would pull the camera back and summarize the events of everyone, it displayed the fact that the Joads are simply one story. Their story, though unique to them, is actually being experienced by thousands who migrated to California for work.
The story itself is narrated in such an oddly objective way that, as I stated before, the reader almost forgets that the narrator is there. Unlike Dickens whose narrators constantly remind you that you are reading a story, Steinbeck causes you to forget about him all the while including good narrative. Here is an example. This brief description happens immediately after a family member is pronounced dead.
Life began to move again. The sun touched the horizon and flattened over it. And along the highway there came a long line of huge freight trucks with red sides. They rumbled along, putting a little earthquake in the ground, and the standing exhaust pipes sputtered blue smoke from the Diesel oil. One man drove each truck, and his relief man slept in a bunk high up against the ceiling. But the trucks never stopped; they thundered day and night and the ground shook under their heavy march.
Though I perhaps prefer the other style of narration by Dickens, I found this to be pleasing as I got swept away in the story.
As stated before, there is far too much going on in this novel to comment on everything, so I will comment on a few things. The first would have to be the character of Jim Casy and the Biblical imagery pointed to throughout the story. As any casual observer would note, Jim Casy’s initials are JC which garner some attention given a certain Individual in history. His final words in the book are strikingly similar to that Individual: “You don’ know what you’re a-doin’.” (Lk. 23:34) Casy is an interesting figure who though prominent early on takes a back stage in the novel until he eventually fades out completely only to resurface for a short spell. It is Casy who offers the most social commentary concerning religion since he is a former preacher – something he never is able to live down. The transformation that occurs in Tom’s character (the protagonist) is hence affected by Casy’s final conversation with him and Tom is left with plans to follow in the preacher’s footsteps.
Rose of Sharon is also a character who has obvious ties to the same Individual previously mentioned. Her pregnancy at the beginning of the novel is something of a back story which becomes the climax. (I found this switch happening often. Tom and Casy are prominent figures at the beginning of the novel as is Pa. By the end of the novel, those three characters are hardly heard from, and ma, Rose of Sharon, Al and the two younger children become more important to the plot. I confess this to be an observation. I cannot comment further for I am not sure what Steinbeck was doing here.) This climax – though nothing short of disturbing – may be symbolic as we see a Christ-like example of humility and salvation for a starving man dying. Rose of Sharon comes full circle from being whiny and obnoxious to being a type of hero – the lasting image Steinbeck gives the reader. This leads to the ending of the novel which is interesting to say the least. More on the ending in a bit.
The last character I want to comment on is ma. In many ways she switches roles with her husband who at the beginning of the novel is making all the decisions for the family. Once Tom is torn from the family ma takes over as pa continues to embrace passivity and Al desires nothing but women and ditching the family. It is ma who keeps Rose of Sharon from going crazy. She offers some of the wittiest advice in the novel.
“I’m learnin’ one thing good,” she said. “Learnin’ it all a time, ever’ day. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need- go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help- the only ones.”
Now to the ending: At first I was a bit upset at the ending because I am fond of the nineteenth century style of writing in which everything is resolved at the end and there are no questions. This is nothing of the sort but the exact opposite and is fitting for this type of novel despite the fact that it seems cheap and somewhat of a cop out. I feel that Steinbeck wanted to do at least do two things here. He wanted to present an image that will never leave the reader (those who know the ending remember it) and he wanted to give the sense that their story continues. We know how it ends. It was summarized in the second to last chapter in which the summary is given that the people gave in to looting for survival, and this had to last for multiple months before work came again. The assumption had been made earlier: many died.
The Grapes of Wrath is an incredible novel that will certainly cause one to rethink his values and to have a deeper sympathy for the poor in our world. It is so easy to have a hard heart towards those who have less in this playground called America. Please enjoy the song above which actually takes ideas from the book, so if you want, pay attention to the lyrics. Now I must get back to Ishmael and the Whale.