The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck [A Review]

The Grapes of Wrath is one of the more impactful novels of the twentieth century. Though it tells a story of a particular time and place, it has the power to transcend those limitations because the displacement of a desperate people is a story often repeated in human history. Its ability to travel far beyond its narrow circumstances is achieved through the author’s thorough understanding of the causes of this crisis, his method of showing the tragedy on two scales, small and large, simultaneously, and, above all, his empathy and compassion for his subject which he carries through to the reader.   

Cover image of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

A truck driver stops to pick up a hitchhiker, a young man in ill-fitting clothes. A little nosy, the truck driver pries into the man’s business. Unconcerned, the man tells the driver that he has just been released from McAlester where he was serving a seven-year sentence for homicide. He’d killed a man with a shovel during a fight at a dance. He was drunk at the time and the other man had a knife. After serving four years, he’s been released for good behaviour. His name is Tom Joad and he’s heading for his father’s 40-acre farm.

The driver takes Tom as far as he can, after which Tom walks barefoot in the thick dust until he comes across a man sitting under a tree.

Jim Casy, is a preacher having a crisis. He says he used to hold meetings, his preaching could inspire people to feel the spirit, but these meetings would inevitably end with him drawing a young woman away from the gathered crowd to have sex with. He says he never meant to, but could not resist temptation, and now, under the burden of guilt, feels himself a hypocrite and has lost his calling. He compares his disillusionment to Jesus in the wilderness.

Tom and Jim walk together to the Joad’s farm, Tom telling family stories. When they come over the hill, the Joad’s house looks abandoned.

Small family farms like the Joad’s were already struggling when faced with increased competition from larger farms using the latest methods including tractors, harvesters and paid workers. In bad years, families like the Joads had been forced to take on debt to survive and hope for better next year. But years of intensive farming practices have left the soil in the region vulnerable to drought. By the 1930’s, severe droughts were causing huge dust storms which ruined what crops were still growing. When the banks came to collect, families which had lived on their own land for generations, who had seen generations born and die on that land, were forced out.

As Tom walks over his father’s deserted farm, nothing seems to make sense. He sees signs of neglect, of sudden abandonment, yet can’t understand why the neighbours haven’t stolen what’s left either. He bumps into a childhood friend, Muley Graves, who explains things to Tom. He tells Tom that his family are staying with Tom’s uncle, chopping cotton until they have enough to buy a car and head out West. It angers Tom that they would leave without a fight. Muley is sympathetic, says he was so angry he wanted to kill people, but the bankers talk pretty, leaving you feeling unsure who to be mad at.

After spending a night in the open, Tom and Jim walk to Tom’s Uncle’s house and are reunited with the rest of the Joads. Tom’s grandparents are there as well as his parents and siblings, including his sixteen-year-old younger brother Al, who has become a quite adept mechanic, and his sister Rose of Sharon who is eighteen, pregnant and married. Altogether, there are fourteen of them plus Jim, not to mention chickens, pigs, dogs and a lot of possessions.

Tom’s mother seems to be in charge of the situation, though she is barely holding together. She stays focused on what is in front of her and by taking one day at a time. But she too is struggling to let go of the land and possessions she treasures and values, though not as much as the men who have turned inert. Tom injects some impetus into his family to allow them to make the final push onto the road that they are all reluctant to make.

In a truck that can barely carry them all, with little money for food or gas, the family pull out onto Route 66 and head for California.

Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66 – the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from the Mississippi to Bakersfield – over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide, and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.

But Tom’s Ma already has reservations about what they will find in California. Though there is no shortage of pamphlets promising plenty of work, there is no guarantee, and there is already a huge exodus of people heading West. There is also the fact that Tom will be violating his parole as soon as he leaves the state.

The Joad’s hardship is only beginning. On their journey West they will be pushed to the limits of their endurance but will not be deterred from moving ever onward, mostly because they have no alternative.

The Grapes of Wrath is considered by many to be Steinbeck’s greatest work; a contender in the unending search for the great American novel. It appears on many lists of the greatest novels and was heavily cited by the committee who awarded Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It is not difficult to see why. The novel delves deep into various aspects of the plight of the ‘Okies’; a displaced people in search of a new home. It plunges the reader into the causes of their uprooting; the bankers, buyers and salesmen who take advantage of their situation; the challenges they face on the road from illness, hunger and prejudice, and their hope at finding a life of sustenance and dignity. The novel delivers this with a large amount of empathy and yet is very readable.

Only the great owners can survive, for they own the canneries too. And four pears peeled and cut in half, cooked and canned, still cost fifteen cents. And the canned pears do not spoil. They will last for years.

The decay spreads over the State, and the sweet smell is a great sorrow on the land. Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce. Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the State like a great sorrow.

The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. A million people hungry, needing the fruit – and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains.

And the smell of rot fills the country.

[…] There is a crime here the goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolise. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

Steinbeck achieves this through the way he has structured the novel. Breaking up the narrative of the exodus of the Joads are individual chapters which do not contribute to the plot but provide microcosms of the world the Joads are travelling through. An example would be one chapter that shows life inside a food stop on the road. Serving coffee, burgers and pies, they make their best business out of the truckdrivers who make the stop. Though the outside world literally drives by them, they can sense something is changing as they increasingly have to put up with ‘shitheels’ like the Joads.

I had mixed feelings about this technique initially as it made what Steinbeck was trying to do a little transparent. But I have to admit these vignettes were perceptive, well-written and powerful. They are not necessarily rigid either, some are rather poetic, some are more free-form, riffing, stream-of-consciousness in style.

In The Grapes of Wrath [Steinbeck] devised a contrapuntal structure, which alternates short lyrical chapters of exposition and background pertinent to the migrants as a group […] with the long narrative chapters of the Joad family’s dramatic exodus to California […]. Just as in Moby Dick Melville created intensity and prolonged suspense by alternating between the temporal chapters of Ahab’s driven quest for the white whale and Ishmael’s numinous chapters on cetology, so Steinbeck structured his novel by juxtaposition. His “particular” chapters are the slow-paced and lengthy narrative chapters that embody traditional characterisation and advance the dramatic plot, while his jazzy, rapid-fire “interchapters” work at another level of recognition by expressing an atemporal, universal, synoptic view of the migrant condition. [These interchapters] were expressly designed to “hit the reader below the belt. With the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into a reader – open him up and while he is open introduce things on an intellectual level which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up.”

– From the Introduction

That being said, the plot of The Grapes of Wrath is fairly linear. It meanders a little and escalates in concern for the characters but there is no great twist in store. This too, I think, is Steinbeck’s intention for the story. He wants the reader to share the Joad’s hope and faith and feel anxious for their fate in the face of desperate odds without any sudden change of fortune to excuse or diminish it.

I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied… – John Steinbeck

– John Steinbeck

A theme that comes through strongly when reading the novel is the value of community, hospitality and dignity. Despite how much they have lost and the judgement and prejudice they encounter, the Joad’s still experience friendliness and hospitality from strangers on the road. People who help even though they have little themselves. The Joads find this aspect of society to be changing though. Their poverty, their otherness, the sheer number of them, mean that more doors close to them than open. Then there are the newer forces that oppose them – the new farms, the banks, the government. Faceless, inhuman, bureaucratic and imposing in their size and ruthlessness. The Joads and others don’t see the value in their efficiency, only the loss of decency and respect for people.

And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse. Then the corrugated iron doors are closed and the tractor man drives home to town, perhaps twenty miles away, and he need not come back for weeks or months for the tractor is dead. And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation. And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation. For nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates; and the length of fibre in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium.

Another theme in the novel is a loss of masculinity. Tom’s father, for example, has not just lost his farm but also lost his identity and reason for living. The shame of no longer being able to be a provider for his family has made him and other men in the novel feel impotent. Feeling depressed about their circumstances, wondering how things might have been different, they lack the flexibility and resolve to act on the situation in front of them and become dead weight to the families moving west. The real source of strength and will are the women like Tom’s mother. Though, this is no foreshadowing of a new era of opportunity. Instead, the women now face a double burden in being both carers and providers for their families, showing the flexibility to take what they can get and the fortitude to take on what they face that many of the men lack.

“I know,” Pa said quietly. “I ain’t no good any more. Spen’ all my time a-thinkin’ how it use’ ta be. Spen’ all my time thinkin’ of home, an’ I ain’t never gonna see it no more.”

“This here’s purtier – better lan’,” said Ma.

“I know. I never even see it, thinkin’ how the willow’s los’ its leaves now. Sometimes figgerin’ to mend that hole in the south fence. Funny! Woman takin’ over the fambly. Woman sayin’ we’ll do this here, an’ we’ll go there. An’ I don’ even care.”

“Woman can change better’n a man,” Ma said soothingly. “Woman got all here life in her arms. Man got it all in his head. Don’ you mind. Maybe – well, maybe nex’ year we can get a place.”

The Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Grapes of Wrath that I read has a lengthy introduction by Robert DeMott who has previously served as director for the Centre for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University and seems to have devoted much of his professional life to the study of Steinbeck’s work. Unfortunately, DeMott does not spend much time discussing the themes, messages or symbolism in the novel which was disappointing for me. Except to suggest the novel contains Biblical parallels – a ‘flood’, an exodus, a promised land, a Holy Family, a pregnant young woman on the road – which would be in keeping with the Biblical retelling included in some of Steinbeck’s other work.

Instead, DeMott mostly shares what we can learn about The Grapes of Wrath from Steinbeck’s letters, journals and other source material. He chronicles the development of the novel from Steinbeck’s conception of it, to his research, to the various obstacles he had to overcome – his anger at the plight of the migrating farmers which he had to move past as it did not translate into good writing, his wife’s deteriorating health, the bankruptcy of his publisher and his own nagging self-doubts. He also shares the novel’s impact – on politics and literature but also on Steinbeck himself who felt he could only continue writing if he evolved and did things differently in future.

The Grapes of Wrath attracted a lot of controversy. It is not surprising, given its subject matter, that it would be interpreted politically. I don’t agree with the charge that the novel advocates communism as a solution to what the migrating workers face. Instead, I think the novel contains the message that people in desperate circumstances can find themselves vulnerable to extremist ideologies that offer false hope, convenient scapegoats and routes to power for advocates. In the novel, that vulnerability is exposed to communist ideas in an unsophisticated form. Given the setting and period, it is not an inappropriate iteration – in another setting and period a different ideology may be more appropriate.

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out. The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt were ignored.

More recently, the novel has been criticised for its lack of ethnic diversity. Absent from the novel are any Chinese, Japanese, Filipino or Mexican workers who were in California in large numbers at the time. A fact that Steinbeck would have been aware of from his research and his creation, the Joads, would have encountered. There is also the resemblance between The Grapes of Wrath and Whose Names Are Unknown by Sonora Babbs. Steinbeck is widely believed to have read Babbs’ notes for her novel.

The Grapes of Wrath may therefore be one of those novels facing a re-evaluation of some of its aspects with new eyes. Even so, it has an enormous place in literary history. When first published, it was fortunate in that its timing allowed for maximum impact on politics and literature. It became a bestseller, won a Pulitzer Prize, played a large part in Steinbeck winning a Nobel Prize and became a classroom staple. While it is tempting to say that its impact is its greatest achievement, an impact any writer would love to achieve, it is the transmission of sincere empathy from the writer to the reader for a wronged people that The Grapes of Wrath does best and which persists longest.

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