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Is This The Creepiest Ending Ever?

grapes of wrath final passage

I do my best to not give away the endings of the novels I’m reading on this blog.

We can talk about themes, symbolism, writing style, etc, etc, etc, without getting into the specifics of the ending.

With that said, SPOILER ALERT on today’s post about The Grapes Of Wrath. Really, this isn’t a huge spoiler. The ending makes no sense unless you’ve read the novel. It’s not like the entire Joad family gets eaten by coyotes or anything like that.

So all I want to do today is share with you the final passage of The Grapes of Wrath. If you’ve read the novel, you know that last paragraph is just weird–and a little graphic.

To set the stage, Rose of Sharon, who is recently pregnant and just lost a baby, and a few of the remaining Joads have found shelter in an old barn. Upon entering, they realize two men, obviously struggling and near death, have already occupied the abandoned barn.

So, without further nonsensical ramblings:

For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort around her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “You got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. “There!” she said. “There.” Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.

Come again?

That junk is just crazy. That right there is a grown man breastfeeding–and I mean, literally, breastfeeding–on a woman he just met. Okay, forget the “woman he just met” part. Let’s rephrase it: That right there is a grown man breastfeeding on a woman.

Way to leave us with a nasty taste in our mouth, Steinbeck.

The situation is so bad, so dire—combined with the fact that she just delivered a stillborn baby—that this option was apparently the guy’s only source of nutrition. Or that’s what I’m supposed to believe.

There’s all kinds of symbolism going on there, which I won’t dive into in this post. But, nonetheless, what a creepy, uncomfortable ending.

Am I wrong here? Is that possibly the creepiest ending in all of literature?

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65 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ooh, I don’t remember that ending, but that’s just odd.

    Like

    August 23, 2012
  2. I think I blanked out that ending when I read Grapes of Wrath in high school…now I know why it was summer reading material, they didn’t want to discuss the ending in class…

    Like

    August 23, 2012
  3. Kim #

    I think what makes it weird is the “smiled mysteriously.” Whyyyyyyyy is she smiling mysteriously? Grapes of Wrath was required summer reading before my junior year of high school. My English teacher told me later that in previous years, she had students write an additional chapter, but she got so tired of reading about the wedding between Rose of Sharon and that guy that she gave up on the assignment. I have never stopped being grateful for that.

    Like

    August 23, 2012
    • That must have been painful for the teacher. I think kids (and many adults) can’t really process the idea of breasts being anything but sexual.

      Like

      August 24, 2012
    • Marian #

      Very painful for the teacher…and yet, I am laughing out loud with pure joy at the hilarity. I love kids. It’s more than high school students viewing breasts as mainly sexual, their writing about the wedding highlights their innocence as well; the students couldn’t comprehend that a woman would be that intimate with somebody and then not marry him. In their minds, a marriage provided the happy ending that they were craving but didn’t get. Clearly the symbolism was lost on them, but who cares? Most of them will “get it” in a decade.

      Like

      May 4, 2013
  4. Lucille #

    Desperate people in dire circumstances do things that strike us as strange, or creepy or weird. Better this than a violent act, right? I remember reading somewhere the following injunction: “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” Also, ask any breastfeeding mother about the pressure, even pain, of unreleased milk production. This may explain the smile.

    Like

    August 23, 2012
    • I obviously can’t relate, but that does seem to explain a smile.

      Like

      August 23, 2012
    • a #

      That scientific explanation never occured to me :o
      that makes sense

      Like

      July 3, 2013
    • Jordyn #

      Thank you! I was always so creeped out by that part of the book. I would never want to breastfeed anyone expect for my baby but when you put it that way.. I remember crying because I was so engorged. I had to feed then pump every hour to relieve the pain.

      Like

      May 6, 2014
  5. Trejoni #

    I always thought it was sort of beautiful. That humanity is so inherently good that even after all the tragedy the Joads have faced, they still want to help their fellow man, even if it involves an incredibly intimate act that would provably cause rose of Sharon a lot of personal grief.

    Like

    August 23, 2012
    • I can see that. Whatever it is, it’s definitely provocative.

      Like

      August 23, 2012
    • craft fear #

      I think it’s beautiful too. The fact that she has something to offer a starving person, that the milk that was rendered useless by the death of her child is suddenly not useless anymore is validating. After feeling superfluous throughout the entire book, this seems to give her a sense of purpose if only for a moment.

      Liked by 1 person

      August 23, 2012
    • Kevin Kestner #

      It is indeed a beautiful display of humanity and selflessness! If you are squicked out by it that’s because breasts are now seen as more of a sex organ that what nature truely intended them to be, which is a form of sustinence. There was nothing sexual about what Rose of Sharon did at all, it was merely the only thing she had to give another starving human being. She was a woman with nothing, no possessions, her child just stillborn and experiencing the grief that must have caused her, still she gave the only thing she had to give someone even in a lower place than herself.

      This is a modern retelling of Roman Charity, the exemplary story of a daughter, Pero, who secretly breastfeeds her father, Cimon, after he is incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation. She is found out by a jailer, but her act of selflessness impresses officials and wins her father’s release.

      So, no, it’s not one bit creepy.

      Like

      February 27, 2014
      • Kevin, do you think Steinbeck was referring to this Roman myth, obliquely, at least? I like your thoughtful response…its so easy to be weirded out by what we don’t understand…and while i find that ending utterly depressing, it does describe the desperation of the Depression era…to think that the America I knew seemed to have forgotten all about it! I mean, in terms of the excessive consumerism and disdain for the “third world”. Memory is short!

        Like

        June 2, 2014
  6. I know what yr saying but I thought of it as an incredibly powerful ending as they were so desperate to go to such distasteful/ lengths.
    It certainly has a stunning effect that’s for sure

    Like

    August 23, 2012
    • No doubt…stunning and powerful. But still creeped me out.

      Like

      August 23, 2012
  7. Warned ya, didn’t I? ;) I know what you mean, though. I said, “Yow!” (or something to that effect) when I read that paragraph.

    Of course, this is Steinbeck’s last “message,” in a “message”-filled novel: that even in the worst of times (the Joads had just escaped a flood, too), people are capable of acts of incredible (choose your definition of THAT word) acts of kindness and humanity.

    I wonder if he used beatific, rather than mysterious, to describe Rose of Sharon’s smile in earlier drafts. It would fit, after all, as he once again shows us (or, if you prefer, beats us over the head with) the Joads’ saintly nature.

    Like

    August 23, 2012
  8. I read Grapes of Wrath, many many years ago. I didn’t remember the ending. However, being a Mother and Grandmother, I can relate to Rose of Sharon’s relief, and her smile could have meant just that.

    Like

    August 23, 2012
  9. I always thought it was kind of lovely! But maybe I am just a breastfeeding weirdo.

    Also, now I am thinking of the part in Game of Thrones when Daenerys comes out of the fire breastfeeding her dragons…

    Like

    August 23, 2012
    • I don’t think you’re the weirdo…looks like you have a lot of support on here. Guess I’m the weirdo..

      Like

      August 23, 2012
  10. Emily #

    I have to say, one of the more interesting endings i’ve read. I remember my sophomore year of high school talking about this for a good period and i don’t think i ever really figured it out.

    Like

    August 23, 2012
  11. Lucille #

    Can’t say for sure, but I’m getting the impression that the folks who aren’t “creeped out” by this ending are women of a certain age who have given birth/breastfed. Craft Fear’s statement about the action validating Rose of Sharon was on target.

    Like

    August 23, 2012
  12. I thought it was a beautiful ending. It’s creepy if you imagine a beautiful woman’s breast being suckled in a uhm, lustful manner, but given the circumstances (the flood, the death of the baby, famine, etc.), I thought it’s a very hopeful ending.

    Like

    August 23, 2012
  13. Might be important to note that I read this book while pregnant with my second child, and very shortly after weaning my first.

    I found the ending devastating, haunting, and desperately sad but hopeful. It’s just so awful to think that there is a man lying there starving, and the only person who can do anything about it is a teenage girl. And the only reason she can do anything is because she just gave birth to a stillborn baby. It’s just too much. Or, looking at it from the other side, how wonderful that after everything this family’s been through, they have the compassion to do this.

    I did find it shocking – I remember thinking “WOW did I really just read that,” and after re-reading, “Can’t believe a man wrote this.”

    Not that i think Steinbeck was making any statement on breastfeeding. I agree that there’s heavy symbolism happening here. As there was in the whole of Rose of Sharon’s pregnancy and labour.

    There’s also an element of historical allusion. There is an ancient Roman story about a woman who feeds her starving father in the same way. I came across this while Googling Rose of Sharon to refresh myself on the details. Wikipedia cites Rose of Sharon`s act as an example of “Roman Charity.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Charity

    All that to say: I didn’t find it creepy. It could be my perspective… it’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen breasts as anything but a food delivery system :)

    Like

    August 24, 2012
  14. Wow — if anything, this ending elicits a lot of responses.
    I’m somewhere in the middle, but for me the “creepiness” factor comes from what this woman and the people around her are forced to do. Maybe her mysterious smile is a mocking type, from Steinbeck to reader at the end, as he’s finally forcing the reader to witness this unnatural act.

    Like

    August 24, 2012
    • iMad #

      I like the way the author writes, but even when I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, at least he could try to somehow finish the book. For me this is not an ending, he just left the book more open than the beginning, at least he could tell some more about Tom for example.

      I’ve just finished the book (in Spanish), and that was exactly what I thought. I was reading a digital edition and when I came to the end all what I could think is that the file was corrupted, then I realized that the author was indeed laughing at me through Rose…

      Like

      August 21, 2013
  15. It’s a sad ending and in my view you aren’t human if it doesn’t make you cry (http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2012/09/22/grapes-of-wrath-by-john-steinbeck/). But it is also a powerful ending that shows the destitution of the Great Depression. I will never forget this book.

    Like

    September 22, 2012
  16. Mike #

    Only if you are extremely ignorant and without compassion.

    Like

    June 13, 2013
  17. It makes a reader extremely uncomfortable, and perhaps that was his point. I didn’t particularly enjoy Grapes of Wrath, and this scene in particular kicked me in my 17 year old guts, and made me vomit. It’s difficult to read even as an adult 15 years later.

    Like

    July 10, 2013
  18. L. Johns #

    I think it was a beautiful and unselfish gesture.

    Like

    July 16, 2013
  19. I am a “woman of a certain age who breastfed my kids” so I let me explain that it’s an enormously powerful feeling to know that you, and you alone, can provide life through your body to someone who is otherwise helpless. I think that is why Rose of Sharon smiled.. she became a mother at that point in her heart, with all of the love and compassion that goes with it.

    I found the ending shocking when I first read it, but on re-reading it I understood the above, and that some people like the Joads and others did not lose their humanity, unselfishness, and compassion — despite the enormous setbacks they had been through, and were still facing. We don’t need to know their fate — the fact that there is always hope to be found, and there is good in mankind, is Steinbeck’s message.

    Like

    July 20, 2013
    • iMad #

      I try to not judge the book only for ending. I really enjoyed and learned a lot reading this book, and even if I didn’t feel disgusting for the moving scene during all what they have been through I couldn’t conceive that as an ending so thanks for you comment, I have just finished the book (in Spanish) and your opinion gave me another point of view for this abruptly en of the story.

      Like

      August 21, 2013
    • iMad #

      I try to not judge the book only for his ending. I really enjoyed and learned so much reading this book, and even if I didn’t feel disgusted but rather moved for the last scene during all what they have been through, I couldn’t conceive that as an ending so thanks for you comment, I have just finished the book (in Spanish) and your opinion gave me another point of view for this abruptly end of the story. ( Sorry for the other comment, my English still have a lot to improve and I don’t know how to delete my own comments )

      Like

      August 21, 2013
  20. Perhaps the fact that the Rose of Sharon in the Grapes of Wrath was just tired of being around death. People die constantly throughout the story, then finally her baby is still born. The scene where she breastfeeds a stranger a man on the verge of death by starvation, might be because she just can’t stand another death, so uses her breast milk to save him. I think its one of the most powerful and beautiful examples of humanity ever written.

    Like

    October 4, 2013
  21. I love it that you shared the last part of the Grapes of Wrath. Honestly, I don’t remember it anymore. Maybe it needs revisiting, so thank you for reminding me, er, all of us. Haha. :)

    http://bembunny.wordpress.com/

    Like

    October 11, 2013
  22. Shelley #

    I struggled with the melodrama of this novel–there were many powerful ideas and messages, but the I feel like the ending highlighted the tone of the book: over the top-author tried to hard instead of letting the tragedy speak for itself.

    Like

    October 23, 2013
  23. I read this way back in high school and although I’ve forgotten much about the book since then, I’ve never forgotten that ending. It’s definitely one that sticks with you.

    Like

    October 29, 2013
  24. Michelle #

    I think the last word ruined the whole story for me. I didn’t like the Joads much, although I could sympathise with their life condition, but I was really intrigued by the social commentary, which I though Steinbeck did a great job with, weaving it seamlessly into the story. The use of the word “mysteriously”, however, jarred me right back from the Joads’ world to Steinbeck’s, much in the same way J.K. Rowling brought me back from HP World to reality with the word “b****” in HP7. I would have bern quite happy with “The Grapes of Wrath” if he had stopped at “smiled.”

    Like

    November 4, 2013
  25. Ed Kaufman #

    The ending was an over the top way for Steinbeck to get this thing wrapped up. Had the flood swept them all away or had they all died from disease, starvation or exposure would have been more in keeping with the hyper realism of the rest of the writing. It seems he did not care to resolve the outcome of the characters that he devoted so much time to developing. As a reader I felt cheated.

    Like

    November 7, 2013
  26. Mike F #

    I think it was meant to be interpreted symbolically rather than literally?

    Like

    December 16, 2013
  27. Tony #

    I didn’t read the book but I did recently watch the movie and it didn’t end this way. Much different ending in the book

    Like

    December 29, 2013
  28. Mick #

    Let me give you a different take on this ending my friend.

    It’s a beautiful and profound act and ending. The man was dying because he was saving the boy by giving the boy his share of whatever food they came across. After all the tragedy the Joads had been through they were never stripped of their humanity or human dignity. Rose had lost her child but had breasts full of life giving milk and the only way the Joads had to try to save that man was to do what Rose did. Remember there was a silent exchange between Rose and her mother and then the family left, it was a family decision that she do what she could to save the man. The mysterious smile was due to the mixture of emotions she had in using the milk that was to give sustenance to her lost child whom she could not save to save the life of a total stranger who needed saving because of his own act of sacrifice.

    I applaud you in your mission and dedication.

    Like

    January 11, 2014
  29. Richard #

    Well the book was supposed to be about “proletarian realism,” and with that ending, poof, it jus’ flew out the winder (as they would say in Oklahoma.) I don’t think any woman would do something like that with man she was not in some way connected. Also, it took six months to get from Oklahoma to Californa in an automobile. What? Were they all out on the road pushing it? My mother took a summer vacation trip to California in 1939. With sightseeing, it took five days on Route 66. I liked Cannery Row and The Pearl much better

    Like

    February 14, 2014
    • Alicia #

      I don’t recall the book stating it took 6 months for their travels across country, just many days of travel and eventally their hoping to have a house by the onset of winter. Can you offer that quote?
      Seriously though, several important points have been missed by those who are “grossed out” or find the last scene “creepy”.
      It was a boy and father in the barn – not two men. The boy begs ma Joad to save his father from starving to death. Asks for their help. He explains how his father sacrificed his food for him-lied about having eaten so his son would eat. He specifically asks ma Joad if they have milk because his father can’t keep solid food down. At this point in the story Rosasharn has been mostly useless and unproductive, losing her husband, even losing her baby who she has spent the entire story trying to bringing to term/into life and yet fails. She agrees with her family and feeds the boy’s father her milk. I’m sure if they had a cup she might have used it- but she had nothing, was literally and symbolically naked but still was able to give. Actually what she gave was the colostrum which is more nurishing and life saving that the milk that would arrive a few days later. It made me weep. And in giving life to the father she also gave life to the son, who might have likely perished without his parent.

      Like

      June 1, 2014
  30. No, not creepy at all. Very sad and moving, yes. I don’t get how you could find that creepy. You have something missing I think. Take a look at yourself.

    Like

    March 22, 2014
    • You’re right. I left my socks at home today.

      Like

      March 24, 2014
  31. I read this in my sophomore college prep English class and I have to say I was completely grossed out by this ending. I get the symbolism of the ending and all but that does not take away the creep factor.

    Like

    March 24, 2014
  32. Kim #

    HOw is this creepy?I’m sorry but your commentary on the book’s conclusion is incredibley immature. This book was a work of art if ever there was one, and art isn’t always meant to be understood or fit into your personally defined box of normalcy.

    Like

    May 30, 2014
  33. Rose of Sharon breast fed the man, and he accepted the offer, for the purpose of survival. There was certainly nothing sexual about it.

    Is wanting to survive creepy and uncomfortable? I don’t think so? Is breastfeeding a starving man inherently sexual? Certainly not.

    In any case, I’d be cautious of judging a starving, sick man. You questioned if that was his only source of nutrition. Well, obviously no other sources of nutrition were available, otherwise he wouldn’t be dying, would he?

    Maybe you should have tackled those underlying themes and what not. That might have diverted your attention away from interpreting the finale as a creepy scene with sexual undertones.

    I think the finale is about kindness. Steinbeck was sure to describe the folks from Oklahoma as a certain type of people. They’re kind, generous, giving and understanding, even when they find themselves in terribly dire circumstances. The finale is the ultimate expression of that sentiment. Rose of Sharon just lost her baby, but her generosity is such that she breastfeeds the dying man, even though her own family might be doomed.

    Like

    July 22, 2014
  34. Yeesh. This blog post reads intentionally dense. You’re trolling, right?? A profound expression of the inherent kindness of humanity? Nah, it was grodie. This is why 5th graders shouldn’t read this book.

    Like

    July 22, 2014
  35. Your post has received great comments, all of which are valid (all of which I’ve read so far while getting ready for work). I always thought the ending displayed a selfless, beautiful act. Nothing sexual about it. I’m glad others saw it that way, too, but I can definitely understand your “creepy” feeling! I’ll come back tonight and read the rest of these. Thank you for the post!

    Like

    August 5, 2014
  36. Dennis Halford #

    I agree with your analysis of the ending completely! It certainly was the creepiest ending I have ever read, and I have read extensively–everything from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Dickens to Agatha Christie. There was nothing “immature” about your analysis. I have always said that an author does not owe his audience a happy ending, but he does owe his audience a satisfying ending, and there was nothing in the least satisfying about this ending. In fact, I think it is safe to say that had Steinbeck died before this novel was published, it would have been published as an “unfinished” work. No one would have known this was the ending.

    I think what happens is that some authors reach a status where they think they can write anything in any manner they want and go as far afield as they want or get as strange as they want and that they will be exempt from any criticism. Apparently, this is what happened to Steinbeck at this point in his writing career. The ending is so bizarre that anyone can read anything he/she wants to read into it, and this is not good writing in my book (no pun intended).
    The ending completely ruined the novel for me, and I would not want to reread it.

    Like

    August 10, 2014
  37. tony wright #

    Not creepy, the great depression did more to redefine our ideas of family and ones responsibility for the well-being of others than any other single event of the 20th century. I say, realism, not symbolism. We have been on a long journey to the realisation that “Only a full house gonna make it through.” (Josh Ritter, Thin Blue Line)

    Like

    August 18, 2014
  38. Joe Torres #

    This truly confirms that women are beings of greatness in their most basic simple form. She gave all that she had, the only thing that she had left. A smile and the milk of human kindness.

    Like

    October 7, 2014

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