Book #46: The Grapes Of Wrath
Sometimes, bad weather just sucks.
You can be hanging out one minute, relaxing with friends, and 10 minutes later you’re cramped in a tiny closet while a tornado rips the roof off your house.
That’s the quick, almost instantaneous stuff. And then there’s droughts—months and years of little to no rain—that ravage the landscape and make life hell on earth for farmers.
That’s how The Grapes Of Wrath begins—right in the middle of one of the worst droughts in U.S. History, the Dust Bowl drought in the 1930s.
The drought trashed the crops and brought massive dust storms that ripped up soil and made it almost impossible to farm for years to come. That’s when “The Okies”—as they were derogatorily called—decided to pack up and move out.
In The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck takes us along with the Joads—a farming family who decides to move toward California, where they’ve been “promised” jobs picking oranges, peaches and such. The trip itself, in a 1930s jalopy packed full of people and stuff, takes up half the novel.
Once the Joads reach California, their bad luck only continues. Tom, Ma, Pa, Rose of Sharon and crew have a tough go of it. Make no mistake: This is another tale of sadness and woe.
What I love about The Grapes of Wrath is its historical significance. The Dust Bowl Drought did happen. Thousands of people were displaced. Many people did die trying to reach California in summer heat. All of that emotion and drama is captured in the novel.
As I mentioned last week, the novel was originally supposed to be a photo book, featuring the photography of Horace Bristol and Steinbeck’s copy. The haunting photos said so much at just a glance. So it’s easy to see how Steinbeck realized he had novel material on his hands. And he turned this into a strong, moving book.
Thematically, The Grapes of Wrath is essentially a pitch for socialism. Honest people were trying to get honest work and, in return, were harassed, threatened, and even killed by corporate landowners. The novel’s premise is explained this way in Chapter 14.
This is the beginning—from “I” to “we”. If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I”, and cuts you off forever from the “we”.
So, obviously, being published in the 1930s in America, this was an extremely controversial novel. To this day, it’s still banned in many schools—probably more because of the frequent cursing rather than the socialism.
From my point of view, The Grapes of Wrath felt a little preachy, not unlike Native Son. But, while I dislike preachy novels, it’s hard to sit here 80 years later, without hardly any understanding of the cultural dynamics and social injustices that brought this about, and criticize Steinbeck.
Sure, I can do that. I dislike socialism. I dislike the preachy tone of The Grapes of Wrath at times. But it’s too easy to say “This novel promotes socialism! It sucks!” That’s just poor form.
The book itself is brilliant. Steinbeck did exactly what he set out to do when he first developed the idea of a novel after working with Horace Bristol. He really helps you visualize exactly what the Joad Family is going through, and I think a lot of that inspiration comes from his initial experience on the photo project.
The trip to California, though it takes up a long portion of the novel, is filled with poignant insights. I love the following passage that sums up the experience:
The people in flight streamed out on 66, sometimes a single car, sometimes a little caravan. All day they rolled slowly along the road, and at night they stopped near water. In the day ancient leaky radiators sent up columns of steam, loose connecting rods hammered and pounded. And the men driving the trucks and the overloaded cars listened apprehensively. How far between towns? It is a terror between towns. If something breaks–well, if something breaks we camp right here while Jim walks to town and gets a part and walks back and–how much food we got? Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your ears and with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of your hand on the gear-shift lever; listen with your feet on the floor boards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses; for a change of tone, a variation of rhythm may mean–a week here?
That’s a beautiful passage that really illustrates the emotion of traveling cross country in overfilled cars over crappy roads. With limited food and water, and in the heat, a broken down car could mean being stranded for a week, which could possibly mean death. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a little old lug nut.
Even more, the novel is filled with philosophy, as told by a blue collar, working family from the 1930s, like this passage:
“If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ’cause he feels awful poor inside hisself, and if he’s poor in hisself, there ain’t no million acres gonna make him feel rich, an’ maybe he’s disappointed that nothin’ he can do ‘ll make him feel rich.”
My favorite aspect of The Grapes Of Wrath is Steinbeck’s narrative technique. He alternates between telling the specific story of The Joads and the general story of everything else going on with the migration, the Okies, and the dust bowl drought in general.
Basically, he zooms out to a more general picture in one chapter, then zooms in on the Joads the next chapter, then zooms back out, back in, and keeps alternating like that throughout the entire novel.
It’s an outstanding technique that really allows you to see the crisis one family is experiencing while you also see the overall situation as well.
One adjustment you’ll have to make while reading is the dialogue. It’s rough, colloquial, and full of Midwestern slang from the 1930s. In a way, Steinbeck’s dialogue, filled with phonetic spellings, reminds me a lot of Margaret Mitchell’s in Gone With The Wind. The main difference being that his dialogue is a little more comprehensible.
All around, The Grapes Of Wrath is an outstanding book well worth its place as one of the most prominent novels in American literature. Steinbeck seamlessly pulls together themes of politics, prejudice, family, corporate ethics, agriculture—all while presenting them in a sometimes light, sometimes dark, and sometimes humorous way. He’s a fantastic writer.
Ultimately, I’m a fan of this novel, despite its preachy overtones. The Grapes of Wrath is an absolute must-read—if only for its touching portrayal of a dark time in American history.
The Opening Line: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”
The Meaning: “The Grapes of Wrath”—the term—actually comes from a line in “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic”:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.
Those lyrics refer to a passage in Revelation 14 of the Bible.
Unofficially, I can’t help but think the novel has dual meaning—seeing as how, on two occasions, characters in the novel get a case of the howling skitters from eating green grapes. Now those are really grapes of wrath.
Highlights: Great character development and dialogue. I love fiction based on real-events, and this novel is one of the best. Steinbeck throws you into the middle of one of the most brutal economic and weather events in American history. This novel can be surprisingly humorous at times.
Lowlights: Preachy and political—too much so in some cases. A lot of slang in the dialogue, but thankfully my edition included a glossary. And, will the Joads ever freakin’ get to California?
Memorable Line: “How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him–he has known a fear beyond every other.”
Final Thoughts: Great read. It’s not Gatsby or Claudius or Catch 22, in my opinion, but it’s a beautiful yet depressing (shocking, isn’t it?) story. You can’t really call yourself a reader unless you’ve read The Grapes of Wrath. Just watch out for the skitters.