The Grapes of Wrath ― John Steinbeck
First published in 1939, and set during the Great Depression in the United States, The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s critical analysis of the capitalistic forces responsible for forcing thousands of families off of their land, and in search of better work, and a brighter future, both of which for the majority simply did not exist.
When preparing to write the novel, Steinbeck wrote: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this”.
This is definitely a book I would recommend for everyone to read, but I would recommend you do so before going any further with this review. As I feel the need to give a rather in depth synopsis in order to give more meat to some of my opinions.
While the novel was written almost 80 years ago the underlying themes of the story, ring true once again today [although for the majority of people without the severity of the 1930s]. Thanks to the outsourcing of labour by large corporations in a bid to drive down production costs, Steinbeck’s themes of corporate greed and joblessness are back with a vengeance.
Steinbeck’s novel focuses initially, and primarily on Tom Joad, who, when released from an Oklahoma prison, sets out to reunite himself with his family. Along the way Tom runs into an old preacher from his childhood Jim Casy, and takes him along to find the family, only to discover the old house uninhabited, an empty shell of the life it once contained. The pair discover that changing economic conditions have forced the Joad family out of their farm, leaving them unable to pick the cotton which had sustained them for so many years. New living conditions in an old lean to shack are proving too cramped, and so the family, relived at Tom’s reappearance, head west to California chasing the promises of orange “han’bills”, offering good money for pea pickers to work in the harvest.
Within the novel, aside from telling the story of the Joad family, Steinbeck also dedicates smaller chapters to looking at the issue on a somewhat larger, less personal scale. These chapters work brilliantly within the context of the story, giving the reader a wider scope with which to view the setting of the novel. The chapter which stands out as the most memorable for me focuses on ‘the monster’ which is the root cause of so much pain and destruction. Steinbeck’s monster can be a difficult creature to get your head around. The monster does not refer to the new machines that plough the land, or the land owners, or those responsible for loaning money and running the banks. It is the banks themselves:
“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
Something much more sinister than any man, a thought process which has been brought about by men, and now runs free, unburdened, and terrible:
“The monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”
Steinbeck follows the Joad family along Route 66 as they head west, towards the promise of a new life and a fresh start. The eldest daughter Rose of Sharon, and her new husband Connie, are expecting their first child, and have high hopes of Connie securing an education, a job and a house before the baby is born. Rose of Sharon busies herself dreaming of what life will be like, she is particularly taken with the idea of owning an ice box.
Shortly after the family begin their journey things take a turn for the worse, travelling proves extremely wearing on the family, especially on the elder relatives, and the journey progresses the family slowly begins to fall apart, beginning with the death of Grandpa just days after they leave Oklahoma. The eldest son, Noah, stays behind as they enter California, refusing to go back to exhausting life on the road, insisting that he will stay with the river, and soon after Noah leaves, Grandma joins her husband.
As time progresses the family desperately attempt to hold onto the hope that their new life in California will hold the treasures they so eagerly anticipated. They experience ‘Hooterville’ for the first time, a place where job seeking “Okies” huddle together in dirty tents, with starving families until driven on by the authorities, and Pa holds a conversation with a dirty, giggling man, who sparks the first of the family’s fears, there is no work in California. At the prospect of being unable to supply for Rose of Sharon and the baby Connie flees. Later, when the authorities appear in Hooterville to try and move the settlers on Casy intervenes and gets himself arrested.
Desperately seeking shelter for the night, they find temporary relief in the “Weedpatch” government camp. The camp offers the family the much needed rest they required, a sense of community operates within the fences, with families working together to keep the camp clean, running water, and weekly dances. All this takes place much to the dismay of the local authorities, who cannot bear the idea of the poor sticking together and getting comfortable. However the joy of having a community, washing facilities and a safe place to sleep is short lived, and the family eventually moves on, realising that despite the comfort of the government camp, there is still no work.
Having travelled west of the government camp the Joad family pass a picket line of protesting workers, and end up picking peaches in the “Hooper Ranch” receiving a higher wage than usual having just broken a strike. Living in a small wooden shack, and forced to buy overpriced food from the ranch store, the situation is far from ideal. One night Tom discovers that the man leading the strike is in fact Jim Casy. Shortly afterwards Tom, Casy and some of the other striking workers get into a fight with the ranch authorities, and one of the men kills Casy with a tool handle. Tom manages to wrestle the weapon away Casy’s Killer, he then, enraged by what he has seen, commits the second murder of his life.
Steinbeck’s description of the time spent at the Hooper Ranch brings to light in the readers mind more than ever the severity of the indignities that these people suffered at the hands of other human beings. It seems almost incomprehensible that anyone could have been treated with such little compassion. The idea of paying a man a pittance, because he does not have the strength, or the ability to refuse a job, regardless of the price, or work involved, is absolutely incredible.
My feelings are all but summed up by the words of Guardian writer Melvyn Bragg:
“I was all but drowned in the pity and anger John Steinbeck evoked for these people, fleeing Oklahoma to seek work but finding nothing save cruelty, violence, the enmity of immoral banks and businesses”
This incredibly moving novel, stirred so many emotions within me, even before what I’m sure many consider to be the bleakest period in the Joad family’s journey.
After Tom’s clash with the ranch authorities, the family are forced to go on the run. They travel north and find work picking cotton in a roadside field, residing in a boxcar while Tom takes refuge in the nearby woods. Other families are hungry for work, and the cotton does not last long. Then the rains set in, and with them, hunger, cold, and flooding. Rose of Sharon goes into labour after a bout of sickness and loses the baby. Meanwhile the floods threaten to completely engulf the car which the family reside in, leaving the Joad’s with no choice but to leave. At this point Tom is sent away to care for himself, and one of the elder children chooses to stay behind with the daughter of another family, leaving the Joad family less than half the size they were when they first began their journey.
Steinbeck ends the novel with a devastating scene. The family has taken refuge in a barn inhabited an old gentleman and his son. The man is gravely ill, having forfeited him own food to feed his son, and he can no longer hold down solid food. Ma realises that Rose of Sharon is now producing milk, at which time a silent nod of understanding passes between the two women, and the family leave the barn. The reader is left with the haunting image of Rose of Sharon, nursing the dying man. An incredibly powerful image, which stays with the reader long after the novel is finished.
Inhumanity is possibly the most important and prominent theme running through The Grapes of Wrath. The characters within the novel experienced horrendous suffering at the hands of landowners who saw migrants with rights as a threat to their livelihoods, and therefore set out to strip them of even the basic human rights we enjoy today, exploiting fellow Americans to the point of utter ruin. Human beings were the both the cause, and the recipients, of suffering in the land of the free. The land owners in California lived a life of luxury, while the migrants were treated like animals.
With the inhumanity lies a second, more positive theme. The characters within the novel maintain a certain hope and unity which holds the dwindling family and the migrants in general together as one. The importance of remaining together as a family is emphasised throughout the novel. It is being together that in part helps the Joad family to never lose sight of hope. When the groups of migrants get together they create a sense of hope of what will come next, such as can be seen within the government camp. This is a striking, and more than likely accurate, depiction of the great depression migrants, who, when all else failed, clung to hope.
Steinbeck’s writing is beautifully poetic, with the most intricate details going into every description, be it a blonde headed girl outside a tent in the government camp, or the feeling of sand between hot toes in the cool Californian Rivers. At the same time, The Grapes of Wrath would not be wasted on a less avid reader; Steinbeck’s style is wonderfully accessible without being easy to read. Rewarding, without being tedious.
Steinbeck will leave the reader thinking about the story long after the book is finished. A work of fiction about a real thing, a real time, with real people. While the Joad family may be fictional, their experiences reflect the life of many Americans at that time.