Friday, June 29, 2012

John Steinbeck--The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize, Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family in their migration from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma west to the promised land of California.  What’s sadly striking about it is how timely the commentary still seems, about how the banks and corporations are inhuman monsters destroying human lives, and even the sections such as Chapter 7, told from the perspective of a used car salesman, is voice which resonates with texts such as Glengarry, Glenn Ross and even Fargo.  However, Al is not completely their fool, and his explanation for buying that particular car—that its parts are readily available, for example (100)—shows the Joads to be more unfortunate victims of circumstance, rather than ignorant yokels—even if they do seem to mostly believe the hype about the wonders of California.  However, even at the outset, it’s clear that it’s more that they believe they hype because that’s the only thing left to believe.  This is in stark contrast to something like Tobacco Road, which was published seven years before The Grapes of Wrath, and treats its characters with much less respect than Grapes of Wrath does, even though both novels are making similar indictments of big business.  Grapes of Wrath, goes a step further in its articulation of the situation, with statements such as, “fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe” (151).
The novel uses interesting changes in points of view throughout, moving from following the third person omniscient narrator pretty closely following the Joads, to passages of more general narration of the landscape and setting (which is at times a bit heavy on the symbolism), to third person narration of scenes involving generic types (the used car salesman, for example, or the workers in the diner) to narrate difficult scenes involving the Joads—the diner scene, for example, in which dialogue between Mae (the waitress) and Big Bill (the truck driver) reveals that a family which sounds like the Joads have been in an accident in which a child was killed.  We assume that he is talking about the Joads, though it turns out to be another family.  Our relief is tempered by the reminder that the Joads story is emblematic of so many others.
Over the course of the novel, the importance of community is emphasized again and again.  What started as a family migration became from the very beginning a community endeavor, as the former pastor, Casy, is included in the trip.  Early on, the Joads collaborate with the Wilsons, joining forces in their grief for their grandfather who dies early on in the trip as well as in more practical matters, pooling their resources.  The communal camp that the Joads live in in California exemplifies the potential for pooling of resources; however, such potential must be stanched, as it is detrimental to profit margins.  Steinbeck drives home the message again and again that the only way out of crises is community and collaboration, not profit and exchange, ending the book with the Rose of Sharon, who has just delivered a stillborn child, nursing a sick, starving stranger as the families wait out the storm outside.  Steinbeck, then, finds a way to end the novel both without assuaging any of the dangers he’s evoked, but yet still on a feeling of hope and possibility.  True charity, however, is the only solution.

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