The Grapes of Wrath is the third and final novel from John Steinbeck’s famous Californian novels, also known as the Dust Bowl series. Together with Of Mice and Men and In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath explores the life of the common man during the Great Depression. Although Steinbeck wrote the novel for just a couple of months, he spent years researching the subject. He was sort of obsessed with the problems of the ordinary farmers, who were driven away from their homes and forced to look for food and shelter elsewhere. The dramatic changes during the Great Depression didn’t skip the agricultural industry and as more and more landowners struggled for survival, more and more farmers were left to do the same.
Steinbeck’s Californian novels form a substantial part of his works. Before writing The Grapes of Wrath, the author had sufficient training on the subject – two novels and numerous newspaper articles focused on the lives of the migrant workers. Steinbeck even lived among them for a little while. His evident passion about the subject, his obsession for quite some time with the rights of these farmers, his fervent criticism of capitalism, and his rather one-sided depiction of the Great Depression, inevitably earned him the title “communist”. The author didn’t see himself as such. He claimed he was describing a harsh injustice and pointing out the ills not only of a political system, but of a whole nation.
The Grapes of Wrath won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Price for Fiction and was mentioned numerously when in 1962 Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ever since, it has been described as a Great American Novel and has been an integral part of the American high school curriculum. Nevertheless, a book of this topic is bound to be controversial. Decades after its publishing, critics still argue whether it is a “red” novel or not. Steinbeck himself took harshly the controversy surrounding his novel. Before finally completing it, the author was obsessed with the subject and in subsequent interviews he claimed he had nothing more to say about it. As if hе poured everything he felt and experienced in these 500 pages and is now ready to move on. I would compare it to a strategy I recently read on how to deal with your obsessions. You binge. Say you like chocolate, or pork, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or whatever. Then you binge on your obsession until you throw up. And then you binge a bit more until…well until you throw up again. You continue until you are free from the obsession (or until you die but I really hope that is not the outcome of this strategy). In a similar way, Steinbeck devoted a considerable amount of his career on the problems of farmers and after The Grapes of Wrath, he shifted direction completely. Whether it was because he felt he exhausted the subject, or because of the rather harsh reviews of the novel, we will never know. Nevertheless, his subsequent novels have been no worse (given one of them is East of Eden).
The Grapes of Wrath focuses on the Joad family – a family of tenant farmers from Oklahoma, who are forced to leave their home when the owner decides to destroy all of their houses and to transform the land into something else. They set on a journey West, along the famous Route 66, in search of a better life. Through the life of the Joads, Steinbeck explores the lives of all migrant workers, the life of a nation, the life of the entire humanity:
On one level it is the story of a family’s struggle for survival in the Promised land…On another level it is the story of a people’s struggle, the migrants’. On a third level it is the story of a nation, America. On still another level, through the allusions to Christ and those to the Israelites and Exodus, it becomes the story of mankind;s quest for profound comprehension of his commitment to his fellow man and to the earth he inhabits.
I must admit, Steinbeck is rather extreme and one-sided at times. His depiction of the migrant farmers as innocent victims of the cruel capitalist bastards and the rather naive conversations and dreams they have, very much remind of Communism. The government camp, where workers lived together without government and police in perfect harmony was too Marxist for me. Steinbeck indeed offers a comprehensive portrayal of the Great Depression and the struggle against drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agricultural industry. Nevertheless, the author (on purpose or not) describes only one side of the story, creating a naive world of “good” guys and “bad” guys. We never get to see the human side of the capitalist bastards as well as the shortcomings and flaws of the workers-turned-angels.
Overall, The Grapes of Wrath is an essential read to anyone interested in the American political and economic landscape during the Great Depression. It should, however, be taken cautiously, for Steinbeck offers just part of the story. In terms of structure, though, the novel is just brilliant. The author alternates short lyrical chapters of background to the migrants as a community with long narrative chapters of the Joad family’s dramatic journey West. This juxtaposition creates an almost melodic flow, where the short chapters present a universal view of the migrant condition, whereas the long ones advance the plot and put these universal views into perspective.
More from John Steinbeck:
The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.
Don’t roust your faith bird-high an’ you won’t do no crawlin’ with the worms.
Anybody can break down. It takes a man not to.
They’s times when how you feel got to be kep’ to yourself.
You ain’t big enough or mean enough to worry God much.
Wisht I knowed what all the sins was, so I could do ’em.