“…I am not writing a satisfying story. I’ve done my damndest to rip a
reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied” – Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath should be mandatory reading post high-school. John Steinbeck’s novel about The Joad Family trekking across country from Oklahoma to sunny California and the decisions and storylines thereafter make for a timeless read. Besides Steinbeck’s prose — which is worth studying on its own, Grapes of Wrath touches several themes, some more explicit than others. After researching the novel upon completion, like any good book, the analysis is just as fun.
In a letter to a friend years later, Steinbeck wrote:
“what…[the reader]…takes from…[the novel]… will be scaled entirely on his own depth of shallowness. There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won’t find more than he has in himself.” – Steinbeck
The five layers according to Susan Shillinlaw, English Professor at San Jose State University and former director of the Center of Steinbeck Studies are the following.
1) “The physicality of things, the world closely observed”
The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects. They crawled over the ground, laying the track and rolling on it and picking it up. Diesel tractors, puttering while they stood idle; they thundered when they moved, and then settled down to a droning roar. Snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines. They did not run on the ground, but on their own roadbeds. They ignored hills and gulches, water courses, fences, houses.
The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat…
….He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself.
I love this part for many reasons. First and foremost, his prose. Steinbeck let’s it flow. Also, this passage shows, even back in 1938, how some folks view technology and the advancements towards a new way of production.
2) The “wall of background,” how the “I” interacts with the “we”;
The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket–take it for the baby. This the thing to bomb. This is the beginning–from “I” to “We.”
If you own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive.
Great writers are well read. Grapes of Wrath takes themes from history, the Bible, Wealth of Nations, and more and mixes them all together around a tragic American story to ‘rip a reader’s nerves to rags.’
“Sure–O.K. I wanta talk too. I’ll hafta be goin’ away pretty soon now.”
You can’t. We need you here. Why you got to go away?”
“Well, me an’ Aggie Wainwright, we figgers to get married, an’ I’m gonna git a job in a garage, an’ we’ll have a rent’ house for a while, an’ –”
He looked up fiercely. “Well, we are, an’ they ain’t nobody can stop us!”
They were staring at him. “Al,” Mas said at last, “we’re glad. We’re awful glad.”
“Why, ‘course we are. You’re a growed man. You need wife. But don’ go right now, Al.”
“I promised Aggie,” he said. “We got to go. We can’t stan’ this no more.”
“Jus stay till spring,” Ma begged. “Jus till spring. Won’t you stay till spring? Who’d drive the truck?”
When does a son leave his family to start his own? At what expense to his existing family does he make to grow his own? Al, Ma’s son, is the only one who knows how to drive, maintain, and fix a car at this point in the story, yet he’s ready to leave the family with his soon-to-be new bride, Aggie. Strong-willed Ma has one objective: keep the family together.
Other great examples include the driver of the mowers in Oklahoma and the shop clerk who lent Ma additional money out of his own pocket.
3) The Characters’ Relation to History
There in the Middle and Southwest had lived a simple agrarian folk who had not changed with industry, who had not farmed with machines or known the power and danger of machines in private hands. They had not grown up in the paradoxes of industry. Their senses were still sharp to the ridiculousness of the industrial life.
And then suddenly the machines pushed them out and and they swarmed on the highways. The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and the hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants.
These were the forgotten people. Steinbeck’s investigative journalism led him to write one of America’s greatest novels and bring exposure to a forgotten group. This is the power of art. This is the power of great fiction. I didn’t realize the power until reading Grapes of Wrath at this stage in my life.
4) Universal ideas “common to the whole species, past and present”
And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out. The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on.
The Western Land, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States, nervous as horses before a thunder storm. The great owners, nervous, sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change. The great owners, nervous sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change. The great owners, striking at the immediate think, the widening government, the growing labor unity; striking at new taxes, at plans; not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes. The causes lie deep and simply — the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times. The last clear definite function of man — muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need–this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike any other think organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man–when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never a full step back. This you may say and know and know it.”
Steinbeck gives the reader so much here, particularly, the function of an individual.
5) The “emergence,” “the step forward taken by humans.”
“No, it ain’t,” Ma smiled. “It ain’t Pa. An’ that’s one more thing a woman knows. I noticed that. Man, he lives in jerks — baby born an’ a man dies, an; that’s a jerk–gets a farm an’ loses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on–changin’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on.”
Ma keeps going and will go until she cannot go any more. There is no other option. The will to survive is universal and some have it more than others. In Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck always keep the reader asking the question: who will survive? And who is helping others survive?
And Noah said lazily, “Like to jus’ stay here. Like to lay here forever. Never get hungry an’ never get sad. Lay in the water all life long, lazy as a brood sow in the mud.”
Noah, another son of Ma gives up. As he’s wading in the water, he just wants to stay there. Once he gets out, he walks down the bank, through the bushes and never returns to the novel. This is another example of layer two, where he goes from ‘We’ to ‘I.’
More favorite passages:
The fat man put the hose in the tank. “No, sir,’ he said. “I jus’ don’t what that country’s comin’ to. Relief an’ all.”
“Casy said “I been walkin’ aroun’ in the country . Ever’body’s askin’ that. What we comin’ to? Seems to me we don’t never come to nothin’. Always on the way. Always goin’ and goin’. Why don’t folks think about that? They’s movement now. People moving. We know why, an’ we know how. Movin’ cause they got to. That’s why folks always move. Movin’ ‘cause they want somepin better’n what they got. An’ that’s the on’y way they’ll ever git it. Wantin’ it an’ needin’ it, they’ll go out an’ git it. It’s bein’ hurt that makes folks mad to fighten’. I been walkin’ aroun’ the country, an’ hearin’ folks talk like you.”
“The Migrant People, scuttling for work, scrabbling to live, looked always for pleasure, dug for pleasure, manufactured pleasure, and they were hungry for amusement. Sometimes amusement lay in speech, and they climbed up their lives with jokes. And it came about in the camps along the roads, on the ditch banks beside the streams, under the sycamores, that the story tell grew into being, so that the people gathered in the low firelight to hear the gifted ones. And they listened while the tales were told, and their participation made the stories great.”
Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile, earth the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates–died of malnutrition–because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And the stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
I’m still reflecting on Grapes of Wrath and will be for some time. It’s a powerful novel.