In America, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a novel read by high school students, by children inept at work and the American worker, work and the American worker being the story of The Grapes of Wrath. This young readership was not the publisher’s desired market in April 1939, when adults first bought the novel. Did adults in 1939 encourage children to read the book? If so, what did those children make of Tom Joad saying to the Reverend Jim Casy, “Pa’ll be glad to see you. He always said you got too long a pecker for a preacher.”?
Another grown-up consideration of The Grapes of Wrath is whether it is responsible for one to consider small details of a novel that explicitly deals with large subjects like dignity, fellowship, hunger, and death. These themes—and it is a novel of heavy punctuated themes and very little ambiguity—are what once made novels. Now, it seems novels are about simpler, lower-to-the-ground struggles. Or perhaps that is the novelists themselves.
Linked to its themes is the permanence of The Grapes of Wrath, a book, like the bible, Americans know whether they have read it or not. One supposes all are aware of the book’s often-referenced occurrences; the Joads travel west, Grampa gets buried on the side of the road, Granma dies crossing the desert, Tom Joad kills a man and flees, and Rose of Sharon nurses a starving man at the novel’s conclusion. These are national memories, or national occurrences, depending on one’s age.
And lastly, one reading The Grapes of Wrath today does so with the unavoidable notion that it might have something to say about these contemporary times, financially troublesome for all but the wealthiest, a notion that proves false. Despite some broad financial correlations to times past and present, there is little of our now in the novel’s then. There is only the novel itself.
Steinbeck employs two narratives in The Grapes of Wrath, one the well-known tale of the destitute Joad family, the foreclosure of their land in Oklahoma and their jalopy-journey west to California, where more trouble lurks, and the second narrative, the one I had forgotten, the alternate chapters of misery and heartbreak of various nameless stragglers and malcontents, men and women and children that Steinbeck uses to illustrate the harsh American condition of the 1930s, the poverty, indignation, and suffering of people, and those lucky few who have meager employment, and thus sneer at and bully those less fortunate.
Early on in the novel, there are wonderful descriptions of devastation and hardship. Chapter 1 is a parody of Genesis, of land ruined by drought and wind and dust, of crops felled and broken and terrorized by nature. Steinbeck rings Old Testament:
The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.
Chapter 5 brings us a goggled tractor driver hired by the banks—faceless banks now own the land—who, astride his machine, plows the useless dirt and knocks homes off their foundations, leaving families both hungry and homeless. Steinbeck describes the tractor driver as a science fiction monster:
The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat. The thunder of the cylinders sounded through the country, became one with the air and the earth, so that earth and air muttered in sympathetic vibration.
The farmers are confused; their children toe the earth and keep quiet, keep nervous, while the wife watches the husband for signs that he might break—something no man can do if he is to keep his family—and the man, the husband, watches out to see what hell might be coming next. He knows only misery comes, for he once had his acres and his horses to plow and food enough for all, and then came the banks who had paper that gave them rights to the acres, and machines came that supplanted the slow work of beasts—(“But this tractor does two things—it turns the land and turns us off the land”)—and suddenly forty acres and a homestead means nothing in the world, nothing to everyone except the farmer and his family that lost it.
A quarter of The Grapes of Wrath passes before the Joads leave Oklahoma for California, and in that fist section the Joad chapters limp compared to the alternate chapters, which are much more lively with descriptions of hardship and loss. Members of the Joad clan—true family and hangers-on—seem to function purely as extensions of Steinbeck’s moralizing until they hit the road, all except for Ma Joad, who comes alive in quiet moments when a righteousness takes hold of her. Early on we get a glimpse of Ma that betrays the fierce behavior to come:
Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself.
Pa Joad and Tom comment on her sudden changes, admiring and fearing her. But Ma is wiser still; she knows her son Tom is one rage away from another spell in prison, and that Pa is weak from his endless losses, and that the others in the traveling party are various degrees of useless, but vital as one, as a family.
Steinbeck’s prose in The Grapes of Wrath varies from terrific to terrible. At times he turns phrases so bad and so syrupy that one turns away from the page, embarrassed. Here is a paragraph of gloom and doom thunder sentences:
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 they 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.
Yet in the dialogue, especially between Tom and Casy, Tom and Al, and Ma and anyone who tries to get one over on her, Steinbeck’s prose is humorous and spry, and he leads a reader to unpredictable resolutions. He also has a great ability to effortlessly switch character perspective, such as in this dialogue with a strange religious woman worried over the ill Granma:
The woman looked reproachfully at Ma. “Ain’t you believers, ma’am?”
“We always been Holiness,” Ma said, “but Granma’s tar’d, an’ we been a-goin’ all night. We won’t trouble you.”
“It ain’t no trouble, an’ if it was, we’d want ta do it for a soul a-soarin’ to the Lamb.”
Ma arose to her knees. “We thank ya,” she said coldly. “We ain’t gonna have no meetin’ in this here tent.”
The woman looked at her for a long time. “Well, we ain’t a-gonna let a sister go away ’thout a little praisin’. We’ll git the meetin’ goin’ in our own tent, ma’am. An’ we’ll forgive ya for your hard heart.”
Ma settled back again and turned her face to Granma, and her face was still set and hard. “She’s tar’d,” Ma said. “She’s on’y tar’d.” Granma swung her head back and forth and muttered under her breath.
The woman walked stiffly out of the tent. Ma continued to look down at the old face.
Rose of Sharon fanned her cardboard and moved the hot air in a stream. She said, “Ma!”
“Whyn’t ya let ’em hol’ a meetin’?”
“I dunno,” said Ma. “Jehovites is good people. They’re howlers an’ jumpers. I dunno. Somepin jus’ come over me. I didn’ think I could stan’ it. I’d jus’fly all apart.”
The best writing in The Grapes of Wrath is from an incident in the Hooverville, when Tom trips a deputy and the deputy draws his gun:
The deputy staggered and Tom put out his foot for him to trip over. The deputy fell heavily and rolled, reaching for his gun. Floyd dodged in and out of sight down the line. The deputy fired from the ground. A woman in front of a tent screamed and then looked at a hand which had no knuckles. The fingers hung on strings against her palm, and the torn flesh was white and bloodless. Far down the line Floyd came in sight, sprinting for the willows. The deputy, sitting on the ground, raised his gun again and then, suddenly, from the group of men, the Reverend Casy stepped. He kicked the deputy in the neck and then stood back as the heavy man crumpled into unconsciousness.
A woman is shot through the hand, “fingers hung on strings against her palm.” That is Steinbeck at his best, clear and concrete. There are many vivid lines like this in the novel that sneak up on a reader, as though Steinbeck considered them slight or disposable. They do not fit with the grand themes of the book—perhaps that makes them all the better.
There are moments each character in The Grapes of Wrath experiences a contemplative epiphany: Tom argues with a fat service station manager until he notices the manager’s shop is bare, and the manger is only a few days removed from failure himself; the Reverend Casy talks himself into seeing to a new flock, hungry, secular, and moving east to west; Ma runs her fingers over the cool white porcelain of a newer bathroom in a government work camp, amazed by the newness and the dignity of indoor plumbing; and Uncle John goes on a bender to keep real and imagined demons at bay, if only for one night. These small personal events, not the artful crescendos, make the novel great.
Steinbeck never lets a reader get comfortable, as he keeps his outcast people in motion, in or nearby trouble, roiling above floodwater, and rarely at peace in elusive hard-times humanity. His uneven writing, his complicated multiple-character scenes, and his wonderful nature imagery, make up the entirety of The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath is a mess, and it endures because of that messiness, which Steinbeck writes so well.