The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck
The Viking Press (1939)
I fully recognize that what I say about this great novel won�t amount to a hill of beans compared with the many erudite, perceptive, and occasionally dull things that have already been said about it. But I feel that if I don�t say something, I will be a criminal haunted by his own silence and laziness. The Grapes of Wrath is such an important book that I feel I must, at the very least, tell people who haven�t read it that they simply can�t afford to put it off any longer. The perspective gained will help them understand the corporate arrogance and corrupt politics that create and profit by the world�s problems, as well as the harsh and increasingly violent economic reality faced by growing numbers in the United States and abroad.

The Grapes of Wrath is a history lesson, a call for justice, and a literary achievement all in one. It is an eloquent poem of the downtrodden, who are unable to speak for themselves. It is an epic journey filled with hardship, sorrow, and strife miraculously illuminated by human decency, kindness, and hope. It is also a warning against complacency, and a reminder that quite often what is assumed to be a right has been built upon the misfortune of others and the cruelties they have endured.

Steinbeck accomplishes all of this by telling the story of the Joad family of Oklahoma, tenant farmers compelled to leave their Dust Bowl home by economic forces too great for them to resist. In so doing, they become part of a westward migration made up of thousands of uprooted families lured by the promise of agricultural work in bountiful California. To their horror, they are met with hatred and mistrust, and soon discover that work is nearly impossible to find, and that when it is found, it doesn�t last and isn�t enough to live on. And so the Joads find themselves faced with a great paradox: that of starving in a land of plenty. Caught up in the battle between Labor, Big Money, and increasing mechanization, the Joads and other migrant families are used as strike-breakers one day, only to have their meager wages cut in half the next. As soon as a given crop is harvested, they are kicked out of their subhuman accommodations and told to move on under threat of violence. Roadside camps are burned; scapegoats are picked at random and labeled as communist troublemakers. The hungry migrants are seen not as fellow Americans down on their luck, but as a filthy, inferior race that threatens to infect the native population.

This novel is a classic example of a personal story set against a giant backdrop of events. As such, it is impossible to read it without putting oneself in the time and place of Ma Joad, as she clings to her pride while giving strength and encouragement to her family as it grows angry and resentful with hunger and threatens to unravel, or her son, Tom, who is so outraged by the way his people are treated that he decides he must somehow learn to champion their cause. Thanks to Steinbeck�s realistic presentation, after spending some time with the Joads, the reader sees the food on his plate � if he is lucky enough to have food at all � in a completely different light.

A great part of Steinbeck�s success comes from his use of everyday language and dialect. The story isn�t told in a detached or elevated manner, but in an earthy way that is a natural outcome of the subject matter. Some reviewers at the time thought the use of dialect was foolish or contrived � the same criticism once leveled at Mark Twain. Having heard the dialect as a kid in Central California myself, it is my feeling that Steinbeck would have killed his book by sanitizing it. Through talk, he established a sense of immediacy and familiarity. The Joads were real people, and their predicament was as real as the Depression era that spawned it.

Also not to be overlooked is the book�s humor. This is something else Steinbeck understood: the roots of laughter are nourished by hardship and sorrow; humor, like song and dance, is an expression of pride and survival.

Finally, though I hope it isn�t necessary, I want to offer one last reason to read The Grapes of Wrath, and that is Steinbeck�s triumphantly sad and beautiful ending. If the end of this book � both in terms of its final pages and its final paragraph � doesn�t change the way you look at things, then perhaps nothing will.

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The Grapes of Wrath
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From The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck

. . . Ma said helplessly, �I dunno what to do. I got to feed the fambly. What�m I gonna do with these here?� The children stood stiffly and looked at her. Their faces were blank, rigid, and their eyes went mechanically from the pot to the tin plate she held. Their eyes followed the spoon from pot to plate, and when she passed the steaming plate up to Uncle John, their eyes followed it up. Uncle John dug his spoon into the stew, and the banked eyes rose up with the spoon. A piece of potato went into John�s mouth and the banked eyes were on his face, watching to see how he would react. Would it be good? Would he like it? . . .

. . . Ma ladled stew into the tin plates, very little stew, and she laid the plates on the ground. �I can�t send �em away,� she said. �I don� know what to do. Take your plates an� go inside. I�ll let �em have what�s lef�. Here, take a plate in to Rosasharn.� She smiled at the children. �Look,� she said, �you little fellas go an� get you each a flat stick an� I�ll put what�s lef� for you. But they ain�t to be no fightin�.� The group broke up with a deadly, silent swiftness. Children ran to find sticks, they ran to their own tents and brought spoons. Before Ma had finished with the plates they were back, silent and wolfish. Ma shook her head. �I dunno what to do. I can�t rob the fambly. I got to feed the fambly. Ruthie, Winfiel�, Al,� she cried fiercely. �Take your plates. Hurry up. Git in the tent quick.� She looked apologetically at the waiting children. �There ain�t enough,� she said humbly. �I�m a-gonna set this here kettle out, an� you�ll all get a little tas�, but it ain�t gonna do you no good.� She faltered, �I can�t he�p it. Can�t keep it from you.� She lifted the pot and set it down on the ground. �Now wait. It�s too hot,� she said, and she went into the tent quickly so she would not see. . . .

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