“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck

Grapes of WrathSteinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is my book group’s next selection. It is the Nobel- and Pulitzer-Prize winning epic novel of the Joads, a sharecropping family from Oklahoma. They’re evicted from their farm during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Like hundreds of thousands of others, they pack their belongings into an undependable vehicle, and set out for the promised land of California. As with the biblical story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt, the journey is far more difficult than the Joads hoped it would be.

Every strong novel redefines our conception of the genre’s dimensions and reorders our awareness of its possibilities. Like other products of rough-hewn American genius–Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (three other “flawed” novels that also humanize America’s downtrodden by exposing social ills)–The Grapes of Wrath has a home-grown quality: part naturalistic epic, part jeremiad, part captivity narrative, part road novel, part transcendental gospel. –from the Introduction by Robert DeMott

Criticism of the novel tends to extremes. Some hail it as a masterpiece. Others called it didactic, sentimental and overblown. Critics complained of its flat characterizations.

I found it a powerful, moving novel that had a strong historic effect on injustice in its time. I agree with all the above criticisms, though. The novel alternates between “telling” chapters of analysis, and “showing” chapters of the Joad’s journey. This interrupts the main narrative, and I found obvious and repetitive. The Joads are sympathetic, but reductive characters. They are “noble savages“, and barely flawed or complex in any way. Tom, the son who returns at the start of the novel, meets a former preacher named Casy who joins the Joads. Tom and Casy can be seen respectively as analogs to Jesus and John the Baptist, or to Jesus and Doubting Thomas. In his effort to detail the hardships of the Joads, Steinbeck painfully detailed many of the degrading details of their new life. This leads to a greater understanding of the difficulties of the time, but was difficult to slog through over 619 pages. Chapter 16 is forty-three pages long, and concerned mainly with a broken rod in the car, and how a replacement is located and replaced. The novel ends with a deliberately provocative scene in which Rose of Sharon, who recently delivered a stillborn baby, offers her breast to a starving stranger. This heavy-handed scene conveys Steinbeck’s idealization of the poor’s willingness to share to survive, as well as his romanticization of mothers that pervaded through the book. (I believe there is a Biblical or saint myth about a woman nursing a man in prison, but I am still searching for the reference.)

A recent article by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post questioned whether the “earnest but artless” Steinbeck’s works are ones that speak more to younger readers than to older ones, and wonders at their enduring popularity. Had I read Grapes of Wrath when I was younger, I might have been less attuned to matters of craft, and perhaps not as sensitive to being preached to on matters of social and political justice. As a more experienced reader, I appreciated the well-meaning passion of the work, and the effect it had on society at the time. I can’t, however, recommend it as a masterpiece.

Added later: I still can’t find a religious reference for a woman breastfeeding a man in jail, though I remember seeing an old painting of this in an Italian chuch. But just a little research turned up many, many similarities between the gospel of Luke and Grapes of Wrath.

3 Responses to ““The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck”

  1. SmallWorld Reads Says:

    One of my favorite books ever. I have been thrilled this past month as my 15-year-old has been consuming Steinbeck. He loved Grapes of Wrath, and I hope he reads it again in 10 years and then another 10 years for great understanding!

  2. echohead Says:

    The critics who maintain that this novel is didactic are, I would suggest, those who have been most affected by the book’s portrayal of such distressing events. Maybe I could bend my instincts far enough to allow that none of the characters are fully developed, or even that the author’s moral stance is a little too apparent, but to do so would be more than smug. This review is vapid, bordering on flatulent, and the reviewer’s grandiose and cringeworthy pronouncement of their own status as ‘a more experienced reader’ should be enough to set off the flannel alert.

    The style and depth of characterisation in this work are perfectly melded to the deepest theme of the novel. Yes, in my HUMBLE opinion, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is a masterpiece.

  3. girldetective Says:

    Echohead, two apologies. One, my phrase “a more experienced reader” was meant in contrast to the sentence preceding it, and referred to myself only, as a younger reader. If that was unclear, I apologize.

    Two, this review is my experience of the novel. It _is_ my humble opinion, though if you read it as grandiose, again, I apologize. That was not my intention. My experience of the book was positive and negative. I referred to and linked to the opinions of others to provide context. You, and others including the Pulitzer committee, consider it a masterpiece. While I found it moving and historically significant, I didn’t find it a masterpiece. To each her own.