The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Books, 1939 (original edition), 2002 (this edition).
Summary: Steinbeck’s classic narrative of the migrations of displaced farmers from the Depression Dustbowl to a California controlled by large landowners who wanted their labor as cheaply as possible while despising the influx of people.
I’m not sure how I escaped reading this book in high school. I first discovered the genius of Steinbeck in East of Eden and have been reading his other works since. I think I would probably rank this second in greatness to East of Eden of Steinbeck’s works.
The story line breaks into roughly three parts. First there is the displacement of small and eventually tenant farmers to big land-holding interests using lower cost mechanized methods that eliminated even the tenuous grip of these farmers on their way of life. Most dramatically, this is portrayed as a cultivator demolishes part of the Joad family home, making it unlivable. The second part is the migration of these families to California, where handbills advertise plentiful and good paying jobs picking California crops. The Joads, with Tom, their recently paroled son, Al, the skirt chaser who keeps the truck running, Rose of Sharon, their pregnant daughter and her husband Connie, Ruthie and Winfield, the two younger children, Ma and Pa, Grampa and Granma and Jim Casy (disillusioned preacher and eventual labor organizer) all pile on the truck with whatever belongings they can fit. We see the struggle to keep run down vehicles going across the desert, and the toll this takes as Grampa dies enroute and Granma as they arrive.
All this sets up the third part where we see these migrants unwelcome and constantly threatened by the police fearing vagrants, the terrible conditions of the Hoovervilles, and the exploitation of landowners who recruited these migrants so that they could continually cut the rates of pay as desperate people would agree to work for less and less, as families like the Joads struggle day to day to survive and fend off starvation. Most harrowing is the winter, when no work is to be had and people start dying of pneumonia and starvation.
Throughout the novel, Steinbeck uses an interesting device of narrating the tribulations of the Joad family against the larger fabric of events they represent that helps us understand the desperate straits many families faced. We also see the cruel ways the rich and powerful exploit them every step of the way.
The standout character in the story is Ma, who keeps the family fed and together when the men and her daughter are at sea in the bewildering maelstrom of the Depression and the exploitation of the destitute. In some ways, Tom Joad, who killed one man at the beginning of the book, and another later in sudden outlashings of wrath represents the simmering rage these conditions foster, captured in these words of Steinbeck that allude to his title:
“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.”
Steinbeck raises for us the question how long an underclass of people can be exploited and oppressed until wrath is unleashed upon a society, a question as relevant in our own day with its growing disparities of wealth and poverty, as in that of Steinbeck. It seems there is this idea that as long as men hold on to wrath, they won’t be broken.
Yet in Steinbeck’s novel, it is the value of family and of human decency in desperate circumstances that shine through again and again, represented by Ma. It is Ma who permits the shocking break of convention in the final scene to do what can be done to save a human being.
All this suggested that while wrath may accumulate and threaten like an approaching storm, the deeper and more powerful quality that truly bestows dignity on human beings is neither overweening power, nor accumulated grievance, but a compassion, a simple human decency, reflected in Ma, and in the government-run camp, that does what can be done, and somehow is enough. The novel raises for each of us the question of what kinds of measures will we choose should we face desperate times.