by John Steinbeck
ISBN 978 0 141 18506 4, first published in 1939, buy it on Amazon
I was first introduced to John Steinbeck as a fifteen-year-old in secondary school as part of my English Literature GCSE. Of Mice and Men (1937) captured my interest in a way that no other poem, book or play that required learning and extensive analysis could at the time. When I saw The Grapes of Wrath on my list I was excited by the prospect of reading more of Steinbeck’s work.
Although the book was met with much praise when it was first published, it did in fact anger many. The Grapes of Wrath was censored and banned, specifically in Kern county, California (which is partially where the book is set) due to its negative depictions. It was also branded as Communist propaganda. Steinbeck himself is famously remembered for saying that ‘I’ve[sic] done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied.’
The Grapes of Wrath focuses on the Joad family and through his portrayal of Tom, Ma, Pa, Rose of Sharon, Grampa, and Granma for example, presents the reality of The Great Depression in a poignantly truthful manner. Writing in his private diary Steinbeck wrote on 18th June 1938 that honesty was most important in the production of this novel. It is quite possibly what makes the story inherently sad. There is no doubt that thousands of families similar to the Joads journeyed from Oklahoma and its surrounding states to California in search of food and water and work.
The novel’s chapters are predominantly narrative, however, intercalary (general comment) chapters are scattered throughout. We are first met with one of these general chapters in which we are introduced to the Dust Bowl and The Great Depression:
Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.
We now know where we are and we know that it’s bleak. We are then introduced to a hitchhiking Tom Joad who has just been released from prison for murder. Eventually, beneath the shade of a willow tree, he encounters the former Reverend Jim Casy who had lost his faith in the Holy Spirit and found it again in the ‘human sperit[sic]’. Together they continue on and after some time and confusion, they eventually reach the Joads who are living at his Uncle John’s and preparing to leave for California.
It is here that we meet the rest of the family alongside those mentioned above we have: Noah and Al (Tom’s brothers), Ruthie and Winfield (the youngest Joads) and Connie (Rose of Sharon’s husband). From this point, we follow the three generations as they pile into their second-hand Hudson Super Six and begin their migration.
The book focuses on a number of different themes which centred around The Great Depression such as its economic impact, social and class issues, human exploitation and the family (I have chosen not to expand on these because this is not, in fact, an academic essay and others are far better qualified to do so). Without going into too much detail I would like to discuss Ma and Rose of Sharon and their roles throughout the novel.
The most significant change we see in a character throughout the novel is the position of Ma within the family. At a time when patriarchy prevailed, her dominant character and strength (in all of its forms) are inspiring to read and witness. Gender within The Grapes of Wrath is an important topic and one that has been discussed extensively. Forgetting the fact that Ma was a strong female she was simply a strong human being. Her strength and perseverance resonated with me personally.
As I progressed through the novel Ma’s transformation captivated me, however, in comparison, Rose of Sharon’s whiny, naïve, and sorrowful personality grated on me. What I can understand now is that at the time of reading I began to see myself in Rose of Sharon when truly I wanted to be, and be perceived to be, like Ma.
In his duty Steinbeck wholeheartedly succeeded; This novel is truly honest. His ability to transport you to the hardship in a way that makes you feel the pangs of hunger, the uncertainty, and the perseverance of the Joad family is one that cannot be rivaled. The Grapes of Wrath deserves all of its universal praise and acclaim, in fact, it was the predominant factor in Steinbeck being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.
The Grapes of Wrath should without a doubt be on every single reader’s book list.