The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck

Review by Edward Tanguay
September 24, 1995

One of my favorite books of all time is Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck because of the way the characters treated each other. They always shared everything which came under their ownership with each other, even if it was usually never more than a couple jugs of wine. Yet they weren't Jesus characters giving of themselves freely, but rather had a bit of pagan sense to keep things for themselves until their friends asked. This simple community, country living is also present in The Grapes of Wrath. For example, the way the family reacted when Tom came back from jail. The father's attitude was, "Hey! Great! You're here! Let's go tell the family and have something to eat together!" The relationships aren't deep and complex, but deep and simple. In a way, the relationships remind me of those between the animals in The Wind in the Willows. There's always food to share and you're always welcome whereever you happen to wonder.

"Why, Muley." Pa waved the ham bone he held. "Step in an' get some pork for yourself, Muley."

Also, this friendliness is present in the way the family included Jim Casy in on the trip. Jim set himself away from the group because he didn't want to intrude. Then the family decides to bring him along:

"Yeah. We think long as you're goin' with us, you ought to be over with us, helpin' to figger things out."

I would be interested in learning more about Steinbeck's communist tendencies, whether he was a politically active person or if his communist and social ideas manifested themselves only in his writing:

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results; if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into "I," and cuts you off forever from the "we."

I like how Steinbeck mixes up the formats of his chapters. The chapter with the turtle is a perfect example. It is a snapshot. You get to experience a part of the story from a different perspective, described with half sentences, like seeing a quick picture painted. These chapters are raised up above the general story going on below. The first chapter is another good example, painting a portrait in a couple pages of the situation in Oklahoma at that time which would otherwise have taken a couple of chapters using the actual characters of the story. Here in another one of these snapshot chapters, Steinbeck singles in on one aspect and lets it be a symbol:

On a night the wind loosened a shingle and flipped it to the ground. The next wind pried into the hole where the shingle had been, lifted off three, and the next a dozen. The midday sun burned through the hole and threw a glaring spot on the floor. The wild cats crept in from the fields at night, but they did not mew at the doorstop any more. They moved like shadows of a cloud across the moon, into the rooms to hunt the mice. And on windy nights the doors banged, an the ragged curtains fluttered in the broken windows.

The way the times are changing from personal farming to factory farming by banks is well described throughout the first part of the book. And Steinbeck makes it understandable by putting the reasoning of "three dollars a day" in the mouth of one farmer who now works for the companies who bought up the land:

The driver munched the branded pie and threw the crust away. "Times are changed, don't you know? Thinking about stuff like that don't feed the kids. Get your three dollars a day, feed your kids. You got no call to worry about anybody's kids but your own. You get a reputation for talking like that, and you'll never get three dollars a day. Big shots won't give you three dollars a day if you worry about anything but your three dollars a day.

You have to admire Muley's zeal to stay. He used to be "mean like a wolf" but now is "mean like a weasel." He's also mean like a mule: I ain't a-goin'. My pa come here fifty years ago. An' I ain't a- goin'.

I like the ex-preacher Jim Casy. He is easy to relate to in that he has no bad faith anymore, but simply admits that he isn't a preacher anymore. The comments about him are also priceless:

Ma said, "Curiousest grace I ever heerd, that he give this mornin'. Wasn't hardly no grace at all. Jus' talkin', but the sound of it was like a grace."

One can find many gems of description in Steinbeck's writing:

. . . corn-headed children, with wide eyes, one bare foot on top of the other bare foot, and the toes working. They obeyed impulses which registered only faintly in their thinking minds. The house was dead, and the fields were dead; but this truck was the active thing, the living principle. The people on top of the load did look back. They saw the house and the barn and a little smoke still rising from the chimney. They saw the windows reddening under the first color of the sun. They saw Muley standing forlornly in the dooryard looking after them. And then the hill cut them off. The cotton fields lined the road. And the truck crawled slowly through the dust toward the highway and the west. The dog wandered, sniffing, past the truck, trotted to the puddle under the hose again and lapped at the muddy water. And then he moved away, nose down and ears hanging. He sniffed his way among the dusty weeds beside the road, to the edge of the pavement. He raised his head and looked across, and then started over. Rose of Sharon screamed shrilly. A big swift car whisked near, tires squealed. The dog doged helplessly, and with a shriek, cut off in the middle, went under the wheels. The big car slowed for a moment and faces looked back, and then it gathered greater speed and disappeared. And the dog, a blot of blood and tangled, burst intestines, kicked slowly in the road. The man blew his nose into the palm of his hand and wiped his hand on his trousers. "You from hereabouts?" Pa said, "Wait till we get to California. You'll see nice country then." / "Jesus Christ, Pa! This here is California!"

I like the way the first half of the book ends. The reader has heard many reports about the severe conditions for Okies there, but they enter the valley full of optimism:

Tom laughed. "Jesus, are we gonna start clean! We sure ain't bringin' nothin' with us." He chuckled a moment, and then his face straightened quickly. He pulled the visor of his cap down low over his eyes. And the truck rolled down the mountain into the great valley."

With all the people moving out of California these days into Washington, Oregon, and the Rocky Mountain states, one could write the opposite story of The Grapes of Wrath: a family in Los Angeles tired of the education problems and crime, pack up their station wagon and drive across Arizona and New Mexico and into Colorado--just to find thousands of Californians already there! It could be called "The Wrath of Grapes." Just a thought.

Edward Tanguay

*** The Grapes of Wrath
*** Review of the second half
*** by Edward Tanguay
*** October 5, 1995

It's interesting to note that the reader never gets an inside view of "the system." The reader is only exposed to the specific acts of the system, for example, occasional visits by sheriffs. In this way, you get to experience the economic conditions in a similar way as the Joads do.

I was impressed in the second part of this book by the series of acts which expose the innocence of the Joads. Step by step they experience the hard conditions of 1930s economic California:

The young man paused in fitting the brace to the valve slot. He looked in amazement at Tom. "Lookin' for work?" he said. "So you're lookin' for work. What ya think ever'body else is lookin' for? Di'monds? What you think I wore my ass down to a nub lookin' for?" He said, "I ain't gonna take it. Goddamn it, I an' my folks ain't no sheep. I'll kick the hell outa somebody." "Like a cop?" "Like anybody." "You're nuts," said the young man. "they'll pick you right off. You got no name, no property. They'll find you in a ditch, with the blood dried on your mouth an' your nose. Be one little line in the paper--know what it'll say? 'Vagrant foun' dead.' An' that's all. you'll see a lot of them little lines, 'agrant foun' dead.'" Connie's eyes were sullen. "if I'd of knowed it would be like this I wouldn' of came. I'd a studied nights 'bout tractors back home an' got me a three-dollar job. Fella can live awful nice on three dollars a day, an' go to the pitcher show ever' night, too." The car stopped. The driver said, "We covered a hell of a lot a ground. They ain't a hand's work in this here country. We gotta move. " . . . If ya don' let me tell ya, then ya got to learn the hard way. You ain't gonna settle down 'cause they ain't no work to settle ya. An' your belly ain't gonna let ya settle down. Now-- that's straight." "Five pounds for a quarter." Ma moved menacingly toward him. "I heard enough from you. I now what they cost in town." The little man clamped his mouth tight. "Then go git 'em in town."

"What pickets?" "Them goddamn reds." "Oh," said Tom. "I didn' know 'bout them." "You seen 'em when you come, didn' you?" "Well, I seen a bunch a guys, but they was so many cops I didn' know. Thught it was a accident." Now they're payin' you five. When they bust this here strike--ya think they'll pay five?"

The friendly and helpful characters in this story, the simplicity of their lives, and their humorous language tend to create a pleasant atmosphere similar to that in _Tortilla Flat_. However, Steinbeck rivets _The Grapes of Wrath_ with moments of intense violence that make you not feel so comfortable in the story. They give a stinging sense of reality to the story. Two examples: when the woman's hand is shot off:

In front of her tent, the woman still looked at her shattered hand. Little droplets of blood began to ooze from the wound. And a chuckling hysteria began in her throat, a whining laugh that grew louder nd higher with each breath.

. . . and Casy is murdered:

The heavy man swung with the pick handle. Casy dodged down into the swing. The heavy club crashed into the side of his head with a dull crunch of bone, and Casy fell sideways out of the light. "Jesus, George. I think you killed him."

The government camps seem almost unreal. The political message is quite obvious.

The end of the book is moving, beginning with the cave seen when Tom talks about the importance of being with others:

" . . . Casy! He talked a lot. Use' ta bother me. But now I been thinkin' what he said, an' I can remember--all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an' he foun' he didn' have no soul that was his'n. Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain't no good, 'cause his little piece of a soul wasn't no good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn' think I was even listenin'. But I know now a fella ain't no good alone."

In the cave, Tom becomes a spiritual person, quite unlike his previous character. It's a natural transition though. It's the kind of transition in a person when he knows he will die. It is such a wonderful foreboding to the last act of Christian and earthly giving which happens on the last pages. This act answers the statement earlier in the book that no matter where you go, you will find that it is the poor and needy who help others out in times of need. This is one of the best endings to a book I have ever read.

If you want a warm feeling of humanity, read this book.

Edward Tanguay

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