The Grapes of Wrath is a landmark of American literature. A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man's fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman's stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America. Although it follows the movement of thousands of men and women and the transformation of an entire nation, The Grapes of Wrath is also the story of one Oklahoma family, the Joads, who are driven off their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity. First published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath summed up its era in the way that Uncle Tom's Cabin summed up the years of slavery before the Civil War. Sensitive to fascist and communist criticism, Steinbeck insisted that: The Battle Hymn of the Republic be printed in its entirety in the first edition of the book-which takes its title from the first verse: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck's fictional chronicle of the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930's is perhaps the most American of American Classics.
What a poet Steinbeck is! But what does anlage mean?
1. Biology The initial clustering of embryonic cells from which a part or an organ develops; primordium.
2. A genetic predisposition to a given trait or personality characteristic.
3. A fundamental principle; the foundation for a future development.
All three will come into play in this story. The Joads and others in Oklahoma don't want to move, don't want to change, but in the Great Depression, dispossessed of their farms, they have no choice. Handbills promising work in California entice thousands to take to the highway, Route 66, and migrate west. Stoic and determined, the Okies (a derogatory term out West), sell all they can, and pile high on old cars what they'll need for the journey and their new life. This much most people know without having read the book.
What they may not know is the beauty of Steinbeck's writing, and how drawn into the Joads' lives the reader becomes. Ma Joad is the key to all of it - "from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty." She "seemed to realize that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone." That realization is sorely tested at times, and its truth shines through in what was, for me, a jaw-dropping ending.
Tom Joad the son is a passionate man, and a visionary, who incisively understands one problem after another and how to effectively address it. His integrity is unassailable; the difficulty he faces is keeping himself from losing his temper and striking out at the greedy oppressors and powerdrunk false authorities. His closest traveling companion is the ex-preacher Casey, who once used his exaltatory power to seduce, and now wants only to fully understand humanity and spirit without the trappings of religion. His eulogy for a deceased old man is filled with honesty rather than homilies. "I woudn' pray for an ol' fella that's dead. He's awright. He's got a job to do, but it's all laid out for 'im an' there's on'y one way to do it. . . . if I was to pray, it'd be for folks who that don' know which way to turn." And for all the salmon-like drive west to generate new lives, there are a lot of folks who end up needing that prayer.
All of the characters in this story are convincingly drawn, and the depictions of their ordeals vivid. When I grew up I used to read, and hear people ask, Who is going to write the Great American Novel? That came to mind several times during The Grapes of Wrath and I thought, I'm reading it.
Anlage of movement. There's the clustering of embryonic cells in a young woman's stressful pregnancy that symbolizes the new birth sought at the end of their travels. The Joads (and others) have genetic predispositions to prevail somehow, and to help others no matter how little there is to be shared. Finally, there's a fundamental drive to build in California a foundation for the family's future. Along the way we experience the dirt, the hunger, the passion, the inequities, bodies giving out, the will to survive, the enormous challenge of finding work and the next meal. This is an epic book, filled not with gods, but with people we know, or wish we did, or wish we didn't.
In this social commentary, Steinbeck alternates between the narration of the Joads' progress, and vignettes describing the realities and hardships which directly affected approximately half a million Americans who sought to better their lives of destitution and near-starvation, prompted by advertisements which promised plenty of work picking the ripe harvests in California. The 'Oakies', the term then used to describe these desperate people, were despised by their fellow countrymen because of their extreme poverty and forced vagrancy, but Steinbeck squarely places the blame on big business and the drive for profit at all cost, which was the reason why the farmers were first driven off their lands and then kept in a cycle of poverty they had very little hope of getting out of. The novel received much critical acclaim and was widely read when it was published in 1939, and Steinbeck was later awarded the Novel Prize largely because of it. But not surprisingly, he was also harshly criticized and labeled as a 'Red sympathizer' by those very same people he condemned in the novel.
This novel is now among my all-time favourites. This was my second reading of it and I found it satisfying on more levels than I can describe, and will no doubt read it again and again.
Tom Joad and his family have lost their land during the depression and Oklahoma Dustbowl and have decided to migrate to California for work after seeing a handbill advertising the need for fruit pickers. Unfortunately they are not the only family with this idea and the highways are packed with thousands or hundreds of thousands of people trying to find a better life.
After heartbreak on the road the family arrives in California and they quickly realize that it won't be as easy as they had thought. With thousands of workers applying for every open position it becomes very hard to find work. When they do find work the wages are well below what they should be because the farmers know that for every worker that wants 30 cents an hour there is a man with a starving family that will work for 20 cents so he can bring home some food that day.
This book will pull your heart strings in one paragraph and make you angry in the next. Steinbeck does a great job of taking you on the journey with the Joads and you can feel their pain and their happiness. The joy they feel when they see the California valley or when they find a government camp with working toilets and running hot water. The heartbreak and pain they feel when a member dies or when there is not enough to eat. You can be proud at the strength they hold and how they take care of each other, even in their weakest states. This is a novel that will stay with me for much longer than the time it took to read it.
"Rich fellas come up an' they die, an' their kids ain't no good an' they die out. But we keep a'comin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people."
There isn’t much of a background of Great Depression suffering in my family; one grandfather had a government job and the other worked as a handyman for his mother, keeping all of her real estate properties fixed up. So, while no one was living high, wide and handsome, certainly nobody was suffering like the Joad family was, either.
It is one of those stories where people go from bad to worse and worse still. Somehow the core members of the family kept going on, even though it was hard to see how they were going to make it. A number of characters in the book are rather weak and confused by the way their world has come unglued, but fortunately for them, both Ma Joad and her son, the ex-convict, Tom, are made of sterling stuff and though they never are able to find a really good situation for the family, they keep their heads and manage to move the rest of the family along, keeping them from wallowing fatally and forever in the latest catastrophe to hit the family.
I found Steinbeck most powerful in the chapters that did not deal with the Joad story directly – the ones where he spoke of how things were – chapters that had a clear non-fiction cast to them. It was very easy to see how the Unions came to be; they had to come into being, or else who knows what kind of awful things might have happened – revolution, mass starvation and other things too horrible to think about. The only thing I wonder about is how the Unions have come to be in the sorry condition that they are in the present time. I wonder, as I have for some time, if they will ever recover and after reading this book, I have to think that they have to or else things might slip backward.
The end of the book did seem a little disjointed to me – as if Steinbeck did not know exactly how to end it. For me, that last scene with Rose of Sharon and the starving man was of the – “What?! Where the hell did that come from?” variety. But perhaps it has some great ‘significance’ that I missed. However, I suspect that even if it did have some great meaning that I did not get, I still would not have liked it very well.
Still, over all, a very good book and one I should have read a long, long time ago.
As most know, the book details the westward migration of the Joad family, as they are uprooted from their Oklahoma homestead by the evils of the Great Depression, the Oklahoma dust bowl and the advent of mechanized farming. The family harbors visions of milk and honey awaiting their arrival in California, or so they are assured by the numerous handbills promising plentiful work and bountiful riches. What await them instead are rapacious labor recruiters, unfriendly natives and slow but sure starvation.
Steinbeck certainly succeeds in painting a vivid and stark picture of the hopelessness faced by the migrants. His chapters alternate between “big picture” overviews and the particular heartbreaks and hazards faced by the Joads in particular. The story is an education in economics, labor relations, politics and human nature. In this day and age, it is difficult to conceive of children literally starving to death in the shadow of the most productive agricultural land in the country, much of it lying fallow and off limits to those that were capable of growing the food to nourish their own families.
This is a very powerful novel, both with regard to the emotions that it taps and the beliefs and conceptions that one holds. It provides a sharp contrast between a period when so many were desperate to work for as little as something to eat, to one in which so many demand so much without having to lift a finger. There must be a happy medium.
Even though some people felt that the ending came too suddenly, Steinbeck argued that he had the ending in mind the whole time he was writing which would make sense. Steinbeck wanted people to know how it felt to be one of the dispossessed - a stranger in your homeland where food and land are a plenty yet you have no permission to have any of it. When the Joads have finally reached the end of the novel, they are left in destitution yet they still have the humanity to help complete strangers out because those are the kind of people they are. Thus, the ending didn't just come out of the blue, but the Joads stayed in character throughout the whole novel while of course one character experienced a significant transformation in the end. What that transformation is, I'll leave you to find out for yourself.
The novel provides a fantastic glimpse into what life was like during the Great Depression, especially in California. Those incoming migrants, toting large families while looking for any kind of work, created a fear within the locals -- fear of them organizing, fear of them becoming just like the other Californians. They did whatever they could to keep families like the Joads -- the Okies -- at poverty level. Steinbeck didn't rely simply on the story of the Joads themselves, but interspersed chapters showing what was happening to everyone. They struck me as a Greek chorus of sorts, focusing on the generic while watching those stories play out among the Joads and the people they meet on the way across country.
It truly is an amazing novel. I only wish I hadn't waited so long to read it.
There is absolutely no subtlety nor any particular artfulness to be found in the Joads' story. Never for a moment do readers need to wonder where Steinbeck stands on the events that are taking place. Steinbeck is more than eager to hammer his points home as he preachily derides the corporate farmers whose tractors and hired hands eliminate the connection between men and the land that sustains them. He flays California landowners whose vast fields of hardy crops do nothing for the migrants starving for lack of work. He paints heavy handed pictures of people starving in Hoovervilles even while farmers discard crops to to maintain prices.
If, indeed, there is art in Steinbeck's American classic, it lives in the alternating chapters where Steinbeck interrupts his telling of the Joads' journey, to generalize the very much shared experience of the thousands of migrants who fled to California during the Depression. In them, he captures the haggling for a junk car, the staggering number of people heading west fed only on dreams, the growing anger of powerless men, the etiquette of camping, and even the dances that give struggling families a break, however brief, from their sufferings. In these chapters, Steinbeck lets the many voices be heard, he paints pictures with dialogue, and his words even carry the very rhythm of the dance.
There are many things to like and to dislike about The Grapes of Wrath. It is preachy, heavy handed, depressing, frustrating, perhaps even exaggerated, but it is also a profound, and perhaps even hopeful story, of a family's strength in the face of unbelievable struggle. Steinbeck's writing gives poetry to populism, and even now, The Grapes of Wrath has the enduring power to cause the righteous anger that can bring about change that so much of society still desperately needs.
Steinbeck captures the desperation and despair of the situation perfectly and I felt really dragged into the hopelessness the characters experienced. It’s extremely difficult to imagine what people went through at this time, but reading this book has made me think about it quite a lot.
The main story of the characters is interspersed with more poetic observations on the time by the author. These help break up the story and helped to reiterate that this was a situation which affected more than just one family.
I found the manipulation of the desperate migrants by the large corporations to be quite disturbing, a sad reflection upon the human capacity for greed without thinking of the consequences. This is nicely counterbalanced by the generosity of the migrants towards one another, sharing food and helping each other out. Their generosity is even more pronounced as they are living hand to mouth and have little to spare. There are many lessons which can be taken from reading this book and they still apply to the present day.
I will definitely be looking into the authors catalogue as the writing style and content of the book were superb. The book is not sweetness and light, but it does have a lot to say on human spirit and compassion.
This story is not just about one family, it is about all families who were driven from their land in the Dust Bowl leading to and during the Great Depression. Steinbeck dips into the wider arc of the story, using short chapters dotted between the tale of the Joads to show that their story was indeed the story of all. The Grapes of Wrath is many things, it is a political tract, it is a deep examination of the concept of the American family of that time, it is an explanation of economics, it is a lush description of the Dust Bowl and of California, it is a crushing indictment of the state's response to a humanitarian crisis. Riding high through these messages are those speaking of the power of humanity to push through crisis; of the ability of folk to pull together, the poor helping the poor.
Today, it is often difficult to view the Great Depression as anything other than a historical event like any other children learn of in school. However reading the papers, catching the news, looking at the situation faced by many people around the world and indeed in America, we can see that The Grapes of Wrath is still vital. This is not just a snapshot of one time lost forever, the danger faced by families unable to support themselves due to the push of big business is ever present. Here is a book that can teach us lessons, make us laugh, and make us cry.
Here’s a quote:
“If a fella owns a team of horses, he don’t raise no hell if he got to feed ‘em when they ain’t workin’. But if a fella got men workin’ for him, he jus’ don’t give a damn. Horses is a hell of a lot more worth than men.”
Not just a sentiment of John Steinbeck’s time. Steinbeck is famous, in part, because he rejected the idea that that’s OK. The novel’s point: how can anyone not do the same?
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is an intense, harrowing account of one family’s struggle to survive, after being dislocated from their Oklahoma ranch and forced to move to California – land of prosperity- for work. The Joad family and their local (former) preacher, Jim Casey get caught up in the web of agricultural monopolies & Hoovervilles. They bounce from farm to farm, job to job, and camp to camp, as they search for enough work just to feed themselves. The story ends on a note of acceptance and understanding, but without promise or hope. The reality of the Great Depression and the dust bowl devastated “Oakies” seems to settle over the entire novel, the entire country, without so much as a glimmer of better days to come – though the Joads are sure to keep on.
Steinbeck’s use of language and scene as emotion is absolutely brilliant. His description makes the moments – and there are many intensely moving moments. He also breaks up the storyline with chapters interspersed that tell almost like a news reel. There will be a chapter, for instance, on the life of a cotton picker, what a man can expect to be paid, how he struggles to feed his family off it, how the pickers are forced to fight over bolls and weigh down their bags with rocks for extra pay; how the scales are tipped in the farmers’ favor and how arguments ensue which are for the benefit of pride, but never truly resolve anything. Then, in the next chapter, Steinbeck brings his reader back to the Joad family and their personal struggle. The reader finds the Joads in the midst of situations described in the former chapter – only this time the impact is more intense, because we know this family – we are rooting for this family, but we already know, we have the facts, that this family is doomed to fail. Still, Steinbeck forces us to cheer them on and to believe, like the Joads believe, that everything will turn in their favor sooner or later. The format – the style and language- make this novel read like a play or a movie, as something almost watched rather than read. Steinbeck’s close, personal relationship with California is also an asset to the tale; he knows these peoples’ destitution and pain; he knows the land and what it does to people, how it promises wealth and easy-living, then turns on those emigrants who have come to reap the land’s riches. Steinbeck touches on this in many of his novels – East of Eden, for instance, but nowhere else is the land such an active character, such an antagonist to the Joads success – and to the success of all the “Reds.” Still, these folks love the land, and will continue to work for just a small space of their own; so we too love the land. Finally, Steinbeck is clearly speaking out in preference of the Union. Casey and Tom Joad – likely the novel’s two most conscientious and laudable protagonists – both, in the end, come to the conclusion to “organize.” They believe it is the only way to get ahead, to get out of the slums and to earn a living for the people and their families. At a time when Unions were being demonized by big and small corporations alike, Steinbeck was courageous –and right- in his championing of them.
The only negative I see in The Grapes of Wrath is the lack of resolution. What happens to Connie, for instance, or to Noah? They disappear – walk away from the Joad family and are never heard from again. Are we to believe that they made it, or that they perished? Jim Casy, when he chose to take the fall and was driven away from the Joad family, letter returns as a hero – so, in contrast, we can assume that the two deserters met a less heroic fate? Tom Joad, too, the novel’s main character – in close race with Ma Joad- disappears at the end. We get a sense of where he’s going, but we never know if he succeeds. Finally, the story of the Joads themselves, or at least those Joads whom are left, is also left unresolved. Just when things start looking up for this family – when a little money has come in, when the family is fed and food is not wanted – all luck turns, and everything is washed away. The Joads are flooded out of their camp, lose their truck and their reserves. Rosa Sharon loses even more than this and yet we see her giving care to another in the last moments of the novel, a “mysterious smile” on her face. Steinbeck leaves a lot to the imagination which, in a six hundred page novel, seems unnecessary. My interpretation would be this: the Joads will never make it, but they will never give up trying. This seems to be the reason for Rosa Sharon’s smile – like Mona Lisa’s. Sad, resigned, but alive.
The Final Verdict: 5.0 out of 5.0
Not since Melville’s The Confidence Man and Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have I felt an author has so completely and implicitly captured the American spirit. The only faults to find in this novel were that too much, though not much really, was left unresolved. Why doesn’t this reduced my overall score for the novel? Because Steinbeck knew the problem itself was unresolved – yes, characters in this novel wandered off and were never heard from again; so it was with the migrant laborers, split from their families to find work, with promises to strike it big and return with wealth and advantages. The language and dialogue were masterfully wrought, and the novel’s structure is something unique and wonderful. The interspersed chapters of detached observation give the readers a clearer understanding of what is really happening, and the realization that, left with only the Joad family’s journey, we too would continue to be hopeful when there was no reason left to be positive. It is no wonder that The Grapes of Wrath is considered by some, such as Dorothy Parker, to be “the greatest American novel.”
"A harmonica is easy to carry. Take it out of your hip pocket, knock it against your palm to shake out the dirt and pocket fuzz and bits of tobacco. Now it's ready. You can do anything with a harmonica: thin reedy single tone, or chords or melody with rhythm chords. You can mold the music with curved hands, making it wail and cry like bagpipes, making it full and round like an organ, making it as sharp and bitter as the reed pipes of the hills. And you can play and put it back in your pocket. It is always with you, always in your pocket. And as you play, you learn new tricks, new ways to mold the tone with your hands, to pinch the tone with your lips, and no one teaches you."
Another of the many facets that I appreciate about John Steinbeck's writing is his understanding and love of nature. He frequently references nature in his symbolism to convey the hardships of the migrants. A classic example is chapter 3 about the turtle crossing the road which can be said to be symbolic of the entire novel.
Here is a beautiful excerpt from chapter 25 which describes how spring comes to California:
"The prunes lengthen like little green bird's eggs, and the limbs sag down against the crutches under the weight. And the hard little pears take shape, and the beginning of the fuzz comes out on the peaches. Grape blossoms shed their tiny petals and the hard little beads become green buttons, and the buttons grow heavy."
There are so many books I want to read that I find it hard to justify reading any one more than once. This is the only book I have read four times, and it probably won't be the last.
Very reminiscent of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, it's easy to understand why the book was rewarded with so many accolades, and its author with the Nobel Prize for Literature. What sets the book apart from Sinclair's style is the directness of Steinbeck's writing. The family is full of quirky and unique characters, entirely believable, if slightly monochrome in flavour. Other readers have complained the book is divided rather obliquely into the 'good' and the 'bad', and whilst they make a reasonable point, this neither detracts from the overall message of the novel, nor prevents those characters from acting as the real driving force of the story. The heroes of the novel are true salt of the earth, which gives the book openness and accessibility: that Steinbeck writes their dialogue in their vernacular is a powerful motif.
Steinbeck intersperses his tale of the Joads with rather more artistic and morally or politically charged chapters covering the broader sweep of change facing America in the 1930s. In effect, the chapters intertwine the individual experiences of the Joad family with the macrocosmic overview of society in the Depression years. Steinbeck's rather more loaded and overt statements appear in these segments, but he also allows his characters to speak for him, especially Tom Joad and the preacher.
The Grapes of Wrath is entirely deserving of its accolades, and its place on countless lists of best novels or works to read before you die. Some reviewers had difficulty persevering past the book's opening, others found the vernacular language distracting, but generally speaking this is an extremely accessible novel which doesn't require a great deal of background knowledge to be appreciated.
The shorter vignette style chapters that seperated the main body of the story was a brilliant device for back story and narration. It really kept the whole thing together. I also loved the balanced ( I felt ) explanation of the economic troubles and labour difficulties.
Through 90% of the novel I felt Tom Joad was the main character, and then in the last 10 pages I changed my mind. For me Ma became the main character. She was the head of the family in every way at the end. Everyone followed her lead. Awesome book...very glad I read it.