Review: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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. 
The Good:
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 Bad: 
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.”

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