The Grapes of Wrath and fear in fiction

With a semester behind me and all the excuses in the world to remain quietly in a room reading a book alone, I have just soared through one of my favourite books of all time, for the first time. There is not a feeling quite like it.

It was the Grapes of Wrath.

What a masterpiece.

There are many things I loved about this book. I had, like many students of fiction I suspect, read the first 5 or 10 chapters of the Grapes of Wrath at least twice, but never finished it. I’ve been gravitating towards American fiction recently, and it seemed amiss not to embark on an exploration of it without having read such a staple American novel.

The Inner Chapters of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath: The ...
From the Grapes of Wrath film

Almost better than discovering this novel though, was discovering Steinbeck. I wasn’t sure about his style at first. It seemed early on in my Steinbeck experience that the narrator’s voice simply must be that of an old white man in a university office, one who has an incessantly droning voice, and the size of whose head vastly outweighs the actual cleverness contained within.

But, as I got used to it, I liked that Steinbeck allows the narrator’s voice to be his own. Those mini-chapters characteristic especially of the book’s second half, that simply contained authorial monologue, were actually a treat as I got used to the novel. I was especially appreciative of the fact that knowing his characters simply would not say everything he wanted to see without becoming megaphones, Steinbeck takes it upon himself, and some of these chapters resemble poetry more than that parts of a novel, an interesting intellectual escape from the enthralling pace of the narrative sections.

I think this – as I have alluded to when referring to not making one’s character’s ‘megaphones’ (a known pet peeve of mine) – combines beautifully with the more strictly narrative elements of the novel. Steinbeck switches tack, changing from plot to pondering nearly chapter by chapter, allowing him to build a big picture of the collective experiences that the Joads are part of, before leaping back into a densely plotted narrative about a specific family, with time passing more or less linearly again.

The way he uses the diverse characters of the Joad family to show the breadth of experiences of struggle is excellent. The children, who learn to interact with one another in the camps, are indispensable to this. My favourite scene with the children is when a boy picks up a rock, and “squints at it so hard that the other boy near him simply MUST ask what is up”. The boy claims there’s gold in the rock, and that his Pa found gold once, a story which his onlooking acquaintance naturally disputes. The rest is history, and they run off to the river to play.

Connie and Rosasharn are next, on the cusp of true adulthood, all they can do is talk about what comes next – the repeated scenes where Ma is made to tell Rosasharn to shut up about Connie taking night classes, even after he has run out on her, hit Rosahsarn’s experience home at first. Then, the very ending of the novel was her surrender to the future. No more planning, just being. Doing what must be done.

Then there are ‘the men’, whose masculinity resides in their ability to provide in the crisis. My favourite example of this one is the scene where Tom berates a one-eyed man for wallowing in self-pity.

There are the old, who simply die, serving the necessary role of creating trauma for them all to carry, and then there is Ma.

Ma begins to take over as head of the family early in the novel, and the struggle of a caregiver who can’t care for her people is all too clear through her.

What Steinbeck does magnificently is bring this cast together to paint a total picture of struggle.

The trip to California could be any struggle, any Sisyphus’ rock, but the Grapes of Wrath makes the argument that in such dire straits people will endeavour to retain their dignity, that they will be adaptable in the face of struggle and retain what makes them human. It’s also clear that sometimes, the odds are too great. The system is simply much larger than one family, or even one hundred thousand families. There are days when there is nothing that could have been done.

This is clear through the way the Joad’s struggle against the odds unfolds over time. The family’s persistent denial in the face of unfolding disaster early in the novel is so prevalent, especially through Rosasharn, but also through Pa and Tom at first, whenever they ask about whether there will be work in California, and although I understood that Steinbeck might have been trying to illustrate a loss of innocence, I think it undermined the reality of things. I felt they were a little too naïve for a little too long.

The characters regularly resist accepting difficult realities, often to the point of making poor decisions. Tom spends two pages arguing with a guy in Hooverville who have him a tip that there was work up north, saying he wants to look around the camp first, and just will not hear that there’s no work around the camp, and that they should just damn well head north. Is it wrong, especially as such an optimist myself, to have hated that? 

John Steinbeck: A flawed genius | The Independent
John Steinbeck

Ma insisting on leaving the government camp, and other families wanting to move on from the boxcar huts at the end of the novel may have been Steinbeck making his case that now that they are ‘migrant people’, this is just how they are, but I found, at times, it unrealistic that they would so often be willing to give up the first material comfort they’d had in weeks, just because things weren’t changing anymore.

As I write this, I am beginning to come around. That all they had come to know was change may have been the point, and if it was, I cannot deny it was well made.

While I may not have agreed with how slowly he allowed it to set in, the growing panic among the characters not only helped Steinbeck to beautifully explore his themes but also made for a gripping plot.

To me, the novel’s most important theme is fear. It always shook me how afraid the Joads were, that there wouldn’t be work, that there would be nothing. No meat, or bread, or milk. Any time they started to run low, they became angry, and scared. I guess I didn’t think about how poverty can make a person so unlike themselves, so quick to anger.

I have never had to worry about a meal, and I think I was shaken because in my mind’s eye, I have whitewashed poverty into something I could handle. I thought that if I were there, I’d simply manage. Even if I were deeply unhappy, or scared, I gave myself a great deal of credit, and I assumed I would never be mean.

The way random characters started to turn on the Joads, and each other, virtually the moment the Joads are in a Hooverville, a camp of other homeless migrants, made me sad and angry. At first, I thought it was unfair, that Steinbeck was wrong say that once poverty begins to set in, people become worse, but again, maybe that’s what’s real. Tempers get short, anger at the world becomes anger at others, and the need to look after yourself begins to come first.

But then, as the book approached its end, it amped up its focus on togetherness. That this struggle was collective is never in doubt and manifested itself in two ways. There is the macro collective action, that which Casy fights for, against the system as a whole but there is also the simple collective action of the family, against the daily problem. Steinbeck was a master at revealing the little ways people stick up for each other. The ways he showed the Joad’s love for one another especially got the sentimental part of me moving.

When Al beams after a compliment on his fixing of the car from Tom, or when Ruthie and Winfield pretend to be Uncle John together in the reeds behind camp, or discover what toilets are together and think Winfield broke one when he flushed it, I always thought of my own siblings, and the time we’ve had together.

I thought about how even in the face of struggle and poverty, people will always have each other, and it made me feel safe. Even if I am poor, even miserable if my family and friends are with me there, there will be moments so joyful I forget it all, and just for a second, it’s just me, them, a laugh, a meal, a hug, or all three.

At the level of the whole novel, this was helped by the great personal diversity of the cast. Steinbeck gave us a moment with everyone, to really feel them and see their angle on the experience. Rosasharn and Ma, Tom and Uncle John, Al and Pa, Ruthie and Tom, I loved that he gave a scene for nearly everyone to interact with everyone else alone.

Even one of the quietest relationships, Rosasharn and Tom, gets a go near the end. I felt reminded, suddenly and with power, that Tom is her brother and Rosasharn is his sister. She guards his bed, heavily pregnant, when he hides from the police.

Steinbeck took the time to show me the depth of love in that and every relationship, just by giving them even two pages together. So much fiction with a large cast fails to do this, and it gave the family such depth.

The simple material joys remained too, at least most of the time. Coffee, that delicious, invigorating, perennially present injection of joy on which so much American fiction relies to make a story seem real, is nearly always there. The smell of food or a nice view get special mentions too.

These things do not just make the whole thing seem more like real life; they are also a reflection of what struggle is actually like. Nothing can be horrible all the time, and there are always moments of joy. There is a whole chapter on this in fact, even if it is of the shortest ones. Steinbeck mentions the joys of a harmonica, storytelling, a guitar. All of these things remained, even when all else seemed lost.

The Grapes of Wrath movie review (1940) | Roger Ebert
Ma and Tom Joad

In the process of reading these parts especially, I felt enormously grateful for my own life, and also struggled with ideas of money.

There is a little part of me that wants the easy answer: that profit is sin. But Steinbeck presents me a case sufficiently complicated that it showed the weakness in seeking just one answer. Because it is out of the exact fear that the Joad’s experience that the great landowners have begun to hoard. Money keeps us safe, and it keeps them safe too.

So far, I have mostly been talking about themes. Steinbeck is a master of them, but even just as a story, the plot of the book was gripping. The second half of the novel, in the government camp especially, is a masterclass in suspense, the leadup to whether there will be a fight at the dance had me tearing through pages, and even when it is narrowly avoided the tension remained in my stomach.

I’m not much of a plot guy. I don’t tend to get truly invested in a narrative, but have more fun thinking about the ideas at play in novels. The Grapes of Wrath though, really had me. More than being intellectually curious about Steinbeck’s choices, as is my usual frame of mind when reading, I was actually emotionally committed.

Fiction does not often do that for me. As I read the Grapes of Wrath, especially near the end, it dawned on me that I was no longer just interested, I really, really wanted to know what would happen to this family. What I experienced in the process of seeking that ending was one of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had, and I couldn’t recommend it to you more.

I haven’t been ending with a favourite quote in recent reviews, but I think if there was ever a writer who designed his writing to be filled with sticky notes, as my copy of Grapes of Wrath now is, to pick up all his quotable nuggets, it was Steinbeck, so I think I will on this occasion.

Towards the end of the novel, Ma comes to visit a hiding Tom. She asks him what he’s been thinking, and he recalls a conversation he had with Casy.

“He talked a lot. Used 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’ found 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.”

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