Review: The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck
New York: Penguin Books, 2002

Review Copyright © 2002 Garret Wilson — 6 July 2002 9:20am

Some have referred to John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath, as a depressing book. Steinbeck's story of an Oklahoma family that migrates to California during the depression certainly is full of hardship, but it's also full of progress: learning, moving forward, and bringing life in new, unexpected ways.

What confused me, though, was Steinbeck's rigorous portrayal of Oklahoma accents. "Twicet" (263) for "twice" is one that stumped me to no end—I've never heard anyone say "twycett". Then I realized he was attempting to portray a pronunciation of "tw-eye-st". My grandparents use that pronunciation oncet or twicet every time I see them. But "fambly" for "family"? I had never heard such a thing. But my father assured me that yes, some of our aunts and uncles do insert a "b" for no apparent reason. Steinbeck apparently knew some Okies.

Steinbeck is an open advocate of togetherness, a proponent of community. At times, such as in the utopian government camp, the anti-capitalistic rhetoric surpasses realism and ignores any individualistic faults of greed or ambition. In real life, even a few extremist can cause disorder, and those who wish to subvert the communal system can band together just like those who created the system in the first place.

The book is sprinkled with aphorisms, mostly from Casy:

"Fella gets use' to a place, it's hard to go," said Casy. "Fella gets use' to a way a thinkin', it's hard to leave. I ain't a preacher no more, but all the time I find I'm prayin', not even thinkin' what I'm doin'" (51).

Pa helps with a line or two now and then:

"Funny thing—use ta be I on'y got a bath ever' week an' I never seemed to stink. Now if I don't get one ever' day I stink. Wonder if takin' a bath so often makes that" (356)?"

Some of Steinbeck's more salient points, more applicable than possibly he knew, concern the right and appropriateness of targets of defensive attacks. The impetus to the Okie exodus is the land takeover by the banks, illustrated by this tenant talking to a tractor driver come to claim the land:

"You filled in the well this morning."

"I know. Had to keep the line straight. But I'm going through the dooryard after dinner. Got to keep the lines straight... I got orders wherever there's a family not moved out— if I have an accident—you know, get too close and cave the house in a little—well, I might get a couple of dollars. And my youngest kid never had no shoes yet."

"I built it with my hands. Straightened old nails to put the sheathing on. Rafters are wired to the stringers with baling wire. It's mine. I built it. You bump it down—I'll be in the window with a rifle. You even come to close and I'll pot you like a rabbit."

"It's not me. There's nothing I can do. I'll lose my job if I don't do it. And look—suppose you kill me? They'll just hang you, but long before you're hung there'll be another guy on the tractor, and he'll bump the house down. You're not killing the right guy."

"That's so," the tenant said. "Who gave you orders? I'll go after him. He's the one to kill."

"You're wrong. He got orders from the bank. The bank told him, 'Clear those people out or it's your job.'"

"Well, there's a president of the bank. There's a board of directors. I'll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank."

The driver said, "Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, 'Make the land show profit or we'll close you up.'"

"But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don't aim to starve to death before I kill the man that's starving me" (38).

In this case, the tractor driver is not an enemy, but in the absence of any identifiable enemy by the tenant, he seems a likely target as any, especially since the tractor driver is actually committing the offense against which a defense is necessary. The point is relevant today: when one's home is taken, individuals have a thousand motives to find some object of retaliation. Steinbeck continues:

Is a tractor bad? Is the power that trns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor were ours it would be good—not min, but ours. If our tractor turned the long furrows of our land, it would be good. Not my land, but ours. We could love that tractor then as we loved this land when it was ours. But this tractor does two things—it turns the land and turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people are driven, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think about this (151).

Steinbeck's overall point is that new beginnings can spring from collapse and despair, but only through partnership of those in need:

In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families become one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream. And it might be that a sick child threw despair into the hearts of twenty families, of a hundred people; that a birth there in a tent kept a hundred people quiet and awestruck through the night and filled a hundred people with the birth-joy in the morning. A family which the night before had been lost and fearful might search its goods to find a present for a new baby. In the evening, sitting about the fires, the twenty were one (193).

And in the end, when through her loss Rose of Sharon brings life anew to a fellow despairing wanderer, she becomes the symbol for the hope of humanity to start again, together.