The Grapes of Wrath
Only when you read its very last paragraph, you’ll appreciate the true scale of this novel. It is as audacious, as confidently grand as the Ode to Joy of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
The Grapes of Wrath is in the first place the very intimate and personal story of a family, the Joads, who have to leave their Oklahoma farm behind, and migrate west in search of a new life.
In the second place—on a larger scale—the Joad family is representative for a whole people: those who shared their plight: the victims of the Dust Bowl. The Grapes of Wrath is therefore at once the story of one family and of thousands of them.
In the mid-1930s on the American Great Plains, the effects of successive years of severe droughts and dust storms were intensified by the already existing Great Depression. Thousands of families lost their livelihoods and migrated west, in the hopes of a better life in California. Many were then exploited by unwelcoming Californians, who had themselves been hit by the Depression.
It is in many ways a biblical story: the Exodus, the search for the Promised Land, the Apocalypse.
This Migrant mother (1936) by Dorothea Lange is the iconic image of the Dust Bowl. The Grapes of Wrath, of course, is the iconic story of the Dust Bowl.
Steinbeck interlaces the narrative of the Joad family with short contextualizing contemplations about the Dust Bowl. The Highway 66 quote above is an example of the latter. He achieves two effects with this: first, that his novel is detailed and personal, yet at the same time deals with a whole people: the two layers I’ve discussed above. Second, he achieves that his messages gets strengthened. The Joads voice their common-sense politics and folk wisdom; this wisdom is then confirmed in an impersonal intermezzo, lending it more intellectual credence. This extra credence in turn makes us pay more attention the next time these people speak.
These messages form the third layer of the book. It is a political indictment of the Californian—American—Dream. It is a socialist’s credo, rooted in an all too tangible reality, and stated in simple terms.
In style, Steinbeck aimed for realism. The narration is slowly paced, yielding great detail. The characters are well developed; their dialogues rough but real, their emotions hesitantly expressed and under constant pressure from events. Through it all, the family comes to life. Their language is written in a very evocative way; you can just hear juicy Southern drawl while you read:
Toward that last paragraph
The Joads, like so many other families, were forced to move. Painful though that was, at least spirits were high at the beginning of their trek. Then money started to run low. Then food. Their patched-up truck often faltered, but the desert had to be crossed, and then the mountains. The physical demands already proved too much for some of the family.
Once they arrived in California, it turned out not to be the promised land at all. Whenever there was a field of peaches or oranges to be plucked, there would be hundreds and hundreds of hungry people competing for the job, and through desperation they’d accept wages that could hardly feed a man, let alone a family. Doubts about what kind of life they’d have started to tear the family further apart.
Thus the story naturally—inexorably—builds to an apocalypse. And my god, does Steinbeck deliver an apocalypse! It is a terrible and unforgettable scene. But then, in the final paragraph, Steinbeck breaches the drama with one simple but unusual and symbolic act of kindness.
With this glimmer of hope in a sea of madness and destruction, the story transcends itself. The Grapes of Wrath becomes more than the dramatic story of a migrant family, more than the harrowing story of a migrant people, and more than a political pamphlet. It becomes a story about humanity itself. And a masterpiece.