Book 299: The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Steinbeck, John - The Grapes of WrathI did it. I completed a John Steinbeck novel!

Honestly, I think even in high school I only partially read The Red Pony and The Pearl (or maybe I did actually read them, because they’re both novellas and pretty short), but the point is I finished a BIG one! In addition to it being a “full” Steinbeck novel, it counts toward both my Classic Club list (32/100) and as part of my 30 x 30 list!

I’ve always felt a little guilty at the lack of American authors on my read list and not having Steinbeck seems like a big omission. I’ve read many American authors, mostly before I started this blog, but Steinbeck is one of those which really is synonymous with America. He is America, a very specific swath and very specific time period of America, but he is America none-the-less.

As with a lot of the “major” classics it’s very difficult to write about the book as it’s been talked about for so long and by so many people. The biggest thing I took away from The Grapes of Wrath, after getting used to his writing 50-75 pages in, was that even though the language is incredibly sparse and he over-describes, a la Tolkien, he writes incredibly beautiful passages. For example,

“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

 

The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” (449)

I know, I know – it’s cheating to include the passage which includes the book’s title, but this passage is so incredibly beautiful and perfectly encapsulates the story, the time period and everything I felt Steinbeck wrote for.

If there was one thing I that surprised me about the book that I haven’t heard much about were the politics/socialism mentioned throughout the novel!

“If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results; if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I,’ and cuts you off forever from the ‘we.'” (194)

Seriously, if I would’ve known this was a major theme/factor in the novel I probably would’ve bumped it up my list a bit faster. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a socialist by any means (and tend to argue with them more vociferously than anyone else), but the idea of people being for people and working toward a common good fascinates me. I really felt Steinbeck’s did a great job of toeing the line of socialism without going into communism or dictatorships and knowing the time period he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, pre-WWII this is impressive.

I wish we knew what happened to Tom Joad (Jr.), but I guess that’s part of the novel’s style. The reader is allowed to make assumptions, but in reality we don’t know what happens and his exiting speech is great. I know his, and others, leaving dealt with families growing and moving apart as modernization changed the way of life, but it just left me incomplete. In general, I didn’t think the characters were the best written, but I appreciated the strong female characters!

The last thing I have to say, is that I’m sure I missed a lot of religious allegory, but I think that’s okay. I definitely understood at least one meaning of the last scene/page/line (don’t worry I won’t spoil it, but WOW) and its religious connotations, but I’m sure there are so many I missed that the book would be a completely different read!

Recommendation: I would definitely recommend this and I’ve been told since I finished that it’s not even the best of his novels! Also, to find out that it had such a diverse reception around the US and world (mostly due to it’s worker’s rights stance), it’s a fascinating snap shot of American history.

Opening Line: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

Closing Line: “She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.” (Whited out.)

Additional Quotes from The Grapes of Wrath
“A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east. The evening star flashed and glittered in the dusk. The gray cat sneaked away toward the open barn shed and passed inside like a shadow.” (61-2)

“On’y one thing in this worl’ I’m sure of, an’ that’s I’m sure nobody got a right to mess with a fella’s life. He got to do it all hisself. Help him, maybe, but not tell him what to do.” (284)

“Wisht I knowed what all the sins was, so I could do ’em.” (425)

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20 thoughts on “Book 299: The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

  1. Pingback: Book 50: The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

  2. So if this is not the best of his novels, what is considered to the best? I hadn’t read any Steinbeck until last year but have now enjoyed both Mice and Men and Cannery Row. I’ve yet to pluck up the courage for Grapes of Wrath though

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  8. I think I should give more American authors a try too, but like you, Steinbeck’s writing style has always scared me off. So far, most of the classics I’ve read are not by American authors.

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    • I think it’s because I was forced to read so many in high school that I rejected reading them as I got older. Since I started the Classics Club I’ve enjoyed most I’ve read!

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    • Hmm, I’ve heard from multiple people (including new on this comment thread) that Of Mice and Men is good. Maybe that’ll be on my “when I finish my other lists” list 😀

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