Rereading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath after a gap of nearly 50 years has left me with untold riches.
The Grapes of Wrath is not an easy work to summarize, unless one sacrifices many of its uniquely brilliant and always affecting facets. It is a great work of fiction first, meticulously structured and flawless in the portrayal of its characters, their voices pitch-perfect.
His creative genius aside, it is John Steinbeck’s powerful portrayal of agrarian capitalism that dominates his novel. Set in the years of the Great Depression in the USA, the story tells us how small farmers—sharecroppers and tenant farmers—are uprooted from their land one cruel season when the rains fail and the earth becomes a restless bowl of red dust. Land-owners, desperate for quick returns because they owe money to the banks, have tractors sent in to work the land and evict the farmers, breaking down their lives, home by home, family by family, and spirit by spirit.
The plot of the story tracks the excruciating journey of one large family, the Joads—grandparents, parents, four sons and two daughters, the elder of whom is pregnant with her first child, a son-in-law, an unattached uncle, a has-been preacher, and a dog—and their losses, heartbreaks, and shattered dreams; their undying spirit in the face of boundless despair; their goodwill to fellow-travelers on this pitiless road to vanishing dreams. Their dog is the first to die—a vehicle hits him on the highway when the family makes its first stop; the next victim is the grandfather, who had to be drugged and forcibly lifted on to the back of the truck, so determined was he not to leave his home.
Pauperized families fall prey to ruthless car salesmen. Beleaguered families are cheated and humiliated when forced to barter their possessions for gasoline, food, and shelter.
As the hungry and homeless move seeking work, their entire worlds hoisted on rickety wheels, the frightening truth of faceless capitalism unfolds, showing what happens when businesses take over farming, recklessly exploiting precious land to speed up profit. Technology and science accelerate this process, innovating methods, intensifying work, and increasing yields. Expounding on what this means to the migrant farmers, in one profoundly nuanced digression (Chapter 25), the narrator meditates on how science has the capability to help humanity but can’t when it is run by money.
Speaking of “men of understanding and knowledge and skill, who experiment with seed, endlessly developing the techniques for greater crops of plants whose roots will resist the million enemies of the earth…,” the narrator calls them “Great men.” Pretty quickly following this, he introduces a sub-text that raises a question about the wisdom of interfering too much with the processes of the earth. “And always they work,” he says of the scientists in the experimental farms, “selecting, grafting, changing, driving themselves, driving (my emphasis—KB) the earth to produce.” And when the cherries and purple prunes and pears yield like never before, their price falls, and only “the great owners can survive, for they own the canneries,” where “four pears are canned” per container and sold for huge profits, because canned fruit does not spoil.
What about the grapes that grandpa craved? “There’s a thing I ain’t never had enough of. Gonna get me a whole big bunch of grapes off a bush, or whatever, an’ I’m gonna squash ‘em on my face and’ let ‘em run offen my chin,” he says. To be sure, there are a lot of grapes in the scientifically enriched farms, but that fruit is not meant for the likes of grandpa. The excess produce of grapes, not fit for good wine, gets pressed into alcohol, smelling of decay and chemicals, on which to get drunk.
The narrator then draws the inevitable conclusion in dirge-like tones that “Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce … And the failure hangs … like a great sorrow.”
This recognition becomes an elegiac note, a key moment in the novel. We read, “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
Such despair and such disappointment break down some folks, but in others the inescapable friction ignites fires of revolt. Activism to unite farm workers in the USA—anathema to capitalism—is born, and the Joad family’s journey gains a huge historical significance, when two of the novel’s characters, the one-time preacher and his jailbird buddy, set out to revolt against the inhuman exploitation of the poor and destitute farm workers. Even the usually submissive pa observes, “They’s a change a-comin’. I don’t know what. May be we won’t live to see her. They’s a restless feelin’. Fella can’t figger nothin’ out, he’s so nervous.”
It is no surprise that The Grapes of Wrath was banned soon upon publication in parts of California, where the migrant farm laborers suffered most.
Steinbeck’s work is way more than a fat pamphlet or a rant against agrarian capitalism. It is an exquisite novel, meticulously shaped, with the plot-line regularly interspersed with philosophical digressions, sometimes satirical, sometimes lyrical, and sometimes tragic. If the Joad family members are memorable, so are the many itinerant characters whose lives intersect with that of the Joad clan, friends as well as foes.
Nowhere is Steinbeck’s artistry more stunning than in the way he peoples his fictional world. His characters speak in such individual voices that it doesn’t take long for the narrator to establish a sense of their inner lives without any overt commentary whatsoever. And every one of the characters undergoes change. How could they not, for the journey they are forced to undertake is to destinations that are mirages and worse? We see the large and closely-knit Joad family fall apart on this journey, with deaths and desertion taking away elders, brothers, and even a young husband. Steinbeck tells of the pain of such loss as if in a play, always through the voices of characters speaking of their new and frightening despair, where once there were dreams and hopes.
Remarkably, the novel begins with dust and ends in a deluge, and yet it is not nature that destroys the lives of the poor. The story of the journey begins with a young couple anticipating the birth of a child, and ends with the abandoned wife, now enfeebled and distraught with her own immeasurable loss, who still finds the courage to give life to another. As the novel draws to a close, the Joad family is nowhere near a destination, but one gets a feeling that now, for them, a new journey has begun.
The riches contained in The Grapes of Wrath will continue to inspire all who respect life and love the earth.