I did not expect to enjoy this book half as much as I did. I knew The Grapes of Wrath by reputation as an incredibly depressing read. The reputation is well-earned, but, as it is usually the case with those things – the reputation is only half the truth. The Grapes of Wrath is also a story of hope and a story of survival.
Don’t get too encouraged by this statement though- it’s a story of survival in which a healthy percentage of people die along the way- I’m pretty sure that if my teenage self were reading it, I would have hated it… I loved it now, for some reason…
John Steinbeck writes well, and it’s a pleasure to read him. I particularly enjoyed the pieces of prose poetry that interrupt the narrative – they introduce images that describe the general feeling of the landscape and the time. That feeling is then transformed into the particular story of the Joad family. Steinbeck’s writing gave me an idea of the suffering as part of the American spirit – think of that famous Dorothea Lange photo of the desperate starving mother hugging her two children in 1936 (and if you haven’t seen it, or want to remind yourself of it, click here)
I was glad I started reading this book in the US, as I could easily imagine all the characters speaking with American accents which made me enjoy it all the more.
We start with Tom Joad, a man who has just been given parole from jail. He was imprisoned for killing a man in a bar fight but he got a short sentence because he had been provoked. He wants to come home to his family in Oklahoma, and he joins the ex-preacher Casy on his way there. But it’s the time of the Dust Bowl, and the whole family (Grampa, Granma, Pa, Ma, Uncle John, the pregnant Rosasharn & her husband Connie, Noah, Tom, Al, Ruthie, and the youngest, Winifield) is forced out of their home. They seek their luck in California and Casy travels along with them….
Ma is the glue that binds the family together. The ex-preacher, Casy describes her thus “there’s a woman so great with love – she scares me. Makes me afraid an’ mean.” I think it’s mainly the strength of Ma’s character that made me enjoy the book so much.
Take this scene where her son Al asks her if she is scared of going to California
“Ain’t you scared it won’t be nice like we thought?”
“No,” she said quickly. “No, I ain’t. You can’t do that. I can’t do that. It’s too much – livin’ too many lives. Up ahead they’s as thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes it’ll on’y be one. If I go ahead on all o’em, it’s too much”
She’s brave, loving, warm and strong. I’d never thought I’d encounter a female character this inspirational in this book.
Tom Joad is another character who I genuinely cared about, and I spent most of the novel being terrified that he gets killed off. I was also fond of the ex-preacher Casy.
But I was considerably annoyed with Al, Ruthie, that awful bastard Connie and last but not least Rosasharn (but at least she was pregnant so she had an excuse).
There were moments where I could definitely imagine being in a group of high school students having to write essays on the subject of the novel. Essay subjects that easily sprang to mind included:
- “How is Casey like and unlike Christ”
- “What is sin? Casey, Uncle John and Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath” ( I might potentially enjoy writing that one)
- “Discuss the meaning of animals in “The Grapes of Wrath””( don’t we all love that turtle?)
- “Man, he lives in jerks – baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk – gets a farm an’ loses his farm , an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a waterfall, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. “
Discuss the role of women in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (that’s an essay that might turn into a book)
- Justice in The Grapes of Wrath
- “Here’s Tommy talkin’ like a growe’d up man” What makes a grown-up man in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath?
- Community vs the individual for Steinbeck in “Grapes of Wrath” (that’s another long one)
Have you read “Grapes of Wrath”? Did you like it? What essay topic would you choose if you had to write an essay on it?
P.S. I love the cover of the Penguin edition I was reading! Isn’t that a handsome Tom Joad right there? The illustration was created by Bijou Karman (but the photo featured in this blog was taken by me in Black Rock Desert, Nevada)