Review: The Grapes of Wrath

Possible as far from Ayn Rand as I could get

So continuing my trend towards classics my next victim was The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck.

Set in the US during the Great Depression Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family as they leave the farm that’s just been pulled from under them, and try to find work in California.

There’s an interesting narrative twist to this book which I haven’t really seen before, each chapter has a kind of interlude where Steinbeck riffs on the state of the country and general happenings without focussing on any main characters. I actually sometimes enjoyed these poetic and powerful interludes more than the MC’s story! This style created a strong sense of what was happening broadly while also creating an impeding sense of dread – in many respects the ‘Villain’ of this story is poverty and politics and misfortune.

As to the characters story its very much a challenging tale about the trials of sudden poverty, culture shock from travelling between state lines and the quickly changing pace of the world during this pivotal. Characters don’t so much go through arcs but rather represent different ways the situation effects them.

The prose is painfully detailed, but which I mean its not bad – but Steinbeck’s writing creates a vivid impression of what is happening, and while the pacing is slow because of it I always felt like I was ‘in’ this story.

One caution for this book is that not having a traditional structure don’t expect a happy or unhappy ending, as a story it very much ‘is what it is’

While I don’t want to “spoil” (A 50+ year old book) the very ending is quite, um, different. I haven’t Googled what it means but if you are keen for something a little different then Grapes of Wrath’s final words are that!

SPOILERS (I’ve Googled it now)

For those wondering what I’m talking about in the final sequence the Joad family are in a desperate situation trying to support a birth all while their makeshift camp is flooding. The baby is born stillbirth, and the family decide to flee the flood. They made their way to an empty barn in a random field, and find an old man and his son. The old man is borderline dead from starvation, and after the Joad family settled in the recently given birth mother provides some breastmilk for the starving old man.

And the book ends.

While it was very surprising I guess a which research shows its not that hard to interpret. Steinbeck himself said it was the ‘final nail’ in describing how bad the Dustbowl/Depression was. The act represents the extremity of desperation for people during that time.

There is however also a tiny (strange) flair of hope in the action, that people are willing to go so far to help others, bearing in mind the starving man was literally just met moments ago. The story is littered with examples of people in need helping people in need.

Just an aside it’s interesting that the book presents young Tom Joad as the main character, when introduced he’s returning from prison for killing a man in self-defence. A common tension in the story is that being on parole he shouldn’t be crossing state-lines and as the story becomes more tense he finds himself again on the wrong side of the law after assaulting a police officer again in a form of self-defence. We last see Tom as his Ma gives him some food and money as he hides out in the wilderness. We aren’t told the effects of the flood on him, whether he ever gets caught by the police or what.

Really ‘Ma’ the matriarch is the MC of the story, as she pulls together the family and is involved in all the other characters struggles, Tom takes a backseat through most of the story although is ever present as Ma’s favourite. Even though his character’s fate is unknown, his belief system is explicit that he will take up the cause of worker’s rights wherever it takes him.

Phew – heavy read.

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Grapes of Wrath

  1. Hoo boy, do I remember that ending. Probably the only book I’ve been tempted to throw across the room with a cry of “What do you call that!?!” Steinbeck masterfully builds tension and immersion with the plight of the Joads (and all the other – lets be real here – refugees), but then leaves it unresolved.

    In the context of the time, in order to get readers worked up about an issue and then turn them loose, it makes sense, but it’s merely frustrating to someone nearly 100 years later and in a different country.

    (Speaking of things that happened a looong time ago: I too tried reading the classics, but petered out. Kind of glad I didn’t try and read Atlas Shrugged…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Funny.
      I’m used to “plight of the people” stories ending kinda unresolved, or with unhappy endings. I remember when I was younger I literally just thought grown-up stories ended at random! So pretty much at any moment I expected Grapes to end, but even so it seemed very out of the blue.

      Like

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