One From the Archive: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck ****

First published in May 2014.

The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940,is due to be released as part of Penguin’s new ‘Great Steinbeck’ series at the end of the month.  A note at the beginning of the book states that the text of this edition is ‘based upon the special fiftieth-anniversary edition of the novel, which reproduced the original text’.  The novel, arguably Steinbeck’s most famous, was first published in 1939, and takes as its subjects the Joad family from Oklahoma, who are intent upon chasing the American Dream. 

A long and informative introduction at the start of the volume, which heralds The Grapes of Wrath ‘the greatest of his seventeen novels’, sets out Steinbeck’s life and the elements which inspired him to write, as well as what he set out to achieve with this particular story.  The introduction goes on to say that ‘Steinbeck’s aggressive mixture of native philosophy, common-sense politics, blue-collar radicalism, working-class characters, folk wisdom, and home-spun literary form… qualified the novel as the “American book” he had set out to write’.  Further, it goes on to say that in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck ‘summed up the Depression era’s socially conscious art’.

The opening of the novel is stunning.  Steinbeck is so perceptive; he views scenes with such clarity, and uses even the smallest of details to build up a realistic vision in the mind of his readers.  He cleverly uses nature to demonstrate the ways in which scenes change, and to denote the passing of the seasons.  One of the most memorable such scenes here is in chapter three, when a tortoise tries to make its way across the highway, and is set back on his mission. Steinbeck’s beautiful writing is so vivid that one can almost feel the oppressive heat of the Oklahoma summer beating down upon him- or herself as one reads.  As in much of his work, he sets the visual scene marvellously, and here he does so mainly through the use of colour.  The start of the tale takes place in ‘the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma’, where ‘every day the earth paled’.  Here the Joads, a family of tenant farmers, live.  They are driven from their home in the infamous Dust Bowl due to hardship, and decide to follow the rest of the ‘Okies’ to California, in order to search for a more promising future.

Tom Joad is the first of the family whom we meet.  He has just been released after doing ‘time’ in a facility called McAlester, after murdering a man: ‘[I got] seven years.  I’m sprung in four for keepin’ my nose clean’.  Their experiences as a family unit are very sad, and occasionally almost brutal.  Along with the more obvious, two of the main themes in The Grapes of Wrath are loneliness and the notion of belonging, both of which almost every character is affected by.

On a wider scale, Steinbeck does not just follow the Joads on their physical and metaphorical journey.  Instead, he considers the whole community who are selling up or leaving their homes in Oklahoma, in order to set themselves up in the more promising location of California.  In so doing, we meet a wealth of different characters, from preachers like Jim Casy, who ‘ain’t got the call [of religion] no more’, and those to whom money matters more than anything else.  In consequence, Steinbeck has written such a rich novel, whose story is comprised of many small plots and stories which have been placed atop one another.  One of the strongest elements of The Grapes of Wrath is the way in which he has exemplified how humans can adapt to different and even alien environments, and how the places in which they find themselves can impact so heavily upon them for a wealth of different reasons.

Purchase from The Book Depository

5 thoughts on “One From the Archive: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck ****

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