‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck ****

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.

‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck (Penguin)

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.

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‘The Moon is Down’ by John Steinbeck ****

‘The Moon is Down’ by John Steinbeck (Penguin)

John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down was first published in 1942.  Its title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and on reflection, it suits the piece marvellously.  Unlike much of Steinbeck’s other work, no concrete setting has been decided upon within The Moon is Down.  Even the country in which the action happens is ambiguous, with many believing that it is set somewhere in Scandinavia.

The informative afterword to the novella, which has been written by Donald V. Coers, tells the reader that in The Moon is Down, Steinbeck ‘had decided to write a work of fiction using what he had learned about the psychological effects of enemy occupation upon the populace of conquered nations’.  In doing so, Coers goes on to say that Steinbeck ‘refused to adopt the contemporary Teutonic stereotype’ for either his setting or his protagonists.  He also believes that The Moon is Down ‘demonstrates the power of ideas’, and one can only concur with this.

The first sentence is striking, and leads on wonderfully to the main thread of the story: ‘By ten forty-five it was all over.  The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished’.  At the beginning of the novella, six of the soldiers who have been involved in a brutal spur-of-the-moment shootout ‘became dead riddled bundles’, and three others are deemed ‘half-dead riddled bundles’.  This repetition of violence makes it all the more chilling.

Steinbeck goes on to write about the way in which, in the occupied town, ‘The days and the weeks dragged on, and the months dragged on…  The people of the conquered country setled in a slow, silent, waiting revenge’.  Steinbeck exemplifies the solidarity of the community throughout, particularly with regard to the attitudes rallied against the outsiders.    The community in question is centered around mining, and the colonel who infiltrates the town tells the Mayor that his people ‘will be in danger if they are rebellious.  We must get the coal, you see.  Our leaders do not tell us how; they order us to get it…  You must make them do the work and thus keep them safe’.  The Mayor responds that the ‘authority is the town… [and] when a direction is set, we all act together’.  The point of view of both sides has been considered throughout, a technique which works marvellously in a novella, and which makes the whole an incredibly rich read despite its deceptively short length.

John Steinbeck

As with Steinbeck’s other work, I was struck immediately by the quality of his writing and his deft skill, both at building characters and rousing compassion for them.  The scenes which he crafts are unfailingly vivid, and everything which he turns his hand to describing comes to life before the very eyes: ‘Beside the fireplace old Doctor Winter sat, beared and simple and benign, historian and physician to the town…  Doctor Winter was a man so simple that only a profound man would know him as profound’.  Joseph, the serving-man belonging to the Mayor, on the other hand, had a life ‘so complicated that only a profound man would know him to be simple’.  The divisions, like this one, which he creates between his characters have all been so marvellously realised: ‘Joseph had tried carrying Doctor Winter’s remarks below-stairs before and it had always ended the same: Annie always discovered them to be nonsense’.  Such juxtapositions, which can be found at various points throughout the novella, allow Steinbeck to make his work and his characters so distinct.  His perceptions in such matters are always intelligent.

The Moon is Down is a sage novella, written by a man who is a master at creating believable dialogue and conversational patterns between his characters.  He captures their thoughts and feelings in the most sublime of manners; it feels, in consequence, as though he knows them inside out.  The way in which he captures the foreboding which hovers above the town is stunning, and the entire novella is eminently human and thought-provoking.

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Sunday Snapshot: Five Marvellous Novellas

The following novellas have been wonderful, in terms of their plots, writing and characterisation. If you are a newcomer to the wonder and atmosphere which novellas pack into very few pages, you are sure to find something to delight you here.

1. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
Adorable, funny and filled with a marvellous protagonist, Holly Golightly.

2. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Deliciously creepy, and just as wonderful for adults to read as it is for children.

Breakfast at Tiffany's (novella)

3. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Wharton describes the bleakness of Massachusetts in the most stunning manner, and her plot is rather chilling.

4. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
A magical and lovely tale, which is sure to fill your head with a wealth of thoughts.

5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck has created one of the most memorable stories and two of the most memorable characters I have ever come across here.