Six decades ago and more, as a twelve-year-old, my parents agreed I showed the maturity to read and to understand John Steinbeck’s major novel – perhaps, more correctly, social statement – ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’. They were right. I devoured it and most certainly drew conclusions from it. In fact, it helped direct my lifetime political beliefs.
The novel partly parallels the Book of Revelations in the New Testament, not least in its name (although Steinbeck never actually chose it). Author and publisher tried several but were never satisfied with any until his wife, Carol, proposed ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’. There were many good reasons for its acceptance.
The name, expressive of the anger and sentiment contained within the book, are taken from Julia Ward Howe’s stirring song of patriotism, ‘Battle Hymn Of The Republic’:
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…”
Howe, in turn, adopted the sense, if not the exact text, from Revelation 19:15:
“…and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God”.
Steinbeck invokes this in chapter 25, describing the manner in which perfectly good, but surplus, produce is destroyed to maintain high prices, rather than used to succour the myriad starving families at the time,
“…in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people, the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy…”
The passage is more than symbolic; it is crucial to the development of both plot and theme. The book is sometimes ridiculed for not drawing any final conclusions but Steinbeck continues to make a case for greater social justice for the displaced and the disadvantaged. It is written by a man part moralist, part novelist; angry, abstract essays alternate, chapter by chapter, with the storyline and create a balance better than any other book written in this format (of which I am aware).
The Grapes Of Wrath tells the story, through the travails of the Joad family, of second and third generation farmers in America’s mid-west caught up in misfortunes partly their own making. They eke out an existence on small holdings and make so little from the land they are never able to replenish the nutrients each year’s crop removes. The land, as a result, becomes poorer and less able to withstand the harsh vagaries of nature.
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In desperation, to enable a new season’s planting, they borrow. Winds come and strip away the surface of their land. Rain is desperately needed. Clouds pass over but the precipitation is barely enough to form a light crust on the dusty surface. Crops wilt and die, as do their hopes for survival.
Big conglomerates, backed by the big banks who hold the mortgages, arrive with big tractors and plough in everything that stands in their way, fences and houses included. The land is no longer part of the people who have loved it and, through generations, struggled for an existence; it is owned by faceless people in anonymous boardrooms.
Removed from their land, the people take to the road in their thousands, seeking a better life in the rich, productive state of California. As they travel, all their worldly belongings loaded high on a jalopy, it seems the whole world out there is ready to do everything it can to take away their pride, their self-esteem and, even, their capacity to work for a decent wage.
Heading west, they meet many who have preceded them, people who would die in the drought of their Oklahoma homeland rather than in the land of plenty, California, the land that can not or will not succour them.
Don’t get me wrong. The story, although stark, is not entirely pessimistic. There are people who, although having little themselves, are prepared to share with those who have less. Others, too, prepared share the load. There is a certain dignity and direction, especially among the women.
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The most telling scene is in the final chapter, the very last page of the book. Although sad, it provides a certain stark beauty, a balance, a small glimmer of hope in a cold, grey, dank, waterlogged world.
The Grapes Of Wrath has been called an exaggeration. It is, but only in the way it concentrates so much energy in expostulating a dreadful injustice that reasonable men should never have allowed. A book researched and written over a two year period, read in a matter of hours, but with a lifetime of social morality as its legacy.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck available via Booktopia for $15.95
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