“In the eyes of the people there is the failure; and 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, growing heavy for the vintage.”
This book. This. Book. So many moments that slaughtered me. Passages that sparked a firey rage within me. Sentences and words that I had to read multiple times, moments within the story that made me pause, sometimes for hours at a time. This is a heavy book. Steinbeck didn’t write this to entertain but to inform. To shock. To shame. The Grapes of Wrath can be read as a call to action. And while some can argue that the era of the Dust Bowl and migrant worker abuse is over, I read Steinbeck’s words and felt ashamed of the abuse our society still dolls out to the poor. We don’t call it a Dust Bowl and we don’t label them migrant workers: we call them illegal immigrants or minorities and we regulate them to poor-paying part-time jobs and government housing. We stick them right above the poverty line so they can never move above. And the defense? It’s the promise of America, of being an American: if you work hard enough, you can reach and exceed the American dream. And the truth? You can work and work and work harder, but you’ll be limited so long as you’re not white. We’ll tell you to work harder for a more prosperous life, but that’s only for our gain, only so illegal immigrants do the jobs we detest doing for next to nothing. So we’re no longer writing ads in newspapers promising work, luring poor families in and binding them to one job, one spot, forever. But we’re still doing it: abusing the poor. Exiling groups as ‘others’ in order for the majority to benefit, yet again (again and again and again). “They reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as man must do before he fights.”
This story focuses on one family from Oklahoma. The Joads are a farming family who have lived off of the land and who have been chased off of their home by rich men (‘the bank’). Due to dry weather and an inability to crop, the farmers’ jobs get taken over by machines. Seeing the farmers as disposable and worthless, the farming families are chased west by the promise of work in California. Steinbeck illustrates this tremendous upheaval expertly: he never lets the reader forget just how many families are being forced to move, how many lives are being deftly interrupted. The Joads encounter many troubles as they move across the west: grandpa passes away followed by grandma. Rose of Sharon, the pregnant teenage daughter, becomes an abandoned woman who gives birth to a still-born baby. Noah, the eldest son, goes missing. Tom, arguably the main character of the story, is forced into hiding due to his parol and sticking up for the men striking migrant farms. Casy, Tom’s preacher friend, is murdered. The family suffers endless illness and strife, constant moves to camps, worksites, disappointment after disappointment.
I remember the first moment in the story when the Joads realized California may not be all it was promised to be. When another ‘Okie’ tells the family that there’s no work, that the more men that volunteer to work the less they each get paid, that each man is settling for lower pay because they have no choice: work for a nickel or starve to death. But still the family presses on, hoping against all hope that they’re the exception to the truth, that they’ll find work and make it.
My favorite thing about this novel is the way Steinbeck interjects narration throughout. He’ll write long chapters full of Joad dialogue (all in dialect), long enough for the reader to become somewhat annoyed and tired of deciphering what the characters are trying to say, and then abruptly start the next short chapter with eloquent language and long, poetic sentences. He calls us out on our prejudice, on our inability to listen to the voice of the oppressed. He turns these ‘lackluster stories of the poor/stupid’ into sad, traumatic, empathy-worthy tales. And in a way he asks us to examine that prejudice, to ask ourselves why we favor Steinbeck’s writing over their dialogue. He calls on us to reflect on how easy it is to write off the poor, to categorize them as other. How easy it is to treat someone horribly once they’ve been labeled other.
“Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live- for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live- for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken. Fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.”
How dramatically relevant, even today, decades after the Dust Bowl has passed. Man speaks. Man loves. Man works. Man empathizes. How dare we forget.
And the way Steinbeck ends this novel? Impeccable. There’s no clear answer. The Joads probably don’t face a happy ending. But Rose, who’s suffered a tremendous loss at the death of her child and the departure of her husband, finds fulfillment. Find purpose. Finds the meaning of live. Of human empathy and man to man connection. She and the rest of her family stumble upon a starving man and his son, a man so close to death that he can’t speak. The novel ends with Rose of Sharon feeding her breast milk, seen as unusable since the death of her baby, to the starving man, saving his life. Suddenly, a secondary character (Rose) becomes the hero, the main character who exemplifies empathy and compassion, who gives more than any of the land owners have given anyone at all in the 400-some pages of the novel.
The novel ends with this (and some readers argue this ending is rather abrupt and anti-climatic: I, however, disagree): “Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.” That’s it. That’s the last two sentences of the Grapes of Wrath. Why the smile? Because she’s triumphed. Because even if her family is trapped to working forever, even if the floods kill them all, even if they die from starvation, despite the numerous ways they’ve suffered worthlessly, there is this: a young woman who has lost everything giving what she can to help another survive. There is this: the power to love, the ability to help. There is empathy amidst starvation and hatred and rage and wrath, the grapes of wrath that hang so very heavy.
She smiles; do what you can, but human compassion cannot be defeated.