A Book For Our Times? The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

One of the things I’ve been trying to do over the past few years is catch up on some classics that escaped my education (or I was able to avoid, I’m not sure which it was). So, last month, I fired up the audiobook of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I had never read.

If you too escaped 20th Century Lit without reading it, The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family during the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression. They begin the story as tenement farmers trying to eke out a living in Oklahoma but are driven off their land by the encroaching industrial farms. They take to the road and head towards the “promised land” of California, where they are led to believe there are jobs with good wages. What they find are hundreds of thousands of others like them – destitute itinerants – that are both used and despised by the landowners and locals (the epithet of “Okie” covered all the Midwesterners).

Interspersed between the stories of the Joads are chapters told in the generic. Chapters of the land under the burning Dust Bowl sun. Chapters of the farmers that were both proud and helpless in the face of nature and industry. Families on the road scrounging for food and holding onto their scraps of dignity. The language in these chapters was haunting and beautiful and wonderfully offset the plainspoken realism of the Joads.

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

As I was listening, it didn’t take too long to see the parallels between Steinbeck’s narrative and our own experience over the last five years. The Depression was caused by the greed of financiers and the captains of industry. Its victims were the little people, the 99% if you will. People couldn’t keep their homes or their jobs. The rich connived to keep the people from organizing against them using propaganda, intimidation, and control of the government. And the common people were confused in the “how did it get this bad, and can it ever get better?” sense that so many of us feel today. And underneath the confusion began to grow rage at those who use manipulated the system for their own greed:

…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.

The novel hinges on the family’s search for work, but really this is an allegory for the quest for simple human dignity. By losing his land and his livelihood, Pa Joad is emasculated in his own eyes, and Ma Joad ends up being the moral and organizational backbone of the family. The Joads are sundered during their journey – the old die, Casey is murdered, others strike out on their own – but they “keep on keepin’ on” despite the injustices in their path.  In the end, you don’t know if and how they’ll make it, but you’re instilled with the reminder that dignity doesn’t come with – nor should require – a paystub, a car, or a fancy house.

If you’ve never read (or in my case, listened to) The Grapes of Wrath, I wholly encourage you to do so.  The audiobook was wonderful and Dylan Baker did a fantastic job as the reader. This book has been resonating in me ever since I finished it and though it is over 70 years old, may provide for you the fresh look on today’s society that it did for me.

Five stars out of five.

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31 thoughts on “A Book For Our Times? The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

  1. I re-read Grapes of Wrath in graduate school in a seminar covering American literature from the Depression. I confess, when I saw the novel on our assigned reading list, I groaned—‘That old warhorse from high school? Can’t we find another Steinbeck novel to read?’ Once I settled in to read it however, I became absorbed in the fate of the Joad family. One thing that stood out, for me anyway, is that Steinbeck doesn’t let the reader off the hook. There is no happy ending here, no certainty that Tom or any of the others will succeed in their new ‘home.’ There are also some wonderfully written episodes, like the diner on Route 66 where an affluent couple and an ‘Okie’ family both stop for a break. The contrast between the two groups is so stark it hurts. It also reminded me of the moments when I drew back from a homeless person in dirty clothes or a visibly trembling panhandler.

    After writing The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck was accused of being a Communist sympathizer. I’ve noticed in this current presidential campaign that any politician showing sympathy for people whose lives have been disrupted by the recession gets labeled a ‘socialist,’ as if compassion was an un-American trait. It seems some things in this country don’t change.

    • HG — you make a great point about Steinbeck not letting the reader off the hook — and I think that’s one of the reasons the book is so affecting. That’s one of the reasons it works so well — the stakes are high, and not everyone wins.

      I was recently listening to the “40s or 4” satellite radio station and they played the song, “The Only Red I Need Is The Red in the Red, White, and Blue”. I can completely see how Steinbeck and this book’s fans would have been labeled “reds”. Just as anyone that criticized the Bush administration was somehow a “terrorist sympathizer”.

    • GOM — I have never watched the movie, though have seen the excerpt of Tom’s farewell speech to Ma many times. I think it would be a hard book to cram into a film and get the “oomph” across. Maybe HBO will make a miniseries of it. That could be awesome.

  2. Excellent review, and sadly poignant (as we face many of the same issues). I had to read this for a lit course in college. As was my routine during my college daze (sic), I’d ignore the reading list till a few days before the exam. Then I’d end up having to read four novels in two days, or something like that. Sadly, “The Grapes of Wrath” was one I ended up shortchanging with this “skim and hope I catch enough salient facts to pass” technique. I think, now, I’ll go back and read it properly this time.

  3. Excellent review. But I doubt if I would pick it up. It sounds too depressing to me.
    I am contemplating if I should read War and Peace, just so I can brag, but I am leaning towards not ! As is, I read a supposed “classic” in my language Tamil and am ready to gouge people’s eyes out !

    • Thanks! We’ll have no eye-gouging here! It was rare as a “classic” to me because I felt completely “into” the story. That may have been a function of the audiobook, I don’t know.

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