” The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed . . . In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage. ‘ [26:349]
Set during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath traces the migration of an Oklahoma family to California and their subsequent hardships as migrant farm workers. The novel begins with Tom Joad returning home from jail on a parole, shocked to discover that his family has been driven out of the homestead. Forced to leave their home, the Joads pack up in an old truck and begin their journey on Route 66 to California, which they embrace with hope and disillusionment. Their trip takes them through the loss of some family members to sickness, separation, bullying from cops, threats of starvation, and depletion of money.
One man, one family driving from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. [14:151]
As the Joads enter California, they fall prey to a parasitic economic system. Workers are exploited and taken advantage of. The west reacts to the massive migration with alertness and hostility. Migrants are treated like animals, denied livable wages, and shuffled from one filthy roadside camp to the next. Locals even threaten to burn down the camp in order to drive out the “Okies.” Through the minimal luck and continuous abuse, the novel draws the line that divides the privileged from the poor and identifies that division as the primary source of evil and suffering in the world.
In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad . . . [21:282]
Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. [28:419]
The novel is about a family’s slow road to sadness. Through their hardships Steinbeck is intent to publicize the injustices of migrant labors and to show the Joads’ dignity and honor. They are honest and hardworking men who scrape for a living. They refuse to be broken by the adverse circumstances that conspire against them. They thrive in silence. While I acknowledge the novel’s significance and value in American literature, the loose incidents that hardly contribute a manageable plot is a demerit compared to East of Eden. I experience trouble reading through the stagnant narration that is infested with continuous, abject despair. The Grapes of Wrath can be a tedious reading experience in literary superfluidity.
455 pp. Centennial trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]