Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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The Grapes of Wrath — By John Steinbeck — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 27, 2008

Migration cuts both ways. When people migrate for better opportunities, better quality and terms of life betting on their education, skills and capabilities it generally benefits all involved. But when migration is forced and is forced on account of dispossession i.e.  on accounts of industrialization, failing livelihoods, famine, religious persecution, race conflicts the effect can be vicious, brutal and deadly. And when the victims are not aware of the root causes and suffer silently — it can be tragic. History is a witness to numerous such situations resulting in large scale migrations and many of these stories are mostly untold and even if told are definitely not widely read. My take on this is that matters of this nature and gravity need writers of a different breed to handle — a breed of writers who are earthy, driven by a strong, clear and unflapping voice of conscience, strong observation powers and a grand sense of narration and story telling. One such book I have read in the recent past which deals with the issue of dispossession has been John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” 

The Grapes of Wrath” is a touching novel about the migration of the Joad family from Okalahoma to California in search of livelihood. The Joads are a closely knit family that becomes a victim of failing crops, debts and the general trend of corporatisation of agriculture driven by automation and needs around aggressive profiteering during late 30’s when America was coming out of the Great Depression. The migrating family spans three generations and with an expectation around a fourth generation getting added. There are undefined but strong rules around the role of each member in the family. The most powerful character is Ma Joad (the mother) that keeps the family together as they proceed on their 2000 mile journey carried out in a jalopy with rag tag belongings. The family also has a guest co-passenger who is a sort of renegade preacher – James  Casy. While reading the book I felt that the character of James Casy was introduced to address the important issues around the relevance of God and religion in times of trouble.

Besides a great tragic theme what really attracted me to this novel was the characterization, a great sense for native conversation and a superbly refined capability for story telling. Steinbeck reveals his mastery in characterization and does it in two ways. One is through pure narrative /description and the other is through developing a character gradually over the course of the novel through the character’s own words. Consider these contrasting approaches. The eldest son Tom walks into the family after four years in jail for homicide and looks at his mother and this is how Steinbeck narrates the view:

“Tom stood looking in. Ma was heavy but not fat; thick with child bearing and work. She wore a loose Mother Hubbard of gray cloth in which there had once been colored flowers, but the color was washed out now, so that the small flowered pattern was only a little lighter gray than the background. The dress came down to her ankles, and her strong, broad , bare feet moved quickly and deftly over the floor. Her thin, steel gray hair was gathered in a sparse wispy knot at the back of her head. Strong freckled arms were bare to the elbow and her hands were chubby and delicate, like of those of a plump little girl. She looked out into the sunshine. Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seem to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, understand, accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying in herself…… ……………………..and from her great and humble position in the family she had taken a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet, from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in her judgment as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone”

Ma Joad is a remarkable character. Steinbeck weighs every word carefully and employs them with a purpose while describing her. For a discerning reader the image forms upon reading this single paragraph and once formed remains with her long after the book is shut. Alternately some of the characters say all about themselves :

“I was a preacher,” said the man seriously. “Reverend Jim Casy — was a Burning Busher. Used to howl out the name of Jesus to glory. And used to get an irrigation ditch so squirmin’ full of  repented sinners half of ’em like to drowned. But not no more,” he sighed. ” Jus Jim Casy now. Ain’t got the call no more. Got a lot of sinful idears – but they seem kinds sensible.”……. “I got the call to lead people, an’ no place to lead ’em”

The Joads are joined by numerous people (as per Steinbeck nearly 250,000) on their migration in search of meaningful work and a dignified life. One gets to witness kindness and meanness of all shades and kinds. A part of the family gradually falls apart. Granma and Granpa die and are burried on the way – in a sense they are lost forever. Connie, the son-in-law departs from the family leaving his pregnant wife Rose of Sharon (Rossasharan) — daughter of Pa and Ma Joad behind. Tom the eldest son and a strength of the family gets into trouble and is forced to leave the family…. the two younger children Ruthie and Winfield are still with the parents. The second son Al and Pa Joad’s brother Uncle Jo continue to remain with the family although reluctantly. James Casy sacrifices himself at the altar of a repressive law to save Tom and subsequently gets killed in organizing a protest group. The initial sense of an eldoradic California as envisioned by Granpa never materializes. Consider the views of Granpa on California and what it has to offer:

“……… But I ain’t nowhere near the fella I was. Jus’ let me get out to california where I can pick me an orange when I want it. Or grapes. There’s a thing  I ain’t never had enough of. Gonna get me a whole big bunch of grapes off a bush, or whatever, an I am gonna squash ’em on my face an let ’em run offen my chin”………… or ….”… An’ by God, they’s grapes out there, just a-hangin’ over inta the road. Know what I am gonna do? I’m gonna pick me a wash tub full of grapes , an I’m gonna set in ’em, an scrooge aroun’ an’ let the juice run down my pants.”

The collective spirit of the family for search of a decent livelihood is buffeted by the treatment they receive at the hands of the others and has its ups and downs as the novel proceeds. Towards the end Rose of Sharon gives birth to a stillborn in utterly inhuman conditions. The hopes and spirit of the family starts getting eroded and only Ma Joad remains strong and continues to be the hope for the family. She has a calm wisdom to understand her role in the uncertain and sorrowful scheme of things and says to Pa Joad at one stage ..

 ‘No, it ain’t “ Ma smiled. “It ain’t Pa. An’ that’s one more thing a woman knows. I noticed  that. Man, he lives in jerks – baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk – gets a farm an’ loses his farm, an that’s a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is going on – changin’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on….. Ever’thing we do – seems to me is aimed right at goin’ on. Seems that way to me. Even getting’ hungry – even bein’ sick; some die, but the rest is tougher. Jus’ try to live that day. Jus’ that day”

The novel ends very despondently with the Joads not knowing what awaits them next… Steinbeck is reported to have said the following after he has written The Grapes of Wrath ..

 “ I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags. I don’t want him to be satisfied.’

And he succeeds at it with supreme ease.

As we go along Steinbeck brings in contrasting ethical perspectives on a variety of topics related to property, ownership, work, automation, commercialization and religion. Consider the following snippets of conversation:

‘Times are changing, mister, don’t you know? Can’t make a living on the land  unless you’ve got two, five ten thousand acres and a tractor. Crop land isn’t for little guys like us anymore. You don’t kick up a howl because you can’t make Fords, or because you’re not a telephone company. Well, crops are like that now. Nothing to do about it’

The tenant pondered:

“Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, its part of him, and its like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some ways he’s bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn’t successful he’s is big with his property. That is so”. And the tenant pondered more. “But let a man get property he doesn’t see, or can’t take time to get his fingers in, or cant be there to walk on it — why, then the property is the man. He can’t do what he wants, he cant think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big – and he’s the servant of his property. That is so, too”

Relocations are never easy especially if they are to new climes. For people who have been rooted to a single place for a long time across generations, the forced effort of tearing  away from ones roots and starting afresh can be agonizing and only a writer of  Steinbeck’s caliber can portray it touchingly. Consider Pa Joad’s anguish at the start of the journey where he is forced to a distress sale of the belongings of the family:

“But you cant start. Only a baby can start. You and me — why we’re all that’s been. The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures that’s us. This land, this red land is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start again. The bitterness we sold to the junk man — he got it all right but we have it still. And when the owner men told us to go, that’s us; and when the tractor hit the house, that’s us until we’re dead. To California or any place — every one a drum major leading a parade of hurts, marching with our bitterness. And some day the armies of the bitterness will all be going the same way. And they’ll walk together, and they will be dead terror from it” …………. “you are buying years of work, toil in the sun; you’re buying a sorrow that can’t talk”

It appears that perspectives on work were undergoing significant changes during the time when “The Grapes of Wrath” was written. For many associated especially with the agrarian sector in America, living and working were intertwined. Once agriculture started to be viewed as yet another industry then the sharp drift between work and life started becoming visible.

In another brilliant passage Steinbeck presents the changing attitudes sensitively

“……. And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left., there is a breathing and warmth, and the feet shift on the straw and the jaws clamp on the hay, and the ears and eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse”

It is inevitable that people will have very important questions going through their minds on topics related to God and religion during troubled times and Steinbeck addresses them through James Casy who practically rejects the notion of a formal religion when he says: 

 “I ain’t gonna baptize. I am gonna work in the fiel’s, in the green fiel’s, an I’m gonna be near to folks. I ain’t gonna try to teach ’em nothin’. I’m gonna try to learn. Gonna learn why the folks walks in grass, gonna hear them talk, gonna hear them sing. Gonna listen to kids eating mush. Gonna hear husban’ an wife a-pounding the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with ’em and learn. His eyes were wet and shining. Gonna lay in the grass open an’ honest with anybody that will have me. Gonna cuss an’ swear an’ hear poetry of folks talkin’. All thats holy, all that’s what I didn’t understan’. All them things is the good things.”………………. “The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s  just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice and some ain’t nice, but that’s far as any man got a right to say.’
Or
” I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road. I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; may be that’s Holy Sperit — the human sperit — the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul everbody’s a part of.’Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a student — I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”

To me these words have shades of similarity to those I read in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha where the Siddhartha the eponymous hero of the book also comes to a conclusion that all that one sees and feels is real, important, relevant and there is nothing esoteric in the form of a God or a higher concept

Some of the chapters in the book are just thoughts of Steinbeck and that is where Steinbeck comes alive as a writer. There is a chapter where Steinbeck imitates a glib talking and profit mongering junk car dealer. I have never come across anything like that in my reading so far. To say that it is brilliant is an understatement. The book is littered with many such brilliant passages and chapters.

Are there aspects of this great novel that I did not like? Yes there are a few. All characters in the Joad family are picture perfect in their upholding of balance — which is something very hard to believe. For a part of the book, Steinbeck brings a romantic tinge to the gypsy existence of the Joad family. I am not sure if that can really be the case . Steinbeck at many places slips into an easy classification of “poor are kind” and “rich are cruel” varieties of stereotyping. I think it is Orwell who said that some of the most horrible cruelties that got inflicted are by one poor man on another. Steinbeck seems to ignore this aspect of people’s behaviour. Another aspect of the book which I did not like is that Steinbeck attempts to paint a scenario where all migrating farmers live in harmony in a relief camp and where everything runs to an ideal. I found it not only hard to believe but almost unrealistic

Despite these perceived deficiencies, I think  The Grapes of Wrath is a grand, tragic and haunting book. A book that should be a must in any persons reading list and the younger one reads the book the better it would be.

On a tangential note check out the lives of servant maids and security guards in typical Bangalore houses: a majority of them are living testimonies to an Indian variety of dispossession. Almost certainly they have origins in agricultural families — mostly as marginal farmers. Debts, uncertainty, disease and hopelessness have kind of thrust them into a state of desperation and helplessness.  Inability of agriculture to offer dignified means of sustenance in neighbouring districts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have led to mass migration into Bangalore in the recent past. I may not be exaggerating if I were to say that the farmer suicides that we see in parts of India are results of extreme forms of dispossession. There are many Joad families among us whose existence we are not conscious of. It is time we pay attention to them as fellow human beings and The Grapes of Wrath gives one the courage and purpose to do that.

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