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“The Grapes of Wrath”: a review of classic Steinbeck

Book cover of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

I’ve always wanted to read The Grapes of Wrath. I think it is important to immerse oneself in a wide variety of literary genres from all over the world. I also think that it’s important to read a Nobel Prize winning author every now and then.

John Steinbeck’s book won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962 and The Grapes of Wrath was given specific praise. The book was originally published in 1939 and is an American realist novel that follows the migration of the Joad family from Oklahoma to California in the search of work and a new life.

This book is a classic book for many reasons. It is read by school children all throughout the USA and around the world and it has been talked about at length by literary critics since its first appearance. Needless to say, the thought of reviewing the novel myself feels slightly daunting. Classic literature is important to so many people and it can feel extremely intimidating to review something so well known. Plus, after almost 70 years since the books debut, is there anything new to say? Well, I hope so.

If I had to pick just one word to describe Steinbeck’s book, it would be melancholic. Steinbeck takes you on a journey through America that forces you to bear the heat, dust, and hopelessness alongside the Joads. You feel every heartbreak: when Grampa dies; when Granma dies of a broken heart; when Casy is killed for standing up for the rights of the workers. With every piece of fried dough, your heart sinks.

The vernacular can be quiet confronting for someone who isn’t used to Oklahoma slang and accent. At first it irked me and I felt that it slowed the flow of the novel. As I got to understand the language better I actually realised that it made me slow my reading down. Instead of skimming, I took in every word. Steinbeck created a haunting rhythm that rattled alongside the Joad’s struggling second-hand car.

Steinbeck’s mention of Indians (Native Americans) also make me think of the implications of ownership of land and colonial ideas of ownership of land. On several occasions one of the Joads mention that their family fought Indians for the land they once occupied. They had won the fight, ‘rightfully’ making the land theirs. In a similar way, the bank that is treated as an omniscient god-like character, takes control of the land and allows the tractors destroy the houses and wreck the barns. The plight of native peoples across the world is sadly a similar story, one that involves loss of land, tradition, culture, and agency. While one can feel sorry for the Joads who are forced to travel, who are treated like scum, and less than human, I wonder what this story would be if you changed the Joads with a Native American family and ‘Okies’ with ‘Red’ or ‘Scalper’. I also wonder how strongly it would resound with people if the Joads were not white. But these are all what-ifs. The truth of the matter is that Native Americans are treated as obstacles in the way of land ownership. Their plight after being driven off their land is not explained or visited and it is as though they disappear into nothingness.

My last comment on The Grapes of Wrath is about the ending. I felt like I was going along at a nice pace and then I smacked into a glass door I didn’t see in time, and that was that. The end. Also, the mysterious smile from Rose of Sharon as she is breastfeeding a starving grown man confused me immensely. And, I felt like the ending let the book down. Is this image confronting because of the hopelessness and desperation of life in California? If someone has some different understanding of the ending of the book I would love to hear what you have to think, because I can’t make tails or heads of it. Maybe that was Steinbeck’s point?

Sometimes a sad man can talk the sadness right out through his mouth.” p55 (Casy)

How if you wake up in the night and know – and know the willow tree’s not there? Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can’t. The willow tree is you. The pain on the mattress there – that dreadful pain – that’s you.” p 93

Have you read The Grapes of Wrath? Were you forced to read it in high school? What did you make of Steinbeck’s ending? As always, share the reading love.

2 thoughts on ““The Grapes of Wrath”: a review of classic Steinbeck

  1. The ending puzzled me too, I think it just underlined the comraderie among the poor people in desperate poverty? The question you pose of ownership is quite interesting, There is an overriding sense in the book that you have to take what you can and then defend it. There is numerous Native American references but fails to mention their plight in terms of land ownership

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one confused by the ending. From my understanding of the book, the Native Americans seem to be an obstacle that must be overcome.