Title: The Grapes of Wrath
Author: John Steinbeck
Genre: Classic, literary fiction
The Grapes of Wrath explores the plight of migrant workers in California through the eyes of the Joad family. Uprooted from the land they farmed for generations in Oklahoma, they travel to California, only to find that the high numbers of migrant workers have made work scarce and prejudice rampant.
Steinbeck is my go-to man for beautiful writing about the human condition. While the story wheezed along like the rusty, overloaded truck the Joads forced to California by sheer will-power, the poignancy of the words and the vivid characterization kept my invested. Take this sentence, containing the title of the book (and aren't Steinbeck's titles fantastic? They all have some hidden meaning or allusion): "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage." The perfection of those words just leaves a fullness in my soul. I can feel the anger, heavy in my chest, ready to be harvested. While at first the heavily accented dialogue between the characters bothered me, but I found myself falling into the cadences of their speech and enjoying the rhythms.
Steinbeck employs an interesting technique that I thought was very effective. He alternates chapters of narrative about the Joad family with generalized chapters describing the migrant workers as a whole. Frequently, I would silently beg Steinbeck not to let the horrible things happening in the "general" chapters befall the Joads. As their family is whittled away one by one I was desperate for some mercy, fully invested in their plight. The more general chapters gave a wider glimpse of the situation - because in truth, the novel is about a situation, not a family - while the chapters about the Joads made the story personal and important, something to pay attention to.
The Joad family were cleverly created to display both quirkiness and universality. They are all unique, nothing like the characters in Steinbeck's more allegorical works like The Pearl, but they still relate poignantly to human nature. There is Jim Casy, the man who is searching for truth, stumbling his way through religion and philosophy in an attempt to find something that satisfies his soul; Tom Joad, a man who is susceptible to his temper and his failings but wants to help his family survive; Ma, who shows more strength and resourcefulness than any man in the family; Rose of Sharon, whose glow at the dream of motherhood is dashed by the family's tragic circumstances, but who still manages to nourish and sustain life. They were what they were - simple people, displaced and desperate for survival - but they were more than that, because they were so human and desperate to overcome.
It is clear why this is considered a great work of literature. It is a maste
rpiece of style, prose, and message. While it can be rather heavy and ponderous, in the end it is a work of beauty that illustrates the triumph of human nature.
Warnings: Language, innuendo, violence
PS: Check out The Classics Circuit for more about Steinbeck over the next few weeks!