The Grapes of Wrath

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“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
(First publication: 1939 / This edition: Penguin Books, Steinbeck Centennial Edition 2002)
Taken with ten roses and coffee

That’s why folks always move. Movin’ ’cause they want somepin better’n what they got. An’ that’s the on’y way they’ll ever git it. Wantin’ it an’ needin’ it, they’ll go out and git it. It’s bein’ hurt that makes folks mad in fightin’. (pg.128)

I studied about the Great Depression back in high school. I’ve read a few books with stories set in that period. I’ve seen movies depicting the poverty and the struggle. But I didn’t really feel how horrible and tough it was until I read this book. It even made me feel like I am an American and that I should be proud that my American ancestors managed to survive those years. (My family and I are full Asian.)

This story is pretty heavy. I’ve been on a Steinbeck craze lately, and the last one I read was “Cannery Row”—this one’s a completely different vibe. There’s no humor in it at all—not even the quietest, softest chuckle. The story mainly focuses on one family, the Joads, and it follows their move from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression in hopes of a “better life” and “houses with white fences” and, most importantly, a job. They are of the lower class and are limited to doing agricultural work, which was difficult to find in that period.

On the road, they keep getting warnings to go back home; that Californians will treat them like dogs; that people will take advantage of them; that they will end up starving to death, literally. Aside from external issues, the family also faces problems internally—along the way, certain family members decide to stay behind or get into trouble or lose motivation to simply live. You see the Joads fighting their way through, with compassion, sympathy, determination, and dignity. Just like “Of Mice and Men” and “East of Eden”, the story is more on the melancholic side and explores the psychology and behaviors of humans during times of suffering.

And with Steinbeck’s descriptive and smooth writing style, I ended up feeling all the suffering and the hunger and the desperation along with the Joads. And with all of America. YES, it is that intense.

(Sorry for the long passage, but…it’s amazing writing and you need to read this whole passage because I’m putting much effort into typing it all out 😛 )
Results, not causes; results, not causes. The causes lie deep and simply—the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times. The last clear definite function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step. This you may say and know it and know it. (pg.150)

Mrs. Joad is now one of my favorite heroines in literature, because I really admire the way she fights and is willing to give all she’s got for her family and puts herself last. She sacrifices her needs to make sure the family can keep on going and stay as intact as possible. She also becomes “the head of the family”—and is the only one that is capable of rearing the family into the right directions. Never gives up.

(And Tom Joad Jr. is my favorite “bad boy” in all of literature and books and writing. 😉 Just read it and you’ll feel me.)

The way the story runs is unique too. For every other chapter, Steinbeck would write about the vibes, the atmosphere, and the circumstances of the people, as a whole. It might be conversations between people in a used-car sale or conversations between policemen. It might be Steinbeck just describing the psychology behind the behaviors of the people. Sometimes he’ll explain purely the political and economical problems and how everything is just kind of the consequences of this and that, which were the consequences of something else. If we just took these chapters out and bind them together separately from the rest of the book, we can probably make it into one of those “Penguin Great Ideas”—and it’ll just be Steinbeck’s thoughts and reflections of “The Great Depression”.

My local Kinokuniya has a monthly newsletter, and this month, its focus is on books that were banned. “The Grapes of Wrath” is one of them. I mean, Steinbeck just blatantly put it out there and slapped Americans in the face about the darker, problematic, and unjust side of the political and economic situations in their supposedly “free country”. Of course it would upset a lot of the people—especially those that don’t want to admit that they were doing wrong and treating people unfairly. Greed and pride created monsters among the riches.

Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans; and a horde of tattered feverish Americans poured in. And such was their hunger for land that they took the land—stole Sutter’s land, Guerrero’s land, took the grants and broke them up and growled and quarreled over them, those frantic hungry men; and they guarded with guns the land they had stolen. They put up houses and barns, they turned the earth and planted crops. And these things were possession, and possession was ownership. (pg. 231)

I really enjoyed this book. However, I felt that the ending was kind of…sudden. Even though at some points I felt like the story was going on and on and on, and it felt like it was never going to end. But then when it does end, there were just so many… unanswered questions? I just felt like a lot of things were just kind of left up in the air. But I guess to cover the whole of the Great Depression, the book would be 3-4 times the size—and it’s already 455 pages. It’s still a great story though and I would highly recommend it to anyone. I think if you are into Steinbeck, this is definitely a must-read.

I’ve seen people debating about which book is “better”—between “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden”. I’d say “East of Eden” is still my favorite Steinbeck. I think it’s kinda strange to compare the two novels because they’re so different. “East of Eden” follows a few families and there’s just so much drama and more of an identity-crisis situation for each character and everyone goes batsh*t crazy because of the drama…while in “The Grapes of Wrath”, the “drama” is nation-wide and the family in focus are just trying to find ways for basic survival—food and shelter. “East of Eden” is if I want to read something a little more “gossip-y” and “juicy”; “The Grapes of Wrath” is if I want to read a cultural/historical fiction about a tough time in American history. Both are amazing American Literature.

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…..

Here are some of my favorite lines from the book. Definitely heavy on the political stuff in this post:

How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? (pg.88)

Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. (pg.4)

But I want to get ahead anyway. I been training my mind for a hell of a long time. (pg.11)

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company—needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. (pg.32-33)

The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it. (pg.33)

Fella gets use’ to a place, it’s hard to go. Fella gets use’ to a way of thinkin’, it’s hard to leave. (pg.51)

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I”, and cuts you off forever from the “we”. (pg.152)

And always, if he had a little money, a man could get drunk. The hard edges gone, and the warmth. Then there was no loneliness, for a man could people his brain with friends, and he could find his enemies and destroy them. Sitting in a ditch, the earth grew soft under him. Failures dulled and the future was no threat. And hunger did not skulk about, but the world was soft and easy, and a man could reach the place he started for. The stars came down wonderfully close and the sky was soft. Death was a friend, and sleep was death’s brother. The old times came back—dear and warm. (pg.327)

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