The Grapes of Wrath is the third John Steinbeck novel I’ve read after the much shorter Of Mice and Men and The Moon is Down. Steinbeck set out to create ‘The Great American Novel’ and succeeded. This book is a masterpiece and one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It won the Pulitzer Prize and earned Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for literature.
Set against the background of the great depression, The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family on their journey from their farm in Oklahoma, which has been repossessed and bulldozed, westwards to California in search of prosperity and the opportunity to live, work and raise their family. As with all great novels, the characters are amazingly human and real. You feel like you know every single one of them in real life, and when you turn the final page and put it down you feel like you have just lost some of your best friends.
The Grapes of Wrath is a dark and bleak novel. The simple and noble hopes of the Joad family are thwarted constantly and they are forced to sacrifice more of their pride and dignity with every step of the journey. As they make their way westwards and meet others who have given up on the dream and are going back to die in poverty in the place where they at least belong and feel welcome, the reader realises long before the Joad family does that all that awaits them in the West is poverty and persecution. This creates a heavy, ominous feeling as you read on powerlessly while the innocent characters – who you feel you know personally – march on optimistically towards disaster, unable to see what the reader can see.
Steinbeck achieves this in part by alternating between chapters about the fictitious journey of the Joad family with more generic chapters about the exodus to California in general, showing how this one journey is just one of thousands made by optimistic, hardworking, simple people in search of prosperity, and whilst unique is typical of all. There is no prosperity to be found and all end up destitute in the makeshift ‘Hooverville’ shanty towns, shunned and hated by the native Californians.
Hoovervilles were named after president Herbert Hoover who was widely blamed for the depression. A whole set of Hoover slang developed for makeshift items caused by the poverty allegedly brought about by Hoover’s policies. A ‘hooversole’ was a sole made out of cardboard, a ‘hooverwall’ a makeshift wall of corrugated iron, and so on.
The subject matter and Steinbeck’s treatment of it makes this not just a novel but a brutal and unequivocal denunciation of the economic policies of the day, and the book was banned and publicly burned on publication as a result. It is from the seething anger of the starving poor, forced to watch the destruction of food to keep the price up, that Steinbeck derives the title.
“The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. A million people hungry, needing the fruit, and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains.
“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. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
A kind soul has produced a Google Map detailing the Joad family journey with key points from the book, which really enriches the story for those of us who know little about American geography.
I can’t praise this book enough. It is a masterwork which reels you in and then gives you a slow and steady emotional beating. Steinbeck’s style is impeccable and this book deserves every accolade given to it. It will leave you a changed person.