Monday, August 25, 2008

Reflections on The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

1.         Steinbeck composes his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, by utilizing juxtaposition, alternating long, narrative chapters focusing on the Joad family’s journey with short, expressive chapters pertaining to the migrants as a whole.  Steinbeck allows the reader to look through different lenses and experience the story through multiple perspectives by using this shifting telescoping technique.  Steinbeck stirs up emotion within the reader during poetic chapters and helps the reader to relate to and empathize with a family struggling for a better life in the expository episodes.  Steinbeck masterfully weaves an intricate web that stands out “magically in this light, in the overdrawn perspective of a stereopticon” (99).  For example, in Chapter 17, to describe the convergence of all the migrating families into a single huddled mass, Steinbeck writes, “because they were lonely and perplexed…and because they were all going to a new mysterious place….a strange thing happened: the twenty families become one family, the children were the children of all.  The loss of home became one loss” (193).  Chapter 18 reverts back to the Joad family’s exodus, as tragedy strikes with the death of a loved one.  Steinbeck implicitly conveys the sense of a dearly departed soul in the line, “after a time Granma was still, and Ma lay rigid beside her” (225).  Chapter 17 instills a sense of unity within the reader, and therefore the loss of family creates a more dramatic effect upon the reader’s emotions.  The chapters pertaining to the migrants also foreshadow obstacles that the Joads encounter.  For example, Chapter 19 foretells the unfortunate events, such as the destruction of camps, which reappear in Chapter 20.  The deputies rage, “Department of Health orders.  This camp is a menace to health…We got orders to get you out of here.  In half an hour we set fire to the camp” (237).  In Chapter 20, a deputy tries to persuade Tom and other migrants to move, threatening, “Might be a good idear to go.  Board of Health says we got to clean out this camp” (264).
2.         Chapter 3 represents the journey of the Joads and the other migrants portrayed through aspects of nature.  The tenant men share similar characteristics with the seeds since their initial inert reaction to the bank’s cruelty mirrored the state of the seeds.  Steinbeck describes the seeds as “sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed…all passive but armed with appliances of activity, still, but each possessed of the anlage of movement” (14).  After a tractor crushes a house like a bug, Steinbeck expresses how “the tenant man stared after it, his rifle in his hand.  His wife was beside him, and the quiet children behind.  And all of them stared after the tractor” (39).  Several parallels exist between the turtle’s trek and the Joads’ plight.  First of all, a malicious truck driver intentionally strikes the edge of the turtle’s shell with his front wheel, rolling the turtle off the highway.  Similarly, different adversities impede the Joads’ progress along their way.  The Joads often face bigotry, for the deputies treat the migrants harshly with no hint of sympathy in their demeanor.  Casy recalls how cops tore people apart, remembering, “We tried to camp together, an’ they druv us like pigs.  Scattered us.  Beat fellas” (383).  Secondly, the truck displaces the turtle in the same way that the tractors drive tenant men from their homes.  Steinbeck describes how “suddenly the machines pushed them out and they swarmed on the highways” (282).  Lastly, the turtle also overcomes obstacles amidst his defeats.  Steinbeck writes about how the animal relieves himself of irritation caused by an ant: “A red ant ran into the shell…and suddenly head and legs snapped in, and the armored tail clamped in sideways.  The red ant was crushed between body and legs” (15).  Likewise, Floyd Knowles and Tom Joad stand up to the forces of oppression when a deputy attempts to arrest Floyd on the indictment of a charge with no actual evidence.  Steinbeck details the attack: “Floyd spun and swung with one movement.  His fist splashed into the large face…The deputy staggered and Tom put out his foot for him to trip over.  The deputy fell heavily and rolled” (264).
3.         The title of the novel reflects the intense emotion of the migrants who cannot retain contentment after bearing such an immense amount of contempt.  Steinbeck writes, “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation….In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage” (349).  These words convey the anger of the migrant people, resulting from the loss of everything they shed blood, sweat, and tears to gain.  The emotion that words cannot express, beyond angst, overwhelms the people.  For example, Steinbeck writes about how a man maintains and cares for a piece of land only for a sheriff to drive him off his prized possession: “Secret gardening in the evenings, and water carried in a rusty can.  And then one day a deputy sheriff: Well, what you think you’re doin’?…The land ain’t plowed, an’ I ain’t hurtin’ it none…Think you owned it.  Get off now” (235).  Wrath plays an important role in the novel because it serves as a source of motivation, determination, and strength.  Steinbeck writes about how one may fight for what he has grown with his own two hands: “A crop raised-why, that makes ownership.  Land hoed and the carrots eaten-a man might fight for land he’s taken food from” (235).
4.         After Casy’s death, Tom reminisces about the epiphanies the former preacher used to share.  Tom recalls, “Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’ have no soul that was his’n.  Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul….his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole” (418).  Tom remembers a Scripture Casy quoted from Ecclesiastes 4: 10-12, which reads, “Two are better than one…For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.  Again, if two lie together, they are warm; but how can one be warm alone?”  Casy’s comment suggests a need for people to be together in order to help each other, and the Old Testament passage complements Casy’s message by revealing the results of cooperation.  Steinbeck illustrates this theme throughout the novel in the togetherness of the Joads, the merging of the migrants’ families, and personal sacrifice.  Ma emphasizes the importance of staying together as a family when Tom suggests that he leave for fear of endangering the family after committing murder.  She pleads, “…goin’ away ain’t gonna ease us.  It’s gonna bear us down…Got nothin’ to trus’.  Don’ go, Tom.  Stay an’ help” (392-3).  Chapter 17 describes the accord between several families who support and live with each other in harmony through both joyous and despondent moments.  Steinbeck narrates, “It might be that a sick child threw despair into the hearts of twenty families, of a hundred people; that a birth there in a tent kept a hundred people quiet and awestruck through the night and filled a hundred people with the birth-joy in the morning” (193).  Casy’s words also encourage a man’s actions to benefit the good of the people instead of a single individual.  Tom decides to follow in Casy’s footsteps and direct his efforts towards the good of the family to fulfill his duty, which means leaving his loved ones.  He explains that he will always be with the people, in times of triumph and victory as well as times of sorrow and defeat.  Tom conveys, “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.  If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready.  An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there” (419).
5.         Chapter 19 discusses the consequences of too much land in too few hands.  The deputies express fear after contemplating the results that would follow if the Okies revolted.  They urge, “Got to keep ’em in line or Christ only knows what they’ll do!…If they ever get together there ain’t nothin’ that’ll stop ’em” (236).  The basis of this prejudice originates from xenophobia, resulting in repression, devastation, and eventually wrath for the Okies.  For instance, an official by the name of George clubs Casy on the head after the preacher asserts his opinion.  Steinbeck depicts this image in the following lines: “The heavy club crashed into the side of his head with a dull crunch of bone, and Casy fell sideways out of the light” (386).  Tom’s wrath at this injustice becomes apparent by his actions.  Steinbeck communicates, “He wrenched the club free.  The first time he knew he had missed and struck a shoulder, but the second time his crushing blow found the head, and as the heavy man sank down, three more blows found his head” (386).  This harsh reality of inequality resurfaces in Chapter 28 as Tom communicates, “I been thinkin’ about our people livin’ like pigs, an’ the good rich lan’ layin’ fallow, or maybe one fella with a million acres, while a hunderd [sic] thousan’ good farmers is starvin’” (419).