The Grapes of Wrath – Book Review

In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

                                                                                                                                                            -From the Grapes of Wrath, page 349-

In John Steinbeck’s most renown novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad gets released from prison and returns to a home decimated by technology:

“Le’s look in the house. She’s all pushed out a shape. Something knocked the hell out of her.” They walked slowly toward the sagging house. Two of the supports of the porch roof were pushed out so that the roof flopped down on one end. And the house-corner was crushed in. Through a maze of splintered wood the room at the corner was visible. The front door hung open inward, and a low strong gate across the front door hung outward on leather hinges.                                                                              -From The Grapes of Wrath, page 41-

Thus, this sweeping novel takes us on a journey with the Joad family as they join thousands of migrant workers seeking a better life in the West. Steinbeck fills his novel with homespun characters and the bitter reality of life in the 1930s during the Great Dust Bowl migration.

This novel has been banned, burned and challenged since its publication in 1939 for reasons such as “vulgar language” and “sexual references.” In addition, Steinbeck angered many for his honest depiction of the political and economic landscape in the 1930s, where large landowners artificially inflated the cost of goods by destroying surpluses and drove down wages by luring thousands of workers to a California  that could not support their numbers.

Steinbeck is a genius at characterization and using symbolism to draw images for the reader. Tom Joad represents all the survivors who joined together and found strength in numbers; who fought back when the future looked the bleakest; who rose up to fight for their families; and who refused to lose dignity even while camping in Hoovervilles.

The women who people this novel are wonderful – strong, authentic, the glue that holds the family together. Ma Joad’s tough, realistic character drives the novel and tugs at the reader’s heartstrings:

She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.                                                                                                                            – From The Grapes of Wrath, page 74-

Beautiful descriptions of a desolate country; use of symbolism; amazing characterization; compelling dialogue; a vivid and honest portrayal of the family; and an ending which will shock…are all reasons why Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is one of the few great American novels. A must read. The Joad family will stick with the reader long after the final page has been turned.

Highly recommended.

Following are some of my favorite passages from the novel.

About the countryside:

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from  dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there.  From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.     -page 118-

About Granma:

Behind him hobbled Granma, who had survived only because she was as mean as her husband. She had held her own with a shrill ferocious religiosity that was a lecherous and as savage as anything Grampa could offer. Once, after a meeting, while she was still speaking in tongue, she fired both barrels of a shotgun at her husband, ripping one of his buttocks nearly off, and after that he admired her and did not try to torture her as children torture bugs. As she walked she hiked her Mother Hubbard up to her knees, and she bleated her shrill terrible war cry: “Pu-raise Gawd fur victory.”     -page 78-

About symbolism (the turtle):

He came over the grass leaving a beaten trail behind him, and the hill, which was the highway embankment, reared up ahead of him. For a moment he stopped, his head held high. He blinked and looked up and down. At last he started to climb the embankment.         -page 14-15-

About community:

In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was a dream. And 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. A family which the night before had been lost and fearful might search its goods to find a present for a new baby.     -page 193-
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    • Anonymous on January 21, 2007 at 09:37

    I read The Grapes of Wrath in my sophomore English class 30 (!) years ago. It was the first work of Steinbeck’s I’d read and I absolutely loved it. Great characterization, plot, symbolism, etc. It must be an ideal book for a teacher to teach in a literature class.
    I love your review! In addition to all the analytical details, I like the way you included a descriptive heading for each favorite passage. Nice stylistic treatment. The whole review makes me want to read the book again. Maybe once I’ve tackled East of Eden!

    • Anonymous on January 30, 2007 at 15:06

    Thanks, Les!

    • Anonymous on February 6, 2007 at 15:41

    I read The Grapes of Wrath a few years ago, and I was stunned by it. Just loved it. One interesting thing to me, which you mentioned, was that it was written during the depression, while all of this was still going on. It had the feel of hindsight to me, because of the clarity of vision, but there was none. That the film was made right away, and thus also didn’t know how the depression and the dust bowl were going to turn out, also great. Great book. I recently read “East of Eden” for the Classics Challenge (which is how I found your blog) and I loved it as well. 🙂

    • Anonymous on February 6, 2007 at 19:17

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I just bought East of Eden, and am looking forward to reading it. I don’t know why I’ve waited so long to read this author 🙂

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