in full John Ernst Steinbeck
born Feb. 27, 1902, Salinas, Calif., U.S.
died Dec. 20, 1968, New York, N.Y.
American novelist, best known for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which
summed up the bitterness of the Great Depression decade and aroused
widespread sympathy for the plight of migratory farm workers. He
received the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1962.
Steinbeck attended Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.,
intermittently between 1920 and 1926 but did not take a degree. Before
his books attained success, he spent considerable time supporting
himself as a manual labourer while writing, and his experiences lent
authenticity to his depictions of the lives of the workers in his
stories. He spent much of his life in Monterey county, Calif., which
later was the setting of some of his fiction.
Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), was followed by The
Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), none of which
were successful. He first achieved popularity with Tortilla Flat (1935),
an affectionately told story of Mexican-Americans. The mood of gentle
humour turned to one of unrelenting grimness in his next novel, In
Dubious Battle (1936), a classic account of a strike by agricultural
labourers and a pair of Marxist labour organizers who engineer it. The
novella Of Mice and Men (1937), which also appeared in play and film
versions, is a tragic story about the strange, complex bond between two
migrant labourers. The Grapes of Wrath won a Pulitzer Prize and a
National Book Award and was made into a notable film in 1940. The novel
is about the migration of a dispossessed family from the Oklahoma Dust
Bowl to California and describes their subsequent exploitation by a
ruthless system of agricultural economics.
After the best-selling success of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck went
to Mexico to collect marine life with the freelance biologist Edward F.
Ricketts, and the two men collaborated in writing Sea of Cortez (1941),
a study of the fauna of the Gulf of California. During World War II
Steinbeck wrote some effective pieces of government propaganda, among
them The Moon Is Down (1942), a novel of Norwegians under the Nazis, and
he also served as a war correspondent. His immediate postwar
work—Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), and The Wayward Bus
(1947)—contained the familiar elements of his social criticism but were
more relaxed in approach and sentimental in tone.
Steinbeck’s later writings were comparatively slight works of
entertainment and journalism interspersed with three conscientious
attempts to reassert his stature as a major novelist: Burning Bright
(1950), East of Eden (1952), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). In
critical opinion, none equaled his earlier achievement. East of Eden, an
ambitious epic about the moral relations between a California farmer and
his two sons, was made into a film in 1955. Steinbeck himself wrote the
scripts for the film versions of his stories The Pearl (1948) and The
Red Pony (1949). Outstanding among the scripts he wrote directly for
motion pictures were Forgotten Village (1941) and Viva Zapata! (1952).
Steinbeck’s reputation rests mostly on the naturalistic novels with
proletarian themes he wrote in the 1930s; it is in these works that his
building of rich symbolic structures and his attempts at conveying
mythopoeic and archetypal qualities in his characters are most
Of Mice and Men
The title of quite possibly John Steinbeck's best known work
refers to a line from a Robert Burns' poem To a Mouse, hinting
simply at the tragedy of the tale. The novella tells the story
of George and Lennie, two migrant workers who have been let off
the bus miles from the California ranch where they work. George
is a small, sharp man with dark features, and Lennie a mentally
subnormal, shapeless giant who is deeply devoted to George and
relies on him for protection and guidance. Camped out for the
night, this unlikely couple share a dream of starting a farm
together. Back on the ranch, the men meet Slim, the mule driver
who admires their friendship. He gives Lennie one of his puppies
and convinces the two men to include him in their dreams of
buying a piece of land and setting up home. But the dream is
shattered when Lennie accidentally kills the puppy and, without
meaning to, breaks the neck of a woman on the ranch. Fleeing a
terrible death at the hands of a lynch mob, Lennie encounters
George, who gently reiterates the story of the idyllic life they
will share together, before shooting his friend in the back of
his head. When the mob arrives, Slim realizes that George has
killed his friend out of mercy and leads him away.
This is a story about brotherhood and the harsh reality of a
world that refuses to allow such idealized male bonds to be
nurtured. George and Lennie's unique relationship approaches
that ideal, but it is misunderstood by the rest of the world,
who cannot comprehend true friendship, instead undermining one
another and exploiting weakness wherever it can be found. But
perhaps the real tragedy of the novel lies in the depiction of
the death of the great American dream as a reality, exposing it
as exactly what it purports to be: merely a dream.
EAST OF EDEN
Type of work: Novel
Author: John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
Type of plot: Regional chronicle
Time of plot: 1865-1918
First published: 1952
East of Eden is an ambitious but not altogether successful attempt
to present three stories simultaneously: a panoramic history of the
Salinas Valley (symbolic of America as a whole); a melodramatic
chronicle of two families in the valley; and a symbolic re-creation of
the Cain and Abel story. In each story the theme is the same: good and
evil are always in conflict, but man's freedom and glory lie in his
ability to choose the good to direct his own life.
Adam Trask, a settler in the Salinas Valley. He marries Cathy Ames in
Connecticut and moves west where he and their twin sons, Caleb and Aron,
are deserted by her.
Cathy Ames, Adam Trask's innocent appearing but evil wife. Deserting
Adam and their twin sons, Caleb and Aron, she becomes the proprietress
of a notorious brothel.
Aron Trask, smugly religious, idealistic twin son of Adam Trask and
Cathy Ames. Unable to face the knowledge of his parents' past, he joins
the army and is killed in France.
Caleb Trask, impulsive twin son of Adam Trask and Cathy. Rejected in an
effort to help his father, he takes revenge by revealing to his brother
Aron the secret of their mother's identity. He later accepts
responsibility for the disillusioned Aron's death.
Abra Bacon, Aron Trask's fiancee. Disturbed because she feels unable to
live up to Aron's idealistic image of her, she finally turns to the more
realistic Caleb Trask.
Charles Trask, Adam Trask's half brother.
Samuel Hamilton, an early settler in the Salinas Valley.
Liza Hamilton, Samuel Hamilton's wife.
Lee, Adam Trask's wise and good Chinese servant.
Faye, proprietress of a Salinas brothel. Her death is engineered by
Cathy Ames as she seeks to gain full control of Faye's establishment.
Will Hamilton, business partner of Caleb Trask.
The soil of the Salinas Valley in California is rich, although the
foothills around it are poor, and life in the valley is barren during
the long dry spells. The Irish-born Hamiltons, arriving after American
settlers had displaced the Mexicans, settled on the barren hillside.
There Sam Hamilton, full of talk, glory, and improvident inventions, and
Liza, his dourly religious wife, brought up their nine children.
In Connecticut, Adam Trask and his half brother Charles grew up,
mutually affectionate in spite of the differences in their natures. Adam
was gentle and good; Charles, roughly handsome with a streak of wild
violence. After Adam's mother had committed suicide, his father had
married a docile woman who gave birth to Charles. Adam loved his
stepmother but hated his father, a rigid disciplinarian whose fanatic
militarism had begun with a fictitious account of his own war career and
whose dream was to have a son in the army. To fulfill his dream, he
chose Adam, who could gain the greater strength that comes from the
conquest of weakness as Charles could not. Charles, however, whose
passionate love for his father went continually unnoticed, could not
understand this final rejection of himself. In violent despair, he beat
Adam almost to death.
Adam served in the cavalry for five years. Then, although he hated
regimentation and violence, he reen-listed, for he could neither accept
help from his father, who had become an important figure in Washington,
nor return to the farm Charles now ran alone. Afterward, he wandered
through the West and the South, served time for vagrancy, and finally
came home to find his father dead and himself and Charles rich. In the
years that followed, he and Charles lived together, although their
bickering and inbred solitude drove Adam to periodic wanderings. Feeling
that their life was one of pointless industry, he talked of moving west
but did not.
Meanwhile, Cathy Ames was growing up in Massachusetts. She was a
monster, born unable to comprehend goodness but with a sublimely
innocent face and a consummate knowledge of how to manipulate or deceive
people to serve her own ends. After a thwarted attempt to leave home,
she burned her house, killing her parents and leaving evidence to
indicate that she had been murdered. She then became the mistress of a
man who ran a string of brothels and used his insatiable love for her to
torment him. When he realized her true nature, he took her to a deserted
spot and beat her savagely. Near death, she crawled to the nearest
house—the Trasks'— where Adam and Charles cared for her. Adam found her
innocent and beautiful; Charles, who had a knowledge of the evil in
himself, recognized the evil in her and wanted her to leave. Cathy,
needing temporary protection, enticed Adam into marrying her, but on
their wedding night, she gave him a sleeping draught and went to
Feeling that Charles disapproved of Cathy, Adam decided to carry out his
dream of going west. He was so transfigured by his happiness that he did
not take Cathy's protests seriously; as his ideal of love and purity,
she could not disagree. Adam bought a ranch in the richest part of the
Salinas Valley and worked hard to ready it for his wife and the child
she expected. Cathy hated her pregnancy, but she knew that she had to
wait calmly to get back to the life she wanted. After giving birth to
twin boys, she waited a week; she then shot Adam, wounding him, and
Changing her name to Kate, Cathy went to work in a Salinas brothel. Her
beauty and seeming goodness endeared her to the proprietress, Faye, and
Kate gradually assumed control of the establishment. After Faye made a
will leaving Kate her money and property, Kate slyly engineered Faye's
death. Making her establishment one which aroused and purveyed to
sadistic tastes, she became legendary and rich.
Adam was like a dead man for a year after his wife left him, unable to
work his land or even to name his sons. Finally, Sam Hamilton woke him
by deliberately angering him, and Sam, Adam, and Lee, the Chinese
servant and a wise and good man, named the boys Caleb and Aron. As the
men talked of the story of Cain and Abel, Lee concluded that rejection
terrifies a child most and leads to guilt and revenge. Later, after much
study, Lee discovered the true meaning of the Hebrew word timshel (thou
mayest) and understood that the story meant in part that man can always
choose to conquer evil.
Sam, grown old, knew that he would soon die. Before he left his ranch,
he told Adam of Kate and her cruel, destructive business. Adam,
disbelieving in her very existence, visited her and suddenly knew her as
she really was. Though she tried to taunt him, telling him that Charles
was the true father of his sons, and to seduce him, he left her a free
and curiously exultant man. Yet he could not tell his sons that their
mother was not dead.
Caleb and Aron were growing up very differently. Aron was golden haired
and automatically inspired love, yet he remained single-minded and
unyielding; Caleb was dark and clever, a feared and respected leader
left much alone. When Adam moved to town, where the schools were better,
Aron fell in love with Abra Bacon. Abra told Aron that his mother was
still alive, but he could not believe her because to do so would have
destroyed his faith in his father and thus in everything.
About this time, Adam had the idea of shipping lettuce packed in ice to
New York, but the venture failed. Aron was ashamed of his father for
failing publicly. Caleb vowed to return the lost money to his father.
As they faced the problems of growing into men, Aron became smugly
religious, which was disturbing to Abra because she felt unable to live
up to his idealistic image of her. Caleb alternated between wild
impulses and guilt. Learning that Kate was his mother, he began
following her until she, noticing him, invited him to her house. As he
talked to her, he knew with relief that he was not like her; she felt
his knowledge and hated him. Kate herself, obsessed by the fear that one
of the old girls had discovered Faye's murder, plotted ways to destroy
this menace. Although Caleb would accept Kate's existence, he knew that
Aron could not. To get the boy away from Salinas, Caleb talked him into
finishing high school in three years and beginning college. Adam,
knowing nothing of Caleb's true feelings, was extravagantly proud of
World War I began. Caleb went into the bean business with Will Hamilton
and made a fortune because of food shortages. With growing excitement,
he planned an elaborate presentation to his father of the money once
lost in the lettuce enterprise. First he tried to persuade Aron. who
seemed indifferent to his father's love, not to leave college. Caleb
offered money to Adam, but Adam rejected it in anger because his
idealistic nature would not allow him to accept money made as profit
from the war. He wanted Caleb's achievements to be like his brother's.
In a black mood of revenge, Caleb took Aron to meet his mother. After
her sons' visit, Kate, who was not as disturbed by those she could hurt
as she was by someone like Caleb, made a will leaving everything to Aron.
Then, overburdened by age, illness, and suspicion, she committed
Unable to face his new knowledge of his parents' past. Aron joined the
army and went to France. Adam did not recover from the shock of his
leaving. Abra turned to Caleb, admitting that she loved him rather than
Aron. whose romantic stubbornness kept him from facing reality. When the
news of Aron's death arrived, Adam had another stroke. As he lay dying,
Caleb, unable to bear his guilt any longer, told his father of his
responsibility for Aron's enlisting and thus his death. Lee begged Adam
to forgive his son. Adam weakly raised his hand in benediction and,
whispering the Hebrew word timshel, died.
The expressed concern of East of Eden is philosophical—the nature of the
conflict between good and evil. In this conflict, love and the
acceptance or rejection it brings to the individual play an important
role, yet one has always the opportunity to choose the good. In this
freedom lies man's glory. The book's defects stem from the author's
somewhat foggy and sentimental presentation of its philosophy and his
tendency to manipulate or oversimplify characters and events for
In most of his other works, John Steinbeck was concerned with social
issues from a realistic or a naturalistic point of view, portraying
human travail with relentless accuracy through an intensive examination
of a short time span. In East of Eden, however, Steinbeck departs from
his customary literary style to write an epic portrait which ranges less
intensively over a much broader time span of about seventy years.
Although depictions of characters and events are really no less vivid
than in his other novels, Steinbeck's East of Eden is certainly less
structured, a looser novel than his dedicated readers had come to
expect. Thus, despite some quite explicit sex scenes, disappointed
reader expectation accounts in large measure for the failure of East of
Eden to win immediate popular or critical acclaim. It simply was not
what people had come to expect of Steinbeck.
The novel is, however, respectable if not brilliant. In fact, it is, in
many ways, a historical romance in its panoramic sweep of significant
history overlaid with specific human problems. The story ranges from the
Civil War to World War I, from the East Coast to the West Coast, over
several generations of two families. It displays all of the conventional
elements of historical romance. Genuinely historical events and people
provide the backdrop, even the shaping forces that mold the fictional
characters' lives and determine their destiny. These characters thus
appear to have only partial control over their lives, at best, and
external factors consequently determine, to a large extent, what they
must cope with in order to survive. They appear to be buffeted
mercilessly by fate.
However, Steinbeck's philosophical commitment to free will aborts the
naturalistically logical conclusion. As a result, both Charles and Adam
Trask appear to select freely their own paths in life, the former
indulging fantasies of evil and the latter choosing to disregard
everyone's evil inclinations, including his own. So, too, is Cathy made
to seem capable of choice and responsible for it. Likewise, the other
major characters are depicted as having the capacity for moral choice
and for living with the consequences. Yet it is just this aspect of East
of Eden that flies in the face of the reader's expectations of "typical"
Steinbeck and flies in the face of both logic and reality. Finally, it
is Steinbeck's own ambivalence about free will and determinism that
constitutes the major weakness in East of Eden.
The Grapes of Wrath
It is something of a
commonplace these days to talk of The Grapes of Wrath as a novel
that has become profoundly ingrained in the consciousness of
America, and yet no other writer chronicled the catastrophic
period of the Great Depression in the 1930s with the same
passion and political commitment. As Steinbeck's masterpiece,
its place in the canon of great American literature is confirmed
by the Pulitzer Prize it was awarded in 1940 (the same year it
was adapted for film) and the Nobel Prize for Literature that
the author received in 1962. It is concerned with the Joad
family, who lose their Oklahoma farm and head west with dreams
of a better life in California. As the journey unfolds, they and
thousands of other "Okies" flocking westward converge along
Highway 66, telling each other tales of injustice and relishing
the plenty that lies ahead. What they find in California is
exploitation, greed, low wages, hunger, and death. In a stunning
indictment of the savage divisions that those with money seek to
extend and exploit, Steinbeck represents the desperation of the
family as the threat of violence, starvation,and death begin to
eat away atthem.lt is only wrath, a defiant solidarity, and
constant sacrifice that allow them to maintain their dignity.
Steinbeck has been criticized in the past for a perceived
sentimentality in his characterization of the Joads, but while a
reader is inevitably drawn into their plight, they are only ever
actors in a tragedy that is bigger than they are. This is above
all a political novel, and the defeats, the mud, the hunger, and
the maltreatment all carry a political charge, a condemnation of
injustice (and those in positions of power who create it), and a
validation of the quiet anger and dignified stoicism of the
common man in response.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH
Type of work: Novel
Author: John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
Type of plot: Social criticism
Time of plot: 1930s
Locale: Southwest United States and California
First published: 1939
A bitter chronicle of the exodus of farm families from the Dust
Bowl during the 1930s, this work is a harsh indictment of our
capitalistic economy. Searching for work in California, the Joads begin
their long journey. Treated like enemies by the businessmen along their
path, the older members of the family die, and those remaining are
herded into migrant camps where the poor help one another to survive.
Tom Joad, Jr., an ex-convict. Returning to his home in Oklahoma after
serving time in the penitentiary for killing a man in self-defense, he
finds the house deserted, the family having been pushed off the land
because of dust bowl conditions and in order to make way for more
mechanized farming. With Casy, the preacher, he finds his family and
makes the trek to California in search of work. During labor
difficulties Tom kills another man when his friend Casy, who is trying
to help the migrant workers in their labor problems, is brutally killed
by deputies representing the law and the owners. He leaves his family
because, as a "wanted" man, he is a danger to them, but he leaves with a
new understanding which he has learned from Casy; it is no longer the
individual that counts but the group. Tom promises to carry on Casy's
work of helping the downtrodden.
Tom Joad, Sr., called Pa, an Oklahoma farmer who finds it difficult to
adjust to new conditions while moving his family to California.
Ma Joad, a large, heavy woman, full of determination and hope, who
fights to hold her family together. On the journey to California she
gradually becomes the staying power of the family.
Rose of Sharon Rivers, called Rosasharn, the married, teenage daughter
of the Joads. Her husband leaves her, and she bears a stillborn baby
because of the hardships she endures. As the story ends she gives her
own milk to save the life of a starving man.
Noah, the slow-witted second son of the Joads. He finally wanders off
down a river when the pressures of the journey and his hunger become too
Al, the third son of the Joads. In his teens, he is interested in girls
and automobiles. He idolizes his brother Tom.
Ruthie, the pre-teenage daughter of the Joads.
Winfield, the youngest of the Joads.
Uncle John, the brother of Tom Joad, Sr. He is a lost soul who
periodically is flooded with guilt because he let his young wife die by
ignoring her illness.
Grampa Joad, who does not want to leave Oklahoma and dies on the way to
California. He is buried with little ceremony by the roadside.
Granma Joad, also old and childish. She dies while crossing the desert
and receives a pauper burial.
Jim Casy, the country preacher who has given up the ministry because he
no longer believes. He makes the trek to California with the Joads. He
assumes the blame and goes to jail for the "crime" of a migrant worker
who has a family to support. He is killed as a "red" while trying to
help the migrant workers organize and strike for a living wage.
Connie Rivers, Rosasharn's young husband, who deserts her after arriving
Floyd Knowles, a young migrant worker with a family, called a "red"
because he asks a contractor to guarantee a job and the wages to be
paid. He escapes from a deputy sheriff who is attempting to intimidate
the workers. Tom Joad trips the deputy and Jim Casy kicks him in the
back of the head.
Muley Graves, a farmer who refuses to leave the land, although his
family has gone. He remains, abstracted and lonely, forced to hide, and
is hunted and haunted.
Jim Rawley, the kind, patient manager of a government camp for the
Willy Feeley, a former small farmer like the Joads; he takes a job
driving a tractor over the land the Joads farmed.
Ivy Wilson, a migrant who has car trouble on the way to California with
his sick wife Sairy. The Joads help them and the two families stay
together until Sairy becomes too ill to travel.
Sairy Wilson, Ivy's wife. When the Wilsons are forced to stay behind
because of her illness, she asks Casy to pray for her.
Timothy Wallace, a migrant who helps Tom Joad find work in California.
Wilkie Wallace, his son.
Aggie Wainwright, the daughter of a family living in a boxcar with the
Joads while they work in a cotton field. Al Joad plans to marry her.
Jessie Bullitt, Ella Summers, and Annie Littlefield, the ladies'
committee for Sanitary Unit Number Four of the government camp for
Tom Joad was released from the Oklahoma state penitentiary where he had
served a sentence for killing a man in self-defense. He traveled
homeward through a region made barren by drought and dust storms. On the
way, he met Jim Casy, a former preacher; the pair went together to the
home of Tom's family. They found the Joad place deserted. While Tom and
Casy were wondering what had happened, Muley Graves, a die-hard tenant
farmer, came by and disclosed that all the families in the neighborhood
had gone to California or were going. Tom's folks, Muley said, had gone
to a relative's place to prepare for going west. Muley was the only
sharecropper to stay behind.
All over the southern Midwest states, farmers, no longer able to make a
living because of land banks, weather, and machine farming, had sold or
were forced out of the farms they had tenanted. Junk dealers and
used-car salesmen profiteered on them. Thousands of families took to the
roads leading to the promised land, California.
Tom and Casy found the Joads at Uncle John's place, all busy with
preparations for their trip to California. Assembled for the trip were
Pa and Ma Joad; Noah, their mentally backward son; Al, the adolescent
younger brother of Tom and Noah; Rose of Sharon, Tom's sister, and her
husband, Connie; the Joad children, Ruthie and Win-field; and Granma and
Grampa Joad. Al had bought an ancient truck to take them west. The
family asked Jim Casy to go with them. The night before they started,
they killed the pigs they had left and salted down the meat so that they
would have food on the way.
Spurred by handbills which stated that agricultural workers were badly
needed in California, the Joads, along with thousands of others, made
their tortuous way, in a worn-out vehicle, across the plains toward the
mountains. Grampa died of a stroke during their first overnight stop.
Later, there was a long delay when the truck broke down. Small business
people along the way treated the migrants as enemies; and, to add to
their misery, returning migrants told the Joads that there was no work
to be had in California, that conditions were even worse than they were
in Oklahoma. But the dream of a bountiful West Coast urged the Joads
Close to the California line, where the group stopped to bathe in a
river, Noah, feeling he was a hindrance to the others, wandered away. It
was there that the Joads first heard themselves addressed as Okies,
another word for tramps.
Granma died during the night trip across the desert. After burying her,
the group went into a Hooverville, as the migrants' camps were called.
There they learned that work was all but impossible to find. A
contractor came to the camp to sign up men to pick fruit in another
county. When the Okies asked to see his license, the contractor turned
the leaders over to a police deputy who had accompanied him to camp. Tom
was involved in the fight that followed. He escaped, and Casy gave
himself up in Tom's place. Connie, husband of the pregnant Rose of
Sharon, suddenly disappeared from the group. The family was breaking up
in the face of its hardships. Ma Joad did everything in her power to
keep the group together.
Fearing recrimination after the fight, the Joads left Hooverville and
went to a government camp maintained for transient agricultural workers.
The camp had sanitary facilities, a local government made up of the
transients themselves, and simple organized entertainment. During the
Joads' stay at the camp, the Okies successfully defeated an attempt of
the local citizens to give the camp a bad name and thus to have it
closed to the migrants. For the first time since they had arrived in
California, the Joads found themselves treated as human beings.
Circumstances eventually forced them to leave the camp, however, for
there was no work in the district. They drove to a large farm where work
was being offered. There they found agitators attempting to keep the
migrants from taking the work because of unfair wages offered. The Joads,
however, thinking only of food, were escorted by motorcycle police into
the farm. The entire family picked peaches for five cents a box and
earned in a day just enough money to buy food for one meal. Tom,
remembering the pickets outside the camp, went out at night to
investigate. He found Casy, who was the leader of the agitators. While
Tom and Casy were talking, deputies, who had been searching for Casy,
closed in on them. The pair fled but were caught. Casy was killed. Tom
received a cut on his head, but not before he had felled a deputy with
an ax handle. The family concealed Tom in their shack. The rate for a
box of peaches dropped, meanwhile, to two-and-a-half cents. Tom's danger
and the futility of picking peaches drove the Joads on their way. They
hid the injured Tom under the mattresses in the back of the truck, and
then they told the suspicious guard at the entrance to the farm that the
extra man they had had with them when they came was a hitchhiker who had
stayed behind to pick.
The family found at last a migrant crowd encamped in abandoned boxcars
along a stream. They joined the camp and soon found temporary jobs
picking cotton. Tom, meanwhile, hid in a culvert near the camp. Ruthie
innocently disclosed Tom's presence to another little girl. Ma,
realizing that Tom was no longer safe, sent him away. Tom promised to
carry on Casy's work in trying to improve the lot of the downtrodden
The autumn rains began. Soon the stream that ran beside the camp
overflowed and water entered the boxcars. Under these all but impossible
conditions, Rose of Sharon gave birth to a dead baby. When the rising
water made their position no longer bearable, the family moved from the
camp on foot. The rains had made their old car useless. They came to a
barn, which they shared with a boy and his starving father. Rose of
Sharon, bereft of her baby, nourished the famished man with the milk
from her breasts. So the poor kept each other alive in the Depression
The publication of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath caused a
nationwide stir in 1939. This account of the predicament of migrant
workers was taken more as social document than as fiction. Some saw it
as an expose of capitalist excesses; others, as a distorted call to
revolution. Frequently compared to Uncle Tom's Cabin, it was awarded the
Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1940.
Recent literary critics, taking a second look at the novel, have often
lumped it with a number of other dated books of the 1930s as
"proletarian fiction." A careful reader, however, recognizes that
beneath this outraged account of an outrageous social situation lies a
dynamic, carefully structured story that applies not only to one era or
society but also to the universal human predicament.
As a social document, the novel presents such a vivid picture of
oppression and misery that one tends to doubt its authenticity.
Steinbeck, however, had done more than academic research. He had
journeyed from Oklahoma to California, lived in a migrant camp, and
worked alongside the migrants. (Peter Lisca reports that after the novel
appeared, the workers sent Steinbeck a patchwork dog sewn from scraps of
their clothing and wearing a tag labeled "Migrant John.") Before making
the motion picture, which still stands as one of the great films of the
era, Darryl F. Zanuck hired private detectives to verify Steinbeck's
story; they reported that conditions were even worse than those depicted
in the book. The political situation was a powder keg; Freeman Champney
has remarked that "it looked as if nothing could avert an all-out battle
between revolution and fascism in California's great valleys."
Social injustice was depicted so sharply that Steinbeck himself was
accused of being a revolutionary. Certainly, he painted the oppressive
economic system in bleak colors. Warren French argues convincingly,
however, that Steinbeck was basically a reformer, not a revolutionary;
that he wanted to change the attitudes and behavior of people—both
migrants and economic barons—not overturn the private enterprise system.
Indeed, Steinbeck observes that ownership of land is morally edifying to
Steinbeck once declared that the writer must "set down his time as
nearly as he can understand it" and that he should "serve as the
watchdog of society ... to satirize its silliness, to attack its
injustices, to stigmatize its faults." In The Grapes of Wrath, he does
all these things, then goes further to interpret events from a
distinctly American point of view. Like Whitman, he expresses love for
all men and respect for manual labor. Like Jefferson, he asserts a
preference for agrarian society in which men retain a close, nourishing
tie to the soil: his farmers dwindle psychologically as they are
separated from their land, and the California owners become oppressors
as they substitute ledgers for direct contact with the soil. Like
Emerson, Steinbeck demonstrates faith in the common man and in the ideal
of self-reliance. He also develops the Emersonian religious concept of
an oversoul. The preacher Jim Casy muses "... maybe that's the Holy
Spent—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul
ever'body's a part of it." Later, Tom Joad reassures Ma that even if he
isn't physically with her, "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. . . . I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they
know supper's ready. . . ."
This theme, that all men essentially belong together and are a part of
one another and of a greater whole that transcends momentary reality, is
what removes The Grapes of Wrath from the genre of timely proletarian
fiction and makes it an allegory for all men in all circumstances.
Warren French notes that the real story of this novel is not the Joads'
search for economic security but their education, which transforms them
from self-concern to a recognition of their bond with the whole human
race. At first, Tom Joad is intensely individualistic, interested mainly
in making his own way; Pa's primary concern is keeping bread on his
table; Rose of Sharon dreams only of traditional middle-class success;
and Ma, an Earth-Mother with a spine of steel, concentrates fiercely
upon keeping the "fambly" together. At the end, Tom follows Casy's
example in fighting for human rights; Pa, in building the dike, sees the
necessity for all men to work together; Rose of Sharon forgets her grief
over her stillborn child and unhesitatingly lifts a starving man to her
milk-filled breast; and Ma can say "Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It
ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do."
Thus the Joads have overcome that separation which Paul Tillich equates
with sin, that alienation from others which existentialists are so fond
of describing as the inescapable human condition.
It is interesting to note how much The Grapes of Wrath, which sometimes
satirizes, sometimes attacks organized Christian religion, reflects the
Bible. In structure, as critics have been quick to notice, it parallels
the story of the Exodus to a "promised land." Symbolically, as Peter
Lisca observes, the initials of Jim Casy are those of Jesus Christ,
another itinerant preacher who rebelled against traditional religion,
went into the wilderness, discovered his own gospel, and eventually gave
his life in service to others.
The novel's language, too, is frequently biblical, especially in the
interchapters, which, like a Greek chorus, restate, reinforce, and
generalize from the specific happenings of the narrative. The cadences,
repetitions, and parallel lines all echo the patterns of the Psalms—Ma
Joad's favorite book.
Even the title of the novel is biblical; the exact phrase is Julia Ward
Howe's, but the reference is to Jeremiah and Revelation. The grapes have
been a central symbol throughout the book: first of promise,
representing the fertile California valleys, but finally of bitter rage
as the midwesterners realize that they have been lured west with false
bait and that they will not partake of this fertility. The wrath grows,
a fearsome, terrible wrath; but, as several interchapters make clear,
better wrath than despair, because wrath moves to action. Steinbeck
would have his people act, in concert and in concern for one another—
and finally prevail over all forms of injustice.