The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is considered by many as his finest novel. Upon finishing the book I was left with a sense of hopelessness and unease. A great book is something which evokes emotions and reactions. A great book provides escapism and transports the reader to another time and another place. This was certainly the case for me, I was transported from my living room couch onto the back of the Joad’s truck as they travelled through the poverty stricken Dustbowl of 1930’s America.
The story surrounds the Joad family, a desperately poor family who leave their home in Oklahoma for a more prosperous life in California. The story is set during the the Great Depression in America, an overwhelming sense of poverty and desperation overhangs the whole book. Families live day to day, they do not eat regularly, there are no jobs and people resort to desperate measures to ensure their family survive starvation.
The Joad family are a close knit family who are the stereotypical poor American farmers, the only exception is Tom Joad, who is the main protagonist and is the most intriguing character from the outset. He has killed a man and has served four years in prison, he is freed to find the landscape he left has utterly changed. He is the leader of the family and negotiates the family through many trials and tribulations
The characters in the book are problematic, the Joad family and the people they meet along the way are one-dimensional stereotypes of the typical simple farmer; they are god-fearing, ill educated hard workers who are full of neighbourly love for their fellow man. The Californian people who have jobs and are in positions of power are portrayed as evil despots whose soul mission in life is to pile hardship on the starving masses.
The prose in the book is fantastic, never have I felt more involved in a story as Steinbeck expertly describes places, reactions and speech. I felt the heat of the day, the sweat drenched dust on my skin and weariness of not knowing where the next meal was coming from. The author describes at length the finest of details, there was one chapter at the start of the book dedicated entirely to a turtle meandering slowly across a road, it set the the scene perfectly in describing a vast land of failing crops and vacant houses.
The book was an obvious statement against collectivism. Millions of smallholding has to make way for huge collective farms. The country became more mechanized, tractors and machinery of various sorts replace the seasonal work enjoyed by labourers. Steinbeck was opposed to such changes and reportedly did a lot of research into the living conditions at the time. I felt that the book had very little balance in it, the conditions described are beyond horrific, it reminded me of stories one would hear of starvation and disease in a Holocaust setting. The final scene in the book is one which will haunt me for quite a while.
After finishing The Grapes of Wrath, I cannot wait to start East of Eden, I can’t believe I have let these classics pass me by for so long. This book was moving and upsetting at times, it captured my attention like no other book has done in a long time. I would love to hear an American perspective on The Grapes of Wrath, I know it is popular in the school systems and a modern day reaction would prove interesting.