Classics: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (& Why Its Portrayal of Extreme Poverty Matters)

Of Mice and Men is a wonderful novel and movie many people have read or seen. I was so excited to check out another classic from the same author, and this turned out to be one of the most memorable, stirring, and important books I’ve ever read.

Brief synopsis & formatting details

Migrants from MI driving to CA in a “jalopy”

Published in 1939, this story is set during the Dust Bowl Migration, which occurred in the American Great Depression. Many people from the Midwest-ish region, particularly sharecroppers, traveled to California. Economic hardships drove them towards an illusive dream of beautiful land flowing with fruit and job opportunities. The Joad family is one of many to chase this dream. When food and work become scarce in Oklahoma, they pack their few belongings and hit the road. The novel follows their journey from a third-person perspective, and one of the sons, Tom, is our protagonist.

Structurally, the novel oscillates between the actual story and these fascinating, penetrating diatribes that fall somewhere between prose and poetry. They provide thought-provoking commentary on everything from the bank’s impersonal formality in sentencing people to destitution to the ways poor men withhold generosity from other poor men, clinging to what little assets or authority they have (not realizing that those with real money and power view them all the same). Also, the vernacular imitates an old Midwestern accent, so the grammar is imperfect and colloquial terms crop up often (such as “jalopy,” an old, dilapidated vehicle).

Why this book is important

A mother of seven children

Originally, I intended to write separate sections to illustrate how the book is memorable, stirring, and important. I quickly realized the reasons all overlap. So, here is why this one fits those three adjectives: the portrayal of extreme poverty. The visions created in my mind of shanty towns put together by starving migrants…of families who haven’t showered in weeks…of one man’s account of his children dying of hunger…of workers lined up at an orchard at the crack of dawn, hoping beyond hope for a chance to do hard labor in the hot sun all day for nickels and dimes…I can’t and won’t forget these scenes. Unrelated to my main point, the book is also memorable because it conveys so much iconic imagery–like the whole Joad family loaded into their truck, the bed of it piled high with belongings, several family members perched at the top, driving down dusty, deserted roads under a blazing summer sun (sorta like in the earlier photo).

Those visions are so memorable because they are stirring. Reading these things makes me almost ashamed that I ever complain about anything, considering the luxuries and conveniences I have contrasted with those who are just trying to put food in their bellies. The rabbit trails throughout the story, where the narrator muses on deep topics, are also stirring in their profoundness.

A TX migrant family living in a trailer on a cotton field*

What makes this novel memorable and stirring is also what makes it important. As I read about these kind of material conditions, I couldn’t help but make connections to the current day. Having neither a roof over one’s head nor hygiene access are horrible circumstances to face, especially in a pandemic. Migrants and homeless people around the world live in these situations, and that should break all of our hearts. Recently, I saw a political commentator who was actually joking about port-a-potties being added to a homeless shanty town in San Francisco. Joking…about human beings living like this in one of the world’s wealthiest nations… We need to open our eyes.

Literature (and art in general) is amazing for a multitude of reasons, of course, but one of its greatest capabilities is to increase our awareness and understanding of different issues. Books take us into another world, but they sometimes bring us into a world that already exists, though we might’ve never thought about it or cared in the past. The Grapes of Wrath really exposed me to how tragic extreme poverty is. A book that can enlighten us and broaden our perspective is important, indeed.

*In the above photo, note how dirty the children are. Then, ponder the fact that migrants who lived in a trailer, a boxcar, or an actual structure were the lucky ones. Many lived (and many still live) in even worse conditions.

Fun facts

John Steinbeck

The novel won the National Book Award and the Pultizer Prize for Fiction.

John Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, in large part due to this novel.

At the time, some criticized Steinbeck for having political motives and deemed the novel communist propaganda. (I guess the Joads should’ve just picked themselves up by the bootstraps)

The title comes from a line in the hymn “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” —

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

Thanks for reading! Have you read any Steinbeck? Do you agree with my point on the power of literature and art? Let me know in the comments.

10 comments

  1. Really awesome post! I’ve not read Grapes of Wrath, though at school Of Mice and Men was part of the curriculum (I think, though my memory is worse than that of a goldfish!). I may have seen the movie of the latter as well.

    I agree with your reflections on homelessness and poverty. Actually, coincidentally, I signed up to support a couple of homelessness charities just yesterday as I was having similar thoughts to those you expressed in your post. I’ve nearly been homeless a couple of times myself. I fear that homelessness could become a huge problem in the coming decade if some of the things I’ve heard in relation to Covid-19 are true. We must pray about this!

    Love how you structured the post, your placement of images and formatting and everything, excellent as usual! Thank you for the effort you put into this. God bless 💛✌🏻

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Books take us into another world, but they sometimes bring us into a world that already exists, though we might’ve never thought about it or cared in the past. ”

    This is so true. The books that have done this for me most recently have been A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Hate U Give.

    Neither of these books would have been a choice I picked up on my own, but for “Suns” in particular, the member of my book club that presented the selection by writing a short story comparing our lives with those in the book – the similarities that were already there if we would just look a little deeper.

    I walked away from both pieces of fiction with a greater understanding of cultures I knew little about. As my aunt likes to say, “When we know better, we can DO better.” Reading gives us the opportunity to know, the doing is up to us. And it is more important now than it has ever been.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, I have Suns on my TBR shelf. I’ll have to read it soon. I just read THUG a few months ago. It so powerfully helped me better understand the perspective of a black teenager/a black person who’s seen a friend shot by police and experiencing the backlash from that viewpoint. Now, when I see people justify these killings in real life, I can better picture how that feels as someone who actually knew the person…how it would feel if someone I knew died and the world was clamoring to prove that they were actually a waste of space anyway.

      I love that quote that when we know better, we can do better. That applies to my life and some of the non-fiction books I’ve read, from acknowledging racial inequity to being more mindful of my waste and consumption habits. Knowledge truly is power!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Steinbeck is a favorite author of mine. In high school Forensics, I actually got to play Curly’s wife in her death scene from Of Mice and Men. That one and The Grapes of Wrath are two excellent example of his talent for drawing out truths from his time that still resonate today. You did a great job highlighting that here. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really loved your comment -“Books take us into another world, but they sometimes bring us into a world that already exists.” Just a question, the homeless in USA, the tent cities – is it mainly migrants?

    Like

  5. A great american novel. I read it as a prepubescent nerd quite some time ago and at least three times since. It is strange how as I change in years so does the book. It has been some time since I last read it and near time to take it up once again. I worry that it will not be as amazing as the last time.

    Oddly, as a youth I read dead authors, and now older, mostly living. Maybe I should make that the next post in my blog.

    Good entry though, “Grapes” does show poverty in a way most of us can only imagine.

    Like

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