Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck Response

I am glad that I read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath for a few reason. It wasn’t the easiest book to continue to read but was really something that needed continual mental dedication to finish. This sort of experience is probably contextual to the place and time with which the book pertains to: America in the 1930s (Great Depression). This was a time when people’s lives became destitute in a relatively short amount of time. Farms (largely due to unsustainable farming practices) became indebted to the wind which stole the fertile topsoil. The normal divide between rich and poor grew exponentially. Steinbeck portrays this time period amazingly well by doing so in a sort of photographic or documentary style. The imagery used is all quite crisp and throughout the book, I really got the sense of a dry, infertile and cruel landscape coupled alongside with a group of people that are despairing and grasping with their last bit of strength to survive.

Grapes of Wrath starts out with the recently paroled (for manslaughter charges) Tom Joad hitching a ride with a somewhat dumbfounded truck driver. After throwing the truck driver for a loop he gets off near what used to be his home in Oklahoma and meets an old childhood friend, the enthusiastic traveling (former) revival preacher Jim Casy. The two find common ground as they travel to the Joad farm. When they arrive they find it derelict with the family about to head off to the promised land; California (there is the opportunity of migrant farm labour amongst other jobs). The rest of the book is spent explaining their journey and their experiences in California.

Once the Joads and Jim Casy reach California they meet a situation that is hostile to the lower classes who are traveling in droves to the fertile land. The class separation is created in part by the Dust Bowl setting of which the “Okies” have fled. Aside from a few oases, relief from their desperation is rare. They along with many others struggle to survive. Steinbeck describes how the Californians were also once in a similar situation to the new migrants. When the land of California became a part of the United States (from Mexico), migrants rushed to the new land and were in equal squalor as the Okies back then.

The rejection of the Dust Bowl refugees by the vast majority of Californians perfectly captures the essence of the inequalities and imaginary rifts we tend to create between ourselves and other human beings. World history is full of faulty judgments made on the belief that we are essentially different than each other. It is interesting to see that same continual pattern played out in Grapes of Wrath.

Near the beginning of the book, the former revival preacher Jim Casy is fairly lost. Disillusioned with his past life of getting people “all hopped up on Jesus” after opting for a more humanistic attitude, he still misses his former life to some extent. In the latter half of the book he begins to move towards the green meme in the Spiral Dynamics theory. He comes to more of an awareness of the inequality of the situation he is in and starts organizing unions and workers strikes. It makes sense that a situation like the 30s would produce a character like Jim Casy. Adversity usually changes people, and sometimes does so radically (for better or worse). It creates a situation where resorting to extremes is necessary, and thus very exposes the core values a person has been fostering. The same is true for ourselves when we are in a situation that makes us struggle.

I am glad that I read the book as it provides a worthwhile window into the human suffering that we all go through at different points in our short lives. Even though that suffering varies in its potency, the same deprivation of a certain factor is still similar. I am also glad to have read it because of its historical significance. It is furthermore quite a beautiful book to read, especially with the short interspersed descriptive chapters which are basically poetry. I would recommend it if you don’t mind doing a bit of serious ploughing without much stimulus from the book.