Book Review: The Grapes of Wrath

By Melissa Fortuin

The Grapes of Wrath

Author: John Steinbeck

Year Published: 1939

Genre: Naturalism, Realism, Historical Fiction


For all you Orwellian peeps out there fighting the Man. This one is for you!

The reason why I’ve chosen this jewel for today is due to the fact that under the current economic climate, it seems that talk around the table has become considerably less about positive things, and more on issues concerning financial strain. I think I have always known that the world was more of a mess than the mind is willing to admit. The world is and was always in a constant state of Ying and Yang, darkness and light, peace and war and ultimately rich and poor. When it really hit me just how strange the wheels of Earth turned was a couple of weeks back with the burning of Notre Dame. Within days, anonymous donors all across the globe were able to rack up millions and millions of dollars in order to facilitate the repair process of damaged caused to the centuries-old icon of the Christian faith. The figure was astounding, and all I could think was: if a burning church can raise this much money to be restored back to its previous glory, how on earth is the world not able to help the disenfranchised citizens from all around the world? Who are these faceless and nameless beings walking around with enough money to end world hunger, wars, strife, inequality… And literally, choose not to?

Who are the faceless men keeping us hungry and poor? Why are they keeping us hungry and poor? And why does the utter realization of this make me very… Very… Angry. And very very hopeless.

I know the human struggle is nothing new. Humans have been subjected to the harsh realities of life well, since humans were drawing stick figurines on caves. If one was aware of history itself, through conquering and fallen civilizations, you’d probably think that well, in our modern century we have it pretty easy. A lot has happened during the birth and molding of these times, such as the birth of ethics, and rights, and the priceless scale of human life has been tipped, but has any of that made the average human less selfish towards the struggles of his brethren? This is why for this issue we will be taking a look at one of the most iconic authors John Steinbeck and his novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Some of you readers may already be familiar with our author for today, due to perhaps delving into his works while in high school. I keenly remember being presented with the opportunity to study two notable Steinbeck works, The Pearl and The Red Pony while in grade 9 and 10 respectively. I could be wrong, but here’s a little history on him. John Ernst Steinbeck was born on the 27th of February 1902 to treasurer John Steinbeck and teacher Olive Hamilton. Although growing up religious he ended up being agnostic in the later years of his life. He grew up in a rural town and worked on farms alongside migrants, perfect grounds for the observations of human nature that would echo in his work. Considered one of the powerhouses of American literature, this Nobel and Pulitzer winning authors work, is considered classics of Western literature. Here in this novel, we follow one family, the Joads, during the Great Depression, who with very little to go by, try their utmost best to escape the grips of poverty, earn an honest living, whilst retaining their dignity and humanity. Here’s a bit of plot with a side order of little to no spoilers.

The Joad family are demanded to leave their farm in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in hopes of finding a brighter future in the green fertile lands of California. Tom Joad returns from prison (hopefully expecting a cake and candles) only to find the older males plotting and planning their escape from the job stealing tractors to the promise of orchards to fill their bellies and sunlight to dispel all the dark days of being dirt poor on a failing farm. Not the celebration he hoped to find, Tom along with his parents, a set of grandparents, his siblings, a brother in law, uncle, And a pastor all pack up the few belongings in their name, a bit of cash, pile it on a truck and head on over to California to find work. They are however not the only ones, and are in fact amongst thousands of “Okies” set on migration, a myriad of little trucks piled up high with clothes and the stern faces of family members. The journey proves to be rough, coupled with rumors and the growing suspicion that the promise of the West Coast was nothing but a trap, an elaborate plan to ensnare the desperately poor of the Midwest and to dehumanize fellow countrymen due to their lack of means. The Joads find themselves struggling to retain their family, dignity, and lives while trying their best to survive.

Written in mostly straightforward English absent of unnecessary flourish or frills, this use of language seems to really bring forth the story and draws in from the universal experience of the everyday proletariat in a vision of the all-consuming struggle to break from the shackles of survival to flourishing unabated freedom. Most if not all people struggling to make ends meet have probably at one stage or another asked themselves if they were intentionally being kept from reaching their full potential, from doing well, all in the pursuit of a honest day’s wages. We look side to side at those with seemingly no issues rising above us, and we hold our hands out waiting to be lifted, but more often than not are greeted with coldness and refusal. I think there is really a lot to unpack and not enough words for a single article, but here is my take.

The themes of dehumanizing capitalism I think echo very deeply in our modern society. Money in a way has risen in value above that of the human. Many people do not realize that money controls most of their waking thoughts, their freedoms and their paths in life. Many people have been forced or chose to do things they would have preferred not to for the sake of providing. Steinbeck uses great language and symbolism to raise the awareness of the lengths we go to to have things. We feel the spacial dust and emptiness of the barren land of Oklahoma in our hearts and in our wallets. We feel ourselves pack up our belongings from desk to desk, as do the Joads who move from campsite to campsite, always holding onto the dream of something better to come, but not letting go of the tiny crippling fear that the destination in its finality might not be to our satisfaction. The faceless monsters of Steinbeck’s money-driven world are the same monsters of ours, the kinds who let people go hungry or throw bombs over borders, because of the greater forces at play: wealth. The theme of the individual versus the greater good is one of the main driving forces and brings up a great moral question. How much do I really owe my fellow man?

The answer? I don’t know! Hell, I have tough days where I feel like I can do nothing for anybody but myself. It is, however, an interesting question, one I think requires a lot of thought, on why money demands so much respect, sacrifice, and alienation from the rest of the drowning world, and how much of an impact we have on our community on both a local and global scale.

On what is probably the first lighter note in this whole article, personally, I wish I could email one of those Notre Dame benefactors and tell them just to send me a cool mil’. You know… For research purposes. They eat sandwiches with gold dust that cost more. While I look up their particulars, be sure to grab yourself a sad and wicked tale of human selfishness, struggle and hope in The Grapes of Wrath. It’s sure to tug at your heartstrings.