on February 25, 2001
I don't know how anyone could read this book and not give it a five star rating. The true test for me of a "great book" is one that stays with me -- one I can't stop thinking about long after I've finished. I read this book for the second time in my life a month ago (first time was in high school many years ago), and I'm still haunted by the suffering endured by the Joad family. The interesting thing is that Steinbeck wrote this book in 1939 at the height of the injustices being fraught upon the migrant workers in California. I'm sure it wasn't popular then as it brought to the forefront the corruption of some powerful people in America. It also spoke to the conscience of every American which eventually led to political reform in California. After reading this book, I did some research into Steinbeck's motivation and learned that he was haunted by the plight of California's migrant workers to the point of obsession. To fuel his anger, he would visit the migrant camps each day full of their dirt, disease and hungry people and then return home to write about those people responsible for these conditions -- people he considered to be murderers.
Steinbeck concentrated on the circumstances of one family, The Joads, tenant farmers in Oklahoma until they were forced out by the larger companies who wanted their land back. With dreams of luscious grapes and peaches in abundance waiting to be picked, they loaded up their belongings and began their journey on Route 66 headed for Bakersfield, California. They began their trip with a bevy of colorful characters led by Ma and Pa Joad. It's amazing how much power Steinbeck gave to Ma Joad -- years before women had any right to a voice. Unfortunately, just as the Joads were heading out, so were thousands upon thousands of other families. This would ultimately lead to supply and demand. There would be too many workers for the few jobs available and, consequently, people would be agreeing to work for peanuts just to be able to feed their families.
Steinbeck's writing is astounding as the unrest of the migrants builds to a crescendo and just as the dust has risen in Oklahoma, so will the voices of the poor migrant workers. Steinbeck says, "In the eyes of the hungry, there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people, the grapes of wrath are growing heavy." It is just a matter of time before their wrath is unleashed and you can feel it in every page you turn. He says that, "Our people are good people; our people are kind people. Pray God some day kind people won't all be poor. Pray God someday a kid can eat." I don't know how you can read some of his words and not get teary eyed. But sixty years have passed since the writing of this book and there are still migrant stories to be told and kids who have no food to eat yet sadly the world continues despite its injustices.
I won't kid you into believing that this is an easy book to read. The first 150 pages are so slow going that I almost had to put it down. But I kept on going just as the Joad's kept on going and I'm certainly glad I did. We could all take a lesson from their quest for survival and their quest just to be able to eat the next day. Their determination, in light of all the obstacles they had to face, is truly a lesson to be learned. You feel a sense of accomplishment after reading a book like this -- I know I did.
on June 12, 2000
I can't remember the last time I was moved so profoundly by a work of fiction. I finished the book two weeks ago and have not been able to stop talking or thinking about it. Read this book. It will truly change the way you view the world.
The book is beautifully written. Steinbeck's style flows so smoothly and is so accessible. The book follows the Joad family for about nine months as they are driven from the place they've called home for generations and travel to California, only to find out that it is not the land of opportunity they expected. Steinbeck's formula here is to intersperse the lengthy chapters chronicling the Joads' journey with short chapters that encapsulate some nuance about the period or the people, giving you a picture of the greater struggle taking place, of which the Joads are just a small part. It creates a very powerful effect. This migration west involved hundreds of thousands of individuals. You see in a few pages the big picture, then you are pulled back into the intimacies of the Joads' lives and the tragedy is made very personal. In one especially startling example, Steinbeck puts these words into the mouth of a character after selling a nameless migrant and his family some gas for their car, "Well, you and me got sense. Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live like they do. A human being couldn't stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain't a hell of a lot better than gorillas." In the next chapter, the Joads make camp along a stream and Ma is so happy for the clean water and the chance to stay put for a day so that she can take a bath and wash the family's clothes. The Joads are good, honest, decent people looking for the means to earn an honest wage and thereby feed their family. The thought of charity repels them. At one point Pa talks about the prospect of picking cotton and is so excited about the fact that it's good, hard work, worthy of the wage he'll earn. How soft and incredibly privileged it makes us all seem. "They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless - restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do - to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut - anything, any burden to bear, for food."
I live in a citrus community in Florida, which is populated by a large number of migrant workers. It never occurred to me to wonder how they felt about their lives. I never thought to wonder if they had dreams of someday owning their own home and staying put for a while. I've read criticism that "The Grapes of Wrath" is a communist manifesto. It may have socialist leanings, but how long can individuals or a society overlook the less fortunate without feeling some shame? Read this book. It should be mandatory, but would be wasted on most teenagers (or maybe I just think it might have been wasted on me). Pick it up as an adult, as I did, and read it. You'll never again look at others or yourself in the same way.
on July 25, 2000
I have never read a better novel written by an American than THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Steinbeck's deeply touching tale of displaced families and a nation rent by Depression will never cease to be relevant.
The Joads and thousands of others are driven out of Oklahoma by drought and the Depression. It is bad enough they lose their farms to homes and have to move. It is worse that the big business fruit growers in California print misleading flyers claiming to have far more well-paying jobs available than they ever intended to have. It is miserable when they get to California (where the people curse them as "Okies") and find out that as few as one man owns as much a million acres--much of it lying fallow in front of their eyes.
As difficult as the plight of the Joads and families like them, Steinbeck does not paint the Californians or their police as evil so much as scared into treachery and violence in order to protect their own. No one wants to starve and starvation after the dust bowl and thanks to the exploitative wages paid by the vineyard owners is a very real possibility. Nor does he canonize the migrants--the societies that grow up by the side of the road each night have their own laws and lawbreakers, stout hearts and slatterns--but does show them as civilized people who don't deserve being treated like animals. Many fearful Californians don't agree.
Steinbeck's character Tom Joad (whose ghost lives on in a Bruce Springsteen's song recently covered by Rage Against the Machine) is as important to American literature as Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield and Jay Gatsby. Joad knows life offers no simple solutions, but he also knows that fair is fair. When a man's employers charge him for his work gear AND operate the stores where he must buy his food so that he often ends up OWING his employers more at the end of the week than his pitiful wages can cover, Tom Joad knows that's not just. He knows the land is fertile enough to feed everyone, so don't try giving him any speeches about "private property" and "supply and demand." If the test of a system and a society is how it treats it poorest members (especially in a crisis like the Depression), then the world the Joads live in fails miserably.
No less strong a character than her son Tom, Ma Joad embodies all the cliches about being a tower of strength without actually being a cliché herself. She and her family possess all the true grit and hearty spirit America prides itself on as a nation of pioneers, but by the 1930s the frontier has been bought up and the pioneers are in desperate straits.
This book is occasionally criticized for being too socialistic. This criticism is misguided; what THE GRAPES OF WRATH does is show how capitalism can and often does enrich the few while the many suffer. Steinbeck shows how breadbasket farmers were thrown off the land they had worked for generations so bankers in the East can make more profit. Can this happen today, even in a time of tremendous prosperity? Ask today's family farmers what agribusiness has done to them. THE GRAPES OF WRATH is no call to play the "Internationale," but it does starkly and intelligently raise questions about the meaning of equal opportunity and justice for all.
This is a book that should be required reading for Alan Greenspan, the editors of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, and triumphal capitalists everywhere who wince for their stock dividends when the unemployment rate goes down. Not to mention every single elected official in the United States. The subject matter is extremely heavy and sad, but Steinbeck's style is straightforward and easy (even with the various dialects he employs perfectly). THE GRAPES OF WRATH does what so very few great novels can: it will take a lot out of you, but leave you with much more than you had when you began.
on February 5, 2004
You know it's an American classic, and everything that has been written about it being a great book that depicts an era in American history in a phenomenal way is true. I will just point out two things that I think the person who reads this book should know (especially if the reader is anything like me):
1. The book starts out sort of slow. I read the beginning and wondered what I had gotten myself into. In fact, it started out so slow that I would have put it down had it not been required reading. I urge you to keep reading! The book is a classic for a reason, and it is good. Eventually, it turns into a real page-turner, and you want to find out what happens next to the Joad family. Later, you will want to check out what other people have said about this book. I never would have gotten all of the Biblical allusions or other symbolism without reading and discussing this book with others.
2. The ending will surprise you. It shocked me. I definitely won't spoil it, but the ending of this book left me, quite literally, jaw wide open. WHAT? I thought. Oh my gosh! I was glad I had someone to talk about it with, because even in today's world, I'm sure most people would find it shocking. And it is nothing like the movie.
That's my two cents. This book is a great addition to your literary knowledge, and if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it, from both the literary angle and the historical perspective.
on July 5, 2000
I always hesitate before attempting to write a critical review of a classic novel, particularly one as monumental as "The Grapes of Wrath." So let me start this out by saying, YES, the book is a well-deserved classic, and YES, I would recommend that each and every person go out and get a copy. As many other reviewers have pointed out, this novel has an uncanny ability to affect its readers, to make them re-evaluate the nature of compassion, fortitude, and human dignity. Much of this is due to Steinbeck's brilliant structuring of the novel, as he alternates the chapters dealing with the direct struggles of the Joad family with more elaborate "big-picture" depictions of the migrant movement in general.
That being said, however, "The Grapes of Wrath" can be an extremely frustrating reading experience for an unprepared reader. Its sheer length (around 600 pages) can be initially daunting, and the copious amounts of dialogue (all written in dialect) take some time to get used to. "Grapes" can even be difficult for Steinbeck fans because it is in many ways rather an anomaly in his canon. Though the story of the Joads is compelling, there is evidence that Steinbeck was somewhat uncomfortable with these parts of the novel: Characters introduced in the beginning simply disappear halfway through, contributing little to the overall story, and in general the characterization is weaker here than it is in other novels like "Of Mice And Men," curious considering that "Mice" is about one-fifth the size of "Grapes." There is repetitiveness in the dialogue and the trials faced by the Joads, and the novel's pacing likewise suffers.
In my opinion, the "Big picture" chapters are better written than the Joad chapters--on the whole more interesting, more powerful, and certainly more complex (as Steinbeck switches back and forth with his narrative voice and point of view). Chapter 25, in which the novel's title (taken from the Battle Hymn of the Republic) appears is probably the finest of the novel. Moreover, in spite of some weaknesses in pacing and plot, the story of the Joads personal hardships contain several scenes which are infused with a similar ability to produce a devestating and uplifting feeling in the reader. The novel's final scene with Rosasharn is positively brilliant in its conception and execution.
I've tried to be fair and honest in this review, and I hope my comments will help you to enjoy "Grapes" without frustration. It is a remarkable novel.
"The Grapes of Wrath," written in 1939 by John Steinbeck, is a book about the Great Depression, and one poor sharecropper family's struggle to survive the worst deprivations that American society in the 1930's had to offer. Indeed, perhaps no American work of fiction fits the label of "The Great American Novel" better than Steinbeck's wonderfully written and still highly controversial masterpiece of fiction.
Set in the 1930's, in America's "Dust Bowl," this is the tale of the Joad family, a large clan of poor Oklahoma sharecroppers, and how they are forced into a decision to migrate to California. It's also the story of the many trials and sufferings that they endure during their long and harrowing journey.
Forces of nature and the forces of economics have conspired to force the Joads off their farms. So, this proud, hard-working family, sells most of their worldly possessions in order to buy a run-down old jalopy. The whole family - Ma and Pa; Granma and Granpa; Tom (the oldest son, and an ex-convict recently paroled from prison); Al (Tom's younger brother); Uncle John (Pa's brother); Ruthie and Winfield (Ma and Pa's youngest children); the heavily pregnant Rose of Sharon (Tom's younger sister) and her husband Connie; and the Reverend Jim Casy (a family "friend") - pack themselves, along with their essential goods, aboard their decrepit old vehicle, and depart for the "promised land" on America's west coast.
The vast majority of this compelling novel tells the story of the Joads' plight while on the road. They are almost immediately confronted with the death of a loved one. This compounds their grief at the loss of their home and possessions. They find that most people they meet along the way despise, reject, and vilify them as dirty, filthy "Okies;" they receive aid and comfort from very few along their route. Yet, they remain undaunted; throughout their struggles, they remain focused on the ultimate realization of a dream: jobs, high pay, and a new life in California.
The great climax of "The Grapes of Wrath" sees the Joads once again suffering in unspeakable squalor as they attempt to survive the violent forces of nature and humanity in this, the great western "promised land."
The basic plot of "The Grapes of Wrath" is exciting, suspenseful, gripping, and possessed with a terrible beauty. It is written perhaps in the finest traditions of the early twentieth century "muckraking" novels, exposing, as it does, the worst societal ills that were prevalent in American society of the 1930's.
This book serves as Steinbeck's soapbox, as he deplores the exploitation of California's migrant workers during this era. Indeed, the author is frequently barely able to contain his moral outrage at the sufferings of thousands of "Okies," and their often violent treatment by landowners, businessmen, and even law enforcement officials.
"The Grapes of Wrath" abounds with wonderful character studies. The effects of indescribable suffering and abject poverty give Ma Joad the steel to evolve from her traditional role as a silent, obedient wife to become the true leader of the family. Conversely, Pa Joad's traditional role seems to diminish; he recognizes the fact, and, after only brief resistance, he defers to his wife's new role. Tom, ever so careful not to do anything to jeopardize his parole at the outset, finds himself increasingly outraged at his family's plight, and emboldened to action as a result.
This novel's central theme is still as relevant today as it was in 1939: the growing disparity between the "haves" - the rich - and the "have nots" - the poor. Perhaps this is the real reason why the book still generates such controversy. It holds a mirror up to us, and forces us to confront some unpleasant truths that we, as an "enlightened" society, would rather not face. And that, in itself, makes this brilliant book well worth reading.
on August 31, 2007
Detractors of this novel will tell you that The Grapes of Wrath is melodramatic, contrived, and relentlessly preachy - and I can't argue with them. The Grapes of Wrath is overwrought and about as subtle as a hand grenade, but it is also a powerfully affecting novel. I challenge even the most cynical reader not to be moved (at least a little) by the tragic story of the Joad family.
The novel is often described as a `sweeping epic' (which means it is longer than the average book). It is undeniably a classic and well worth reading, but is not without its flaws. The novel is compelling and I found myself having trouble putting it down as I neared the final chapters, however it does get bogged down in spots and some of the dialogue is repetitive. Steinbeck is unquestionably one of the most important writers of the 20th century, but (and let's be honest here) his prose is largely unremarkable (certainly when compared to Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby").
And then there are the politics...
Personally, I don't have a problem with an author having a strong point of view and expressing it in a novel. Yes, Steinbeck portrays a complex issue as if it were clear-cut. He portrays the migrants as good and noble (the men-folk may behave badly at times; drinkin', brawlin', and womanizin' but they are inherently good). Meanwhile, the banks and the land owners are evil personified. There is no middle ground in The Grapes of Wrath.
Despite what some reviewers would have you believe, The Grapes of Wrath is not a communist manifesto. It does however, question how a country so plentiful can allow so many to starve and suffer and Steinbeck doesn't hesitate to point his finger at those he feels are to blame. Reality is considerably more complex. The plight of the dustbowl farmers was inevitable as the economy changed and small family farms became unsustainable.
Steinbeck's narrative alternates between the Joad family's story (the even numbered chapters), and a series of expository chapters (the odd numbered chapters) that provide a broader perspective of the migrant experience. These expository chapters are the most politically charged and blatantly biased of the novel, but they also feature some of the best writing.
My review sounds mixed because I have mixed feelings about the novel. It is bold, but contrived, compelling, yet melodramatic, powerful, but preachy. All in all though its strengths outweigh its shortcomings. The Grapes of Wrath is well worth reading, just don't set your expectations too high. This isn't one of the best novels ever written, in fact, it isn't even Steinbeck's best.
on April 26, 2007
If you have not read this book, what are you waiting for? Is it because it was written before you were born? (1939) Does its name scare you, as it did me, into imagining it would be about all sorts of odd things, as I did? Well don't let your preconceived notions fool you. It's a terrific novel. It is a great piece of literature that won Mr. Steinbeck a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize, and eventually, with his other contributions to literature, earned him a Nobel Prize.
What can I say about the Joads that has not already been said in the past sixty-odd years? How could I have missed knowing them earlier? I read this story, with its "country speech" and "country ways" and wanted to take them all in. I wanted to comfort them all. I didn't know what I would find at the Joads when we first meet Tom going home. Who is this Tom Joad Jr. and why was he in jail? He must have had a HORRIBLE life to end up there, he must have. Then you meet the 'fambly.' You live with the 'fambly.' You see proud Pa try so hard to be the head of the home during the Dust Bowl migration. This family, who for generations upon generations, upon generations lived off their land. The land wasn't a piece of property, it was family. It fed them, it housed them. They raised a crop to sell, so they can pay off the loans they took when times were tough before. When the rains stopped coming, and the payments to the bank stopped being made, the 'banks' came and told all these people to leave. Imagine someone coming to tell you that the land you have lived on all your life, the land of your fathers and grandfathers belonged to the banks and you had to leave right now. Imagine the dread. All your life spent in the same place, with the same neighbors, the same strong values; "Yes Sir! Yes Ma'am!" No talking back, everyone knew their place. And then the dust came, and took away everything you knew.
The Joads sell everything they own, load up a beat-up truck with the necessities (food, water, mattresses, clothes, pots, pans) and head towards the promised land of California. Along with 500,000 other displaced people. All looking for land to work; it's all they know. You get land, you work it, it's yours. They had no idea what life outside of Oklahoma was really going to be like.
There's Ma, trying so hard to keep the family strong. She's the backbone. She eventually takes charge, which, back on their farm, was unheard of. Times were changing.
Ma & Pa, 6 kids, Grandma & Grandpa, Uncle John, the Preacher Casey, and Connie, the husband of one of Ma's daughters. Thirteen people in one truck.
I wanted to bring them home, let them eat, give them a hot bath, tell them it'll be ok. I wanted to simultaneously smack the heck out of Rose of Sharon (Rosasharn) and comfort her in the end; tell her she really did do good in God's eyes at that very last paragraph. I saw Ruthie grow in those 7 or 8 months into someone I did not like. She was mean, she was vindictive, she was 7. I saw humanity at its worse. Things like this really did happen in the early 1930's, after the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. These "Okies" were treated with contempt. They were kicked off their lands, treated like animals, paid meager wages or in some cases, they were paid with a loaf of bread for 16 hours of work, and it's disgusting. How would you fare? What would you be willing to do to feed your starving family?
It's a terrific book. I wish I knew how Noah fared. I wish I knew what happened to that spineless Connie. Is Tom ok? Did he take up the cause that Casey so tragically and instantaneously had taken from him? I imagine so. I imagine Tom forcing these cities who spurned them, who burned them out, who arrested them, to have to accept them; 500,000 strong. If not directly, then inspiring others to go on and on. The packing plants who throw away food, while these people sit outside the gates dying. The orange growers who sprayed kerosene on the overstock of oranges rather than give them away for free. The food thrown in rivers, with armed guards making sure no one took the food. Pigs slaughtered because they could not sell them, and hungry people staring, not understanding that there's a profit to be made.
"And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listening to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is a failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."
on March 27, 2000
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are the values upon which our country was founded. Yet history has shown that this has not been the case for many people living in the United States. Americans have been restricted from these rights because of unalterable circumstances such as race, sex, religion, or in the case of Grapes of Wrath, because of economic status. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck takes place during the 1930's, a time of nation wide economic hardship. Many books have been written about the great depression but this book is unique in its focus on another great tragedy effecting the country at the same time. The great dust bowl caused the migration of thousands of people from the Midwest US to the state of California in search of a better life for their families. This book addresses the hardships suffered by those families. This book is very effective in portraying these struggles both generally and personally. Steinbeck chose to alternate chapters between general descriptions of the country's struggles and the story of one specific family by the name of Joad. The general descriptions display the widespread difficulties people everywhere were suffering by describing the people as a general, family unit, "And the man, the leader of the family, leaned from the car. Can we pull in here an sleep?" (Steinbeck, p268) These chapters addressing the "big picture" were followed by chapters that brought the issue to life by displaying the struggles of the Joad family. This alternation of big picture, small picture story telling resulted in a well-rounded image of a time period in American history. So much can be gained from this book it is a definite asset to anyone's reading list. Not only is it a great chronicle of history, it is a story about the American dream, and the quality of life. The length of the book shouldn't provide an obstacle for a reader seeing as how it is neither exceptionally long nor short and it maintains a good amount of excitement and adventure throughout the novel. The only thing that may be distracting to some readers is the periodic breakaway from the main story line. However, if one can see this as a valuable literary device instead of an obstacle, it will actually provide a greater understanding of the time period. The Grapes of Wrath provides a great insight into a period of history. By reading the book, the reader is left with greater understanding and empathy for those who lived during the dust bowl of 1930. The bravery and strength that is demonstrated by the Joad family is both phenomenal and inspiring. It is a good example for people today who are suffering through difficult times. When these people where faced with hardship, they did not roll over and die. They picked up their lives and their families and they set out determined to find a way to protect and provide for themselves. At a time when everyday people in our country are turning to drugs, gangs, or crime as solutions to their problems, a great lesson can be learned from these families: The world is not perfect but that is no excuse to give up on life. And life was the picture John Steinbeck was trying to relay in his book. A raw, honest look at life during a time of great hardship and trial. The Joad family was an excellent portrayal of a typical family from the Midwest in search of the better life they had been promised elsewhere. Steinbeck characterized the family through dialogue that depicts both the diction and accent of a typical Midwest family in the 1930's, " 'You jus' goin wes'?' 'Jus' on our way.' 'You ain't never been in California?'" (278). Choosing to maintain the dialogue in this natural state adds to the authenticity of the novel and creates a better picture for the reader.
on January 19, 2000
I don't know if I can adequately express how wonderful I think this book is. Steinbeck writes with incredibly vivid imagery and passion in all his books but this is his best and affected me the most.
Grapes absolutely should be required reading, not only because it is Steinbeck or excellent literature but because it is a powerful story of human nature, social conscience, prejudice and classism. This book opened my eyes to the plight of yet one more minority group, migrant farm workers. I cannot drive by fields filled with people picking our fruits and vegetables without thinking of this book and the lives of these folks. Thank God for people like Cesar Chavez and the union he created to help. But I digress....
This is a heart-wrenching, sad story of a family's search for relief from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and a better life in California. The better life doesn't come by the end of the book but the reader is left a more compassionate person. Quite an accomplishment. Thank you Mr. Steinbeck.