Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Grapes of Wrath

Some literary works are timeless and I think the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is one of them. And what could be more timely given the current economic climate, and given that today is Blog Action Day, than to muse on some of the parallels between the time in which this novel is set and our time?

The most striking parallel, of course, is that the time of The Grapes of Wrath is the Great Depression of the 1930's. The economic collapse and the mass unemployment which followed the stockmarket crash of 1929 form the backdrop, on one level, to the tale of the survival of the Joad family, and on another level, to the resilience of human beings. The Great Depression is a point of reference for understanding the enormityof any recession, because it was the worst in history. A very knowledgeable Geoffery traces the impending recession of our time here, for anyone wanting to read one post that summarizes what you'd have to glean from dozens of different sources and experiences.

Out of this major parallel comes several smaller ones;
-the war time factor,

-mass migration (often illegal, often of Mexicans), the exploitation of these migrants, and how there came a time when desperation drove Americans to compete with migrants for jobs that they otherwise scorned, will history repeat itself?

-climate having a major impact on daily life- then it was drought conditions creating the dust bowl and destroying livelihood as well as food, now it is global warming and all its spin-off effects,

- a sizing up of the current politico-economic systems- whether they work and what are the alternatives.

This is an excellent novel for everyone to read now because it explores the ins and outs of living through a crisis like this. The central message, in the words of Ma Joad, is that "They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people-we go on." Although it is set in America, the novel has universal appeal. The title, taken from the Battle Hymn of the Republic, is pregnant (and you will see that I use this word deliberately) with meanings that are shared by many people the world over. The title signals that the novel will touch on religion, liberty, the anger of the poor, and human interdependence.

I admit, I had to read it in small portions because it is an agonizing story. Yet I read because it was such a compelling story; I had to go with the Joads all the way to California and see how things would turn out for them.

So, as I promised, today I write on the issue of poverty, and I do so by simply echoing the essence of the story of the Joads: in the face of abject poverty, sub-human conditions, in the face of sheer starvation, we people tend to dig deep and find the resources to survive, we tend to acknowledge our need for each other, and we tend to go on.


Jdid said...

never read any steinbeck except for the Pearl which they forced us to do at CXC back in the day. I'll check for grapes though.

Jacqueline Smith said...

Yikes, I remember the pearl, it was a very dark, sombre and depressing novel. I was so vexxed when after all that they went back and threw the pearl into the sea where it came from.

Unfortunately, Grapes isn't anymore cheerful, but it is a fairly authentic account of what the great depression was like. Steinbeck might have been too heavy with the wrath bit, but unlike the pearl, it ends on a high, albeit yucky note. Yucky? Yep, just think of your recent post about breastmilk. That kind of yucky.

Stephen Bess said...

So true. This book is very relevant today. It would be good to read this classic again. I know that I haven't read it since High School. Thanks for the reminder.

Stunner said...

These are indeed hard times and more and more people are finding it harder day by day. I remember The Pearl too in high school. Was a very deep and sad book.

Georganna Hancock M.S. said...

Thanks for participating in Blog Action Day and in the chain I started at A Writer's Edge.

Good job!

Georganna @ A Writer's Edge

Abeni said...

The Pearl,the book that shows that wealth or potential wealth sometimes come at a high cost. I loved both The Pearl and Grapes.

Daisy Soap Girl said...

I read The Pearl in school also but didn't appreciate it. Both books will be on my winter reading list.

Jacqueline Smith said...

You're probably right about that high cost part, in The Pearl it came at the cost of Kino's and Juana's baby, Coyotito. (Don't ask me how I remember this stuff I read donkey years ago). That's quite a high price to pay for a way out of abject poverty. I felt at the time of reading it that they should have taken the route of escape and gone on inspite of the baby's death. But they were bound by superstition and couldn't have acted differently.

This makes me think about the mindset of many poor people, there is very often the notion that something awful is going to happen if wealth comes.

There is a verse from the Bible that goes something like this: The blessing of the Lord maketh rich, and he adds no sorrow with it. I'm cool with that, although I have some problems with scripture.

Rebecca said...

That was a really good post! I remember reading the Grapes of Wrath in college and it was a really powerful book. The only thing was that it is a really long one too!

I wrote another post about the Great Depression. It's been on my mind lately because the current economic crisis and how many parallels there are.

Ruthibelle said...

like Jdid, I've only read The Pearl, and if I'm tp be very honest, I found it quite... ummm, well, let's just say it wasn't so interesting.

The literature book that made my day and "changed my life" was... well, there are two actually:
-Harper Lee's 'To Kill A Mockingbird'
-Ayi Kwei Armah's 'The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born'

These two books were so powerful and made such an impression on me that I'll never forget them! These, to me, are timeless stories!

Jacqueline Smith said...

Thanks for your comment Rebecca, I saw your blog action day post and found the discussion there about Roosevelt's New Deal both enlightening and interesting. I recommend it to anyone interested in socio-political commentary.


Geoffery Philp makes a point that we turn away many people from literature by making it an onerous chore in school, and he's probably right. The Pearl and Grapes are two of those books people should read because they want to. I didn't enjoy The Pearl when I had to read it at fourteen or so. And that is perfectly understandably, at fourteen there was no way I could see any value in such a gloomy text. Plus the edition we had carried these rather ugly illustrations. But it had to be a gloomy text because it is about poverty and injustice, and literature is about life; the good, the bad and the ugly. As an adult, with a different perspective, I read it again and loved it, and decided I would read anything by Steinbeck.

I would put To Kill a mocking bird in the top ten books I've ever read. The Beautiful Ones are not Yet Born sounds like something I'd want to read.

Thanks for your company, it's great to have you back.

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