Afflict the Comforted,
Comfort the Afflicted
(A Book Review of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath)
If it can be said that a work of literature has the potency to afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted, then I believe John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath fulfills this basic literary tenet, which accounts for its enduring status and seemingly more.
The coming of a long drought to America’s midsection in the 1930s set the book in motion: farmers can’t survive on dried-out land, nor can the banks that own the land make profit when the tenant farmers don’t grow enough food to feed themselves. The book then focuses on the experiences of the Oklahoman Dust Bowl refugees, or the Okies as they were euphemistically called during the Great Depression, seen through the eyes of a simple farming family, the Joads. After being evicted from their home, the Joads travel on a 200-mile journey half-way across the continent in an over-crowded, heavy-laden old jalopy across Highway 66, across hot desert sands, on to the Promised Land: the rich valleys of central California, the land of milk and honey, in search of a brighter future; further on the road to disillusionment and revelation, scrounging for bread and eventually toward survival.
All throughout reading The Grapes of Wrath, I can’t help but feel that I’m amidst something special, something big (a reference not only to the book’s relative thickness but also to its immense subject matter), at the heart of something divine. However, what truly made this 1940 Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece a memorable read is that it set me on the verge of internal agitation while reading it; gnashing with pain, seething with anger after witnessing the inhumanities done to the dispossessed, downtrodden migrants. Perhaps this particular emotion was what Steinbeck aims for his reader to feel foremost. Though the novel’s title was taken from a line in Julia Ward Howe’s The Battle Hym of the Republic, as suggested to him by his first wife Carol, I think the main reason why the book was designated thus is that anger in many guises dominates the book. The tenant farmers are angry with the landowners and the bank (aptly called Monster in the book) who took away not only their means of living, but a piece of themselves, a part of their soul, their dignity. The Californians are angry with the migrants, seen through how they brutally treat them and how they resort to derogative name calling as if they’re filth clinging on their mouths, for they see them as threats who will take away their jobs, their meager wage. Most of all the migrants are angry. In the land of plenty, they are starving. In a country who espouses freedom, they are suppressed whenever voicing their miserable plight and that of their fellowmen.
Page after page, I couldn’t help but ask myself: What decade am I living in? These people robbed of the lands that were first tilled by their forefathers with sweat and blood remind me of the ill-fraught scuffle over the farms in Hacienda Luicita in Tarlac that resulted in violence and the lost of many lives, mostly on the farmers’ side. The book even hark me back to that episode in Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo about Kabesang Tales who after laboring hard to make a piece of nearby land arable was taken away just as easily by the greedy friars and thus opted to be an outlaw calling himself Matanglawin. The underhanded tactics depicted in the book used by the Californian farmers still prevail up to this day: the accusation that one instigating migrant who “talks red” (read: communist) is not far from the usual allegation thrown to some of our impoverished farmers as being members of the NPA. For all the living comforts we have in the city, we just don’t know it, nor can we be able to imagine, that feudal agricultural labor industry still reign perhaps tucked in secluded corners of our provinces. Right now I’m still wondering what ever happened to the revision of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program “which seeks to empower the lives of agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) through equitable distribution and ownership of the land based on the principle of land to the tiller”?
Let me ask you now: what decade are we living in?
This is why I believe Steinbeck’s timely tale of the predicament of the 1930s continues to engage the reader is that in its bare bones it speaks of humanity’s universal struggle: social injustice which taken to its primeval essence is man’s cruelty against man.
That Steinbeck managed to evoke in his readers mounting sympathy for his characters attests on how well he has drawn them as fully realized individuals, yet also rendering them as representatives of the social class and circumstances they exist in which in turn contribute to the reader’s sense of involvement. He is after all no stranger to the conditions the migrants had been through, having done a series of investigative reports for the San Fransisco News which apparently became the seed for this novel. The reader can see how he closely scrutinized and fashioned the way his characters speak. I’m no American but by just the way it is read strikes a semblance to the manner how a true Oklahoman could’ve spoken it. I agree that it slows down the reading of the novel and requires some getting used to on the part of the reader with its unusual spelling of words (that needs a lot of figuring out) because migrant people drop the sounds of certain letters, like the G in the words ending in ing, and they often slur two words into one while some of their speech is marked by folk expression. As I had said earlier, these characters embody the social group where they belong and seeing them talk in perfectly structured English sentences would have hardly come off as authentic.
Creating this array of living, breathing characters is a brilliant achievement in itself, but it seems the novel’s vast subject and themes require even more — this then is the part where alternate chapters, or interchapters as Steinbeck called it, come into play. At first I thought these were just digressions that take my attention away from the main narrative thread, the Joad’s journey. I see them as “fillers” that make an already thick book thicker, as hollow words adding heft to the bulk. I even fancied skipping them, but it seems doing it is like cheating my way through the book. How wrong was I when I completely grasp the purpose it wish to accomplish in establishing a close relationship in the narrative thread. Simply put, interchapters is a technique devised by Steinbeck as a way of filling in the larger picture, used mainly as short sketches of economic and social history that bear on the story and that in its totality compromise a colorful background montage on migrant life. More than this, what makes alternating chapters a pliable literary technique is that they provide the author creative leeway to voice his statements, in melding two kinds of chapter in the readers mind and in reinforcing symbolic function. Moreover, it broadens the range of the novel and vividly portrays a social problem of national scope that goes beyond mere propaganda and gives it a true artistic merit. In fact, it is in these brief episodes where Steinbeck shows his writing prowess and I find it hard not to be impressed by the richness of language that though using a straight forward narrative prose is at times accentuated by highly poetic descriptions with sensual images mingled with the use of figure of speech. Sometimes he uses a collage of words to give the readers an impression of the place or the event.
The Grapes of Wrath continuous to be read not only as a piece literary or social history, but with a sense of emotional connection that like great works of art has a universal message that reaches far beyond place and time. It is more than the story of the Joads and their problems. The Joads represent all victims of oppression and poverty, the exploitation of an underclass by the power structure. They exemplify endurance and the will to survive. Ma is a mythic figure, the Earth mother — nourishing, strong and protective of her family; Jim Casy symbolizes the good and moral man; Tom, the man of action who comes to the rescue when people are in need. These are memorable characters that stand held as dear as today as they were in 1939.
If I may compare it as such The Grapes of Wrath is a fine wine where in each sip make plain the delicate process its has gone through, that after drinking, parting you lips from the cup will immediately give you fits of silent rage and deep inebriated admiration. That truly, you have been touched by a force larger than ourselves.
Until prejudice, deprivation, anger and frustration are wiped out we’ll need books like The Grapes of Wrath to inspire us and to help us to maintain our faith in humanity.
“In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” (Chapter 25)
Book #4 for 2011
Published by Penguin Books USA
(Trade Paperback, Penguin Twentieth-Century
Classics, 1992 Edition)
Started: February 14, 2011
Finished: February 27, 2011