Monday, August 15, 2011
Grapes of Wrath
To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.
It is finished! After three or four false starts, after two library editions and two paperback editions, it is finished. If one word could sum up my experience with this one, it would be sluggish. Of course, I can think of a few other words to describe it. But I'll share just one more: bleak. (Or perhaps bleakity-bleak.)
To sum this one as quickly as possible: The Joad family, devastated by losses in Oklahoma, are forced to pack it all up and head to California where they find that life is just as hard if not harder than they could have ever imagined. There is no happy welcome awaiting them, they are viewed--at best--as mere animals. The only way out of the harsh ugly reality is death. And even death doesn't come easy. The end.
I'm not going to try to convince you that The Grapes of Wrath is a horrible book. I'm not going to try to convince you that The Grapes of Wrath is a wonderful book. I can--at best--only share with you why we're not a good match for one another.
The language. There are certain words that offend me each and every time they're used. It doesn't matter the circumstances. It doesn't matter who or where or why. The Grapes of Wrath uses a great many of these words. (Or should I say repetition of the same word.) Are the words realistic? Probably. But that doesn't change my reaction to those words.
I had big, big, big problems with the character of Jim Casy. This "former preacher" annoyed me every time he opened his mouth. Though annoy isn't quite the right word. I'm not sure offended is the right word either. Simply because people can't use the word offended without people judging them. It's just that his language is so crude, so vulgar. That his "story" is so vulgar--how every time he got worked up "in the spirit" preaching, he had to find sexual release with young women from his church (or audience or wherever). Yes, that was mostly in the past, and yes, this "sin" is what led him to eventually give up faith and religion. Casy, when we meet him, doesn't believe in God, doesn't believe in the church or religion, doesn't believe in prayer, doesn't believe in sin, doesn't believe in the concept of right or wrong, or heaven and hell. Casy doesn't believe in anything at all really. There are no answers, there will never be any answers. Suffer, suffer, suffer, why have hope at all that you will ever do anything but suffer. Any time Casy talked about matters of faith or matters of the heart or anything remotely connected to spirituality or religion or even morals and ethics, I just wanted to yell at him. It doesn't help that according to "experts" Jim Casy is a "Christ figure." I read this on Wikipedia and Spark Notes. There are almost no words for how that makes any sense whatsoever. How someone so foul, so crude, so vulgar, so given-over-to-sin, someone who doesn't believe ANYTHING at all, someone who has no hope, no love, no peace, whose only message is now is all we got, and now is ugly is a "Christ figure." In what way at all--does he resemble Christ? Now, I'm not saying that everyone should hate Jim Casy. I am saying that as a reader I could not stand him.
Another big issue I had with The Grapes of Wrath has to do with style. The narrative style of this one is a bit odd. You have chapters that are clearly narrated by members of the Joad family, chapters that carry this story forward. Then you have chapters that read more like an out of body experience. These may focus on turtles or waitresses or car salesmen. But. They are clearly not like the other chapters in the novel. I never could quite figure out if the people in these chapters were the Joads--as seen from the outside perspective--or if the people (when the focus was on people not trees or turtles, etc.) were meant to represent any family facing this crisis, any family who had been devastated. I don't know that it matters. I just felt a great big disconnect every time we lost the main story, the real story. However, there were a couple of exceptions. There were times when these chapters were beautifully done and the text is richer for them--for the perspective they add to it. (Chapter fourteen comes to mind.)
I struggled with the first sixteen chapters. I did. I wasn't liking it. I wasn't liking it at all. But things began to shift a little with chapter seventeen. I don't know if the story truly improves once the family crosses into California, or if I just was in a better mood that day, but something changed. From that point on, the story while not always pleasant was more compelling. There was still violence to deal with, still some harsh realities to endure, but the second half definitely improved my impressions of the novel.
I am SO GLAD that this wasn't my first introduction to John Steinbeck. If it was, I never would have picked up any of his other books. I would have walked away knowing that I was right, that Steinbeck was not for me. The truth is, that Steinbeck was a good writer--at times great. That he wrote in many, many styles. That he had MANY stories to share with readers. Not just one story over and over and over again. Some of the stories he tells are very funny, very true-to-life, and even in their earthiest moments, there's something there worth reading. His stories can be very raw, very perceptive. The Grapes of Wrath was not for me. Perhaps the message was some things in life are so ugly that no amount of imagination can make them beautiful. I found the lack of hope and the vulgar language to be too much for me. But the very things that I dislike about it--the realistic portrayal of humanity at its weakest and worst--may be the very things some one else loves about it.
I read this book for the Classics Circuit tour.
© 2011 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews