Monday, August 15, 2011

Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck. 1939. Penguin. 619 pages.

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


Falaise 8:46 AM  

Interesting post, Becky. I've not read Grapes of Wrath, although I've read a number of his other books. This one sounds incredibly bleak - I'm not great with books that have a total absence of hope!

Unknown 10:10 AM  

Very interesting post Becky. I also find that when reading the "classics" many of them don't live up to the expectations.

Rebecca Reid 10:39 AM  

I have just started this and am finding it a slow start. But I've been in a reading funk so blamed it on that. Sorry to hear there is litfle hope. I love Easy of Eden for it's ultimate message of hope. wanted this to be similar.

Melissa (Avid Reader) 10:43 AM  

I've read this one, but it's definitely not my favorite Steinbeck. It's not exactly an upper and the ending... well, it's not something you read everyday.

nicole 11:49 AM  

I can sympathize with your struggle here, as I've never been a fan of The Grapes of Wrath. There are a lot of books I read years ago and didn't care for that I think of re-reading so that my older, wiser self can give them a fairer shake, but I have such awful memories of this one that it doesn't even make that list.

I did, though, re-read the first chapter or so a couple weeks ago, and was surprised to find how much I enjoyed the writing itself. Steinbeck did a beautiful job describing Oklahoma farmland and how devastated it was by the weather conditions causing the Dust Bowl.

Anonymous,  2:03 PM  

I agree with you completely. I had to read this in high school and it was my first intro to Steinbeck. I very much disliked this book, so much so that I stayed away from anything Steinbeck for years until Oprah brought up East of Eden and I'm glad I tried it because I really enjoyed that one =)

Kailana 4:03 PM  

I have never read this before, so I am not sure what my response to the book would be. The only Steinbeck I have read is Of Mice and Men and that was a while ago...

Shelley 4:46 PM  

Grapes of Wrath is one of my favorite books, but I totally understand about the sacrilegious nature of the language and symbolism. I do like the style of the book though.
When I read East of Eden, it just made me feel blah, but I know a lot of people who rave about that one. So interesting.
BTW, Melissa's comment about the end made me laugh :-)

Karen K. 8:35 PM  

I was terrified of Steinbeck and several years ago one of my online book groups chose Travels with Charley, which I ended up loving (man goes on a road trip with his dog, what could be so bad?) I ended up really liking Grapes of Wrath, much to my surprise. Somehow the bleakness of it all didn't disturb me, but I there are some elements I've completely forgotten!

Don't give up on Steinbeck yet, sometimes he's quite funny. I really liked Cannery Row.

BRENT 9:40 PM  

I read his A Wayward Bus last week and was in awe of it. It is only 250 pages long and I recommend you give it a try as it isn't as dense and complex as Grapes.
He's a great writer and even though you may not have enjoyed Grapes several of his other works are still very much worth reading.

Jessica 4:05 AM  

This reminds me that I need to write up my review (so far behind)

I really liked it, the bleakness I woud expect since its set in a bleak time, I actually thought halfway through 'it this has a message of hope at the end then its really going to be unrealistic' plus Ive read far bleaker books and now having read some of the historical background I think it was realistic in its portrayal.

samantha.1020 9:30 PM  

I read this one in high school as required reading and just hated it. That's about all I remember but I can tell you that I've been hesitant to pick up any of his books since. Interesting review!

Amanda 1:04 PM  

I've so far resisted reading this and Of Mice and Men because I don't want them to ruin Steinbeck for me. I loved East of Eden and there are others I want to check out as well. The preacher sounds like he would irritate me as well. Wonderful review!

JaneGS 1:28 PM  

I love Steinbeck, but like you found out early that Grapes of Wrath and I didn't work well together. I've been thinking of rereading it because I read it in high school, and my daughter loves it, and I have come to appreciate some of the books I didn't like when young. But who knows, life is short.

I appreciated your thoughtful review in which you analyzed why the book didn't work for you. Good job.

Carey 12:31 PM  

I also read Grapes of Wrath for the tour. Going into it, I wasn't sure if I was going to like it, but I really did. I understood that it was bleak for a reason: because it was Steinbeck's commentary on a bleak time in true American history. For me, there was a faint message of hope in the novel: that where two or more people in the same situation begin to form a community they can become strong enough to fight to survive and fight for change. I also felt that Casy, the former preacher, did believe in something: he believed that our souls were all connected and believed in the power of the collective soul. It is interesting to see different takes on the same novel, but sorry it wasn't a good read for you. :)

Katrina 5:56 PM  

I read this one in high school too which was a very long time ago but I recall that I really enjoyed it. It was bleak but I think probably quite realistic although positively painful at times.

Laura's Reviews 4:08 PM  

I'm glad its not just me. I read The Grapes of Wrath in high school and HATED it. Luckily, I did pick up some other Steinbeck novels on my own later in college and after and found I enjoyed them. I still can't seem to make myself pick The Grapes of Wrath back up again. . . I thought it was terribly preachy. And the ending. AHHH!

oreally 8:15 AM  

I had to read Grapes of wrath in high school and i still bear a grudge some 30 years later. Horrible, hopeless, depressing and almost unreadable. Considered a classic by the ones entrusted with proclaiming what is classicy for reasons that are political rather than artistic. Steinbeck, a self righteous church lady wagging his finger at the reader.

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