Well that was depressing. Not depressing in the same way The Diary of a Young Girl was (since that was an actual first-hand account) but depressing nonetheless.
Like most people in the UK of a certain age I studied John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for my GCSE English Literature exam. Unlike most people of my age I actually read and enjoyed Of Mice and Men to the point of it being one of the few books that actually made me cry at the end. So I do know, firsthand, how dark Steinbeck can go.
Similarly I watched the excellent cinematic adaptation many a year ago so I pretty much knew the basic storyline. I say basic because the latter half of the book and film differ rather substantially. I cannot think of another time where the film adaptation of a novel came out within a year of the novel being released. Talk about band wagon.
The thing is The Grapes of Wrath in the novel does not end on a hopeful note. Rather, it ends in a stillbirth and an act of Roman Charity. I can imagine that not playing well when World War II started and, also, the Hays Code would probably have not looked kindly on a finale where a grown man is breast-fed by a teenage girl.
So how do we end up reaching the point where this act makes sense narratively? We start off when the Joad family lose their farm due to the dual effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Like many people in their situation this family decide to make their way to California in the hopes of being able to scrape out a living as migrant workers.
The tragic thing is how true this was for so many people. I know that since the recession of 2008 people have had it bad in the USA, but it cannot have been on this scale. This widespread movement of Americans in the hope of 25 cents an hour… only to be faced with discrimination, police brutality and corruption. It’s horrendous. And timely, when you think about the current mass migrations still occurring.
When you read this it is very clear to see where Steinbeck’s political leanings are. He paints the antagonistic groups of this novel as utterly unsympathetic and, in many ways, the ultimate corrupt capitalists. This book is, in some ways, an arguement for socialism over capitalism. The people are forced to move not because of their own mistakes, but because of the world around them changing the goal posts and causing their crops to fail.
There was no safety net, no clemancy and no way for them to ever survive this with a shred of their original pride intact. This is what makes the character of Tom and Ma Joad so interesting.
The central character, Tom Joad, is recently out of prison and he fights for what he believes in – to the point where he ends up killing someone who is threatening the “Okies”. He takes on de facto leadership of the family, despite the fact that his father is still alive, mainly because he seems to be the most socially aware and intelligent. His big flaw, however, is his temper. Something that has lead him to kill more than one person.
Compare Tom to his mother Ma Joad. She is, by far, the strongest person in the family as you would expect in most units such as this. She makes a comment that stuck with me and, I think, shows her character:
“Woman can change better’n a man,” Ma tells Pa.“Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head”
Without both Tom and Ma the family would have sunk a long time ago. Possibly even died on the road to California. They are both able to provide the strength and heart that carries them through deaths, stillbirths, starvation and their near constant flight.
Thinking about it again as I write this The Grapes of Wrath is actually a remarkable novel. It still has lessons to teach us since, if you believe Buddha, as long as their are humans there is suffering and injustice. As long as either of those exist, The Grapes of Wrath will remain relevant.