The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck

I managed to get through all my schooling without ever reading The Grapes of Wrath (or any other Steinbeck novel), and since all sorts of people keep saying how “timely” it is, my curiosity got the best of me. Initially it felt like slogging through required reading until a certain point where I was amazed at “how timely!” it is. But then the ending is such a downer that I felt like I could have done without the experience.

Steinbeck alternates chapters between a general narrative about aspects of the Dust Bowl migration with the specific story of the Joad family being forced off their land and deciding to head to California. The technique serves to show the breadth of the problems, that these events weren’t just something happening to one family, while the Joads personalize it and show how truly awful everything was.

The general narrative can be annoying the way groups of people are lumped together, for example recurring descriptions of “the men” and “the women” was distractingly essentialist. But then the gender roles overall are annoying. In the course of the Joad story, Ma keeps stepping up and taking charge and then Pa will threaten to take a stick to her in someday when things are better and then Ma admits that she’d deserve it. Really, John? Would the lady really think she deserved being smacked with a stick by her husband for attempting to keep the family alive and together?

The ending is fairly controversial but mostly it was just sad (and creepy) to me. It doesn’t give closure but hints that the life of the Joad family finally reached a point where it would just be way too depressing to continue documenting.