I finished the book a couple of days ago, and as I contemplate even writing about this book, I am overwhelmed.
It is by no means an easy book to read, and even though, it will be one which could be re-read, the power with which the story is told, the imagery the story created and the impact it has had on me, will keep the story fresh in my mind for a long time.
As with any great book, there are layers in which I enjoyed the book. The writing was splendid. I have already raved about the brilliant writing of Steinbeck in the novella “Of mice and men”. The grapes of wrath was nothing different. Each page was a gem, every word had its place in the picture, every sentence made the vision clearer, until, about 100 pages into the book, you were every Tom Joad and Ma and Casey and Ruthie. You were everyone in the story. You were in America in 1930, driving a truck to the promised land of California, having left behind everything that you cared about, and you felt every pain that the Joad family had to endure. The detailing, the word-play, the structuring of the novel, the actual accents in the conversation, the quick references to back stories, the out of the context conversations, everything played its part in making the novel real. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had some ideas about the depression time, from movies or other books, and reading this novel, somehow made me think that the people who wrote the other novels or the people who made the movies got their idea about the depression from this book.
Thrown in-between the travails of the Joad family fleeing west, were shorter stories about the general conditions in America around that time. The story of the dust storms that affected the crops, the conversation of Tom Joad with a truck driver, the story of a US Route 66 gas station man, of a diner on the highway, of immigrant worker camps in California, of their protests, of their hunger, the story of the big bad farmer associations and so on. They were tiny 6-7 page diversions from the main story, but it reinforced the main plot. It gave the reader a perspective of the main plot. It jolted you into a deeper understanding that the story is not about the extraordinary and unusual miseries piled on a single family for story telling purposes, but short stories that said to you, that the main plot is just a sampler of what is happening. Dig deep, and probably you can find the story of a family suffering more miseries.
Repetition was another writing tactic that Steinbeck used to great effect to drive home the point. The capitalistic farmers manipulating demand and supply, the poor people craving for meat and food etc were repeated time and again, subtly, without loss of continuity, without feeling that it was being repeated, to bring the reader closer to the truth, to unfog his eyes so that he could see it.
The main plot was of the Joad family fleeing west. All that they had in Oklahoma was their farm, and owing to bad crops, the dust storm and the industrialization of the farming land, they were left with a few belongings and a truck. Tom Joad, on parole from prison for murder, meets his family as they are planning to move to California, and leaves with them. The story follows them for over 9 months, as they move towards California, find and lose work there, find temporary happiness in a nice camp, get pushed out by hunger, try to stay together, suffer death, cope with family members leaving them, and finally become homeless destitute, beggars. Through much of the time, they remain hopeful, in truly miserable conditions, the light symbolic of hope keeps flickering, and finally when it blows out, but not without a final flicker, the last act of the book, which only the masterful writing and the brilliant storytelling of Steinbeck could have pulled off. Ma and Tom Joad are the back-bone of the family. Somehow they maintain their sanity through all the despair, while the other men in the family, slowly but surely lose hope of ever being happy again.
The deepest layer in the book, was surely the political message that was ingrained in the book. With great skill, Steinbeck brings out the pathos, emotions and travails of the really poor, so much so that, after reading the book, I felt a different feeling regarding the under-privileged, a feeling that something has to be done if there could exist such differences in the world among human beings, much away from my general feeling of I am too small a pawn to do anything about anything. Finally, it was a commentary about mindless Capitalism, about how food was destroyed in front of poor hungry people to keep the prices high, about how advanced technology displaced people and the companies advancing technology cared just for their purses, of how hunger was exploited so that people could just be paid enough to have just a little food.
Socialism does not seem bad, as was depicted in the community camps that was mentioned in the book. The community camp was totally managed by the poor immigrants, and without any government intrusion, and truly by collective responsibility, they made it a home amongst many other unruly camps. Casey and Tom Joad, too bring up, the ideals of a strong people, of getting together and protesting as a group, of asking and getting their demands met, of wanting a proper share of the profit for the work that they do. Their talks all point towards Socialism, towards a more pro-poor, pro-human, against suffering policies than the pure “just make profit” policies.
In a country, and in a world that is mostly tending to mindless capitalism, the depression and accurate portrayals of the travails of the poor, such as this book, is very much necessary to develop Capitalism with a face, policies that help the poor, and to some extent redistribute wealth. More importantly, IMO, the need for policies that redistribute Skills, as acquiring skills has also got a lot to do with money. Skills so that everyone can contribute when Technology, Nature or any other circumstance forces changes in how business is done. In the context of India, I feel, Education is the best skill that can be acquired, a skill that cultivates the habit of thinking, the urge to learn new stuff and the tools to learn it quickly and effectively when the need arises. As I see and understand it, Education in India is still not equally distributed. This can be a separate post, and I will write a little more about it when I am confident about writing about it.
The grapes of wrath is a must read. For those who are not used to reading heavy stuff, this book can be quite steep, but the end result is worth the effort.