“I’ve done my damndest to rip reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied”, quoted the synopsis on the back cover of John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes Of Wrath.’
I vividly remember sixteen year old me rushing out of the library with a copy of the book in my hand, almost running all the way home. I loved a good challenge and having read recently read George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, knew what it was like to have your nerves ripped apart by a mere book. And I loved the feeling.
It led to disappointment though, being very different from what I expected, and I dismissed it as a sad, maybe touching (I’d barely read five pages) recap of the Great Depression and how the poverty stricken farmers adjusted. I had no time for the past then, I was too busy reading and speculating about the future, and I forgot about the book, until I picked it up again, from the same library, a week ago.
After reading it, I can say, that I’ve finally understood what sixteen year old me assumed wrong: He plays with your nerves and doesn’t leave you satisfied, yes, but that’s not because he tells you about a future we can’t escape, or a uncomfortable present that we’re stuck in, like you may expect from a dystopian novel, but because he narrates a past where society was divided into two parts - those who did not need but wanted and thus oppressed, and the oppressed who needed -something that I was not ready for then.
It’s set in the time of the Dust Bowl, a period of severe dust storms, that completely ruined the agriculture of the parts it hit. The banks also start forcing tenants out of their lands, to grow cotton them. This forces many farmers to leave their homes and migrate to California in search of work, and the novel focuses on the Joads, one of such families. The work itself is not too endearing and involves picking fruit and cotton from the well off land owners' produce, but the hungry farmers are ready to take whatever work they can get. Though the novel shifts narrative in the perspective of other characters too, the eldest son, Tom Joad is the main protagonist. His family consists of him and his two grandparents, parents and five siblings. Also traveling with them is the former preacher of their town, Casy, who later proves to be the main perpetrator of Steinbeck’s philosophy.
Though optimistic about their chances of making a satisfactory living in California, the farmers are soon to be dismayed: It is made clear early in the novel that there is only work for a limited amount of farmers, a fact that is kept secret from the poor migrants; a ploy to lure large numbers of farmers into the state and use the intense competition among the poverty stricken people to get labor for cheap prices. And thus Steinbeck begins playing with the reader’s nerves by relating to him an entire account of a deluded journey made by strong buoyant farmers, which he can only read and do nothing else.
The farmers are considered to be uncivilized barbarians by the city inhabitants, and are referred to as ‘Okies’, since a large number of them come from Oklahoma. They are treated as untouchables. As more and more hungry and desperate men migrate to the city, looking for work and not finding it, a change starts to come over both parties. The capitalist farmers are overwhelmed by the sheer number of deprived men now walking about, realizing that the desperation and growing discontent of the men could soon lead to a revolt (ironic, seeing how they are the cause of the discontent of the farmers), and they start adopting extreme protective measures to prevent them from grouping together, arresting and killing anyone showing signs of antagonism. Meanwhile, the same growing discontent seems to unite the farmers, and they realize that their only chance of survival is if each man lives and sacrifices for the other. They soon start forming self governed communities among themselves, and seem to prosper, albeit facing extreme hostility from threatened city dwellers.
What is most disturbing about Steinbeck’s account of the Dust Bowl, is that despite the intense description he provides about the terrible ecological factors during the time, the migrants find their toughest enemy not in nature, but from humans. The reader at first is given extremely detailed descriptions of the process of degradation of the land and the other environmental changes that render the farmers helpless, but however, on further reading the reader realizes that the farmers still could have gotten past these horrible conditions, had they not found such opposition from members of the same species.
From the very beginning of the novel, Casy, a former preacher, is seen to be disillusioned with the very aspect of religion and worship that is the custom for everyone in the country. In his time as a preacher, he found himself more susceptible to sinful desires than the others, as a result of being too taken and obsessed with the idea of Jesus and worship of him, the irony of which led to his disillusionment. He then wanders about trying to form his own ideas and starts to form the belief that the human experience is not about the individual himself, but rather the collective experience of all the human souls in existence, as one whole, The novel’s depiction of the gradual convergence of the migrant farmers’ identities into one collective poverty stricken community further strengthens his belief.
Jim Casy becomes a Jesus-like figure in the novel preaching and reflecting on his newfound beliefs, and sacrificing himself to protect Tom Joad from the authorities after he hits a deputy sheriff. In jail he preaches his new ideas to his inmates and noticing their reaction, he starts to take action and revolt against the capitalist farmers who sought to disorientate the collective experience that he envisioned and later died a martyr’s death, trying to protect the same.
The advent of this notion is also predicted very early in the novel. The third chapter of the book deals with a turtle’s efforts to reach a slightly higher embankment from the highway. A car swerves in order to avoid hitting it, while a truck hits it on purpose, and its protective shell ensures that it is not harmed, though knocked off the road. The turtle then slowly climbs back on the road and continues on its journey. The protective shell, and the turtle's efforts to continue on its journey symbolize the tough skin of mankind, and his stubborn instinct of survival. It also alludes to the Joad family's journey, and their resilience on the road.
As mentioned earlier, the spiritual journey and actions of these three characters embody the concepts of the philosophies that Steinbeck sought to disseminate- that of the Oversoul, Humanism, and Pragmatism, respectively.
Transcendentalism, or the belief that the individual objects of the world are small versions of the entire world itself, when applied to the concept of the Oversoul, or the unanimate spirit believed to govern the world, leads to the belief that all individual human souls are smaller versions of the the entire soul of the world itself, an idea very similar to what Casy preached.
Humanism or the belief in the abilities and values of humans as a whole is also very central to Ma Joad’s optimistic view of mankind and his struggle for existence, while Tom Joad was perhaps the most obvious depiction of Pragmatism.
I felt that the strongest theme of the novel was that of the Oversoul, as it is a constant theme in both the chapters dealing with the Joad’s journey on the road, and the overall account of the farmers’ experiences during the Dust Bowl.
In fact, with this theme in mind, one could even find purpose in the interpolating chapters that address the reader and in the author’s wish to rip the nerves of the reader apart: to make the reader one with and suffer through the communal suffering of the farmers, and thus, transcend the belief of the Oversoul beyond the scope of the book, almost pragmatically, in the guise of a humanitarian experience.