‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck

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“‘I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rag, I don’t want him satisfied.’ Shocking and controversial when it was first published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer prize-winning epic, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ remains his undisputed masterpiece. Set against the background of Dust Bowl Oklahoma and Californian migrant life, it tells of the Joad family, who, like thousands of others, are forced to travel west in search of the promised land. Their story is one of false hopes, thwarted desires and broken dreams, yet out of their suffering Steinbeck created a drama that is intensely human, yet majestic in its scale and moral vision; an eloquent tribute to the endurance and dignity of the human spirit.”

My first introduction to John Steinbeck was almost identical to most of the other people in my generation- I studied one of his novels in school. ‘Of Mice and Men’ was the book that was at the centre of all my frustration in English class at GCSE level. I was fourteen and I was lucky enough to be one of five people in my class who only had to take the exam with the Steinbeck question in once. To say he was one of the most unpopular authors we studied is probably a kindness. None of us enjoyed reading the book and although the context was interesting and the film starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise was brilliant we all agreed that we hated the story. 

After reading ‘Of Mice and Men’ I would never have thought I would actively seek to read another of Steinbeck’s novels. I mentally filed him under the sort of author that just wasn’t for me and tried to forget him entirely. But only a few years later I was stuck in a library waiting to be picked up after school and I saw ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and I sat down to read the first few pages. It was the sort of first ten pages that made an impression on me without creating a need to continue.  It’s a strange thing to try to describe, but the beginning of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ stuck with me for a number of years without really inspiring me to go out of my way to getting my hands on a copy of the book. I suppose it was the after effects of studying Steinbeck that I couldn’t quite let myself get excited at the prospect of actually reading the book. In fact, when I finally did buy it a few months ago I did it because I needed some variety for my To Read shelf at home and I came across it quite by accident on a display table in my local Waterstones. 

I’m not quite sure whether my feelings for this book can be classed as liking it. I certainly got a lot out of reading it, and there’s a lot of positive things I can say about the book, but generally I gage whether I like a book on the feeling of satisfaction I feel at the end and I just can’t honestly say that I feel satisfied at all. The book in itself drew me in because of its key themes of migration, poverty and family. Those are all issues that are particularly close and important to me and they spoke to me on a very deep level. The Joads were a family I connected with and felt myself rooting for. I wanted them to find their place in the world because I needed to know that there is a place for everyone. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in and Steinbeck had no interest in creating a fairytale land that in no way reflected reality. His harsh depiction of California and the people who cold heartedly took advantage of the eastern migrants really resonated with me and I think is still a very important image today. With the Syrian migrant crisis still ongoing it was interesting to consider that even within one’s own country it is easy to turn a blind eye to those in need and refuse to see it as anything other than someone elses problem. 

The main problem I had with the novel was that its realism left me searching for a happy ending that just wasn’t going to come. That is in no way a criticism with the novel itself, but I just can’t say that I had an easy time reading about a situation I could see my own life reflected in that ended on such a desperately depressing note. Tom Joad gone, Casy dead, Rosasharn’s child stillborn and the family left destitute without a home or a hope of work. There was some hope for the future in Al and Aggie but realistically did the young couple have any more of a chance than Rosasharn and Connie did? I engaged with the story on such a raw emotional level and I saw in it the honest reflection of a society I recognised today but I did not enjoy that experience. I wasn’t meant to. 

5-stars

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