‘The Grapes of Wrath’ traces the trials and tribulations of one family, the Joads, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The Joads are sharecroppers. During a period of brutal dust storms, their farm suffers major damage, and the Joads are plunged into debt. In no time, the bank takes over their possessions, and the Joads are forced to move out. With no other choice, the twelve of them pile onto one truck, and drive to a “better future” in California. Except there is no “better future” in California. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Work is impossible to find, the pay is pathetic, the land-owners are greedy, unscrupulous, and ruthless, and the Joads, like millions of other families, “scurry to find work to do - to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut - anything, any burden to bear, for food”. In this masterpiece, Steinbeck captures the pathos of the Great Slump and the terrible greed that created it.
Steinbeck wrote ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ in 1939, at the tail end of the Great Depression. During the 1930’s, large-scale industrialization left small farmers out of work since it cut the need for manpower on farms. Also, the 1930’s saw terrible droughts and relentless dust storms that ruined crops. Consequently, thousands of acres of farmland were rendered useless, and millions of people were forced to leave their lifelong homes and migrate in search of jobs, land, dignity, and a future. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ chronicled of the plight of migrant workers during the Depression and also criticized the policies that caused this plight. It did an excellent job of stirring American conscience and compassion.
Steinbeck’s prose is full of color and abundant descriptions, and brings to life the sounds and smells of Oklahoma. The novel is written in third-person voice in a series of chapters and inter-chapters. Steinbeck wanted to emphasize the point that the Joads and their travails represented the plight of all the Depression-era migrant-workers, and not an isolated case. So, on one hand, he narrated the story of the Joads, and on the other, he added inter-chapters called “generals” which explored the life and times of the Dust Bowl through a broad, historical lens. Steinbeck employed ‘stream-of-consciousness’ narrative in these “generals” and this technique is effective in adding more emphasis on the desperation of those times.
Steinbeck, while writing this piece, famously said, “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this (Depression)… I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags”. Sure, he has. His earthy and potent prose, his true-to-the-heart description of hard-bitten characters, his flawless illustration of the inhuman, selfish capitalists, and the miserable, desperate laborers, and most of all, his portrayal of the pride and perseverance of the American working class simply blew my mind. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is a terrific drama, intensely human yet majestic in its scale, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity. I loved it!
Book Reviewed by Manjushree Hegde
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