The Grapes of Wrath is turning out to be a really marvelous reading experience, full of great characters and great moments, but maybe the most interesting aspect of all at this point is the way Steinbeck and his characters play with morality. The quotation that serves as this post’s title is from the (former) Reverend Casy, whose dialogues with Tom Joad explore faith and meaning and ethics in remarkably natural language. He puts forward that thesis of moral relativism pretty early on in their conversation, but the nice thing about Grapes is its complexity—it’s not at all clear to me that Casy believes it himself, let alone Steinbeck. The world inhabited by the characters is fraught with moral concerns, whether we’re considering the simple personal level (as when Muley Graves considers the problem of being asked by two hungry men for food, and his explanation of why he is compelled to share with them) or the much larger corporate level (as when the characters and the narrator explore how to make sense of right and wrong when the agent doing wrong is an impersonal company—how do you hold to account a person that isn’t a person?). Casy and Joad and Graves aren’t moral relativists at all. Sure, they make allowances for reality, as when Joad gives up the house and sprints into the cotton rather than stand his ground for his idea of what’s right. But in the end it’s clear that all three of them understand that there are lines that should not be crossed. One of the delights of the book, though, is that they don’t become particularly self-righteous, and they don’t have any immediate solutions to present. They explore the landscape, both physically and through the sharing of stories, without drawing too many conclusions too quickly. I’m loving it.
Another aspect of the book I’m enjoying is its richness, like an abundant harvest of lines and moments that I can’t quite hold in my arms. I read on, realizing as I go that I’m letting great things spill past me on either side. I just can’t pay rapt attention to everything I like or I’ll never get through. And Steinbeck has a way of giving you scenes that work on enough levels that you can get something and move on—the (in?)famous turtle, who spawned so many high school English assignments, is a great example. We can take it, if we like, as just the account of a turtle, just Steinbeck giving us another vision of how nature is being violated and damaged by human activity. We can go just a little deeper, and read a few lines as symbolism—the turtle’s thrashing accidentally plants some seeds, for example, and it’s revealing and thought-provoking to spend a little time trying to tie a few elements of its experience allegorically to the small farmers of Oklahoma who are being driven off the land. I got the feeling at that point that there was almost nothing about the chapter that I couldn’t continue to dig into and explore, but I wanted to keep moving, and so I did—whatever else there is to get out of the turtle (feel free to share in the comments any perspectives you have) will have to be saved for my next read of the novel, since I can already sense I’ll be returning to this novel again someday. Anyway, that level of detail and interest is all over the book, and I keep pausing and then moving on all over the place, making little bits of meaning out of Joad’s childhood baptism and the blood of Muley Graves’s father in the soil and the ravenous hunger of the grey cat. It makes me feel caught up in something huge, an emotion that I have only rarely felt in the Pulitzer journey…only Wharton and Age of Innocence really comes to mind as a comparison, and even that is not really right. It’s like reading Melville, or Homer. I hope the feeling lasts.
Steinbeck’s attention to detail doesn’t just work on that momentary symbolic level, either—the structure of the novel is working beautifully so far. I loved the transition from Chapter 5 to Chapter 6. In 5, Steinbeck’s telling the broad general story of the Dust Bowl, and there are nameless families being cast off their land. It works great to give a sense of the great big thing that’s happening in Oklahoma, but it’s admittedly just a little remote. But then there’s this perfect pivoting image—5 ends with a generic corporate employee knocking a generic farmer’s house off its foundations, and then immediately 6 begins with Tom Joad and the Reverend Casy arriving at Joad’s family’s house, only to find that it’s been knocked off its foundations in exactly the same way. The sudden leap from the general to the very specific is incredibly smart—it makes personal the events I’ve just read in parable form in Chapter 5, and it reminds me how impersonal the injustice suffered by the Joads really is. Tom’s family isn’t the victim of some vendetta—it’s just one more bystander getting eaten up by a machine that will not be sated. And then Muley shows up and Joad and Casy pump him for some information, and the story gets so incredibly rich. I kept flagging paragraphs saying to myself, “oh, I have to quote that in my blog post,” until I realized I’d marked about half of Chapter 6 for inclusion. Really I just want some of you (all of you!) to try reading this book, since I’m really taken by it so far, and I’d love to talk it over with some fellow travelers.
There are things to deal with, of course—Steinbeck is very blunt and honest about sexuality (and how men like these men would talk about it), and the characters clearly feel on some level emasculated by what’s happening to them. At one point they use pretty clear (although not very graphic) language to employ a rape metaphor in the context of the companies taking over the land—this is problematic, of course, although it’s still a fair question what is accurate character depiction and what is Steinbeck’s insensitivity. I’m keenly aware of having no real female characters yet, and I’m anxious to meet some and see if Steinbeck can handle them better than he did in Of Mice and Men. And at some point I should probably tackle the question of whether this novel is propaganda, given that it was so radical for its era that Steinbeck was denounced on the floor of Congress as a dangerous man. I think it’s telling important and hard truths about what it’s like for one man, or one family, to try to take on and beat the pitiless progress demanded by a beast that lives on nothing but profits. In this way, it’s talking about people’s connection to the land in a way that Pearl S. Buck only kidded herself she was doing, and it’s confronting the political causes of the suffering in the Great Depression that Josephine Johnson’s novel couldn’t (although there the decision was a conscious one, and I don’t blame her for it). But it is also fair to ask the novel some hard questions, since the Dust Bowl and the migration west of the Okies and the Great Depression are not merely the fault of a few soulless banks—not only that, at least. I don’t know what I really expect of Steinbeck on that front, but it’s something I’ll be thinking about, and I expect to post about it sooner or later. For now, the energy of the book is pulling me forward, and hopefully I’ve shared enough that it’s pulling a few of you, as well.