“Sometimes you do a crime, an’ you don’t even know it’s bad. . . .”

. . . Maybe they got crimes in California we don’t even know about.  Maybe you gonna do somepin an’ it’s all right, an’ in California it ain’t all right.

Steinbeck and the Joads are both increasingly interested in rules, in laws, in boundaries.  On the one hand, this development is not at all strange in American fiction—some of the most well-known American novels predating Grapes of Wrath deal with rules of one kind or another (The Scarlet Letter deals with the strictures of Puritan society; The Age of Innocence with the social obligations imposed by the old families of New York; etc.).  But the interesting thing for me about the considerations of rules and laws in Grapes is how distant and even mysterious the rules are for the characters we follow.  The Joads and the Wilsons engage in a dialogue at one point—is there a law against stopping along the side of Route 66?  Even when this idea is dismissed, Tom still insists on the notion of rules that bind human beings—when Wilson tells Tom he doesn’t own the roadside and can’t say anything about it if the Joads set up camp, Tom insists, “you got a right to say if you wan’ neighbors or not”.  Later, Pa Joad and several other folks engage in a long discussion about the death of Grampa—is it against the law to bury him themselves?  Why?  What will the consequences be if they break this law?

These events are preceded by the even more explicit conversation I quote from at the beginning of the post, where Tom is trying to assure his mother that breaking parole won’t be an issue, because they’ll only care if he commits another crime, and he’ll steer clear of that.  Ma is thorough in thinking about this—it’s one thing for Tom to have such an intention, but who knows what’s wrong or right?  What if it is right to do something in Oklahoma, but wrong in California?  Who can live in such a world?  All of this, of course, takes place against the backdrop of confused rules that have forced the Joads into this position.  Somehow, without their knowing it, the rules changed.  They’ve done the same things they always did, but conduct that once was enough to keep them on their land and surviving (if not thriving) is now insufficient to keep them from being cast off it.  There seems to be one rule for them and their kind, and another rule entirely for the rich men who now own the land.  Steinbeck weaves again and again into this question of authority—the characters want to know what they are obligated to do, but seem to struggle in knowing whose laws they are to keep.  What is right conduct?  Socrates and Tom Joad have the same question.

There’s a moral and theological angle here, too, that I’m not quite ready to examine, but I think it bears mentioning.  Jim Casy, doing his best to pray for Grampa in the hour of his death, only gets to “forgive us” before death halts his prayer in its tracks—left unsaid is the “forgive those who trespass against us”.  Is this merely an accident, or does Steinbeck mean for us to understand the implication that these simple folk want to be forgiven but don’t understand how badly they are sinned against?  When Tom goes to write the note for Grampa’s grave, he settles on the opening of Psalm 32: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”  Why the emphasis on the Joads’ need for forgiveness?  (Side note: I loved the verse Tom initially picks at random out of the Bible—Genesis 19:18 “An’ Lot said unto them, ‘Oh, not so, my Lord.'”—which Ma rejects as not meaning nothin’.  As Steinbeck clearly knows, that verse is when the angels are taking Lot out of the city of Sodom to save him and his family from destruction, and he is begging them not to be sent so far away from his home.  The mountains, he said, were too far away, and he would die in traveling there.  The irony is dark, but revealing, I think, about what these characters do and do not understand.)  All of this will have to be made sense of eventually.

Missouri migrants living in a truck in Califor...

A Missouri family’s truck on the road to California — how on earth Al Joad could keep a thing like this from falling apart in the first 50 miles is a mystery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The more I read, the more emotionally powerful the scenes become—the sturdy kindness of the Wilson family to the Joads, the willingness of all these poor people to look out for each other, even the roadside waitress selling nickel candies at two for a penny to the scrawny Okie children.  There’s a sense of the goodness that characterizes America at its best—a society that, despite all the talk about rugged individualism on the frontier, embraces the notion that we are all our brother and sister’s keeper.  A society of simple folk who would never turn away a hungry stranger, who accept kindness with gratitude but are a little reluctant to receive anything they think of as “charity”.  At its best, it’s definitely the most moving Pulitzer novel I’ve read, and one of the most emotionally gripping books I’ve ever read, period.  It’s also so consistently good at providing genuine moments—Granma’s slow realization of her husband’s death, the boy’s excitement that drops instantly into nausea and sorrow at the death of the dog, Al’s quiet despair as he proves unable to maintain the cars to the standard he knows they need.  It’s not even that I’m in love with the characters (although I sometimes am): it’s that I believe in them so much I think I’m on the road with them.  I think they really happened.  And in other guises, under other names, they did happen, by the thousands, on the long roads like Route 66 through the Great Plains and onwards to the Pacific.

All right, I have heaped enough praise on Steinbeck for weeks now—it’s time to make one of my few criticisms, since after all no work of art is perfect.  I do get a bit impatient with some of the soaring impersonal rhetoric from Steinbeck, especially the passage where he speaks at length in praise of “Manself” and this notion of progress and aspiration and I don’t know what all.  You can almost hear him thinking as he writes, “Hot damn! This is good stuff!”  I’m not opposed to an author being obviously a little in love with how great their stuff is (see my praise of Melville, for one), but Steinbeck’s arrogance is at times a little intrusive.  He has so much power in the scenes he underplays that it’s especially grating to feel as though he’s now showing you all his cards.

The one criticism I keep expecting to unload, and can’t?  Steinbeck’s women.  Given my experience with him, I figured they’d be caricatures or worse, but so far they’re well-written and seriously portrayed.  They’re not (usually) the focus of the scene, but there’s a lot of complexity to Ma Joad, and he’s hinting at it with Sairy Wilson.  Even excitable “Rosasharn” (Rose of Sharon) seems the right mix of maturity and girlishness for a teenager facing pregnancy and possibility all at once on the long road to California (and, she clearly believes, economic freedom for her and her husband).  I wish they were given the chance to say a few more wise things, but honestly there isn’t that great an imbalance of wisdom on this road, and I think Steinbeck’s respect for the women, especially the older women, is clear.  I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but for now I really can’t complain even a little bit.  Keep it up, John.

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2 comments on ““Sometimes you do a crime, an’ you don’t even know it’s bad. . . .”

  1. Kristel says:

    This is in my to-read list for this year. Although I’ve heard great things about Grapes, I’d like to know how readable the book is. I mean, the Scarlet Letter is, undoubtedly, an excellent novel. But at times, it was painful to read. Is the same true for Grapes?

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Kristel, I don’t think you’ll find Grapes anywhere near as slow (or dense) as Hawthorne, in part because Hawthorne writes with an elaborate 19th century style and vocabulary (I have to use the dictionary when I read him at least occasionally, and in some chapters frequently) while Steinbeck aims for the very plainspoken language people generally used in the 1930s. It’s a big story, and there can be times when fitting all the pieces together is a challenge (my history background helps me keep all the events of the Depression and Dust Bowl in mind as I read), but in general I’d say it’s very approachable for a classic—that is, still not as breezy as a John Grisham novel or a paperback thriller, but a much easier pace and style than most literature assigned in a college classroom. I’d definitely recommend it if that’s the only real hesitation you have!

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