HOPE AND FEAR John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath Where does the courage come from? Where does the terrible faith come from? John Steinbeck, born in California in 1902 ( -1968, New York), is one of the most important American writers, widely known for his Pulitzer prize-winning novel “The Grapes of Wrath”, a “social” tale about the strugglings of the Joad family to get to California, “the promised land”.
Considered to be his masterpiece, this novel is not only the story of a family, but the image of the America of the 30s and 40s, of the sufferings, desires and hopes of the people who, driven by society and the capitalist system, try in vain to fight against this “Monster”. In this essay, using an extract from Chapter 12 of the novel, I am going to show how this idealist writer believed in a better way of society, where community would remain over individualism.
He believed that commerce was nothing but cheating, that everybody, with no exceptions, was driven by an external force created by humanity itself, an external force which alienated men, but, however, would never end with their hopes and faith. Steinbeck was a comitted writer to his own beliefs. In all of his writtings his ideals appear with strenght, and “The Grapes of Wrath” is maybe the one in which we can see more clearly and in the crudest way the consecuencies of humanity.
In oposition to some naturalists, Steinbeck believed in the strength of the community as the best form of society, in which people leave behind individualism in order to create a community of shared wealth. This idea of communism can be well seen in many of his words. Property, according to Steinbeck, corrupts the individual: freedom, on the contrary, is given by non-possesing. According to him, all possible kinds of commerce are nothing else but cheating: “What do ya think a guy in business is?
Like he says, he ain’t in it for his health. That’s what business is. [… ] Fella in business got to lie an’ cheat, but he calls it somepin else. That’s what’s important. You go steal that tire an’ your’re a thief, but he tried to steal you four dollars for a busted tire. They call that sound business” The Monster, name that Steinbeck used in a metaphorical way to adress the capitalist system and all its consequencies, drives all the characters in this novel: it seems to be an external force, from which nothing escapes.
This Monster is the one that creates this situation of rich and poor people, of, on the one hand, getting profit and with it, corruption, and on the other, the worst part of it, the alienate man who becomes a slave, a machine, and sees himself unable to develope his own future. This sense of determinism is very important in this novel. The characters, driven first because of the droughs and the Dust Storms, and second by The Monster, are put into a journey that they didn’t want, that they didn’t intend.
Wether they have a car or not, whether that is the right thing to do or not, all of them see themselves getting into the route 66 in order to get to California. They are driven by external factors stronger than their will, stronger, sometimes, than their hope: “Two hundred and fifty thousend people over the road. Fifty thousand old cars -wounded, steaming. Wrecks along the road, abandoned. Well, what happened to them? ” As seen in this words, the Joads were not the only ones.
The situation was suffered by thousends of people, and Steinbeck uses a strategy in order to cover them all: in some situations, we are not reading about a member of the Joad family or one of the characters surrounding them, but about someone with no name. This impersonality leads to universality. The novel is structured in a way in which what is called an “Interchapter” is followed by the traditional “Chapter”. The Interchapters convey much reflection and meditation, they make us think about the whole situation: we can recognise how this happened to so many families, and we can feel like them for an instant.
The impersonality creates a universal perspective: “Danny in the back seat wants a cup a water. Have to wait. Got no water here. [… ] Danny wants a cup of water. He’ll have to wait, poor little fella. He’s hot. Nex’ service station. “ Who is this Danny? Who is this family? They are nobody, and they are everybody. They are society, or better say, the worst-treated part of society. Characters have no name at all, no identity, because they share their identity with anybody else who once was, is or will be, in their situation. The “Interchapters” share other characteristics more than the universality.
The narrator here knows it all: he contemplates the whole situation from the outside, and in opposition to the narrator of the chapters, who simply retells what he sees from an objective point of view, this narrator showes feelings, emotions, opinions. This narrator is much more subjective, this narrator has a voice: “But how can such courage be, and such faith in their own species? Very few things would teach such faith” Another difference from the narrator of this passage and the rest of Interchapters and the narrator from the rest of the novel, is the langugae. In this very extract, the difference in languge can be seen.
Steinbeck was a great writer, and his talent appears in the Interchapters: very lyric voice, lots of repetitions (“Danny is thirsty” repeated all over the extract, or the list of questions asking what happened to this family), very sensorial, sometimes even with sounds which evoke what is happening. On the contrary, there appears also the language of this people: the “Okie” regiester or accent is very well recreated by Steinbeck: “cut’ em out an’ stick’ em inside a weak place”. To sum up, the function of the Interchapters was to take the story of a family and turn it into the story of a country, the story of a society.
Steinbeck reflected with his words the idea that he had of the corrupted and capitalist America. “God Almighty, the food’s gettin’ low, the money’s gettin’ low. When we can’t buy no more gas – what then? ” What then? What happens when the system kills its own people? Then community alone remains. That was Steinbeck’s message underlying these words. Capitalism is not a human system: only when the individual forgets himself and thinks for the community, works for the community, only then life stands strong. However, he still has hope too. He still thinks that community can beat and win: “Where does the courage come from?
Where does the terrible faith come from? ” Until this horrible and crude situation was created, the families fitted too into the system, they only minded their own business and only the critical situation changed their mind. The human being is only aware of truth when horrible things happen to them, and Steinbeck wanted to show that even then, people must stand strong and see the beautiful in life, because it exists and it give us the neceesary courage and faith: “And here’s a story you can hardly believe, but it’s true, and it’s funny and it’s beautiful. There was a family [… ] forced off the land.
They had no car. They built a trailer out of junk [… ] pulled it to the side of 66 and waited. And pretty soon a sedan picked them up. [… ] They got two California in two jumps. The man who pulled them fed them. And that’s true. [… ] The people in flight from the terror behind – strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever. ” Here, the social utopia dreamt by Steinbeck appears with more strength than ever. There is a bright future for society when they believe in their own species, when they help themselves and live in a community.