The Grapes of Wrath is hard to define; on the one hand it can be seen simply as a story of struggle through difficult times, yet on the other it holds a moral message within a shell of historical events. Reactions to the novel tend to reflect these two sides – those who like it find themselves immersed in the plight of the Joad family, whereas those who don’t are often weighed down by the thinly-veiled telling off that Steinbeck issues. He has a very clear picture in his mind, and with his detailed descriptions and poetic language you can see it clearly yourself – you just might not agree with it.
One of the problems with this novel is that you get so engrossed in the pantomime-like story of the ‘good’ Okies versus the ‘bad’ Californians that you neglect to consider events from the Westerners point of view. It’s hard to believe that if 300,000 migrants had descended on Oklahoma they’d have been made to feel any more welcome by the people whose land and jobs they were trying to take.
Still, there’s no doubt that the novel sheds light on issues that might otherwise have been pushed to the back of people’s minds. If you read Steinbeck’s journals, which detail his visits to the camps and discussions with real ‘Okies’, you can see that the problems he depicts in the story were very real. Even if you haven’t read them, the occasional descriptive chapter found at intervals throughout the novel removes you from the Joad’s tale long enough to set the greater context. Steinbeck avoids a typical ‘Hollywood ending’, unlike the film version of the novel. He refused to imply that these characters would have a happy ending; they represented the migrant people as a whole, and so many of them didn’t.
The book is simple and quick to read – you can whiz through the whole novel in a weekend. And that’s where it’s most successful; instead of boring you with long-winded lectures on morals and responsibility to your fellow human beings, Steinbeck creates a simple and engrossing story that has you hurrying through the pages to discover the fate of the Joads. As with any good narrative, there are heroes and villains – we get what Steinbeck’s trying to say whilst still enjoying a compelling story.
The Grapes of Wrath is believed by many to be Steinbeck’s greatest work and I think it’s hard to disagree. Of Mice and Men is too short to really engross you; East of Eden is much more long-winded and lacks any obvious point. The book holds an important place in American literature, not only because it details so precisely the events surrounding the Dust Bowl, but also because Steinbeck’s care and detail in his descriptions allow you to paint a precise image in your mind. It might not have the happy ending that many readers expect today, but you can take pleasure from the skilful writing, poetic descriptions and endearing characters, even if their fate is not necessarily a happy one.
The Sunday Times - "A novelist who is also a true poet"
New York Herald Tribune - "The novel of America's new disinherited is a magnificent book"
North American Review - "The book has all the earmarks of something momentous, monumental and memorable"
New Yorker - "dramatizes so that you cannot forget the terrible facts of a wholesale injustice committed by society"
Atlantic Monthly - "a novel whose hunger, passion and poetry are in direct answer to the angry stirring of our conscience"
Nobel Prize Academy - "for his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humour and a keen social perception"
W J Weatherbey - "his best work has come out of his indignation over social injustice"
William Kennedy - "a mighty, mighty book"