Novel Review: The Grapes of Wrath
The unconventionally written intercalary chapters of Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”, are designed to show the readers a view of economic depression and social aspects of America during this time period. Steinbeck tells the reader about the situation through a macroscopic point of view, when he writes the intercalary chapters. It is through these intercalary chapters that Steinbeck tells us about the struggle of many migrant farmers who are pushed out of their homes and start to live their lives on the road, while trying to find places for them to work. Between each of these intercalary chapters are narrative chapters where Steinbeck gives the readers a microscopic view of the situation, by giving us an example of one of the migrant family’s journey. Steinbeck uses the literary device of metaphor by narrating the Joad family’s journey to California, in comparison to the other migrant families in the intercalary chapters. Throughout the novel, there are a few of these chapters that help develop themes like re-birth, community, perserverance, etc, through key symbols, to support the narrative chapters.
In the third chapter of the book, the readers are introduced to a keen description of a turtle trying to cross the highway to get to the other side. What makes its journey so interesting is that the readers can see the experiences that the turtle faces, regarding two different vehicles. In one case, a forty year old woman in a sedan “saw the turtle and swung to the right, off the highway, the wheels screamed and a cloud of dust boiled up. The car skidded back onto the road, and went on, but more slowly. The turtle had jerked into its shell, but now it hurried on, for the highway was burning hot.” (p. 15) This shows that even though the the woman could have been in a hurry, she still took into account that she wanted to avoid harming the turtle. In another case, a light truck approached near the turtle, and the driver “swerved to hit it.” (p.15) Even after hitting the turtle, the driver did not care to turn back and see if the turtle was alright. The turtle is a symbol of these two contrasting events, and perserveres through difficult situations. It keeps on moving forward no matter what kind of obstacle confronts it. Looking at these two scenarios Steinbeck shows us that there are two kinds of people in this world. Those who get something done even if they end up harming others, and those who get something done by trying not to harm others. Throughout its travels, the turtle is host to an oat stick in its shell. The head then falls “out and three of the spearhead seeds stuck in the ground. And as the turtle crawled on down the embankment, its shell dragged dirt over the seeds.” (p. 16) Here, the oat stick is a symbol of a new life. The seeds that become stuck in the ground and covered with dirt represent re-birth, since all of these seeds will eventually produce more oat crops. Here, Steinbeck shows the reader that humanity will always undergo through a cycle of death and re-birth, regardless of the obstacles thrown at humans.
This chapter greatly complements a few narrative chapters within the novel, particularly chapters 20 and 28. In chapter 20, there is a scene where Ma Joad and Tom Joad are having a conversation in which Tom wants to move on to Weedpatch. Ma however does not wish to have this and instead tries to hold the family together. She tells Tom that they are “the people” (pg 280), and they can “go on” (pg 280). This shows that Ma is willing to perservere through various forms of hardships such as the cop telling them to go north, Hooverville being destroyed, etc. If the turtle was to represent one of the narrative characters, it would be Ma. Just like how the turtle carries the oat stick, Ma “carries” the family from place to place.
One good detail is that when the oat seeds from the oat stick fall out, they represent the seperation of the members of the Joad family throughout the novel. It is almost as if the fallen and dirt covered seeds are symbols of the seperated family members like Noah, the Wilsons, Tom, Rose of Sharon, Al, etc. Another example of how re-birth is shown is in chapter 28. There is a scene where ma tells Tom to go far away, and offers him seven dollars for his trip. However, Tom wants to spread Casy’s beliefs on spirituality among others. We see that Casy’s beliefs have finally reached Tom’s head, of which Tom undergoes an epiphany about religion, just like Casy. He wants to help unite people. Pages 418 of the novel states Tom’s sudden transformation, ever since he had been “thinkin’ about Casy…He spouted out some Scripture once, an’ it didn’ soun’ like no hell-fire Scripture. He tol’ it twicet, an’ [Tom] remeber[s] it. Says it’s from the Preacher.” (p. 418) This shows that Tom understood the importance behind casy’s preaching. From this, Tom sees the world in a whole different way. It’s as if he has been reborn as a whole new person. One can see how Reverend Jim Casy is a key symbol of the theme of re-birth in this novel. One can interpret that the turtle symbolizes the Joad family, and the oat stick symbolizes Casy’s philosophies. His beliefs are carried throughout the novel, and are left behind as teachings, just like how the oat stick leaves behind seeds. Knowing all of this, chapter three is like a figure head to the entire novel because it ties the migrants’ struggles, the Joad family’s journey, as well as Casy’s beliefs, to show that perserverance and re-birth are recurring themes within the novel.
Looking at the twenty third chapter of the book, Steinbeck shows the reader how the struggling migrants cope with their tough experiences and try to find ways to keep them entertained. In this case, the “migrant people, scuttling for work, scrabling to live, looked always for pleasure, dug for pleasure, manufactured pleasure, and they were hungry for amusement.” (p. 325) There is a common saying that one must have a balance in all aspects of their lives be it social, work related, or even academic. If a man “had a little money, [he] could get drunk.” (p. 327) This shows that earning money is already hard enough, meaning less quality time for the workers. Some others would take up musical instruments like the harmonica, and play songs while others danced to them and told stories around the campfire. Seeing how they tried to adjust a little time for entertainment really shows how hard they have been working in order to make money, so that they can enjoy entertainment with other migrant families as well. Once again, the migrants exhibit perseverance through hard work, as well as having a sense of caring for their community.
This ties into the consequent chapter. In chapter 24, the readers are introduced to the part of the novel where the Joad family is about to attend the dance party. Much like chapter 23, Steinbeck focuses on a microscopic view of how the migrant workers try to find ways to keep themselves occupied not only with work, but also entertainment. Their perseverance is shown the most when they unite with the other families to prevent a fight from happening. Doing so, they are able to show to us readers that they can cooperate with one another in order to organize a party like this. The sad part is that the ones who were trying to orchestrate this fight were unhappy with the unfolding series of events.
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