The Grapes of Wrath is a well-known modern classic of American literature, an angry portrayal of the sufferings in America during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl crisis. It mingles two kinds of chapters: one kind telling typical stories and describing broad summations of the crisis as a whole from a God-like omniscient viewpoint, in a somewhat Biblical style; the other focussing on one particular family of “Okies”, the Joads, migrants fleeing the crisis in their home-state of Oklahoma for a utopian vision of California, only to find poverty and suffering awaiting them.
I would be the first to say that this book is not all it’s cracked up to be. While it gives an extremely vivid impression of the horrors of the time throughout, thus realising Steinbeck’s purpose in writing it, the misery, dreariness and hopelessness of the time it describes is perfectly mirrored in its writing style: it is completely unreadable. Every page is a chore, every chapter a task, not a stimulating piece of reading. It seems to me that Steinbeck was attempting some stylistic point by this, trying to give the reader a taste of the dull, repetitive misery of the time. Individual sentences contain awkward repetitions of words so crude they give the impression that Steinbeck did not read one sentence over after writing the novel. Long passages of description give monotonous, dull images in unnecessary gruelling detail.
Steinbeck populates his novel with a cast of entirely unlikable characters. The Joad family are a dull, tiresome lot, with the possible exception of Tom, who at least has his head screwed on. But Ma Joad in particular is a thoroughly loathsome entity. She is a hypocritical idealist: she believes absolutely in the traditional, conservative family model, and remains convinced to the end that her American Dream will be realised, despite the evidence all around her to the contrary, yet she bullies her husband in his moments of insecurity until he cannot remain a confident head of the family, and forces her pregnant daughter to do half her work for her. It is hard to hope for the best for such a thoroughly hopeless and despicable family.
If Steinbeck intended to make his readers suffer, a master craftsman was at work. But when I open a book I put the author in a position of trust to intrigue me or at least to shock me. This book was so long that the mild shock that I received at the beginning had grown old long before the end.
It was only the last few chapters of this book that were really worth reading. The final tragedy of the novel is paralysing, the last terrible rush for survival the only truly emotional one for the reader in a long line. The very last image of the novel alone is really sufficient to speak for the entire work, a concise portrayal of utter hopelessness and atrocity that, alone of any moment in the novel, really conveys Steinbeck’s point.