This stunningly American novel offers a crystal image of the eccentric soul of the modern world's central nation. The ruggedness of it all, the hardness of the characters and the hardness of their world could not be more aptly encapsulated than it is in Steinbeck's magnum opus, which brings to the foreground the defining and forgotten characteristics of the American world, a world that is not, after all, beyond mystery.

The berating of the one-eyed man, the role of the men's stubborn rage in the face of catastrophe, and the drivers' blase attempts to steer over all living things which dare cross the threshhold of the headlights are carefully rendered images that will color forever my knowledge of the American soul, its obsession with strength, and the wrath that that obsession necessitates.

The Turtle and the Joads

John Steinbeck’s epic novel, the Grapes of Wrath, traces the journey of a migrating Oklahoma family traveling westward in desperation. In chapter three of the book, Steinbeck meticulously describes every detail of a long and tedious journey of a land turtle crossing a desolate highway. With the turtle’s travel, it was almost a complete foreshadowing of the Joad family’s own grueling ordeal.

From the onset of its journey, the turtle encounters many a great obstacles and setbacks. Along the way to the other side of the road, the turtle is hindered by red ants, hills, and oat seeds under his shell. The turtle’s determination however was strong enough to motivate him to continue reaching forward for his destination; it was even unfazed when a truck driven by a young man swerves to hit the turtle. When the turtle’s shell was clipped and went flying off the highway, it still remained focused and continued on. It struggled back to its belly and kept moving forward, inch by inch, towards his final destination.

The turtle, representing survival and the driving life force in all of mankind that cannot be beaten by neither nature nor circumstance, now represents the Joads' fully. Much like the turtle in chapter three, the Joads themselves had to face many an ordeals and hardships in their travels to California. With the planes of Oklahoma in disarray and completely worthless to provide for the family, they travel westward, on the artificial highway across the harsh summer deserts. Along the way they meet helpful people and not so helpful people, but the Joads remain steady in their course, heading steadily towards California with hope and dreams.

The red ants symbolized sickness, always there to harass the family, always there to remind them of death and annoyance. The ants serve no other purpose than be there, a scourge against the turtle. The hills represented nature. The all-engrossing nature that remained in focus and provided the hardships even in this vast strip of human-land. And as the turtle moves across the road it caries with it an oat seed until it was knocked on the other side. But it manages to flip itself over and dropped the oat leaving the three spearhead seeds struck in the ground while dragging dirt over them as the turtle continues on its way.

As the light truck approached nearer and nearer the drive saw the turtle and actually went out of his way to swerve to hit it. This act alone signifies many a great things. The driver, representing the Californians working for the large, faceless companies, was hired mainly for the sole purpose of stopping the migrants from going west, the struggle of the powerful against the little guy. The truck driver went out his way just to stomp the turtle, much like how the Californians buried food and killed livestock just to keep the Joads’ and others like them away from their dream.

But even through all of this the Joads’ persevered. They were driven by the great motivating powers to both endure poverty and survive hunger. Just as the turtle searched for food, the Joads’ were searching for paradise, the perfect garden of Eden. The grapes in California gave the Joads’ hope and a dream to attain, and it was through hard work that they made it.

John Steinbeck's epic classic, The Grapes of Wrath, relates the saga of the Joad family, migrant workers struggling to make a living in Depression-era California. Their tragic experiences illustrate the failings of unrestrained Capitalism. Multi-millionaire landowners and banks monopolize the land itself in their unchecked greed, willfully damning the low-class people to near serfdom while at the same time damning their own social order to inevitable destruction. In one of the most blatantly political passages of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck outlines "the three cries of history" that betray the Capitalist system's inevitable collapse:

"...the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds throughout all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed." (Chapter 19, page 324)

Steinbeck's emphasis of unity as the greatest virtue of the working class and his Marxist reading of history reveals his advocacy of a more Socialist system. His views were considered extremely controversial in the time shortly after the first Red Scare of the 1920's and before the second Red Scare of the 1950's. Despite the unorthodoxy of his opinions, Steinbeck's skillful writing exerts a powerful sympathetic influence on his readers.

One of the central conflicts of the novel is in fact between the existing social order of Capitalism and the labor revolution. By vividly portraying the hardships faced by the low class workers and demonizing the landowners, the reader's sympathies are drawn to the downtrodden migrants. While the working class people are closely connected with the earth, squatting in the dust to ponder, "drawing figures in the dust with bare toes," (Ch. 1, pg. 6) the landowners "[sit] in their cars to talk out of the window," (Ch. 5, pg. 42) cut off from the land. Instead of pouring their sweat and blood into the earth, the landowners "[drive] big earth augers into the ground for soil tests" (Ch. 5, pg. 42) and use science and calculation to coerce more from the earth. Their tractors do not cultivate or harvest, their "iron penes... [and] orgasms set by gears... [rape] methodically, [rape] without passion." (Ch. 5, pg. 49) The methods of the landowners are a perversion of nature, not a harmony with it. "The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died." The farmers' techniques, although lacking the ruthless efficiency of mechanization, are in harmony with the land. The corporations that form the body of capitalistic society are similarly portrayed as abominations- "A bank isn't like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn't like a man either. That's the monster." (Ch. 5, pg. 45) Symbols of authority are also objects of scorn and condescension. "Did you ever see a deputy that didn' have a fat ass?" (Ch. 20, pg. 381) asks Tom Joad, the novel's rebellious protagonist. Tom, who at the novel's outset has just been released from prison after serving part of a murder sentence, also describes a guard in his prison. "Seems like ever' cop got his face," Tom says, "...Looked like a pig." (Ch. 26, pg. 500) In even more striking contrast with the hard, strong, and wholesome portrayals of the workers and farmers is a rich landowner with a million acres- a "fat, sof' fella with little mean eyes an' a mouth like a ass-hole." (Ch. 18, pg. 281) Steinbeck's almost propagandistic technique of portraying his antagonists as inhuman and disgusting turns the sympathies of his readers to his protagonists' plight, regardless of their political opinions.

Steinbeck also uses Biblical allusion to elevate his protagonists' struggle above mere politics and reform. The short 'inter-chapters'(all the odd chapters except 13, plus 12 and 14) which alternate with the long narrative chapters and provide the background of the migrants as a group, are presented in a lyrically poetic and repetitious style that echoes the King James Version of the Bible. In Robert deMott's introduction to the Penguin printing of the novel, deMott quotes Steinbeck on the inter-chapters' purpose: "with the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into a reader-open him up and while he is open introduce things on a [sic] intellectual level which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up." Steinbeck's deliberateness is also found in his ironic choices of allusions. The Joad family's journey itself resembles a Biblical Exodus, with California the Promised Land. The Joads do not find paradise and plenty in California, however- only hardship and hunger. Rose of Sharon, the pregnant daughter of Ma and Pa Joad and sister of Tom, has a Biblical namesake denoting fruitfulness and hope- yet her baby, which is a motivation for the Joad family throughout the novel, is stillborn at the novel's tragic end. Noah, one of the Joad's teenaged sons, is unable to cope with the hardship of a new start, unlike his intrepid Biblical namesake, and abandons the family. Uncle John, Pa Joad's brother, sets Rose of Sharon's dead baby afloat in a flooded creek instead of burying it. John seems to recognize this event's ironic similarity to the Biblical story of Moses. "Go down an' tell 'em," says John bitterly, "Go down in the street an' rot, an' tell 'em that way. That's the way you can talk... Maybe they'll know then." (Ch. 30, pg. 609) These startling reversals of Biblical stories jolt the reader into feelings of pity for the migrants.

These Biblical allusions lead to the characters of Tom Joad and Jim Casy, an ex-preacher with his own sense of theological and social truth. Casy has abandoned preaching, and now entertains "a lot of sinful idears" that nonetheless "seem kinda sensible." (Ch. 4, pg. 27) He recognizes his own hypocrisy, and feels remorse that after every meeting he used to "take one of them girls out in the grass... an' ...lay with her." (Ch. 4, pg. 29) Casy has now embraced a transcendental deism that is as much an affront to established religion as Socialism is to Capitalism. "There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue... It's all part of the same thing," (Ch. 4, pg. 32) says Casy, and likewise, "Why do we got to hang it all on God or Jesus? ...maybe it's all men an' all women we love, maybe that's the Holy Sperit-the human sperit-the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of." (Ch. 4, pg. 33) Casy's theology, like Socialism, emphasizes unity. In the same way that Steinbeck uses Biblical allusion to elevate the Joads' struggle and enhance reader sympathy, Casy becomes a messiah figure, giving his message a feel of Gospel truth. Casy acknowledges his own Christ-like properties, several times saying "I been in the hills, thinkin', almost you might say like Jesus went into the wilderness..." (Ch. 8, pg. 109) Casy is also several times shown with a beatific shine on his forehead, in chapter eight and again in chapter twenty-six. Even Jim Casy's initials, JC, are those of Jesus Christ. Casy becomes a martyr, and is 'crucified-' killed by a blow to the head, after becoming a leader of a labor movement. Upon his death, he cries, "You fella's don' know what you're doin'," (Ch. 26, pg. 527) much like Christ's famous absolution at his own crucifixion: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34) Casy's messianic properties elevate his struggle for social progress to a religious plane. Tom Joad, Casy's apostle, assumes his place after Casy's death. Emerging from a cave where he hid to avoid arrest, Tom Joad is like the resurrected Christ emerging from his tomb. Tom tells Ma Joad of a scripture that Casy used to say: "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lif' up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up... Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him, and a threefold cord is not quickly broken." This passage, quoted verbatim from Ecclesiastes 4:9, reveals a basis for the "social gospel-" an influential belief at the turn of the 19th century that Socialism is the most Christian political system. Tom and Casy give the political belief in the socialistic ideal a religious aspect, making it more appealing.

Steinbeck uses the example of the Weedpatch Government Camp to provide a working model of a socialistic community. In Weedpatch, "folks... elect their own cops" (Ch. 22, pg. 390) and authority stems from elected committees that share responsibility. Human dignity, which is not to be found in other migrant camps, is respected in Weedpatch. By emphasizing the Socialist system's respect for equality and human rights, Steinbeck makes it less of a political abstraction, showing the universally appealing aspects of the Socialist system. The powerfully moving finale of the novel, although not delivering the Joads from hardship, offers an optimistic message: that self-sacrifice and humanity persevere despite hardship. The quality of perseverance also colors Steinbeck's description of social progress. Characterized by an inexorable and implacable land turtle that "[turns] aside for nothing" (Ch. 3, pg. 20), the spirit of progress is depicted as natural and righteous. Socialism, as a progressive political system, is therefore also seen as natural and righteous. The reader is made to feel that Socialism, or at least greater social responsibility, is the inevitable outgrowth of human progress. The atmosphere of impending change that permeates the work also contributes to this feeling. The social crisis of unemployment and depression is likened to weather, a natural force that will soon pass. "I know the wind," (Ch. 28, pg. 571) says Tom, the voice of the oppressed. "The western land," writes Steinbeck, is "nervous under the beginning change." (Ch. 14, pg. 204) Again, change is portrayed as inevitable. In one of the most stirring passages of the novel, Steinbeck writes, "in the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage." (Ch. 26, pg. 477) The people's desire for social change is natural, righteous, and spiritual. Through Steinbeck's association of revolution and socialistic change with optimistic, uplifting, and positive concepts, the reader gains a sense that such change is right and necessary.

Steinbeck's work gives a human face and a spiritual dimension to a largely political movement. His skillful use of allusion, characterization, and tone, among other techniques, increases the reader's sympathy for progressive and socialistic reform. The pitiful yet noble protagonists of The Grapes of Wrath remove political prejudice by tugging the reader's heartstrings. Steinbeck proves that, as Rodolfo Gonzales, a Chicano activist, once wrote: "Ultimately, there are no revolutions without poets."

Black Books episode guide: The Grapes Of Wrath (episode 3)

Manny decides to put his foot down. The shop is in a horrific state: filth everywhere, a week old pizza still in it's box lying on the front desk. He informs Bernard that he is calling in a cleaner, and they have to move out for a week. Fortunately, one of Bernard's "friends" has asked them both to house-sit for him as he goes away on holidays. It all works out rather nicely.

Meanwhile, Fran has a date with an absolutely charming, intelligent, and attractive new man. It's a complete disaster, as she plays psychoanalyist and aids him in discovering the realities of his sexuality. ("How often do you speak to your mother?" "I don't know, the usual amount. Three... maybe five times a day?")

The man-who's-house-they're-sitting happens to be quite the wine boffin, and instructs Manny that he can drink any of the new, cheap wine on the left but he must not touch any of the old, expensive stuff on the right. Surprise, surprise, Manny gets it the wrong way around, and before you can say "sacrelicous" they've downed the one bottle that their friend was due to present to the Pope the following month.

Previous: Manny's First Day
Next: The Blackout

The book is not the movie. The movie is not real life.

I live in Los Gatos, California. We've had a number of writers from here. Movie stars. Rock musicians. Famous people of all sorts. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio spent their wedding night at The Garden Court Inn. You can stay there, too, if you want. In the same room where that famous couple, in theory, spent that evening blissfully exploring each other's soft parts out of the public eye.

When my brother's mother-in-law from New Jersey came to visit my brother and his wife put her up at The Garden Court Inn. Rented the suite where Joe and Marilyn stayed. They're big movie fans. Now Pete and Helena have stayed there, too. They didn't want to leave. No doubt they've added their names to the list of folks who have copulated under that roof. It's a thing to do, if you're a movie fan and in Los Gatos. It's a thing. It goes on and on and on.

I read The Grapes of Wrath no more than two miles from where it was written. I was able to do that in my own living room, and also my own bedroom because I live pretty close to where John Steinbeck lived when he wrote that book as well as Of Mice and Men. I've no doubt that when John was tearing the soul of Tom Joad out of his own chest he was looking at the same mountain I'm seeing right now. When he invented the idea that Rose of Sharon, having had her child stillborn, would nurse a grown man who was near death from starvation, having starved himself so his son could eat, no doubt when he came up with that idea he was looking at the same mountains I see now out this window. He may have strolled along the sidewalk on Santa Cruz Avenue between chapters, resting his mind, stopping for a cup of coffee or a beer, tipping his hat to fans. And I have walked down that same street and tipped my hat to no one. I've had coffee in some of the same old places. Had beers in the same old bars. My ass may have been on the same seat in the bar that is now Carrie Nation's, where Steinbeck once sat with a mug of suds.

I have driven past his home on Greenwood because my daughter has a friend who lives on that street and I have had to bring the child home on occasion. I am acutely aware of the battle going on between the current owners of the former Steinbeck home, who are now feeling the steel fist of his curse, a force unleashed in the 1930's and sealed by the Nobel committee, that their home at once fashionable because it was listed on the national historic registry, is an albatross that cannot be modified in any way, including to make upgrades to bring it to 21st century standards of insulation and temperature control. They got their story in the local paper, probably hoping the flood of publicity would inure the general public to their position. In fact nothing happened. Nobody rightly cares that what is now a multi-million dollar home can't be retrofitted with A/C because it's a landmark, a Mecca of sorts for a piece of American culture. Anyone living within those walls will experience the environment as Steinbeck did, sweating in the blistering Los Gatos heat, shivering in the rains of winter.

On the other hand, you and a good friend can go to the Garden Court Inn and screw merrily within the same walls that shielded Joe and Marilyn in complete control of the air temperature, and you can have The Sopranos playing on the television while you do it.

We have Mexicans do our lawns here in Los Gatos. There are some Vietnamese, but for the most part, the lawn gardening business is run by a cartel that puts undocumented immigrants to work mowing lawns and clipping hedges. Ernie Reyes Family Gardeners cuts my lawn. I never have. I've met some of the Reyes Family. It's a big family. There are new ones every week and very few of them speak a word of English other than Ernie.

I was walking the dog today and I saw a Mexican banging on the window of a parked car. It was 6:30 in the morning and the first thing that went through my mind was that he was trying to break in.

In California they're trying to pass laws to give illegal immigrants the right to health care and the right to get driver's licenses. I thought about these laws and wondered why I should vote for them. Why should I vote to have the roads filled with uninsured, non-English-speaking motorists? Doesn't the word *illegal* mean illegal? If you're an illegal immigrant, isn't that not legal?

I bet many voters in California follow the same logic I just did, which is why these things don't pass.

The Grapes of Wrath is the saddest book I have ever read in my pitiful, paltry life. I read it and wondered why I should continue living. I have never felt so small, or so low, as reading the plight of the Joads. Sure, I saw the Henry Fonda movie. "I'll be everywhere. Wherever there's a guy getting beat up by a cop, I'll be there."

But the book is not the movie, and neither is real life. The book is so gut-wrenchingly sad it makes me want to scream. How could I have lived my entire life never having read that, or thinking it wasn't worth my time? What would make a guy sitting here in this beautiful place write about such terrible things?

Once my daughter was babysitting for a family down the street. She called home and she was in a panic. A strange man was pounding on the front door. He was looking in all the windows.

I pulled on my shoes and ran to the house and sure enough, there was a ratty white-panel van in front of the house and a short, dark-skinned, Mexican circling the house ominously. While phoning the police on my cell, I walked right up to the guy and asked him what he was doing. At the same time my daughter took the kids and ran past me to my house down the block.

The guy could barely speak English. All he could say was, "Ivy."

I couldn't figure out what he wanted. I looked at his van. It was dented and rusting. The windows were filthy with dust and the windshield almost clear in two half-moons where the wipers had moved to clear a swath through the muck. The tires were nearly bald retreads. The plates were from Baja California. Inside, a young woman sat quietly with two young children amid a bunch of torn up foliage. The little kids were not moving around or talking or crying like little two-year-old kids should do. They were stoic. Absolutely rock silent. They looked like they had been wearing the same clothes for weeks.

The woman looked at me with an expression beaming something between fear and anger. She tried to smile at me. It was an effort for her.

"Can I have little ivy?" the guy said, putting himself between me and his van.

"What ivy are you talking about?" I asked him, and he forced a smile, tried to keep looking pleasant while directing my attention from his family.

"Ivy--" he pointed to the house.

The cops showed up, then. He got very nervous and tried to drive away, but they stopped him. A Spanish speaking cop talked to the guy, and then they came over to me.

"The guy's collecting plants. He thinks he's going to start a gardening business. He's looking for donations."

Basically, he wanted to tear up a little of the ivy from the around the house. They had a lot. Couldn't they spare some?

I told the cops it wasn't my house, so it wasn't mine to give. They hustled the guy away, but not before I saw one of the cops hand the guy some money.

I calmed down my daughter. We never saw the guy or his family or his ratty van from Baja California again. We know he can't find health care in this state so his kids better not get sick here. We know he'd better have insurance. He'd better have a driver's license.

And today I finished The Grapes of Wrath no more than two miles from where Steinbeck wrote it. I live in a million-dollar-plus home in one of the wealthiest communities in this country.

What did I look like to that Mexican who wanted the ivy? Did I look like those fat-assed deputies that beat the Joads? Did I look like the guys who tried to start the fights so the Okies could be rightfully arrested? Did I look like the bastard who beat the strikers with the axehandle? Did I sound like the guys who told them there was work where there was none?

When I read The Grapes of Wrath it annoyed me how much people repeated themselves. They said the same thing over and over, just like they do in real life. They couldn't think past one or two small ideas. Occasionally, they'd have a big idea and they wouldn't have enough words to get it out, so they'd say the same simple thing a couple times as if it could be borne on repetition.

It never ends. I'm looking at these mountains right now, the same ones Steinbeck saw when he condemned Lennie to die at George's hand, the same ones that he saw when Noah walked away into the stream. When Tom killed the guy who murdered the preacher. When Connie left Rose of Sharon in the Government Camp. When they put the stillborn child in the crate and let the flood waters take it. They didn't even know if it was a boy or a girl.

Dear God. Why am I here and that poor man with his wife and kids are wherever they are--probably back in Mexico begging. He was trying to make something of himself. He was using his head. He wasn't a criminal. He was trying to be a father.

Why am I here writing this, and not standing on the corner by Home Depot looking for someone who'll give me a job cleaning their yard or painting their garage for three bucks an hour?

It never ends. It doesn't.

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