The qualities that most characterize the work of John Steinbeck are a supple narrative style, a versatility of subject matter, and an almost mystical sympathy for the common human being. His fiction is peopled with men and women somehow shoaled from society’s mainstream yet possessed of a vision that is itself a source of strength. His characteristic narrative method is to portray these people with an unerring mixture of realism and romance.
Though the Great Depression is the central social focus of his best work, his characters respond to those social forces not only in terms of realistic confrontation but also in the form of a romantic, intuitive escape. His characters become not so much victims of social or economic failure but celebrants of a life-force beyond society and economics. The best of Steinbeck’s work maintains this tension—developed by a narrative tone—between the world of harsh reality and the world of animal-like freedom. Even in a late novel such as East of Eden, his best books behind him, Steinbeck symbolically construed this duality in the reference to the two mountain ranges that defined the territory of his narrator’s childhood, the “sunny” flowered slopes of the Gabilans to the east and the dark, brooding peaks of the Santa Lucias to the west.
The Pastures of Heaven
Nowhere is this duality—the tension between realism and romance—more evident than in Steinbeck’s earliest short stories, those forming his first major work, The Pastures of Heaven. Structurally the book shows the influence of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a series of short stories, each independent but each connected by the locale and the theme of psychic isolation.
Using the frame narrative of Winesburg as a model, The Pastures of Heaven deals with the lives of a number of characters living in the peaceful, idyllic valley in the hills beyond Monterey. Secluded like some medieval bower or enchanted castle, the place evokes images of romance and peace. Yet for all the outward tranquillity, the valley cannot remain isolated from the real world of economic hardship and violence.
The Munroe farm, for example, is cursed, and the curse executes itself on all the characters who come into contact with the Munroes. The theme of this collection of short stories is the conflict inherent in the tension between the characters’ desire to live in the peaceful valley and their own human weaknesses, which prevent them from fulfilling their desires. Put in another way, the stories form a latter-day Garden of Eden myth. The land is beautiful, fruitful, prosperous; but the people of the land are thwarted by the serpent of human frailty.
Though some of the characters are spiritual kin to the “grotesques of Anderson’s famous collection,” they are markedly different in their attempts to reconcile their romantic intuition with the reality of social convention. Tularecito, for example, is all instinct. Though an idiot, he possesses great strength and an intuitive ability to draw. The title of the story, “The Legend of Tularecito,” suggests that, like a legend, Tularecito is a child of romance. In his contradictory nature, he is the archetype of all the characters in the collection. Foreshadowing the half-witted giant, Lenny, in Of Mice and Men, Tularecito brings destruction on himself when he attacks Bert Munroe and is sent to a state asylum outside the valley. His punishment is not physical death, as in Lenny’s case, but banishment from the valley, from Eden. Tularecito has come into contact with the reality of social convention and is defeated. Intuition is thwarted in the interest of social stability.
The conflict between an idyllic life, communing with nature, and the demands of middle-class respectability is the focus of another story, “Junius Maltby.” Like prelapsarian man, Junius lives innocently off the land. Reminiscent of the paisanos, such as Danny and Mac in later novels such as Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, Junius is shiftless and, by society’s standards, an irresponsible dreamer. Like Tularecito, Junius is intuitive, instinctual, indifferent to the economic imperatives of being a farmer, and casually indecorous in his personal appearance. To Mrs. Munroe, Junius’s life of the imagination is a threat. Junius is forced to abandon his farm and to leave the valley. There is no place for the poor and the romantic in Eden.
The garden as instinct, as the life of the spirit, is a prominent image in two stories in a later collection. Published in 1938, The Long Valley contains some of Steinbeck’s most brilliant work in the genre of short fiction. In “The Chrysanthemums,” Steinbeck presents the figure of Eliza Allen, a woman whose romantic gentleness conflicts with the brusque matter-of-factness of her husband and the deceitful cunning of a tinker. The story reveals a skillful meshing of character and setting, of symbol and theme. The garden is at once the chief setting and abiding symbol that define Eliza’s character and her predicament as a woman.
Dressed in a man’s clothing, Eliza is working in her garden when the story opens. Already the contrast is clear between Eliza’s sensitive nature and the manlike indifference of her dress, her husband and life on the ranch, bathed in “the cold greyflannel fog of winter.” Eliza’s only emotional outlet, her only contact with a deeper life-pulse, is her growing of chrysanthemums, symbolic of both her sexual need and her recognition of the dominance in her nature of the life of the instinct. Like the virgin queen Elizabeth, Eliza has no children and her mannish ways merely disguise her sensitivity, a sensitivity that her husband Henry does not understand.
When a tinker stops his wagon at the ranch, looking for pots to repair, Eliza at first has no work for him, but when he praises her chrysanthemums, implying an understanding of her nature, Eliza gives him the flowers in a pot. That night, on their way to town for dinner and—the husband teases—to the prizefights, Eliza sees the discarded flowers on the road and realizes that the tinker had deceived her. Like her husband, the tinker did not really understand her; he had merely used her to his own advantage. At the end of the story, Eliza cries quietly, “like an old woman.”
“The White Quail”
Still another story in the collection presents the image of the garden as both physical and psychic landscape. The garden that Mary Tiller tends in “The White Quail,” however, is symbolic not of a healthy life of the spirit but of self-love and egotism. Mary’s happiness with her garden, complete when she sees a white quail in it one night, is at the expense of her love for her husband. Harry is shut out of her love, often forced to sleep alone, though he virtually idolizes her. Mary’s garden is her dream of an ordered, nonthreatening and nonsexual existence. In a sense, Mary “quails” before a life of passion or the body. When a cat one day wanders into the garden, Mary is fearful of its potential as a predator and demands that Harry shoot it. Inexplicably, he shoots the quail; in destroying Mary’s dream, he has brought his wife back to the real world, to a sexuality that she had refused to admit.
A story of maturity and death is the much-praised “Flight.” Opening amid the rocky crags of the Torres farm, the story centers on Pepe, the oldest son of the widow Torres. A tall, lazy youth, Pepe has inherited his father’s knife and yearns for the day when he will become, like his father, a man. Sent into Monterey on an errand, Pepe is insulted by a townsman and kills the man with his knife. Returning, he bids his mother good-bye and, armed with his father’s rifle and horse, leaves his home to flee into the mountains. Gradually, he loses his rifle, then his horse. Now alone, he faces the threat of natural forces and the human pursuers. In the end, he is shot by one of the unseen “dark watchers.”
Significantly, Pepe relies more on his own strength and courage as he flees deeper into the wild mountain passes; as he leaves his childhood behind, however, he also approaches his own death. Pepe’s journey has become not only a physical escape from society’s retribution but also a symbolic pilgrimage toward manhood and a redemptive death.