Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9641
Steinbeck, John 1902–1968
Steinbeck, a short story writer and novelist, was one of America's most widely read authors. Noted for his realistic portrayals of people searching for the golden land and happiness, Steinbeck was a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize. Best known for The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck initially professed strong Socialist beliefs, but he later adopted a more conservative ideology. Progressive or conservative, Steinbeck's fiction is always in tune with the great American mythology of the open road, male companionship, personal freedom, and the vitality of the land. See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 13, 21, 124.
If, as Faulkner has rather perversely contended, a writer is to be measured these days by the extent and quality of his failure, Steinbeck must inevitably be reckoned among our most sizeable novelists. Steinbeck's failure is great, and it is incomparably more interesting and valuable than the successes of nine-tenths of his contemporaries. For where Steinbeck has failed is in an effort to engage, with the resources of fiction, the complex realities, the evolving motifs, the outlines and images of things, the very sense of life which make up the matter truly, if deeply and almost invisibly, available to an American novelist of his generation. I am not cheaply hinting that Steinbeck deserves, as the schoolboy saying goes, 'E' for effort. I am saying that because of his effort and even because of its failure he has made more visible for the rest of us the existence, indeed the precise character, of the realities and themes and images he has not finally succeeded in engaging. This is the kind of failure which is, in the end, almost indistinguishable from success….
Amidst the larger failure of Steinbeck there are smaller units of undeniable achievement. At least one of these comprises a whole brief story; more usually the achievement is partial—a passage, a character, or perhaps merely an aspect. Of Mice and Men (1937) seems on a re-reading to stand up remarkably well, to stand up whole and intact. It skirts breathtakingly close to disastrous sentimentality; stock minor characters (especially the villain and the villainess) move woodenly through it; the deliberate stage technique gives one the cramps; and there is an unpersuasive quality of contrivance about the episode—the mercy-shooting of an aged dog—which prepares by analogy for the climax—the mercy-shooting of the animal-child, Lennie. Yet the entire action of the story moves to its own rhythm, rescued and redeemed by a sort of wistful toughness, a sense not of realism but of reality. The end is an authentic purgation of feeling, pity if not terror, and the end crowns the whole.
Of Mice and Men is probably the only one of Steinbeck's works which is satisfying as a whole, and it is a short novel or novella. His longer and thicker writings may be differentiated by the moment and degree of wreckage, and they have culminated in East of Eden (1952), professedly Steinbeck's most ambitious novel. (p. 164)
The badness of East of Eden is a basic premise in this paper and I must return to it, but meanwhile a couple of observations of a less negative kind. The sheer bulk of Steinbeck's work is impressive, for one thing, and marks him clearly as a professional of sorts: twenty-three volumes, some of them no doubt slim ones, in the twenty-six years following his first book, The Cup of Gold, in 1929. Bulk is not the first attribute of artistic achievement, but it is an attribute, and we note again the courage and resiliency which are part of Steinbeck's temperament, which set him apart from the 'signers-off' of contemporary fiction….
More important, and secondly, in the longer novels (To a God Unknown, 1933, In Dubious Battle, 1936, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939, and East of Eden) we come upon electrifying passages, sudden and tragically short-lived moments of vision, little spurts of verbal energy; momentary manifestations, as it were, of a trapped and imprisoned artistic daemon struggling to get out and on to the page and into the language, and to dwell there for ever. We come upon an occasional character too who lights up for us the adventure he is engaged in: normally not the hero—not Joseph Wayne or Tom Joad or Jim Nolan or Adam Trask—but the Steinbeck sage, the renegade doctor or renegade minister or renegade philosopher, whose puzzled involvement with the action helps to give the action such force and meaning as it may possess.
More largely yet, through these swift moments of light and these infrequent bearers of light, we dimly detect in these novels the effective presence and the design of the realities, motifs and images I have mentioned earlier. I distinguish here two kinds of motif in the fiction of John Steinbeck. The first may be called the American motif: a celebrational sense of life, a sense of promise and possibility and of as yet unspoiled novelty in man and his habitation, a mystical sympathy both for the individual and for what Whitman called the "en-masse." (p. 165)
The second is the contemporary motif: something so close in substance to the American motif that it can be seen as growing organically out of it, and yet which also appears as a dominant motif in the fiction of other contemporary languages and countries. It appears in the fiction, for example, of Silone in Italy, of Malraux and Camus in France, and to some extent of Graham Greene in England. This motif springs from the tragic awareness, which in Steinbeck's case is sometimes only an intensely pathetic awareness, of the fateful division between man and man….
The sense of division leads naturally to the political theme. It leads, that is, to the intuition that the form which the human struggle currently assumes, the representative plot of contemporary experience and the soul of its tragedy, is political in design. The political theme consists of a revolt against the forces that keep men separated, and its heart tends to beat to the formula of Albert Camus: I rebel, therefore we are….
Steinbeck has made his contribution to the theme and its heart-beat, especially in The Grapes of Wrath. "This is the beginning," he says there, flatly, in his own voice, "from 'I' to 'we'." But the relation between the elements—the felt division, the rebellion, and the ordering power of art—is extremely complex. It is partly Steinbeck's habit of over-simplifying both life and art that has kept him from seeing and taking hold of the complex entirety. The elements rarely fuse in his fiction; they tend rather to jar against each other. The same may be said of the two leading motifs. The evolution of what I have named the contemporary motif from the American motif may be seen within the development of American literature itself, in the movement from Thoreau and Emerson to Hawthorne and from all of them to Henry James; a movement from the happy evocation of "the simple separate person" and the sturdy conviction that the world was, or could be seen as, young and uncorrupted, to the gradual sense of self-isolation, of darkness and bewilderment. (p. 166)
There is no such coherent and meaningful evolution in Steinbeck's work, though he began reasonably enough in the recognisably American vein and has gone on to identify, and respond boldly to, the contemporary challenge. The motifs have not so much met together as collided, in a struggle, as it were, between poetry and politics. For Steinbeck's poetry, the truly creative side of him, has remained American while his engrossing theme has become contemporary and political. (pp. 166-67)
The American theme announces itself regularly in Steinbeck's stories in a recurring image of a sort of Drang nach Westen—or perhaps Drang nach California. Steinbeck's first novel, To a God Unknown, begins with the departure of Joseph Wayne, the book's indistinctly godlike hero, from the family home in New England, near Pittsford, Vermont, to the green hills of California. "I've been reading about the West and the good cheap land there," he tells his father; "I've a hunger for the land, sir." "It's not just restlessness," his father replies. "You may go to the West. You are finished here with me." The process is repeated, through dialogue rather less stagey, in East of Eden, when Adam Trask leaves his Connecticut home and heads for California. "It's nice there, sun all the time and beautiful."…
Steinbeck's instinct at these initial moments was altogether sound; he was knowingly possessing himself of a native theme and a native resource, a resource both of history and of literature. It is the traditional American impulse to withdraw into the terrain of freedom in order to find or re-find one's identity and one's purpose as a human being; to dissociate from the given, the orthodox, the habitual, from whatever passes at the time for civilisation. (p. 167)
But in seeing his native Salinas Valley in California as a new Eden, the scene of a new chance for man and for men, and in transporting his heroes thither from the exhausted East, Steinbeck is not only continuing in an American tradition, enacting again an old American dream. He is also suggesting that the dream itself has moved west and has settled there, that it is now California which stimulates in its inhabitants the intoxicating sense of fresh beginning and untroubled potentialities which the eastern scene once stimulated in Emerson, in Thoreau, in Whitman….
Much of the best and no little of the worst can be found in Steinbeck's work, and most apparently in the work of the early thirties—The Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown, and Tortilla Flat—where there are many parallels and continuities linking him to the age of Emerson and its cultural predispositions. Steinbeck really did, for example, write about those subjects Emerson urged on his contemporaries, when he suggested the range of native materials and the unsophisticated but robust activities ready to be celebrated: "Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes and Indians, our boasts and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon and Texas, are yet unsung." And in translating these persons and places and occupations into narrative, Steinbeck managed to shed over all of it a warm, in fact a slightly sweaty, haze of trustful moral purity. Innocent are these early writings, and he who wrote them; innocent in the manner of Emerson and Thoreau; innocent in the manner of Whitman, detecting or claiming to detect beauty and purity amidst the lowliest squalor. There is no vice in the inhabitants of the heavenly pastures; its liars and lunatics and killers and prostitutes are merely well-intentioned eccentrics.
Joseph Wayne, in To a God Unknown, is so thickly enveloped in mythological fog that he scarcely seems to arrive at humanity at all. (p. 168)
Joseph Wayne is a representative character, for the fact is that most of these early creations are morally pure because they are morally as yet unborn. Joseph is physically vigorous and his eyes have seen the glory. With his vague, mystical far-sightedness, he is a sort of buckskin Bronson Alcott, but he shares with the antic trouble-makers of the other books the quality—in them often very attractive—of pre-moral sensibility. None of these persons has yet arrived at the condition of conscience, at the human condition, and with luck none of them ever will. Joseph's pre-moral, pre-historical profile seems an act of will. Following a traditional American pattern, Joseph has abandoned a closed or closing society…. [The] next phase, in American literature has customarily been the return into society to testify amidst its betrayals and denials to the lessons learned in solitude. Joseph Wayne does not live to make that return journey, but it is a sign of John Steinbeck's development that the role of the returned witness is exactly the one assigned, in The Grapes of Wrath, to Jim Casy, the one time preacher who abruptly quits his vocation—"an' went off by myself an' give her a damn good thinkin' about"—and who has now come back to counsel Tom Joad and his family, and finally to die for the new faith that his good thinking had produced.
One of the favourite images by which American writers have traditionally sought both to describe and to comment on the process I have mentioned is the image of Adam. Such is the case with John Steinbeck and East of Eden…. This is a novel whose allegorical framework is indicated not only in its title but in its hero, whose Christian name is Adam. This is a novel which introduces us not only to a new Adam, but to a new Lilith and even to a new Cain and Abel—called Cal and Aron—with the former again responsible, if indirectly, for the death of the latter. (pp. 169-70)
Here, then, is the book in which Steinbeck has presented the whole of his experience of America. Although it has been a huge economic success, it is, unhappily, a literary disaster, and of such proportions that it sheds a very disturbing light on the career that has allegedly culminated in it. Either Steinbeck has not understood the original story of Adam or he has failed to grasp its profound relevance to experience in America: which is not to understand America itself. The story of Adam is the story of the fall of man. There are many mysteries about it, but there is no questioning the fact that it is a story about sin, about the encounter with evil and the corruption of human nature by an act of its own will and an expression of its pride. It is indeed the story of human nature becoming human, of someone less than or more than or other than human taking upon himself the tainted, paradoxical, tragic, and hopeful burden of authentic humanity; it is therefore about what it means to be human. It is a story about death, and a story which has always appealed to the characteristic dark humour of the American novelist….
Little of that old story remains in East of Eden and nothing of its inner essence. (p. 170)
The biblical allegory is the more intrusive throughout this jumbled tale because the allegory has remained unfleshed. Failing to represent the case, Steinbeck has attempted to name it. This gives rise to a pervasive sense of contrivance and we are conscious everywhere not of a sense of life but of an abstraction from it. The Bible story is about evil and in few novels has the word "evil" been invoked as frequently as it is in East of Eden, but that itself is an evil sign. (pp. 170-71)
There is no great image of human experience in East of Eden though a great one was intended, and not only because there is no sense of life but even more because there is no sense of death in it. Death is almost always the end of experience in Steinbeck, and the end of his characteristic fictions; it is almost never a beginning, never a dying into life. The fact is that Steinbeck does not really believe in his Biblical story. It is as though Emerson had written the book, and all that remains when the abstractions and monsters have been cleared away is the old Emersonian material and the old Emersonian tone: "the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing," and so on.
But the calamity which is East of Eden is partly explained by what had happened to Steinbeck's subject-matter and his attitude towards it in the years between those earlier and funnier and more cheerful works and the decision, say around 1950, to tackle the Adamic allegory. (p. 171)
Steinbeck's editor, Pascal Covici, has accurately noted in Steinbeck "an expression of the joy of living." It should be remembered here that by communicating that joy Steinbeck has given very many people a great deal of pleasure, revived in them perhaps some lost sense of the sheer excitement of being alive…. The difficulty with Steinbeck's peculiar brand of joyfulness is not so much that it can easily turn fuzzy or mawkish (a kind of melting process observable in the development, or the decline, from Tortilla Flat to Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday). The difficulty is rather that it is constitutionally unequipped to deal with the more sombre reality a man must come up against, in these times or in any times, if he is honest and alert.
Steinbeck was up against a part of that reality during the years between 1936 and 1942 when he was writing In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath and The Moon is Down, and when he was also writing the one work in which his trapped daemon did squirm out and get almost completely into the language—Of Mice and Men. With the important exception of the latter, the work of those years is characterised among other things by a seeming refusal, or perhaps an inability, to confront tragic truth. (pp. 171-72)
But the work of those years was characterised, too, by a relatively superficial analysis and a makeshift solution of the case, whether it be social injustice or Fascist invasion and oppression. To have looked more searchingly into those ugly phenomena would have been to have discovered their tragic implications for the nature of man—the proper concern, I venture, of the artist if not of the politician or the sociologist. The Moon is Down, for example, is intended as a consoling image of heroism—that of a number of European villagers in a town occupied by the Nazi forces. But it is woefully limited by the absence of anything but the slightest hint that the fault, the guilt, the very Fascism, is a manifestation of the human heart, and so detectable on all sides of the conflict. (p. 172)
I am not now raising the somewhat tired issue of the artist's responsibility. I am sure that responsibility is a great one, but I am talking about the form it can most suitably and effectively take—and that is the prophetic form, penetrating to hidden realities and not combing up appearances. Neither The Grapes of Wrath nor In Dubious Battle, the novels where Steinbeck's rebellious sympathy for the wretched and the luckless is most evident, succeeds in arriving at that form; and in the absence of the prophetic we are left with the merely political…. In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath have, as it were, everything but that simple acknowledgement of the secret cause of our suffering and our violence. The secret cause is the ally of the poetic impulse, but these novels reach only as deep as the political cause, and politics in its usual meaning is the enemy of poetry, or anyhow of Steinbeck's poetry.
The Grapes of Wrath does not manage to transcend its political theme because the question "What is man?" was not really accepted by Steinbeck as the root question. He could not bring himself to believe that there was anything really wrong with the human heart, so that the causes of the wrongs observed must be other—practical, even mechanical; political, in short. The point here is that the application of Steinbeck's special and happy-natured poetry to his newly-discovered and unhappy historical materials could only result in a defeat of the poetry. (pp. 172-73)
To the story of Tom Joad and his family—their long, rickety journey westward, their exhausted efforts to make a living in California, and the bitter resistance they encounter among the rich, frightened, and greedy land owners—Steinbeck has added a large sky-blue vision of things which is not only like the vision of Emerson, it is straight out of Emerson. It is his notion of the over-soul, the world-soul of which each individual has his modest and particular share. Jim Casy, the former preacher and future martyr, pronounces this idea: "Maybe all men got one big soul and everybody's a part of it." (p. 173)
That doctrine also is the philosophical basis for the famous speech that Tom Joad makes to his mother after Casy has been killed—those words which rang bravely and beautifully in 1939 but which, if you will forgive me, seem to have lost a little of their glow since. Tom Joad is about to leave, to continue the whole struggle in hiding. His mother asks:
"How'm I gonna know about you? They might kill ya an' I wouldn't know."
Tom laughed uneasily. "Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain't got a soul of his own, but on'y a piece of a big one—an' then … then it don't matter. Then I'll be all aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where—wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat. I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'—I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build—why, I'll be there. See?"
What does get lost amidst the genuinely lyrical flow of that passage and in its infectious hopefulness is the element on which not only the social struggle but the art of narrative depend—the image of the sharply outlined, resolutely differentiated, concrete individual personality. The political movements of the 1930s did tend to submerge the individual in the group, whether or not at the behest of the oversoul, but in reflecting that fact in his fiction Steinbeck has again yielded up his poetry to his politics. And his poetry is not saved by adding above that political tendency a metaphysical principle which (even if true, as most probably it is not) is totally unsuited for the craft of fiction. Fiction deals with individuals, however intimately related. The relationship, in turn, which both fiction and politics were seeking, and are seeking, must be composed of inviolable and separate persons…. Steinbeck has always had trouble focusing on individuals, and he has always known it. "You have never known a person," Joseph Wayne's sister-in-law says to him; and we feel it is Steinbeck admonishing himself. "You aren't aware of persons, Joseph; only people. You can't see units, Joseph, only the whole." Therefore it is heartening as well as a trifle surprising to come at last and in East of Eden upon the long awaited awareness, the long delayed perception; to arrive in Steinbeck's pages at the revelation withheld from Joseph Wayne and even from Doc Burton and Jim Casy. And this occurs in a passage not wholly justified by the immediate context, but erupting with a fierceness of feeling reminiscent of the explosive and superficially irrelevant ode to democracy which pops up in the early pages of Moby Dick. "And this I believe," Steinbeck's voice suddenly announces to us:
And this I believe. That the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: an idea, religion or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for this is the one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost….
[This] time Steinbeck's rebellious impulse has produced a theme which goes beyond politics; which is, very simply and very greatly, human; which is the actual stuff of the art of narrative. East of Eden itself does not, as a novel, demonstrate this new and potentially happier wedding. But in the passage quoted Steinbeck's familiar daemon leapt out at us for an instant…. (pp. 174-75)
R. W. B. Lewis, "John Steinbeck: The Fitful Daemon," in The Young Rebel in American Literature, edited by Carl Bode (copyright © 1959 by Carl Bode; reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher), William Heinemann Ltd., 1959 (and reprinted in Steinbeck: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Murray Davis, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972, pp. 163-75).
Underlying Steinbeck's four short stories which make up The Red Pony are thematic rhythms, structural balance, and a seasonal symbolism which skillfully integrate the whole work and relate it to his Emersonian mysticism found in later books such as The Grapes of Wrath … and Sea of Cortez…. "The Leader of the People" is an integral part of the whole work, but readers of college anthologies usually find one of the stories published separately or the first three as a unit, and thus miss a good opportunity to study Steinbeck's subtle extension of the themes expressed in "The Gift," "The Great Mountains," and "The Promise."
The central figure unifying all four stories is Jody Tiflin. Like Hemingway's early hero Nick Adams, Jody is being initiated into a violent world where danger lurks everywhere, pain and death are imminent, and the best laid plans of mice and boys often go astray. In the first story Jody is ten, in the next apparently a year older, and in the third and fourth, probably twelve. The adventures of both youths are intended to teach them the need for stoic endurance in order to survive in an imperfect and cruel world. In this sense, Hemingway's stories and The Red Pony can be considered bildungsromans, but there are some significant differences. Because of Jody's age, sex plays much less a part of his initiation than it does in Nick's, whose experiences are not just vicarious. And violence, which explodes all around Nick and finally wounds him in the war, destroys only the things Jody loves, not harming him physically. Where Nick's wounds are both physical and psychic, Jody's are only psychic, and we do not know whether they have a permanent effect on him. (p. 70)
More important than the above contrasts is the fact that Steinbeck composed The Red Pony as an integrated whole, while Hemingway wrote the Nick Adams stories sporadically at different times during his literary career. All four stories in The Red Pony take place in the Salinas Valley, where Steinbeck himself grew up as a boy. The stories are filled with realistic and lyric descriptions of the Valley's flora and fauna…. (p. 71)
The basic thematic rhythm unifying the four stories in The Red Pony is the life-death cycle….
In The Red Pony we see this rhythm in the cycle of the seasons, the buzzards flying overhead, the life and death of Jody's pony Galiban, the death of the buzzard Jody kills with his bare hands, the approaching death of the paisano Gitano and the old horse Easter (his very name suggesting life in death), and the two opposing sets of mountains: Galiban (jolly, populated, suggesting life) and the Great Ones (ominous, mysterious, suggesting death, a place where we must all go eventually), the little bird Jody kills with his slingshot and then beheads and dissects, the death of Nellie and the birth of her colt, and the approaching death of Jody's old grandfather, the old leader of the people, with the implication that Jody is to be the new one. All of these objects and incidents represent the never-ending rhythm of life and death to which Jody is continually exposed….
The most obvious example of Steinbeck's conscious effort to present this theme in The Red Pony is the sharp contrast he develops in "The Promise" between the black cypress tree by the bunkhouse and the water tub. Where the cypress is associated with death, the never-ending spring water piped into the old green tub is the symbol of the continuity of life. (p. 72)
Jody's communion with nature, a semi-mystical experience in which time and place are eliminated, is not very different from the withdrawal into the wilderness of Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath. Casy adds a religious dimension to the experience when he says, "There was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't separate no more. We was one thing. An' that one thing was holy." The most explicit statement Steinbeck has made on this mystical feeling of oneness of the animate and inanimate is in Sea of Cortez, where he wrote:
groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it … And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable.
Throughout his literary career John Steinbeck has attempted to render dramatically his passionate belief in the oneness of all life, and The Red Pony is no exception, as the life-death cycle and Jody's romantic communion with nature will attest. But there is one final example which should be mentioned because of its effective fusion of character, theme, and setting. It occurs in "The Great Mountains." To Jody, these mountains represent the mystery of the unknown, unlived life, but to the old man they stand for the mystery of death. Beyond them lies the sea—eternity. As Gitano rides off into the mountains, he carries a long rapier with a golden basket hilt, a family heirloom passed down to him by his father. This rapier adds just the right touch of myth and folklore to the ancient legend of an old man returning to his birthplace to die. It echoes the classic tradition of such weapons as the magical sword of King Arthur and Beowulf, the shield of Achilles, even the long rifle of Natty Bumppo. To Jody, Gitano is "mysterious like the mountains. There were ranges back as far as you could see, but behind the last range piled up against the sky there was a great unknown country. And Gitano was an old man, until you got to the dull dark eyes. And in behind them was some unknown thing."… Thus the mountains are an extension of Gitano, and Gitano is an extension of the old horse with its ribs and hip-bones jutting out under its skin. All three objects blend into one as Jody watches them disappear in the distance…. (p. 74)
Arnold L. Goldsmith, "Thematic Rhythm in 'The Red Pony'," in College English (copyright © 1965 by the National Council of Teachers of English), February, 1965 (and reprinted in Steinbeck: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Murray Davis, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972, pp. 70-4).
John Steinbeck … tried to release woman from the pasteboard, shadowy role she generally assumed in fiction…. The Grapes of Wrath [is] a powerful social work but not his best literary achievement, nor the one in which he demonstrated greatest sensitivity to female characters. True, Ma Joad and Rosasharn are unforgettable women, but both clearly fall into the "earthmother" category which is a stereotype, however flattering. Rather than in this novel or his others from the thirties, it is in his short stories that Steinbeck's understanding of his craft and of women is to be found.
Two of John Steinbeck's more intricate and memorable stories in The Long Valley are "The Chrysanthemums" and "The White Quail." Both examine the psychology and sexuality of strong women who must somehow express themselves meaningfully within the narrow possibilities open to women in a man's world. In each case the woman chooses a traditional feminine activity, gardening, as a creative outlet, yet the dedication with which each undertakes her project is of the sort traditionally considered masculine. It is the conflict between society's view of what constitutes masculinity and its view of what constitutes femininity as well as the conflict between the women and men depicted which carries the action and determines the development of character. In addition, Steinbeck reveals fundamental differences between the way women see themselves and the way they are viewed by men. (pp. 304-05)
"The White Quail" is as fabulous and ethereal in dialogue and setting as "The Chrysanthemums" is naturalistic. Furthermore, Steinbeck has created in Elisa Allen a warm, three-dimensional character with whom the reader can identify, just as he has made Mary Teller a virtual caricature of the selfish, castrating female who inspires animosity. The only obvious connection one woman has with the other is the superficial but significant detail that Mary and Elisa are childless women who have transferred maternal impulses to a garden. In addition, however, both women are trapped between society's definition of the masculine and the feminine and are struggling against the limitations of the feminine. That struggle is more apparent in the life of Elisa Allen than in that of Mary Teller, who is more physically fragile. Yet Mary is one of the most ruthless and egotistical of all Steinbeck's characters, although outwardly she conforms to the stereotype of feminine weakness. Her mythic depiction in a story that is practically a fable in modern dress leads one to conclude that Steinbeck is using her to refute outmoded conceptions of what a woman should be. Mary is not Steinbeck's model of the wife; she is merely Elisa's opposite who serves to show the real human beauty beneath Elisa's rough and somewhat masculine exterior. (p. 306)
[In both stories] Steinbeck proposes no solutions for the psychological conflicts which plague human interactions. There will always be predators and victims in life which is comprised of mere plateaus of contentment between joy and despair. (p. 309)
The women have certain needs of the spirit, the abstract nature of which keeps happiness forever elusive. The men are more practical, with greater involvement in physical concern; but confronted by women whose malaise is partially due to a confusion of sexual identity, the men retreat from the masculine role of leadership, leaving the women to flounder between aggression and submission…. Steinbeck is not advocating that wives be submissive to their husbands; if his opinion on male-female relations can be interpreted at all from the two stories, it would seem to support a sharing of interests determined through real communication between people, so that none can say with Harry Teller [in "The White Quail"]: "Oh, Lord, I'm so lonely." (p. 314)
Marilyn L. Mitchell, "Steinbeck's Strong Women: Feminine Identity in the Short Stories," in Southwest Review (© 1976 by Southern Methodist University Press), Summer, 1976, pp. 304-14.
The fiction of John Steinbeck has had a special appeal to the scientist, for of all the major American writers of fiction in this century, Steinbeck alone has had an abiding interest in natural science and brought that interest to his writing…. [If] Steinbeck does have a claim on the attention of future generations of readers, much of that claim will be based on his concern with science, since he alone, among American novelists of his time, saw man as part of an ecological whole.
At the same time, however, Steinbeck's scientific outlook created many problems for him as an artist and contributed significantly to a generally negative response to much of his work by literary critics. His use of science put him in a position of isolation—often the critics did not understand what he was doing. Further, his use of ideas associated with science brought him into conflict with the novel form and its traditions, leading him into difficulties with characterization, plot, and point of view which he was only partially able to overcome. While the modern novel as a whole has tended to drift back toward the poetic and mythic, Steinbeck's fiction, particularly during those years when he was most heavily influenced by his marine biologist friend, Edward F. Ricketts, was often infused with large doses of naturalistic philosophy. (p. 248)
If we are to examine Steinbeck's role as scientist, or any twentieth-century American novelist's relationship to science, we must do so within the context of the traditions and patterns [of the novel form]: the dualism at the heart of prose fiction and the duality of the writer's own experience as a result of his having encountered reality in a culture which has endorsed an essentially poetic-religious view of life. Steinbeck was born and reared a romantic, wrote his first novels as a romantic, and maintained certain poetic-religious-mythic schemes of thought and feeling throughout his lifetime. At the same time, he adopted certain attitudes and approaches, as expressed in his fiction, which brought him closer to a scientific perspective than any other important modern American writer. The conflict of his early conditioning and the interest in science he acquired as an adult produced a particularly intense conflict within the schemes of the [novel] tradition…. Furthermore, in so far as Steinbeck not only took a non-teleological view of reality, but went beyond that breakthrough to see a different kind of order, a physical order with certain moral and social imperatives, to that extent he was a writer who became something more than a traditional Naturalist. (p. 252)
[Steinbeck's] first significant expression of non-teleological and holistic thought is in In Dubious Battle. Doc Burton does not act so much as he looks to understand; what he wants to observe is men who, coming together as a group, assume the characteristics of an entirely different "individual." The expression of this thought continues in almost all of Steinbeck's fiction up through East of Eden. The Red Pony … uses Jody as an unwilling student of nature—his dreams of romance are reinforced with the optimism, the "personal projections" of Billy Buck. Buck is the false tutor—it is Jody's father, who is pictured so harshly, who really understands that nature's will must be done regardless of our feelings. What Jody must learn to accept is that the vultures are as much a part of nature as the pony.
The Darwinism of The Red Pony is brought from the conflict of animals to the conflict between men in Of Mice and Men…. As engaging to our own sense of romance and sentiment as Lennie's and George's dream of a small ranch may be, the facts are that they do not have the power within the scheme of things to make that dream come true. Lennie kills without malice—animals and people die simply because of his strength. Lennie himself must die simply because within the society of man he is an anomaly and weak. The point is each case is that what happens, happens: things work themselves out as they must according to their nature.
In The Grapes of Wrath both personal projections (that little white house surrounded by orange trees in California) and traditional projections (religion, family, poetic justice) run afoul of the nature of human society as it actually is. Like Doc Burton of In Dubious Battle, Jim Casy can become an observer of things as they are only after he rejects his own personal projections and those of society's traditions as well. In a parody of Chirst's religious purgation of the self, Casy goes into the wilderness to emerge with a scientific, non-teleological vision: "There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing." Along somewhat the same lines, the people in the various subcultures depicted in the comic novels—Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday—are able to achieve happiness in so far as they are able to deal with life on an "is" basis, rejecting both the personal and traditional projections typical of the larger society. (pp. 255-56)
The approach used in the comedies and in The Wayward Bus is roughly similar, but the observer in the comedies is on a "field trip," while the observer in The Wayward Bus has deliberately collected certain representative specimens in the field and put them together in a laboratory tank to observe their interreactions. Nevertheless, the topic of major concern in this novel is accepting what "is," just as it is also the topic of major concern in East of Eden.
Although the Biblical materials in East of Eden may be more confusing than useful, if we can look beyond them (or see that Steinbeck is using religious materials to make a non-religious, philosophical point), we can perceive that the primary movement in the work is toward freedom—freedom from destructive illusion and self-delusion. At the end of the novel, as Adam Trask is dying, he is being reborn to a new perspective. Earlier, he could not see his wife for what she was because of his romantic projections, and then he could not see his sons because of a religious reaction which replaced his romanticism. Now, at last, he gains an opportunity to see things as they are when he realizes that man is not bound by the scheme of sin and virtue, that man is free to be, and in being, he is what he is. By freeing himself, Trask is able to bless and free his son.
These patterns which express a non-teleological point of view, in one way or another, can be seen as having some similarities to the Realistic-Naturalistic fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet, there is at least one important difference. In Realism-Naturalism, one sees and therefore rejects traditional or personal projections. One would like to believe, but in light of the evidence, one cannot. The resulting disillusionment, as in the case of the correspondent in "The Open Boat," often leads the individual to the anger of someone who has been swindled. By contrast, if the individual fully assumes a non-teleological point of view, he rejects traditional and personal projections so that he can see. The fiction of such writers as Crane, Norris, and Dreiser often suggests that the dream is better than the reality, but the dream is impossible to hold onto. This pattern does appear to some degree in Steinbeck's fiction when the non-teleological perspective is applied outside the novel or story by the author…. Both Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony move toward this perspective—they can be read as novels of disillusionment. But when a non-teleological point of view is established within the work of fiction itself, as it is in In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, the resulting emotional tone is far different. As non-teleological observers within their respective novels, Doc Burton and Jim Casy are islands of calm within the strife and bitterness which surround them. It is significant that several of these characters are called "Doc" … in that their main characteristic is a scientific detachment. (pp. 256-57)
The contrast between the non-teleological observer and the characters around him who are caught up in illusion brings a somewhat new dimension to the basic realistic-romantic dualism of the novel of which we have spoken. The actions of the strikers in In Dubious Battle, of the bulk of the migrants in The Grapes of Wrath, of Mack and the Boys in Cannery Row, and of the Trask family … in East of Eden are as futile and unseeing as those of rats trapped in a maze. From a tragic point of view, this is mankind hopelessly captured by the myths of the past and personal predilections which make it impossible for man to rise above the maze to see it as a whole and therefore escape. From a comic point of view in Steinbeck's ostensibly "light" fiction, this is the Keystone Cops all running into each other and falling over themselves while Doc goes quietly about his business and, resigned to the foolishness of men, tries to pick up the pieces. (p. 257)
Seeing and not-seeing, reality and self-delusion, these are the materials that Steinbeck plays with, sometimes seriously, sometimes humorously. To some degree it is the same game that novelists, from Sterne to Nabokov, have always played with the reader. But for many novelists, the discovery of reality has been a matter of regret, a sad necessity. For Steinbeck the emphasis is reversed. At that point when non-teleological thinking enters Steinbeck's work, man is seen as part of the natural world—what is sad is that man refuses to recognize that he is a part of nature. The novel tradition still clings to the belief that although man's dreams, his myths and his poetry, may lead him astray, they also separate him from and raise him above nature. While Steinbeck recognizes that man is different, he proposes that his differentness—namely, his ability to see beyond his own immediate needs and to understand his place in the picture of nature as a whole—should make him a better member of the natural community. At the core of disillusionment, as we find it in such naturalistic novels as Dreiser's Sister Carrie, Norris's The Octopus, London's Martin Eden, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, or Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, there is an inescapable melancholy and nostalgia. At the core of Steinbeck's best work, there is anti-sentimentality that is almost unbearable—the blind futility of strikers and employers in In Dubious Battle, the cold inevitability of the vulture in The Red Pony, the hunt for Lennie in Of Mice and Men, and the anti-poetry of the starving old man at Rose of Sharon's breast in the ending of The Grapes of Wrath. (pp. 257-58)
[The] essential ingredients of fiction all come into conflict, to some degree, with the non-teleological position. Can a novelist hold a non-teleological position about the nature of reality and still function as a novelist? The answer illustrated by Steinbeck must be, I should think, yes: he can function, but he will be rather constantly forced into a position of contradiction and compromise. Furthermore, he will inevitably come into conflict with his from, altering it or perverting it, depending on the perspective with which his changes are viewed, and he must offend, to some extent, the preconceptions, or "standards" of his readers. The non-teleological position tends to restrict Steinbeck's use of various storytelling devices. To be consistent with his philosophy, he must, as a general rule, tell his story as impersonally as possible. Since the first person point of view is clearly the most egocentric, Steinbeck, during his "non-teleological period," does not use it. (p. 259)
[A] sequential focus on a variety of characters and scenes; we find it in his novels from the early The Pastures of Heaven to the late East of Eden. And because of this serial focus, what might normally be called minor characters and events receive, generally, more attention than they do in the work of other writers who use a more personalized point of single character. But because Steinbeck's view is often so diffuse, his work is usually in danger of losing unity, power, and direction. Furthermore, there can be, as in The Wayward Bus, an impersonality which, although appropriate to the non-teleological position, may alienate the reader's affections.
Plot can also be weakened by the impersonal, sequential focus. Suspense is dissipated by the lack of personal involvement in the motivation and fate of a single character. The fate of the central character in a number of Steinbeck's novels evolves so impersonally and is so tied to the general situation, that we do not really care very much about what happens to him. This is our reaction, I suspect, to such characters as Mac in In Dubious Battle, to Danny in Tortilla Flat, or to Juan Chicoy in The Wayward Bus—if, indeed, we can even refer to these characters as "central" in the usual sense of the term. Actually, not only does Steinbeck's use of the impersonal point of view with a sequential focus tend to act against the development of a strong central character, but the non-teleological position itself stands in opposition to emphasis on any single character other than as a reference point …, a sample of a characteristic part of the whole …, or an unusual specimen or mutation…. That is, the choice of a particular character for extended observation is guided by what could be called "scientific interest," rather than by traditional literary criteria as dictated by a mythic-romantic view of man. Thus, the protagonist-hero is out of bounds for Steinbeck, not only because of the mythic-romantic value system such a character presupposes, but because such a character can only function within a teleological framework of individual triumph or disaster. (pp. 259-60)
In an age in which our culture, and hence very often the novel, is concerned with the internal workings of man's mind, Steinbeck's fiction is notably exterior in its point of view. Of course, it must be if he is going to focus on what "is" as matter of what is observed, eschewing as much as possible special pleading. Occasionally through the omniscient narrator we do enter the mind of a character, but extended use of some kind of interior monologue is rare, and it is always filtered through the sensibility of the narrator. Strangely enough, the power of Steinbeck's fiction often comes from the fact that we do not have direct knowledge of his characters' thoughts. Instead, we often hear his characters struggling to express their thoughts and feelings aloud, and in that struggle what they think and feel gains an authenticity and power that might be lost in a more direct presentation.
Another technique, in addition to dialogue, by which Steinbeck presents states of mind consists in using an exterior landscape to represent the inner landscape. This technique is tied to Steinbeck's heavy dependence on scene to perform functions in his work which are most typically assigned to other fictional techniques, and it is appropriate in light of the fact that his characters are so often closely connected, in temperament and state of being, to their surroundings. What goes on inside Elisa Allen, in "The Chrysanthemums," is more perfectly represented in her flowers and her care for them than could be stated in her mind or by the narrator reading her mind. Most important, from a non-teleological standpoint, the way that men tend their gardens—as they often do literally in Steinbeck's fiction—is observable, whereas the inner workings of their minds are not. This is one area—depth of characterization—in which I do not think Steinbeck may be always as weak as some readers have assumed, for a paradox is involved here. Sometimes the outside is more truly indicative of inner condition than the inside, itself, laid bare….
Scene carries a further burden as well, in that it is often in Steinbeck's work the basic medium for plot development. With a few exceptions, plot in the usual sense of the term is not very important in his fiction. As we have already noted, normally developed, plot is essentially a teleological formulation—it traces causes and effects, dwells on motivation, and inevitably involves "side-taking" in respect to an evolving conflict. To avoid being enmeshed in traditional plot, Steinbeck seldom examines or emphasizes motive—the effect he strives for is the presentation of events as they evolve out of conditions, as things that "simply happen," while trying at the same time to remain neutral to his characters, or at least trying to treat most of them pretty much the same.
Instead of characters carrying us through a series of actions in particular locales, it is, frequently in Steinbeck's fiction, the locales which shift or move, carrying the characters, in a sense, along with the change in scene. The drama here is the drama of circumstances, rather than that of evolving character cognition. Purposeful action by characters is not abandoned entirely, of course, but it is usually made secondary to a narrative flow animated by the larger purpose of observation and examination. (pp. 260-61)
[Plot] moves from condition to condition, and the structure of Steinbeck's novels usually involves contrast and parallel of condition, almost musical in its contrapuntal patterning. Man is perceived as an intimate part of his environment; indeed, character can be often perceived as a function of scene. Within such a scientific perspective—and I think that is exactly what the emphasis on scene provides—man's role is diminished. Regardless of the sentiments expressed within the dramatic surface of Steinbeck's fiction, his scheme of values is ultimately anti-Romantic and totally unsentimental. What so many readers cannot forgive him for is not that he has denied God, the more typical Naturalist's sin, but that he has denied the importance of man.
Conflict in the Steinbeck novel usually arises out of the inability of man to function in harmony with his environment, social or physical (and the two are seen in Steinbeck's work as interdependent). Such a conflict brings us back once more to Steinbeck's peculiar use of the basic dualism of the novel form, as illusion blinds man to what he should see in order to act in harmony with others. The conflict can be resolved once man takes off the blinders of social myth (often, in Steinbeck, respectability) and romantic self-delusion (often manifested as some form of egotism, greed, or self-indulgence). The final scene of The Grapes of Wrath defines such a resolution rather precisely. An old man at a young girl's breast is totally unacceptable to middle-class respectability because the image is "nasty." Within a scientific perspective, however, such a reaction is nonsense. On a deeper level of objection, the scene violates our romantic-erotic imagery, a culturally imposed illusion, as well as our traditional religious imagery. Yet within the physical-social landscape as it actually exists at the end of the novel, the scene is totally natural and harmonious. That many have violently objected to the scene proves Steinbeck's point exactly.
Furthermore, that the scene pinpoints a moment of natural joy amidst the pathos of the natural disaster of the flood defines the difference between Steinbeck's non-teleological Naturalism and that employed by the Realists-Naturalists at the turn of the century. In "The Open Boat" there is, as I have said, a non-teleological breakthrough, but it leads to a sense of emptiness and betrayal. The temple is found to have disappeared, and nothing is found to replace it. But here in the final scene of The Grapes of Wrath, there is a sense that man can survive in nature if he is, in turn, himself natural. (pp. 261-62)
The most common complaint about Steinbeck's fiction has been, of course, that he deals with, or plays with, his characters as if they were puppets, creating characters who are stereotypes or who appear to function more as if they were animals than men. And such assessments are largely valid—he does see man as an animal, albeit a rather gifted animal. The real question, however, is whether such a view of man is, as implied, necessarily an artistic fault. Perhaps Steinbeck has been a less accomplished novelist as a result of his adherence to certain views which might be called "scientific," or it may be simply that there is a fundamental difference in philosophy between the critics and the author.
Much of the negative reaction to Steinbeck's characterization arises, I suspect, from the non-teleological prohibition of the heroic protagonist, a prohibition which runs counter to our cultural taste even in an age of literary anti-heroes. And Steinbeck's central characters are not quite anti-heroes, either. If they fail, their failure is not usually a failure to act, but a failure to see. In many of Steinbeck's novels a philosophical character with whom the author's essential sympathy lies is paired with a man of action. (Sometimes, as in the pairing of Jim Casy with Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and Lee and Adam Trask in East of Eden, there is a tutor-tyro relationship similar to the one described by Earl Rovit in regard to Hemingway's fiction.) The philosophical character seldom acts, while the man of action does not usually act very effectively or very well. (pp. 262-63)
Unfortunately for Steinbeck,… there is nothing very dynamic, in the traditional sense of what fiction does, in the processes of looking and understanding. The resulting penalty that he must pay is the danger of stagnation in his work: except for The Grapes of Wrath, where the changing scene and the journey motif provide a kind of dynamism, the long novels—East of Eden and The Winter of Our Discontent—are often boring. Steinbeck's worst fault as a novelist is not weak characterization or sentimentality, but stagnation. That he is so often static in his fiction without being dull is a tribute to a very skillful prose style and an ability to see things from unusual perspectives. A book like Cannery Row is a masterpiece of a kind—witty, original, and amusing, it carries the reader along by sheer force of the narrator's personality and unique way of looking at things.
At the same time, almost nothing of any consequence at all happens in the novel. Steinbeck's greatest successes—In Dubious Battle, Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Cannery Row—are all triumphs of perception, so that his adoption of the non-teleological approach must be said to have had its advantages as well as its disadvantages. It provided that edge of differentness that every writer must have if his work is to make its mark and be remembered. (pp. 263-64)
Jackson J. Benson, "John Steinbeck: Novelist as Scientist," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction (copyright © Novel Corp., 1977), Spring, 1977, pp. 248-64.
See eNotes Ad-Free
Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.