illustrated portrait of American author John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

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Carroll Britch and Cliff Lewis (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5902

SOURCE: "Growth of the Family in The Grapes of Wrath," in Critical Essays on Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, edited by John Ditsky, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 97-108.

[In the following essay, Britch and Lewis examine the solidarity and self-preservation of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. According to Britch and Lewis, "if ever the mettle of the American spirit has been tested and found strong, it has been so with the Joads."]

Resistance to innovation indicates, in the eye of nature, senility and senility is doomed to be discarded…. That nation thrives best which is most flexible, and which has fewer prejudices to hamper adaption.

—Brooks Adams

Although it addresses issues of great sociological change, The Grapes of Wrath is at its core about the family and the struggle of its members to assert their separate identities without breaking up as a family. In his treatment of the Joads, Steinbeck manages to delineate "kid-wild" Winfield through "growed-up" Tom to "lecherous" Grampa in ways that gain each an individualized life beyond their inherited roles in the family hierarchy as well as beyond the symbolic roles they serve as an "over-essence of people" to amplify the argument of the plot. The argument, as Steinbeck writes in his "Journal," is that the Joads and those like them must abandon their felt notions of individualism and move toward an "I to We" relationship with the other migrants if they are to survive the economic and spiritual challenge of their displacement. Hence, the central question of the narrative is whether or not the Joads can act on Casy's principle "to love all people" and still remain as Ma would have it "one thing … the fambly … whole and clear."

Contrary to some prevailing views, it is our contention that 1) the Joad family does not break up so much as grow up; 2) that its members are less altruistic than self-protective; and 3) that they articulate the argument of the plot precisely because they achieve in the novelistic sense a convincing human reality. In order for the central question to sustain its tension throughout the four odd months of the Joads' wanderings, it is crucial that they as individuals and as a family unit confront the challenge of the transformation from "I to We" in terms of the emotional logic and ethic that characterized their everyday life in Oklahoma. For if the Joads were to embrace Casy's principle just because it seems a nice idea, their being and his idea would pale for lack of credibility.

As Brooks Adams implies in his thoughts about "resistance to innovation," people are slow to change—if at all. And were it not for the intolerable conditions that the Joads encounter on the road, they as a group would likely fall prey to the "senility" that dooms Muley Graves, not to mention Grampa. In a letter to the literary critic Joseph Henry Jackson, Steinbeck argues the motive that leads those like the Joads to growth and change: "The human like any other life form will tolerate an unhealthy condition for some time, and then will either die or will overcome the condition either by mutation or by destroying the unhealthful condition. Since there seems little tendency for the human race to become extinct, and since one cannot through biological mutation overcome the necessity for eating, I judge that the final method will be the one chosen." Most of the Joads survive because they do like to eat, but work to keep on eating because they have a dream. Like the turtle...

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and the seeds it carries on its journey, the Joads take the souls of themselves with them west. Their will to move may have been born of necessity, but their movement is sustained by the down-to-earth hopes of better days that have often seen Americans through to prosperity. For Uncle John especially, the initial "unhealthful condition" is the self-pity that issues from a distorted sense of sin concerning his part in a calamitous childbirth. At times Rosasharn and Pa suffer in just about the same way for similar reasons. Nevertheless, the external unhealthiness of flood, famine, and economic injustice spurs them on to do eventually what, as Ma says of Tom, is "more'n" themselves.

Uprooted, the fundamental dream they share is that of stability and self-respect. On the farm the family enjoyed both. They slide from being land owners to being renters. True. But that slide still afforded them the dignity to serve as hosts. And on the road Ma intends that they do not backslide into the wretchedness that has destroyed the humanity of many in Hooverville. In show of her fundamental spirit she accepts Casy into the family because the Joads just do not refuse "food an' shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that ask[s]." Her dream of "a little white house" and Rosasharn's dream to "live in a town" to make it "nice for the baby" bespeak their ethic to re-establish a home, out from the protection of which they can in the pride of true deed care for themselves as well as for others in need.

All of the blood-Joads, excepting Noah, display a healthy sense of themselves. If Steinbeck had not created them so, they could hardly be used to work out the "I to We" theme either within the family or within the large social unit that the family comes to represent. As proud as it is of its pioneering background, the family is not a Joad but a unit—a we—made up of several singular "I's" who answer to the name if Joad. At Uncle John's the staging area and jump-off point of the journey, each family member in his or her own way answers also to the call of pulling together to make the trip happen. Apart from moments of negative self-involvement (which is only human), when it comes to serving the family unit each Joad, with the exception noted, displays a "we" attitude throughout. Even Ruthie and Winfield, who are just too young to consider much other than their own ego-demands, help to pick peaches and do domestic chores. Ma's sense of we-ness seems always to have extended beyond the immediate family. And, as evidenced by the famous milk-sharing scene of the final chapter, it is boundless. She exists as the essence of Casy's principle, and is "so great with love," hence fearlessness, that she makes even him feel "afraid an' mean." Her capacity to care marks the measure of her self-respect. As the action progresses, her caring does not change in kind but rather grows in breadth and intensity. But even at that, her family comes first. Steinbeck reveals it as a training ground for an expanded social consciousness. However, with Ma at the head the family harbors no armchair philosophers or bleeding-hearts.

"Citadel" of the family, Ma defines its membership in terms of those who can defend it against disorganization, dishonor, sickness, broken-down transportation, meanness, lack of food, and want of shelter. Well before Tom arrives at Uncle John's to announce his parole and surprise home-coming, the able members of the family have joined in work to prepare for life on the road. Al, the young "tom-catter," has made a good buy on a Hudson that Pa Joad is finishing converting to a truck when Tom does arrive. Uncle John is in town selling off odds and ends to help finance the trip. On the eve of the journey Noah, the first-born, and Tom, the second-born, slaughter the pigs to eat on the way. Casy helps Ma to salt them. His doing "woman's work" foreshadows the reversal of roles the general uprooting engenders, illustrates his personal need to repay his hosts, and demonstrates through actual deed his preachings about love and service to people in need. Rosasharn packs the family clothes and stacks for loading many of the larger household goods. Granma and Grampa and the kids do little but eat and sleep. The narrator does not mention Connie by name as doing anything other than squatting in place with the other men during the family conference, and before that he was off "nestin" with Rosasharn at his folks' place. However, for the Joads work is pride. Al's work with the Hudson earns him not only his "first participation in the conference" but also the compliment from Grampa and big brother Tom that he has "done good." At sixteen, Al may "think of nothin' but girls and engines"; nevertheless, it is that very thinking that helps to get his folks to California, gets him a wife, and will likely make his dream of getting a job in a garage a reality. In essence, Al is a family man. That he leaves his Ma and Pa to make a life of his own with Wainwright is, even in hard times, a good and healthy thing to do—and it in no way hurts his blood-kin or spoils his relationship with them. In reference to the marriage, Ma says "we're glad. We're awful glad."

Given the plain fact that old folks normally fight to stay put and that children struggle to cut the cord to make a life of their own, the Joads as families go are no more split up at the start than at the finish of the novel. Speeding up the normal process is the fact that the highway becomes "their home and movement their medium of expression." Granma and Grampa die en route as casualties of old age, displacement, and exhaustion. Once in the ground they are hardly mentioned by anyone again. Faced with the immediate needs of the living, especially with feeding Ruthie and Winfield and with soothing Rosasharn after Connie leaves, Ma realizes that she must "forget" the dead. The ones who depart of their own accord, including Al, do so because they cannot sustain their sense of selfhood if they stay.

Tom's motives for leaving are exceptional. And they are mixed. Wanted for murder and in hiding, he can be of no practical use to the family if he stays. A man of action, Tom exhibits few self-doubts. Near the end of the novel he decides that "long as [he's] a outlaw anyways," he might just as well carry on Casy's work in organizing the strikers, and in that way help the plight of his family from afar. Anyway, as things happen, Ruthie gets into a kid-fight over Cracker Jacks, and to save face she blabs about Tom's having "kil't two fellas," and in light of this brag Tom is forced to leave to save his skin. Unlike Noah and Connie, Tom goes with Ma's blessing and her gift of seven dollars to help him on his way.

By choice Noah is the first to go. He worked all his life on the family farm and helped to ready things for the journey. But as "a stranger to all the world" he has never really dwelt within the bosom of the family. With the words "Listen, you goddamn fool—" Tom is the only one to see Noah off down the Colorado River, and when he is barely out of eyesight Tom lies down to sleep. Ma worries a bit about how Noah will eat, but at Weedpatch she dismisses him from her mind, saying, "Maybe he'll have a nice time by the river. Maybe it's better so." Incapable of wrath and amazed by its appearance in others, Noah is Steinbeck's boldest example of the self-involved and self-contained "I." He is the total opposite of his brother Tom, Ma's favorite. He could never find comfort dwelling in Tom's shadow or in the "embarrassed eyes" of his Pa. And he would most certainly shy away from the common cause that Ma supports and that Tom comes to embrace. Marked by a "twisted" birth, and with "no sexual urges," making it on his own is about the most grown-up thing Noah could try.

Connie Rivers is the next to go. He sneaks off without so much as a "so long" to anyone. In chapter 10 the narrator states that he is "a good hard worker and would make a good husband," but that he is "frightened and bewildered" by Rosasharn's pregnancy. Well, the reader never sees him work. But the reader does see him frightened. The fact of Hooverville is just too much for him. Of a "Texan strain" and not a Joad, Connie brags too much, specifically about how he is going to study radio by mail and get Rosasharn a house and car. Whether he leaves to study up on radios or tractors is anyone's guess. But that he leaves his wife halfway through her pregnancy for the truly illusory dream of making a success of himself through "home study" marks him a failure as a man and husband. He has witnessed Pa Joad lose his place as head of the family because of poverty and Ma's demands, and he no doubt knows that he can in no way live up to Rosasharn's dream of motherhood. He leaves to save face. Aside from Rosasharn, the greater family does not miss him. Pa Joad concludes that "Connie wasn' no good. I seen that a long time. Didn' have no guts, jus' too big for his overalls." Ma agrees, and tells Pa to act as if Connie were "dead."

Now, although Connie and Noah have vanished like deserters from the heat of battle, the essential family structure is still intact, and stronger without them. They were on the fringe at best. And better men have replaced them. Foreshadowing the good luck it has in securing room at Weedpatch and work on the road, the family is strengthened by the chance meeting of Tom and Casy. It will be remembered that, back in Oklahoma, Casy teamed up with Tom on Tom's way "home," and that both arrived at Uncle John's out of the blue and just in time to join the family for the trip West. On behalf of the younger members of her family, Ma would have gone without Tom. Even before the family "shove[d]" off their homestead and their house was "all pushed out a shape," Tom was all but dead to them. During his four years of imprisonment, he received one Christmas card from Ma and one from Granma, and that is all. Released, Tom brings new life into the family, and in a very material way prefigures the virtual death of his brother Noah, whose knowledge of the outside world and modern machinery is zero. And his gift of Casy to the family, who is an outsider but brother to all, prefigures the demise of Connie, whose behavior as a brother-in-law leaves much to be desired. It may be a bad pun but it is no accident that Steinbeck has Connie Rivers and Noah (whose name is associated with the destruction of the world by flood) disappear within a few days of one another along a river and well before the hardship of the flood the family undergoes at the end of the narrative. In short, without Noah and Connie, as without Granma and Grampa, the family as Ma defines it is better equipped to survive the agony ahead, of which Hooverville in all its meanness of spirit is but an initiation.

As a reflection of the sorry spectacle, it is at Hooverville that Uncle John comes face to face with his own lack of self-honor and life-purpose. Having witnessed Casy just go right up to be arrested by a deputy by saying straight out that he clobbered one of them makes Uncle John "feel awful." He knows that he could have stepped in and helped Tom and Floyd, and taken the blame on himself. But he "slipped up," and so goes off by himself to get drunk. Not until the flood and the miscarriage of Rosasharn's baby does Uncle John find himself. He sets the apple box that serves as the baby's coffin afloat in the flood waters and says, "Go down an' tell em. Go down in the street an' rot an' tell 'em that way." Given his shy nature, it is fitting that he attacks the system that helped to kill the baby alone and without the need of congratulation from anyone. He does "more'n" himself. Although the gesture may go unheeded, he consciously aligns himself with the struggle of the "We." And he does so in a manner no less creative than, and every bit as shocking as, Rosasharn's baring her breast to nurse a starving man.

If the dead baby were not blood kin, and the stab of injustice personal, he may never have been moved to express his wrath against the general condition. Like John, Pa Joad is moved to action for personal reasons. He wants his family to stay dry. But he needs help. He cannot build a dike alone. Wainwright, Al's future father-in-law, thinks in a waste. But Pa persuades him and others by saying, "Well, we ain't doin' nothin'…. We can do her if ever'body helps." The day before the flood Pa feels that his life is "over an' done." Building the dike renews his spirit, and teaches him that there is much to be gained through the "We" attitude. The dike does break, but it holds just long enough for Rosasharn to deliver, and for that Pa is moved to laugh "in triumph."

It will be recalled that when Casy went off to jail at Hooverville he did so with a "smile" and "a curious look of conquest" on his face. Shortly before his arrest he had confessed to Tom that he wanted to "go off alone" because he was "a-eatin" the family food and "doin' nobody no good" in return. Hence, like Pa and John, who knowingly or not follow his example, Casy triumphs over his doubts of self-worth by acting in behalf of others in need. For most of the Joads, his spirit does indeed take hold. It shows up in the "smile" of Ma when she gives her blessing to Al to "stay" in the boxcar with Aggie while she leads the rest of the family to higher ground. En route, the spirit even takes hold of Ruthie, who finally realizes that there is little fun in playing alone, and so shares the petals of a wild geranium with her brother Winfield. And it positively radiates from the face of Rosasharn as the "mysterious smile" that concludes the narrative. Finding self-worth through sharing and cooperating with kin and outsiders is what keeps the Joads, with the exceptions noted, from falling apart as a family and failing as migrants.

What probably causes some readers to conclude that the Joads break up is Tom's mission, Al's engagement, and Ma's complaint at the Hooper ranch that "There ain't no fambly now." Yet her family is in fact with her, and those who are able are doing their share of work in the orchard. Her complaint focuses on the "wildness" of the kids to Pa's "lost place" as head of the family. However, it is calculated to persuade Tom to "stay an' help." Tom stays, but he is in no condition to do anything but rest and hide from the vigilantes. In short, Ma at this point is just plain depressed, and so uses every trick of motherhood she knows to delay the inevitable departure of her favorite son, whose spirit she trusts, and whom she has come to lean on as the male leader of the family. Earlier, she told Tom straight out how she felt about him as opposed to the rest of the family; "Them others—they're kinda strangers, all but you…. Ever'thing you do is more'n you." And now, at Hooper's, she wants his moral support. They are soul mates. From the strength of that bond she can when the time comes see him off, and say to Pa "I—sent 'im away." During the flood, as mentioned above, she does the same for Al—that is, without emotional blackmail, she releases Al to grow on his own with a new family. And although the narrative is open-ended, Al will likely stay around the boxcar for a few weeks to start the Hudson, for none of the vehicles will dry out until then. Yet, beyond the practical help the Joads lend one another, the basic thing that makes them a family is what George explains to Lennie in chapter 1 in Of Mice and Men: "We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us."

The Joad who talks the most, and whose thoughts are directed toward putting into action the "I to We" principle, is Tom. He is the one Joad capable of the violence needed to combat the "unhealthful condition" that violates the dignity and very survival of the migrants. The motive source of his tendency to violence is personal. Like Muley Graves, who is ready to kill any of "them sons-a-bitches" that threaten to push him around, Tom is quick to protect his pride and person. He admits that prison did not reform him, saying, "if I seen Herb Turnbull comin' for me with a knife right now, I'd squash him down with a shovel again…. Do her before I could figure her out…. That sort of sense-lessness kind a worries a man." Yet prison taught him how to survive in any environment. He receives an early release for good behavior because he learned how to handle the inmates and the officials without having to use violence to protect his dignity. It is turtlelike willpower and determination to survive that brings Tom back to the family, but it is his ability to change and adapt to a reality even tougher than prison that enables him to view the means by which the Okies will survive. He is capable of picking up on Black Hat's thoughts about the five thousand Akron strikers who "jes' marched through town with their rifles. An' they had their turkey shoot … ain't been no trouble sence then."

On the road Tom evolves from just a guy who wanted to enjoy his whiskey, smokes, whores, and home-cooked meals to a figure expansive enough to represent the essence of the American spirit, what Steinbeck later described as the "national character." "I thought," he wrote, "that if we had a national character and national genius, these people, who were beginning to be called Okies, were it. With all the odds against them, their goodness and strength survived." If Tom and his kin had not run out of cash, he would likely not have become Steinbeck's realistic version of the questing knight in search of the lost grail: the American Dream of justice, democracy, and the opportunity to live in dignity.

As illustrated by his angry gesture of crushing the "hard skull-like head" of a grasshopper in response to the nosey truckdriver who pushes him to admit that he is an ex-convict, Tom is dangerous to anyone who would tarnish his sense of self-dignity. His greatest enemies, of course, are those wanting cheap labor. But with economic individualism doomed, Tom and his like no longer have a power base from which to defend their rights. Hence, to maintain at least the sense of personal power and self-worth, Tom and the others take strength from their subconscious memories or dreams. Steinbeck writes in an editorial chapter that they "seemed to be part of an organization of the unconscious. They obeyed impulses…."

However, some of Tom's more violent impulses have to be restrained. His re-education begins with Muley Graves, a former neighbor, and at the very place of his birth where, on a smaller scale, Tom gets a glimpse of the more powerful militant forces that he will face in California. He learns from Muley of Willy Feely, a former cotton farmer, who drives a "cat" for the powerful forces who now own the land. Why hold this demeaning job? Willy remarks: "I got two little kids…. What happens to other folks is their look-out." Like his kind in California Willy has become a deputy sheriff, and Tom learns that he can no longer approach the Willys of the land as an equal. Rather than get "pushed around," Tom would "lots rather take a sock at Willy." After Muley explains that Willy may use his gun, Tom realizes his present plight. By challenging Willy and his power structure, "I ain't got a thing in the worl' to win, no matter how it comes out." Later, at the "half a buck" campgrounds in New Mexico, when the proprietor calls Tom a bum, he shows that he has not forgotten Muley's lesson, saying, "It's a hard thing to be named a bum. I ain't afraid … I'll go for you an' your deputy with my mitts—here now, or jump Jesus. But there ain't no good in it." However, in California, when stopped on route to Weedpatch, he would have clobbered a whiskey-smelling Legionnaire with a jack handle if Ma had not restrained him. The Legionnaire calls him a "goddamn Okie" but Tom backs down from a fight by assuming a "servile whine" in asking directions to Tulare. Good thing. The Legionnaires are "armed with pick handles and shotguns."

At Weedpatch Tom joins a committee to prevent hooligans from the Cattle and Growers Associations from starting a riot at the Saturday night dance. With but the show of force the committee escorts the troublemakers out of camp without hurting them. Beyond the obvious lesson that there is strength in a will united, Tom gains also from the experience the good sense that, even outside of prison, there can be dignity in a nonviolent approach to people who would put him down. Happily, he carries that attitude to Hooper Ranch—a false Eden—which the Joads enter for work picking peaches, ignorant that they are strike breakers. The orchard is a virtual prison. Tom wants to get outside to discover what is going on. Neither Pa nor Al will go with him, so he tries alone. An armed guard challenges him. Tom backs away. But he does not whine. In reflection of the Weedpatch strategy, he remains cool, declaring, "If it's gonna cause a mess, I don't give a darn. Sure, I'll go back." He escapes. Unfortunately, he then walks into a real "mess." And, for the second time in his life, he kills a man.

Prone to violence though he is, it is important to see Tom's gentler side. For example, the turtle that some motorists try to hit, Tom treats as a pet and as a worthy gift for Ruthie and Winfield. On his way to Uncle John's, a gopher snake crosses his path. Tom says, "Let him go." Tom is neither instinctively cruel nor destructive. When he drives the Hudson he feels no remorse in running over the dangerous rattlesnake, but his reaction to hitting the frightened jackrabbit is telling: "Gives me a little shakes ever' time." And he confesses to Al that he is sorry he killed young Turnbull "'cause he was dead." Al, obviously proud of his brother Tom, sums him up at Hooverville in the declaration that he is just "as nice as pie till he's roused, an' then—look out." Tom will not be reduced to the level of a turtle.

Beyond direct threat to his person, what rouses Tom the most is the fact that law has become a tool of the fascistic Association of Farmers. He assures Ma more than once that he is not a "Floyd" who attacks society out or personal bitterness. He explains: "if it was the law they [land owners] was workin' with, why, we could take it. But it ain't the law. They're a workin' away at our spirits … tryin' to break us." The few moments that Tom spends with Casy in the ravine of his bloody murder gives Tom a glimpse of the possibility of organizing the Okies to challenge the power structure. Hence, when the agents of that structure beat Casy down, they in effect attack the new hope in Tom that friend Casy inspired. There is an ugly irony in the fact that the very tool of the laborer, a new pick handle, is used against Casy. Tom is enraged. A man like his brother Noah or brother-in-law Connie would have fled. But Tom wrests the pick handle away from the murderer, and then strikes him not once but five times. The brutality in this overkill demystifies Tom: he is cruel beyond what is necessary to save himself. And now to survive he must run.

With his face looking like the raw meat of a prizefighter's, the last we see of Tom is in chapter 28, what we call the "harvest" chapter. Like Rose of Sharon, he takes counsel with himself in a "cave of vines." There he explains to Ma his new resolve, the harvest of his hard knocks: since he's an "outlaw anyways" he will be present, if not in fact then in spirit, to lead the "fight so hungry people can eat"—this because the struggle for mere self-survival is not enough, for a "fella ain't no good alone." He has grown to realize that the rewards of life must be harvested in the here and now, and that hope in the religious hereafter will not cure the present misery. He and the others of his lot must work together to drive back the oppressors who would break their spirit. Tom is not alone in holding this vision. Floyd Knowles at Hooverville and Black Hat at Weedpatch express the same ideas. But Tom's temperament, passion, and particular circumstance make it probable that he will become in word and deed a strike organizer. On the run he has little to lose and much to gain from working underground. Being joined to the just cause of his people will make him a good outlaw.

Al assumes Tom's role as male leader of the family. From the youth who was chastised by Pa for having been away two weeks when preparations for the trip were under way, Al at journey's and is hardly recognizable. He proves Tom's faith in the resurgence of the Okie spirit. He has heeded the big brother who said, "Al, don' keep ya guard up when nobody ain't sparrin' with ya." Hence, when he announces his decision to marry Aggie, his defiant speech is directed not so much against the two families as it is against the outside economic forces that lurk to ambush his dream of a job, a marriage, and a house: "they ain't nobody can stop us." And when a stranger threatens Pa somehow to even the score for having been talked into working on the flood wall that broke, Al's defense of his father is as vigorous as Tom's might have been: "You're gonna fight your way in." Pa restrains Al as Ma restrained Tom and deals in a peaceful manner with the intruder.

After the rains stop it is Al who makes the plans on how to protect both families from the rising flood. Casy or Tom could be speaking: "I been a-thinkin.'" While Al and Ma plan on building a platform to shield the families from the water, Ma's eyes open from her sleep and "She crie[s] sharply in warning, 'Tom! Oh, Tom! Tom!'" Then she lapses back into her dream. It is dawn. Whether or not her warning saves her favorite in his travail, it seems to summon Al to take Tom's place of leadership—for upon the instant he sets to work to keep the family high and dry. Finishing the job, Al makes a conscious stand as leader by requesting of Pa that he go buy food for breakfast: "I need some meat."

The Joads and the Wainwrights have a new warrior. As such, Al accepts the responsibility of guarding his family's possessions as well as his wife-to-be. His harvest does not include the larger questions of social justice that feed Tom. For it will be remembered that at the peach orchard "Al looked away." But his passion for an honest piece of the American pie is undeniable, and, in terms of the family ethic, praiseworthy. As Ma says, "I couldn't want for a better boy." And she sallies forth to nurture Winfield and Ruthie, who, as the seedlings of the family, have a way to go in weathering the hazards of Self and the outside world before reaching the height of Al, Tom, and Rosasharn. That Ma ushers them into "the tool shed" at the close of the narrative is telling. For such is the emblem of the migrant family, and the hope of their lot.

Although the narrative is open-ended, the Joads on the whole have demonstrated that their "fears" of the general "unhealthy condition" have in effect evaporated in their dreams of better days, acts of sharing, and gestures of "wrath." Noah, Connie, and the grandparents never grow beyond their old ways of thinking. But the rest have shown themselves as bright innovators and forward thinkers. Dashed hopes and sudden changes have not broken their spirit. A happy and normal change is that Al has become the star figure of two families. A change of mixed feeling is that the older men have come to accept themselves as well as their deflated status in the family hierarchy. Uncle John has ceased complaining about his old "sins" and Pa does the shopping, even if what he buys displeases Ma. Despite the changes, the family has not, as the critics cited in note 4 insist, broken up. Rather, it has restructured itself to meet the challenge of new life in changing times. Ma gives orders to keep "the family unbroke" because the family is her pride and best means of security. And, in another reversal of family habit, she and Rosasharn earn that security by working in the fields and orchards right alongside of the men. Uncle John and Pa take the orders because they no longer have the particular distinction of being the only family members to bring home the bacon. They stay because the family is their friend, and the best they have.

Each, the kids included, has experienced the intentional meanness of landlords, the indiscriminate fury of the flood, the anger of strangers, and the self-doubts of their own worth. But, excepting Ruthie, they have also reached out in kindness to strangers, and as strangers have accepted kindness. Through it all they have come to know or to sense that their plight is not unique, and that some others are far worse off than themselves. That Pa and Uncle John gaze "helplessly" at the sick man Rose of Sharon feeds bespeaks not only their feeling of vulnerability but also their impulse to help. With the only means they have at hand they do help: Pa, especially, puts aside his authority as the male elder and forgoes any word of sarcasm or defeatism; in silence both men acquiesce to the extraordinary thing Ma urges the daughter to do. They, like Ma and Rosasharn, indeed do "more'n" themselves, and in ways that declare their individuality and their role as "essence people," both. Finally, if every the mettle of the American spirit and family has been tested and found strong, it has been so with the Joads.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1532

John Steinbeck 1902–1968

American novelist, short story writer, playwright, non-fiction writer, journalist, and screenplay writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Steinbeck's career. See also John Steinbeck Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 9, 13, 21.

A Nobel Prize laureate and widely popular novelist, John Steinbeck is among the most enduring American authors of the twentieth century. Best known for Of Men and Mice (1937), East of Eden (1952), and his Pulitzer prize-winning masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Steinbeck is distinguished for his lucid prose, engaging naturalistic descriptions, forceful symbolism, and examination of the myth of America as Edenic paradise. Sympathetic to the plight of the impoverished and downtrodden, his Depression-era fiction offers poignant depiction of socioeconomic conditions and human realities in the American West during the 1930s. Though controversial for the overt socialist views evinced in much of his work, he continues to receive critical acclaim for his best-selling novels, several of which were adapted into successful motion pictures and plays. The distinctly American perspective and journalistic realism of Steinbeck's social protest novels struck an emotional chord with the reading public and exerted an important influence on contemporary literature.

Biographical Information

Born in California's Salinas Valley, which serves as the backdrop for much of his work, Steinbeck was one of four children of Olive Hamilton Steinbeck, a teacher, and John Ernst Steinbeck II, the treasurer of Monterey County. Steinbeck intermittently attended Stanford University for five years but never received a degree. During and after college he worked variously as a reporter, bricklayer, surveyor, store clerk, ranch hand, and laborer. These jobs, particularly the time spent working for the Spreckels Sugar Company during a period of worker unrest, served as the crucible in which Steinbeck formed his pro-labor views. In 1930 Steinbeck met Edward F. Ricketts, a marine biologist whose theories influenced Steinbeck's developing "biological" world view of mankind. After seven rejections, Steinbeck published his first book, Cup of Gold (1929), a historical novel based on the life of Henry Morgan, a seventeenth-century buccaneer. He followed with The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933). From 1933 to 1936, Steinbeck and his first wife, Carol Henning, lived in Pacific Grove, California. During this time, Steinbeck often visited Ricketts at his laboratory on Cannery Row in Monterey and later fictionalized the experience in Cannery Row (1945). Steinbeck became known to the American public in 1935 with the publication of Tortilla Flat (1935), which was a best-seller. His meeting with two union organizers in 1934 led to In Dubious Battle (1936), a novel about labor unrest in a California orchard. Soon afterward Steinbeck wrote a series of articles for the San Francisco News about the mass exodus of thousands of migrants from the Dust Bowl to California. This experience led to The Grapes of Wrath, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the next year. In 1943, he married his second wife, Gwyndolyn Conger, with whom he had two children. During the Second World War, Steinbeck went overseas as a war correspondent for the New York Herald-Tribune and wrote propaganda pieces for the United States government, including the novel The Moon is Down (1942), which he adapted as a play, and Bombs Away (1942), a non-fiction work about the U.S. Air Force. In 1948 Steinbeck suffered a double loss—his friend Ricketts was killed and his second wife left him. The emotional strain affected his work and he published nothing until two years later, when he married Elaine Scott and produced Burning Bright (1950), a study of a troubled marriage, followed by East of Eden. Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. He died of a heart attack in New York City in 1968.

Major Works

Noted for his descriptions of the search for the American dream and sympathy for the plight of the working class, Steinbeck's works typically describe ordinary men and women who come close to achieving greatness only when faced with a trial that requires them to join with others for the greater good. Steinbeck's brand of literature, mixed with social commentary, was influenced by his teleological view of people as parts of a larger whole who must work in concert to improve the lot of humanity. In Tortilla Flat, the first of many novels set in the Salinas Valley, a group of paisanos form an Arthurian round table and experience several seriocomic adventures. They attempt to escape a materialistic society but in the end their pursuits are not enough to hold the brotherhood together and it dissolves. "The Red Pony," (1937) a group of four stories in the short-story collection The Long Valley (1938), is a coming-of-age story about Jody, a boy who learns about birth, life, and death through his experiences with a colt given to him by his father which sickens and dies; his contact with an old man who lives on his father's ranch and leaves in order to die in the mountains; the death of a mare who dies while giving birth to a colt; and his interaction with his aging grandfather. Another initiation story, "Flight," involves a boy who commits murder in a fit of rage and achieves manhood in an aborted attempt to escape the law in the mountains. Of Mice and Men, which Steinbeck later made into a highly successful play, involves George and Lennie, two ranch hands who hope to escape the ranch for a place of their own where they can live an idyllic existence. George watches out for the simple-minded Lennie, a grown-up child who doesn't understand his own strength and cuddles mice and puppies to death. Their dreams of escape are destroyed when Lennie accidentally kills the ranch owner's wife and George must shoot him to prevent an angry mob from brutally murdering him. The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's most famous work, chronicles the exodus of the Joad family, led by the matriarch Ma Joad, from the Dust Bowl to the supposed Eden of California. They are joined by Jim Casy, a Christ archetype who sparks their evolution from a self-contained, self-involved family unit to a part of the migrant community which must work together for the greater good. Steinbeck alternates the Joads's story with intercalary chapters illustrating the conditions faced by the migrant group during their forced flight. During the course of their travels, the family's grandmother and grandfather die and Rose of Sharon, the Joads's married and pregnant daughter, is deserted by her husband. The Joads make their way to California only to become exploited workers in a migrant camp. Casy tries to organize the workers and is murdered by thugs who work for the farm owners. Finally, the migrants face a disastrous flood, during which Rose of Sharon's baby is stillborn. In the ultimate affirmation of the Joads's recognition of their membership in the human family, Rose of Sharon gives her breast milk to a starving migrant man in order to save his life. Steinbeck intended East of Eden, an epic retelling of the Cain and Abel story, to be his masterpiece. It chronicles the stories of the Trask family and his real-life mother's family, the Hamiltons. Adam Trask marries Cathy Ames, a cold, malevolent woman who deserts Adam and her twin sons, Cal and Aron, who grapple for their father's favor and attention. When Aron, the innocent son, discovers his mother's true nature it destroys him, while Cal realizes he is free to choose between good and evil. Steinbeck's last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961), indicts American society for its focus on materialism and individual's disregard for the family of man. Shortly afterwards he published Travels With Charley (1962), an account of his cross-country peregrinations with his poodle, Charley.

Critical Reception

Critical assessment of Steinbeck's work varied widely throughout his career and was often influenced by its political content. Some critics expressed surprise when the Nobel Prize Committee honored Steinbeck in 1962, many years after his literary star had fallen. While many reviewers praised Steinbeck's optimistic view of humanity and its quest for improvement and redemption, others claimed that his characters, especially women, were largely one-dimensional and symbolic. Steinbeck is renowned for the clarity of his natural descriptions, especially those of his native California, which pervade his most effective work. Much critical attention is directed at the prominent sociological concerns, allegorical motifs, themes of initiation, and Christian archetypes in his novels. His most successful fiction, particularly Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, is praised by most for its universality, though faulted by others for excessive sentimentalism and melodrama. Reception of The Grapes of Wrath was distorted because the book caused a maelstrom of political controversy due to its castigation of agribusiness and the governmental system that contributed to the Dust Bowl predicament. The press and politicians attempted to discredit Steinbeck's book, accusing him of socialist sympathies. As a result The Grapes of Wrath became one of the most commonly banned books in America. Critics were disappointed with his post-Grapes of Wrath work, particularly after the publication of East of Eden. Most considered Steinbeck's attempts to experiment with the literary form in East of Eden to be a failure. They denounced the uneven structure, obvious symbolism, and flat characterization. Though Steinbeck's reputation was in decline when he died, he remains one of the most widely read and anthologized American writers of the twentieth century.

Louis Owens (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "The Culpable Joads: Desentimentalizing The Grapes of Wrath," in Critical Essays on Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, edited by John Ditsky, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 108-16.

[In the following essay, Owens draws attention to Steinbeck's effort to evoke sympathy for the Joad family without sentimentalizing their plight. According to Owens, Steinbeck incorporates panoramic interchapters to offset over-identification with the Joad family.]

The Grapes of Wrath is one of John Steinbeck's great experiments, perhaps his greatest, a novel that exploded upon the American conscience in 1939, bringing home to American readers both the intimate reality of the Joads' suffering and the immense panorama of a people's—the Dust Bowl migrants'—suffering. In spite of howls of outrage from opposite ends of the novel's journey—both Oklahoma and California—America took the Joads to heart, forming out of The Grapes of Wrath a new American archetype of oppression and endurance, survival if not salvation. So warmly did readers embrace the Dust Bowl Okies, in fact, that critics began almost immediately to accuse Steinbeck again of sentimentality in his portrayal of the downtrodden proletariat. Edmund Wilson was one of the first serious critics to take such a position, declaring that in this novel Steinbeck learned much from films, "and not only from the documentary pictures of Pare Lorentz, but from the sentimental symbolism of Hollywood." Bernard De Voto had anticipated Wilson when he complained that the novel's ending was "symbolism gone sentimental." Still a third major American critic, R. W. B. Lewis, found Steinbeck's fiction "mawkish" and "constitutionally unequipped to deal with the more sombre reality a man must come up against…."

As Steinbeck's most imposing and both popularly and critically successful work, The Grapes of Wrath has been studied from a multitude of angles, with critics focusing on its historical, political, philosophical, religious, symbolic, structural, and stylistic aspects. Steinbeck's great formal experiment in this novel—the interchapters—has been often studied and commented upon. What has been little noted in this novel, however, is the care Steinbeck takes to counterbalance the narrative's seemingly inevitable drift in the direction of sentimentalism as the story of the Joads and of the migrants as a whole unfolds in all its pathos. While Steinbeck is undeniably intensely sympathetic in this novel to the suffering of the croppers and to the plight of the seemingly powerless "little people" caught up in the destructive path of corporate America, he is at the same time painstakingly careful not to sentimentalize these figures, a fact of utmost importance to a critical understanding of The Grapes of Wrath.

A primary means by which Steinbeck attempts to unsentimentalize this story of displacement and suffering is through his use of interchapters. As has been often noted, the most obvious value of the intercalary chapters is to provide the big picture, to ensure the reader's awareness of the panoramic dimensions of this socioeconomic tragedy. At the same time, the narrative chapters focusing on the Joad family stem from Steinbeck's self-professed awareness that "It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving." Through the interchapters we feel the scope and dimension of the Dust Bowl drama; through the narrative chapters we experience the tragedy of one family on a personal, intimate level. A second very important function of the interchapters, however, one that has gone largely unnoticed, is that of offsetting the intimacy of the narrative chapters, of creating necessary distance between the reader and Steinbeck's representative family, the Joads. Steinbeck uses the interchapters skillfully as a means of preventing the reader from identifying too closely with the Joads. Again and again, just as we begin to be drawn fully into the pain of the Joads' experience, Steinbeck pulls us away from the intimate picture into the broad scope of one of the interchapters, reminding us that these are merely representative people, that the scale of suffering is so great as to dwarf the anguish of one small group such as Ma Joad's family. Chapter 18 ends, for example, with the Joads about to descend into the promised land of California's Central Valley, weighted with the emotionally charged burden of the dead Granma. The heartbreaking courage of Ma, who has lain beside Granma all night to ensure that the family gets "across," is deeply moving, and as the Joads drive down into the highly stylized Eden of the valley the reader must respond emotionally to the courage and suffering of the family. Immediately, however, with the opening lines of chapter 19, Steinbeck shifts the reader's focused away from the Joads onto a broad, impersonal sweep of California's agricultural history culminating in a view of the Hoovervilles and a generic portrait of the migrants. The Joads' suffering is put into perspective as we realize once again that this family's tragedy is every migrant's, that there must be a thousand Granmas and as many Ma Joads, and that the family is about to descend into a sea of families in precisely the same circumstances and facing their predicament with roughly the same proportion of courage and cowardice. In place of the familiar voices of Tom and Ma Joad and reader now hears the voice of history, and the perspective is readjusted once again. It is more difficult to become sentimental about the fate of the individual when one is simultaneously aware of the fate of the species.

In addition to the depersonalizing distance achieved through the movement from narrative chapter to interchapter, Steinbeck also takes advantage of a more familiar device to desentimentalize his treatment of the downtrodden sharecropper in this novel: the objective authorial stance that he exploited so successfully in the earlier study of oppressed workers, In Dubious Battle. In that novel, published just three years before, Steinbeck was careful to underscore the failings of the migrant workers as well as those of the oppressors—both sides are greedy, selfish, lazy, blood-thirsty, and ignorant. These are simply aspects of the human character, says Steinbeck in that strike novel, simply the way it is, nonteleologically. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck does not assume the purely objective stance of the narrative voice of In Dubious Battle, choosing not to become "merely a recording consciousness, judging nothing" as he claimed to be in the earlier strike novel. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck allows his authorial voice the freedom to intrude in the guise of a modern Jeremiah, judging, condemning. However, once again in spite of his sympathies with the displaced Okies, as he did in In Dubious Battle in Grapes Steinbeck takes care to similarly undercut the nobility and "goodness" of the migrants.

Tom, for example, is a loner who begins the novel looking out only for number one, as his solitary initial appearance and his aggressive manipulation of the witless truck driver indicate. Only gradually, through the tutoring of Casy, does the unsympathetic Tom grow into his role of proletarian savior. Throughout the novel, Pa Joad is self-centered and weakwilled, too ineffectual to assume the role of leadership demanded of him, a character thoroughly incapable of igniting the reader's sympathy, as Tom makes clear when he tells Casy late in the novel "Think Pa's gonna give up his meat on account a other fellas?" Tom's brother Al is concerned chiefly with his own concupiscence, eager even near the end of the novel to abandon his family and strike out on his own with his wife-to-be, Rose of Sharon's husband, Connie, proves himself to be a selfish and soft-minded believer in the American Dream advertised in comic books and a deserter of his pregnant wife. Rose of Sharon, in turn, forces the reader to suffer through hundreds of pages of whining self-pity before her miraculous conversion near the novel's end. Even Ma, larger-than-life Earth Mother and obvious heroine of this novel, demonstrates her limitations as she rambles on pointlessly about "Purty Boy Floyd," repeating herself tediously the way real people really do as she intones one of the folkmyths of Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl region.

While the trials of the Joads engage us, even excite our admiration and pity, Steinbeck takes pains to deny is the luxury of sentimental attachment. The Joads, including even the ultimately heroic and Christ-like Casy, are no better, no greater, no less human than they should be. Nor are any of the other migrants in the novel.

More important than either Steinbeck's illumination of the human failings of his characters on such limited levels or his use of the interchapters as distancing devices is his care to emphasize the migrants' culpability, their portion of responsibility for what has happened to the land and to themselves. Certainly Steinbeck makes it clear that the sharecroppers are victimized by an inhuman economic monster that tears at the roots of Jeffersonian agrarianism. However, when Steinbeck causes his representative migrant voice to plead with the owners for a chance to remain on the land, he qualifies the celebrated Jeffersonian agrarianism and love-for-the land by tainting the croppers' wish: "Get enough wars and cotton'll hit the ceiling," the cropper argues. A willingness to accept war and death as the price for further cottoning out of the land is difficult to admire on any level. And Steinbeck goes a step further, to make it clear that the migrants are firmly fixed in a larger, even more damning American pattern. Though the tenants have tried to persuade the owners to let them hang, one hoping for a war to drive up cotton prices, the tenant-voice also warns the owners: "But you'll kill the land with cotton." And the owners reply: "We know. We've got to take cotton quick before the land dies. Then we'll sell the land. Lots of families in the East would like to own a piece of land." With their words the westering pattern of American history is laid bare: we arrive on the Atlantic seaboard seeking Eden only to discover a rocky and dangerous paradise with natives who aggressively resent the "discovery" of their land; the true Eden must therefore lie ever to the west, over the next hill, across the next plain, until finally we reach the Pacific Ocean and, along with Jody's grandfather in The Red Pony, we end up shaking our fists at the Pacific because it stopped us, breaking the pattern of displacement, a pattern put into focus in Walt Whitman's poignant query in "Facing West from California's Shores": "But where is what I started for so long ago? / And why is it yet unfound?"

That the croppers are part of this pattern becomes even more evident when the representative tenant voice informs us that their fathers had to "kill the Indians and drive them away." And when the tenants add, "Grampa killed Indians, Pa killed snakes for the land," we should hear a powerful echo of the Puritan forebears who wrested the wilderness from the Satanic serpent and his Indian servants, killing and displacing the original inhabitants of the new Canaan.

It is difficult to feel excessive sorrow for these ignorant men who are quite willing to barter death to maintain their place in the destructive pattern of American expansion, a pattern that has ravaged a continent. That Steinbeck thought long about the American phenomenon of destroying the Garden just discovered in the search for an even better Garden is suggested in his declaration more than a decade later that in East of Eden, his great investigation of the myth of American, "people dominate the land, gradually. They stripe it and rob it. Then they are forced to try to replace what they have taken out."

The tenant and owner voices are wrong, of course: you cannot "kill the land." The land can be altered, made inhospitable for the sons of Cain who inhabit it, but it will survive. The epic perspective with which the novel begins suggests the enduring nature of this earth, the land which "abideth forever."

The first paragraph of The Grapes of Wrath opens with an impressionistic swath of color reminiscent of Stephen Crane as Steinbeck intones, "To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth." He continues:

The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

A close look at this paragraph shows that following the panoramic, generalized opening, the paragraph begins to focus, to zoom in: "The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks." And finally, from the impressionistic opening image our vision has closed the distance to focus very closely upon not just "the growing corn" but the "line of brown" that spreads "along the edge of each green bayonet." At once the narrative eye begins to pan back to register broader details of clouds and generalized "weeds" until the paragraph ends where it began, with a panoramic image of the earth, which "became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country." "In the second paragraph, the camera's eye again zooms in for a close-up: "In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams." And again this paragraph expands to end with a panorama: "The air was thin and the sky more pale, and every day the earth paled."

In these first paragraphs, Steinbeck is introducing the pattern upon which The Grapes of Wrath will be structured; a pattern of expansion and contraction, of a generalized panoramic view of the plight of the migrants in the interchapters followed in the narrative chapters by a closeup of the plight of the representative individuals, the Joads. As early as the novel's opening paragraph, the reader is being subliminally programmed for this movement in the novel, and he is being introduced to the idea that beyond the Joads is the pattern made up of the migrants and the Dust Bowl phenomenon as a whole; beyond the seeming tragedy of the drought and the cropped-out land is the pattern made up of the panoramic earth itself. The shifting focus is designed to remind us that the individual tragedies are played out against a backdrop of enduring life. In teleological terms, as defined by Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, the drought, the Dust Bowl, and the tragedy of the migrants seem immeasurable disasters for which blame must be assigned; in nonteleologically terms, however, we are reminded by the panoramic sweep of the author's brush that we are seeing only part of the picture, partial indices of what the Log defined as "all reality, known and unknowable."

Paradoxically, such a nonteleological perspective serve to make the Dust Bowl a tragedy only insofar as it is judged according to transient, human values. From a distance, the drought-wasted land is lovely, a sweeping panorama of pastels; up close, the picture becomes one of horror, but only in human terms. For the sharecroppers this is a tragedy; the larger picture suggests that the tragedy is limited, transient, that the earth abides beyond man's errors and shortsightedness. To believe, as the croppers and landowners in this novel do, that one can "kill the land" is to see only part of the picture, to commit the error Joseph Wayne commits in Steinbeck's early novel To a God Unknown of believing that the land can die. The biblical prose style of these opening paragraphs, recalling the incantatory force of Genesis, also underscores the power of primal creation that precedes man and exists beyond man's ability to effect or effect. Like the people who, drawing their strength from the earth, "go on," the earth cannot be destroyed, and Steinbeck's style and tone in these first paragraphs is designed to reinforce that message.

If Steinbeck's message in the opening paragraphs is that the land cannot die, he nonetheless begins as early as the second sentence of the novel to subtly imply human responsibility for the disruption of the drought. In the second sentence, he tells us that "The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks," superimposing an ultimately self-destructive human patter—the erosion-inducing plow lines—upon the natural watershed pattern. The rivulet marks are a sign of the earth's flow, cycle, continuum; their crossing and erasure is a sign of a failure of human understanding. The wheels that "milled the ground," and the hooves that "beat the ground" until "the dirt crust broke and the dust formed" further underscores man's responsibility for the human tragedy depicted in the first paragraphs and developed throughout the novel. By the novel's end, the rain will come again in a great, destructive, cleansing flood, erasing in its turn the pattern of human failure set upon the edenic valleys of California.

Steinbeck also foreshadows in these opening paragraphs the fate of the migrants. The "weed colonies" that are "scattered … along the sides of the roads" suggest the colonies of migrants that will soon be scattered the length of Route 66; and the minuscule ant lion trap, a funnel of finely blown sand from which the ant simply cannot escape, serves as a naturalistic image to define the situation of the sharecroppers. They have no further in the cropped-out region of blowing dust and sand; they have sealed their fates should they stubbornly struggle to remain. Muley Graves, whose name hints strongly at his character and fate, chooses to remain in the trap, a "graveyard ghos'" without a future.

Through this burnt country cut the tracks of walking men and machines, raising dust clouds as signs of their passage. When Tom Joad appears, he will be the representative walking man, the individual who must accept responsibility for what man has done to himself and to the earth. Along with Tom, the Joads and all of the migrants will be sent on the road on a quest to rethink their relationship with humanity as well as with the land itself. What Warren French has aptly termed the "education of the heart" is a journey toward a new national consciousness, one that may, Steinbeck seems to imply, finally break the grip of the westering pattern in this country, causing Americans to free themselves from the delusive quest for a New Eden and this from the destructive process of exploitation and removal entailed in such a pattern.

Once the Joads and their fellow migrants have reached California, they can go no farther. The Joads are the representative migrants, and the migrants are the representative Americans. The migrants' westward journey is America's, a movement that encapsulated the directionality of the American experience. The horrors of the California Eden confronting the migrants have been brought on by all of us, Steinbeck implies; no one is innocent. When Uncle John releases Rose of Sharon's stillborn baby upon the flood waters with the words, "Go down an' tell'em," Steinbeck is underscoring the new consciousness. This Moses is stillborn because the people have no further need for a Moses. The Promised Land has long ago been reached, and there is nowhere else to go, no place for a Moses to lead his chosen people. The American myth of the Eden ever to the west is shattered, the dangers of the myth exposed. The new leader will be an everyman, Tom Joad, who crawls into a cave of vines—the womb of the earth—to experience his rebirth and who emerges committed not to leading the people somewhere else but to making this place, this America, the garden it might be. The cleansing, destructive flood that prepares for the novel's concluding tableau rises not merely around the threatened migrants but over the entire land.

The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck's jeremiad, his attempt to expose not only the actual, historical suffering of a particular segment of our society, but also the pattern of through, the mindset, that has led to this one isolated tragedy. In this novel, Steinbeck set out to expose the fatal dangers of the American myth of a new Eden, new Canaan, new Jerusalem, and to illuminate a path toward a new consciousness of commitment in place of removal, engagement instead of displacement. And in making his argument, Steinbeck was careful not to sentimentalize his fictional creations, careful to emphasize the shared guilt and responsibility—there are no innocents; a new sensibility, not sentimentality, is Steinbeck's answer.

Principal Works

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Cup of Gold: A Life of Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional References to History (novel) 1929The Pastures of Heaven (novel) 1932To a God Unknown (novel) 1933Tortilla Flat (novel) 1935In Dubious Battle (novel) 1936Nothing So Monstrous (short stories) 1936Saint Kay the Virgin (short stories) 1936Of Mice and Men (novel) 1937Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts [with George S. Kaufman] (drama) 1937The Red Pony (novella) 1937The Long Valley (short stories) 1938The Grapes of Wrath (novel) 1939The Forgotten Village (novel) 1941Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (travel book) 1941The Moon is Down (novel) 1942The Moon is Down: Play in Two Parts (drama) 1942How Edith McGillicuddy Met R.L.S. (short stories) 1943Cannery Row (novel) 1945The Pearl (novella) 1947The Wayward Bus (novel) 1947Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form (novel) 1950East of Eden (novel) 1952Viva Zapata! (screenplay) 1952Sweet Thursday (novel) 1954The Crapshooter (short stories) 1957The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (novel) 1957The Winter of Our Discontent (novel) 1961Travels with Charley: In Search of America (nonfiction) 1962

Louis Owens (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "The Story of a Writing: Narrative Structure in East of Eden," in Rediscovering Steinbeck: Revisionist Views of His Art, Politics, and Intellect, edited by Cliff Lewis and Carroll Britch, Edwin Mellen Press, 1989, pp. 60-76.

[In the following essay, Owens examines the plot, central themes, and characters of East of Eden. Tempering his earlier unfavorable criticism of the novel, Owens writes, "East of Eden is, I believe, Steinbeck's greatest experiment, and one that succeeds more than some of us have thus far suspected."]

When I said, in my recent study of Steinbeck's fiction, that East of Eden fails "unmistakably," it seemed to me that it was so. Now I have bent close with a glass over the fine print of the novel and reread the footnotes, and I wonder if it is true.

Most readers of East of Eden will recognize in the above statement a rather unsubtle paraphrase of Steinbeck's own comments within the novel concerning the nature of his creation called Cathy Ames Trask. It is a paraphrase designed to call to mind the manner in which Steinbeck enters into this novel, becoming not merely the omnipresent "I" who remembers the Salinas Valley and its inhabitants, but the laconic narrator who feels free to step back and comment upon and modify his fictional construct when the desire or whim seems to strike him. And with its emphasis upon the text itself, this paraphrase should also call to mind the acutely self-conscious nature of East of Eden.

In 1927, E.M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, passed judgment upon this idiosyncrasy on the part of the novelist, asking,

… may the writer take the reader into his confidence about his characters?… better not. It is dangerous, it generally leads to a drop in the temperature, to intellectual and emotional laxity…. It is like standing a man to a drink so that he may not criticize your opinions…. To take your reader into your confidence about the universe is a different thing. It is not dangerous for a novelist to draw back from his characters, as Hardy and Conrad do, and to generalize about the conditions under which he thinks life is carried on. It is confidences about the individual people that do harm, and beckon the reader away from the people to an examination of the novelist's mind. [My italics.]

The slow, sprawling, omnivorous quality of East of Eden has long disturbed some readers, as have the obvious drops in temperature, the intellectual and emotional laxity, and the novel's tendency to split into dual narratives that don't seem to come together for every critic in a convincing manner. A question arising from the narrative difficulties posed by this novel, especially in light of Steinbeck's obvious awareness of what he was doing, as is demonstrated in Journal of a Novel, is, why? What is Steinbeck up to in this large novel that would move him to do what Forster and so many readers have found to be so dangerous?

As John Ditsky pointed out in 1977, in his monograph entitled Essays on East of Eden, Steinbeck "knew what he was doing." And Ditsky provides another valuable hint in how to read the novel when he says, in this monograph, "It takes no stretching of the point to conclude that, for Steinbeck, this most planned of his novels is most genuinely his portrait of the artist as a mature man." While Ditsky focuses primarily upon Steinbeck's relationships with his home territory—the Salinas Valley—and sees a kind of cathartic force operating in the novel, it may be that the portrait of the artist in this novel functions on a different, aesthetic level as well. It may well be, in fact, that in East of Eden Steinbeck is quite consciously and intentionally, in Forster's words, beckoning "the reader away from the people [and thus the mimetic convention of the novel] to an examination of the novelist's mind." In fact, what Steinbeck may be beckoning us to in this great, rather unwieldy novel is the study of the creative process itself, with the focus being the mind of John Steinbeck.

It is possible and profitable, I think, to read East of Eden as another of the large number of novels that are, to a significant extent, concerned with their own creation; to read it to a certain degree, that is, as a self-conscious novel. That John Steinbeck would arrive at such a work in the early 1950's should not be surprising, given the eagerness to experiment with form evident throughout his career and his self-expressed doubts concerning the limitations of both the conventional novel and realism itself. It should be remembered that, as early as 1933, Steinbeck was confessing, "I never had much ability for nor faith nor belief in realism." East of Eden is, I believe, Steinbeck's greatest experiment, and one that succeeds more than some of us have thus far suspected. A key to this reading of East of Eden can be found in the opening paragraphs of the novel, in which Steinbeck begins with his usual method of carefully establishing his setting before introducing his characters, but in which he quickly and deftly goes beyond such a mechanical formula to move from geography to symbol:

I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding—unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and love of east. Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say, unless it could be that the morning came over the peaks of the Gabilans and the night drifted back from the ridges of the Santa Lucias. It may be that the birth and death of the day had some part in my feeling about the two ranges of mountains.

In this paragraph, Steinbeck illustrates the way in which a kind of psychic topography grows out of an untutored, intuitive response to natural symbols: the setting and rising sun. We find here a delineation of the symbolic landscape that dominates Steinbeck's writing, from early to late, and we find a hint of what Clifford Lewis has termed the split in the American consciousness—the almost Manichaean sense of opposed absolutes: good and evil, life and death. Here, the dualism is introduced which will quickly become the structural center of the novel, and the focus is not merely upon the landscape but upon the consciousness responding to that landscape: the developing consciousness of the artist.

As perhaps every reader has discovered, East of Eden is about man's struggle for full knowledge, for the freedom of will implied in Steinbeck's interpretation of timshel: "thou mayest." He who accepts his fallen state—the Ishmael who embraces full knowledge—has the potential to survive in this world and, perhaps, to grow to greatness. Samuel Hamilton is such a man, and Cal Trask is becoming one—the everyman, Steinbeck's "sorry" man. He (or she) who does not attain this fullness of vision will perish, literally and/or spiritually. Adam, Aaron, Charles, and Cathy represent two sides of the American consciousness at war, and in these doomed characters the twain never meet.

What Steinbeck is suggesting in the opening paragraphs is the way in which this sense of opposed absolutes rises from deep within man, represents something profound and inevitable in human consciousness. The central theme of East of Eden appears to grow naturally and quickly out of a child's—little Johnny Steinbeck's—response to his environment, and out of the effect of that remembered response upon the mind of the mature, creative artist. Steinbeck is demonstrating the way fiction itself is created, how it rises out of the deepest feelings for place, and how what the artist knows—place, family—can become transformed into a fictional structure. In the opening chapter of East of Eden, the so-called American Myth, so powerfully embedded in the American psyche, the myth of the new garden in which the American Adam squares off against evil, seems to emerge out of a convergence of feelings for place, and out of this intuition comes a structure.

From place, the microcosmic Salinas Valley, Steinbeck moves rapidly in the opening pages of the novel to introduce his family, the Hamiltons out of whom the creative source of the novel—John Steinbeck—springs. Steinbeck tells us that "Once, fifty miles down the valley, my father bored a well" and he recounts his wonder at what was found beneath the fertile valley, adding, "And it seemed to me sometimes at night that I could feel both the sea and the redwood forest in it [the valley]." In these lines, Steinbeck lays bare the creative process again, for out of this "real" memory will come Samuel Hamilton's fictional discovery of the fallen star that precedes the Trask twins' birth and symbolizes the merger of "dark violence" and great beauty deep in the valley. Since the long-vanished sea beneath the valley floor, with its rich, dark strata must, like all Steinbeckian seas, bring to mind the unconscious, the fallen star may also suggest a plunge into the unconscious. Whereas the conventional novelistic method is to allow imaginative sources to disappear behind the text, Steinbeck brings his sources into full light in these opening pages, allowing the reader a rare glimpse of the raw materials of fiction.

A few paragraphs after we have been told of his father's well and his own dark thoughts concerning the valley, Steinbeck introduces his grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, followed by the introduction of another fact about the valley: the cycles of flood and drought, the latter of which "put a terror on the valley" reminiscent of the violence Samuel intuits when he looks down on the edenic bottom land. Steinbeck declares that "it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years." In this passage, Steinbeck is simply remembering the way it was, and is, in the valley, and he is simultaneously underscoring the dangerous inability of the valley's inhabitants to hold in mind seemingly contradictory realities. The man who can accept the reality of both the rich years and the terror of the drought will be the "balanced man" of Melville's Moby Dick, the man with a Catskill eagle in his soul. Steinbeck continues in this first chapter to remember in a casual, lyrical tone what the valley was like, offering a list of place names with easy-paced commentary in keeping with the tone and style of this introductory chapter. The list of place names ends casually with "Corral de Tierra for a fence of earth; Paraiso because it was like Heaven." Those who have read The Pastures of Heaven may recall that Pastures of Heaven is Steinbeck's ironic name in that novel for the actual valley called Corral de Tierra, and that the inhabitants of this paradisiacal valley suffer from dangerous delusions. These casually juxtaposed place names underscore in East of Eden the duality of vision already introduced: the same plot of earth may fence in earthly imperfections or may, through another peephole, seem paradise.

Once the dualism at the heart of this novel has been deftly introduced in this opening, reminiscent chapter, Steinbeck brings in the whole Hamilton clan in Chapter Two, beginning with the autobiographical statement: "I must depend upon hearsay, old photographs…." Conveniently, the Hamilton ranch nestles in the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley, the mountains of life described in the opening paragraphs, and, also conveniently, "From their barren hills the Hamiltons could look down to the west and see the richness of the bottom land and the greenness around the Salinas River…." Obviously, Steinbeck is again simply telling us what is—the Hamilton Ranch, now known by another name, really is there in the Gabilan Mountains, a bone-dry ranch of hard-scrabble rounded hills, and from these hills one can look down on the richness of the river valley and across the valley to the dark wall of the Santa Lucias where the sun descends into blackness. Because of their location, however, the Hamiltons become strongly identified with the life force in this novel, the life force associated with the eastern mountains in the opening paragraphs of the book. Samuel Hamilton becomes a force for good, a kind of savior, water-witch, grail knight, and non-teleological visionary all rolled into one, and when he bends to grasp a handful of the dry, seemingly barren earth, Samuel is demonstrating his bond with these hills.

With the introduction of the Hamiltons—that aspect of Steinbeck's autobiography which he, like Ben Franklin, the author of another book about America, would purportedly record for his sons—Steinbeck has introduced the soil from which the artistic consciousness of the novel will grow. What remains is for Steinbeck to create the fictional structure necessary to make this the story of America, and out of this need grows the Trask narrative. And as if the beginnings of the Hamilton narrative have indeed prepared the way for the allegorical Trasks, Chapter Two, the first Hamilton chapter, ends with the introduction of Adam Trask in a single line: "Such a man was Adam Trask."

In conjoining the Trask and Hamilton narratives, Steinbeck was fully aware of the risks he was taking. Critics would complain he predicted, putting the words in the mouth of a hypothetical editor: "The book is out of balance. The reader expects one thing and you give him something else. You have written two books and stuck them together." Steinbeck's well-known answer is, "No, sir. It goes together. I have written about one family and used stories about another family as well as counterpoint, as rest, as contrast in pace and color." The same editor complains: "Right in the middle you throw in a story about your mother and an airplane ride. The reader wants to know where it ties in and, by God, it doesn't tie in at all. That disappoints a reader." Finally, Steinbeck responds coyly to his invented editor, saying, "Yes, sir. I guess you're right. Shall I cut out the story of my mother and the airplane?"

Steinbeck foresaw correctly. Again and again, critics have lamented the structural outrage of this novel, focusing particularly upon the lamentable episode of Olive Hamilton's airplane ride. Typical is my own reaction: "Completely out of place in whatever thematic unity the novel possesses, this episode is reminiscent of the most damaging of Steinbeck's sentimental writing in the war dispatches later published as Once There Was A War."

If Steinbeck knew with such certainty that this would be labeled a structural flaw, why did he do it? And why, since chapters focusing exclusively upon the Hamiltons constitute less than ten percent of the entire novel, did he insist upon including the Hamiltons? The contrast in pace and color offered by the Hamilton narrative is minimal and disappears entirely in the fourth book of the novel. Whatever contrast in pace and color exists in the final book comes only through Steinbeck's authorial intrusion to tell us what he believes, what the collective "we" felt about the war, and how "we" responded to it along with the Trasks. That such a small portion of the novel as the Hamilton narrative could appear to have such an impact is remarkable, and is to be explained largely by the fact that the Hamiltons are the novel's round, human characters, those characters which transcend the role of "symbol people" Steinbeck assigned to the Trasks. Thus the story of Tom and Dessie, a poignant tale of two cases of arrested emotional development coming together in their loneliness, over-balances the Trask drama, steals its thunder.

It may also be that Steinbeck took the risk he did with the Hamiltons out of a desire, in this novel, to keep the reader fully aware of the so-called "real" world out of which fiction grows. "In fact," Steinbeck told Pat Covici in the East of Eden letters, "all of the Hamilton stories are true." The one Hamilton who slips away from the "real," however, is Samuel. In Samuel, the Hamiltons produce their one figure of suspect reality, a larger-than-life patriarch with shining aura, a freer-of-waters and restorer of wasted lands, a flawed man so good that he tips the scale.

The reason for Samuel's growth toward Trask-like symbolhood is precisely Samuel's growing involvement in the Trask narrative in which Steinbeck is operating in the realm of idea, of allegory, with little concern for making his symbol-people believable. What, in an earlier reference to The Red Pony, Steinbeck called the "stream underneath," is all that counts and with the Trasks—the story of the pre-lapsarian Adam and very fallen Eve—the stream flows rapidly above the surface of the story itself. When Samuel becomes involved with Adam Trask, Samuel immediately begins to grow beyond the dimensions of Steinbeck's remembered grandfather to fill a vacuum in the larger story—he grows into the heroic dimensions required to fill the need for a non-teleological visionary, a balanced man. One could say that Samuel is stolen from the Hamilton narrative and transfers his allegiance as a fictional construct to the allegorical realm of Trask. And it seems very likely that Steinbeck wants us to be aware of this theft.

Samuel's transformation from remembered grandfather to fictional creation is highlighted for the reader in Steinbeck's treatment of Samuel's supposed long-lost love back in Ireland. In the beginning pages of the novel, Steinbeck tells us of Samuel's past, saying, "There was a whisper—not even a rumor but rather an unsaid feeling—in my family that it was love drove him out [of Ireland], and not love of the wife he married. But whether it was too successful love or whether he left in pique at unsuccessful love, I do not know" [my italics]. Steinbeck follows this a page later with the declaration, "I think there must have been some other girl printed somewhere in his heart, for he was a man of love and his wife was not a woman to show her feelings." By Chapter Twenty-four, more than three hundred pages later, Steinbeck has allowed that early conjecture and the character called Samuel to grow to the point that Samuel is able to tell Adam of the vision of love that has come to him "night after month after year, right to the very now," adding, "And I think I should have double-bolted my mind and sealed off my heart against her, but I did not. All of these years I've cheated Liza…."

Samuel is the point of contact between "real" and fictional worlds in the novel, the bridge. How much of Samuel is created and how much remembered? Just past midpoint in the novel, Steinbeck breaks in to state, "And Samuel was wise, but I think he knew only one side of Tom." Given his obvious freedom to invent Samuel, why doesn't Steinbeck know everything Samuel knows? Of Uncle Tom, Steinbeck intones, "What I set down about him will be the result of memory plus what I know to be true plus conjecture built on the combination. Who knows whether it will be correct?" And to impress upon us this limited, autobiographical approach to Tom Hamilton, Steinbeck uses the expression, "I remember" or a slight variation of that expression, eleven times in three brief paragraphs as he begins to tell us about Tom. Similarly, of Dessie's tragedy, Steinbeck writes, "I do not know any details of her love affair…. All I know is…."

Steinbeck is obviously deciding when and where to disguise his fiction-making within the hidey-hole of autobiography, a great freedom which his presence in the novel, and the presence of the Hamilton narrative, allows him. However, in the character of Samuel, Steinbeck is, more importantly, demonstrating the way in which fiction grows out of the real. What happens to Samuel is that he is contaminated by the fictional Trask narrative and its demands in a way the other Hamiltons are not. And Steinbeck, by repeatedly entering the novel to remind us of the creative process, attempts to ensure that we see this process taking place. We are allowed behind the curtain of the author's workshop to watch Samuel's transformation.

Just before he introduces Samuel to Adam Trask, Steinbeck begins his chapter with a sermon on the freedom essential to the creative mind: "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." Here, Steinbeck may be anticipating the new direction the character of Samuel will take as the author's "free, exploring mind" explores the conflict between good and evil, between self-imposed blindness and the human need to attain full knowledge. Very quickly, Samuel will spin out of his Hamilton orbit and into that of the Trasks and, with this declaration, Steinbeck may well be preparing the reader for this new creative freedom.

Throughout the novel, Steinbeck breaks into his narrative to remind us of his authorial presence, addressing his reader directly, as when he writes, "You can see how this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900"; or ruminating upon those beliefs he holds most dear; or mimicking the collective voice of the nation; or even analyzing his characters and then coming back to qualify and contradict himself. To introduce Horace Quinn's role in the Trask narrative, for example, Steinbeck enters the story, saying, "We could not imagine anyone else being sheriff," and later, as Cal prepares to take Abra on their important picnic, Steinbeck adds, "We knew—or at least we were confident—that on May Day, when all the Sunday School picnics took place in Alisal, the wild azaleas that grew in the skirts of the streams would be in bloom." By this point, near the end of the novel, autobiography and fictional narrative have merged completely, with the authorial voice joining the authorial constructs as a participant—a character—within the fiction.

A consideration of East of Eden as a self-conscious fiction may also allow us to come to terms with one of the major problems often cited by critics: Cathy Ames Trask. Is Cathy the C.A.T. a genetically misshapen monster who simply is predetermined to be evil because of something she lacks? Or is she more psychologically complex than this as her early and late obsessions with the Wonderland Alice seem to suggest? Why, if timshel must apply to all of us, does it seem not to apply to Cathy or Adam, or even Charles, who is incapable of feeling sorry? If this novel is designed to mark the end of an era—naturalism with its emphasis upon pessimistic determinism—as John Ditsky has persuasively suggested, why does Steinbeck create absolutists such as Adam and Cathy who seem, for most of the novel, incapable of free will?

An answer may be that in the course of this long novel the implied author—the voice creating the characters and plot—changes, grows, and learns, as Steinbeck suggests in the opening line in The Log from the Sea of Cortez when he declares that "The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer." At first Steinbeck states that Cathy is a monster, declaring simply, "I believe there are monsters born in the world…. Later, he qualifies: "It doesn't matter that Cathy was what I have called a monster…." And finally, he writes: "When I said Cathy was a monster it seemed to me that it was so. Now I have bent close with a glass over the small print of her and reread the footnotes, and I wonder if it was true." Steinbeck is reminding us that to create is to learn and, furthermore, with his allusion to the "small print" of his character, reminding us that as readers we, too, are involved in the process of fiction-making, that Cathy has existence only on the page.

Very subtly, in his introduction of Cathy, Steinbeck also illustrates for us the way in which a fictional creation takes form. At the beginning of Chapter Eight, the authorial voice declares its belief that not only are "monsters born in the world" but that "Cathy Ames was born with the tendencies or lack of them, which drove her all her life…. She was not like other people." Following the clear statement of the author's conception of his character, we are given a description of that character: "Her nose was delicate and thin, and her cheekbones high and wide, sweeping down to a small chin so that her face was heart-shaped. Her mouth was well shaped and well lipped but abnormally small…. Her ears were very little, without lobes, and they pressed so close to her head that even with her hair combed up they made no silhouette. They were thin flaps sealed against her head." Cathy's resemblance to a serpent must be obvious to anyone reading such a description, and to ensure that we don't miss the Satanic suggestion, Steinbeck adds: "Her feet were small and round and stubby, with fat insteps almost like little hoofs." If we pay close attention to the process taking place here, we should become aware that we are being allowed to watch as the character's form rises quite clearly out of the artist's conception of that character. The Cathy we begin to see conforms to the author's idea of Cathy defined for us a few lines earlier. Because at this point in the novel the implied author conceives of Cathy as predetermined to evil, inherently depraved, she takes a snake-like form. Later, Cathy's form will change as the author's conception of her changes.

In East of Eden, Steinbeck first illustrates the way the sense of opposed absolutes at the heart of the American myth grows out of an intuitive response to environment. Then, he demonstrates the way in which this dualism is manifested in everyday life—the flood-drought cycle, the Fence of Earth-Paradise juxtaposition. Next, he introduces the Hamiltons and bares the autobiographical sources of his fiction: his father's well-drilling, for example. At this point, he brings in the Trask narrative, overlaying the autobiographical narrative with the allegorical fiction. He gradually allows Samuel to be drawn into the fiction, leaving the remaining Hamiltons firmly fixed in the realm of autobiography. Samuel becomes, thus, the highly charged point of contact between autobiography and fiction, a role most appropriate to the eloquent artificer and teller of tales at his forge. In this role, Samuel becomes a proto-Daedalus, from whom John Steinbeck, the artificer of this amazing novel, will descend.

And finally Steinbeck, or the implied author called John Steinbeck, enters the novel as not simply the "recording consciousness" of such an earlier work as In Dubious Battle, but as interpreter and creator, one who creates the "reality" of the novel as he records it, learning as he records and changing as he learns. As he comes to know more about the idea called Cathy/Kate, his feelings change. He qualifies and contradicts his earlier self. The disclosure process of conventional novels is altered so that the novel discloses itself to the author as well as reader in the process of its creation. What the reader, what America itself, must learn in the course of this novel is what the author learns: a belief in absolutes, an Ahabian monomania, is dangerously delusive; the pursuit of Eden leads to the destruction of whatever earthly paradise may be possible. The author, too, must learn the necessity for balance, the danger of staring too long into the fire. Steinbeck's method resembles that described by Austin Wright as the creation of a "narrator-controlled world," one in which "the autonomy of the fictional world breaks down the inventive/narrative distinction: in effect, the inventor's manipulations have become the teller's, implicitly seeming to reflect the latter's creative, expressive, or rhetorical needs."

Of this novel, written at the height of his career, Steinbeck declared, "This is my most complicated and at the same time, my most simple sounding book." And he added, "Jesus am I going to catch critical hell for it. My carefully worked out method will be jumped on by the not too careful critic as slipshod. For it is not an easy form to come on quickly nor to understand immediately." Finally, Steinbeck lamented in frustration, "I don't know why writers are never given credit for knowing their craft." Given the general failure of early reviewers to comprehend the carefully worked out methods of such simple-seeming works as The Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown, Tortilla Flat, and Cannery Row, Steinbeck's frustration is more than understandable.

In 1979, in his book Fabulation and Metafiction, Robert Scholes made this surprising observation concerning John Steinbeck: "For the last decade of his life, one of America's finest writers in the realistic/naturalistic tradition was engaged in a serious artistic struggle through which he sought to come to terms with fabulation." Scholes is speaking here specifically of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, but Scholes goes on to ponder, "What moved Steinbeck toward fabulation? What but the same impulse that was moving younger writers in the same direction—the sense that the positivistic basis for traditional realism had been eroded, and that reality, if it could be caught at all, would require a whole new set of fictional skills."

East of Eden, long viewed as problematic, may well stand as sharp evidence of both Steinbeck's dissatisfaction with the tradition Scholes names and Steinbeck's desire to experiment and, in so doing, expose a kind of metaphysics of fiction-making. Like many of Steinbeck's works, East of Eden may be a much more subtle and complex construction than we are at first prepared to believe, one deserving of more careful scrutiny than we have yet brought to bear.

Further Reading

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Davis, Robert Murray. "The World of John Steinbeck's Joads." World Literature Today 64, No. 3 (Summer 1990): 401-4.

Examines the Joad family's migratory route and provides an overview of the central social themes in The Grapes of Wrath.

McKay, Nellie Y. "'Happy[?]-Wife-and-Motherdom': The Portrayal of Ma Joad in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath." In New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, edited by David Wyatt, pp. 47-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Provides analysis of sex roles and gender stereotypes in The Grapes of Wrath, particularly in Steinbeck's presentation of Ma Joad as an archetypal Earth Mother figure.

Mitchell, Marilyn H. "Steinbeck's Strong Women: Feminine Identity in the Short Stories." In John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction, edited by R. S. Hughes, pp. 154-66. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Examines the sexual psychology and gender roles of female characters in two stories from The Long Valley—"The Chrysanthemums" and "The White Quail."

Railton, Stephen. "Pilgrim's Politics: Steinbeck's Art of Conversion." In New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, edited by David Wyatt, pp. 27-46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Examines Steinbeck's effort to effect social awareness and revolutionary change through presentation of socioeconomic degradation in The Grapes of Wrath.

Salter, Christopher L. "John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as a Primer for Cultural Geography." In Critical Essays on Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, edited by John Ditsky, pp. 138-52. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.

Examines the significance of social, economic, and demographic information in The Grapes of Wrath for sociocultural analysis of the Dust Bowl migrations.

Simpson, Hassell A. "Steinbeck's Anglo-Saxon 'Wonder-Words' and the American Paradox." American Literature 62, No. 2 (June 1990): 310-7.

Examines Steinbeck's paradoxical vision of America in The Winter of Our Discontent, alluded to in an Anglo-Saxon passage from the Bible contained in the novel.

Timmerman, John. "Steinbeck's Environmental Ethic: Humanity and Harmony with the Land." In Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., pp. 310-22. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Discusses Steinbeck's ethical perspective concerning human use and preservation of the environment, particularly as revealed in America and Americans, Travels with Charley, and Sweet Thursday.

Tuttleton, James W. "Steinbeck Remembered." The New Criterion 13, No. 7 (March 1995): 22-8.

Offers an overview of Steinbeck's critical reputation, literary career, and recent writings on his life and work.

Yarmus, Marcia. "The Picaresque Novel and John Steinbeck." In Rediscovering Steinbeck: Revisionist Views of His Art, Politics, and Intellect, edited by Cliff Lewis and Carroll Britch, pp. 79-103. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.

Examines the literary influence of Cervantes's Don Quixote and the conventions of Spanish picaresque novels on Steinbeck's fiction.

M. R. Satyanarayana (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "'And Then the Child Becomes a Man': Three Initiation Stories of John Steinbeck," in John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction, edited by R. S. Hughes, Twayne, 1989, pp. 181-8.

[In the following essay, Satyanarayana examines the theme of initiation in "The Raid," The Red Pony, and "Flight."]

In his introduction to John Steinbeck (1965) Joseph Fontenrose observes: "Myth has been a more consistent factor, profoundly affecting the form and content of all his (Steinbeck's) novels since 1929. In most of them we see a palimpsest upon which Steinbeck has inscribed a realistic tale of contemporary men." Yet, in his actual interpretation of the works, Fontenrose makes no reference to the use of myth in three stories from The Long Valley: "The Raid," The Red Pony cycle and "Flight." He considers only The Red Pony as a story of initiation in which the hero passes from "naive childhood to the threshold of adulthood through knowledge of birth, old age, and death, gained through experience with horses." As a matter of fact all the three works are about the growth of boys into men, each different from the others, in its use of myth. "The Raid" is an excellent example of a sociological initiation, in which the boy hero is initiated to an altogether new social order. In The Red Pony the hero's initiation is brought about within the same social order into which he is born, with a view to preserving the traditions cherished by that order. Further, the hero is also introduced to the existential aspects of pain, age, and death. "Flight" is somewhat complex as an initiation story. It deals with the improper initiation of the hero leading to tragedy as in the myth of Phaëton; and at the same time it is a story of the hero's magic flight and the mystic return to the origin.


The structure of "The Raid" falls neatly into four parts: (1) the hero's severance from the mother, (2) the revelation of the mystery of adult experience, (3) the ordeal, and (4) the symbolic death and rebirth. Root, the hero goes through all the well-known rites of passage except the change of name.

The story begins with Dick, the initiator, and Root, the novice, walking away from the well-lit streets to a dark and lonely place where they expect to hold a radical meeting. Severance from the mother has already taken place for the boy, he having been thrown out by the father for his radical views. The boy looks back in regret at his childhood innocence, and is at the same time anxious to experience a new life. This state of confusion, typical of all the novices, is symbolically expressed by an old tune, "Come to me my melancholy baby," which haunts the boy, and try as he might, he is unable to get it out of his head. Passing through the dark streets he observes that "it's a good night to get away if anything happens." The dark night is the mother whose protection the boy seeks. The novice is quickly pulled back to the road by Dick (father-surrogate) who holds out the threat of a denial of the much desired new experience. He warns Root that his party would have nothing to do with cowards.

In the second part we find Dick and Root in a lonely store lit by a small kerosene lamp. They put up the picture of their leader on the wall, along with a certain red symbol on a white background. As they wait for their audience Root becomes more and more nervous. He asks for the time of the night thrice in three quarters of an hour. He keeps on pestering the senior man as to how it would be to face a group of vigilantes. He is scared of them and the cops, having heard of their brutality. Although annoyed and irritated by the boy's questions Dick allays his fears by kind words. With the picture of the leader presiding over the ceremony, the initiator passes on the magic formula (the mantra) to the novice, a formula he himself had been taught in similar circumstances: "The men of little spirit must have an example of stead—stead-fastness. The people at large must have an example of injustice." And therefore no sacrifice is too much and the initiate must remember that "If some one busts you, it isn't him that's doing it, it's the System. And it isn't you he's busting. He's taking a crack at the Principle." This initiatory ceremony is observed on the lines followed by secret societies like the Free Masons.

The tension caused by anxiety and suspense is itself an ordeal. But the real test for the initiate is physical torture which includes bleeding also. Just as the male adults of the Australian tribes surround the initiate and beat him up, Root is buffeted by the vigilantes when they raid the place. As he begins the prepared text of his speech he is knocked down by a blow on the side of the head. When he struggles to his feet, "his split ear spill[ing] a red stream down his neck," he is no longer a boy. "His breath burst passionately. His hands were steady now, his voice sure and strong. His eyes were hot with an ecstasy." As he goes down again under a wave of violence he cries, "You don't know what you're doing."

When Root falls unconscious he goes through the last phase of the initiatory rites, symbolic death, from which he emerges a new being. The last words of the boy before he falls down unconscious, add a new dimension to the story. His death and rebirth become a re-enactment of Christ's death and resurrection. Later, in the hospital, Root recalls how he felt like saying those words of Christ to his killers. Written in 1934, "The Raid" reveals Steinbeck's interest in some of the most devoted radicals he knew. Root is also a symbol of all the good Christians, who in the 1930's looked toward Russia for an answer to the economic questions which the democratic Europe had failed to solve. This same Root, who appears as Jim in In Dubious Battle, "grows" to become the radical Christ, Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath.


In The Red Pony the boy Jody Tiflin is initiated to the chores of an agrarian life on his father's ranch. Here there is no sudden severance from the childhood links for the boy. It is a slow transition from childhood innocence to experience, and the transition takes place without a change of scene. His initiators are his parents and Billy Buck, the ranch hand. And because it is a transitional type of initiation the ordeal is spread over a considerable length of time. Jody's loss of innocence occurs when the shock of realization of death comes upon him. "Perhaps this is the first adulthood of any man or woman," as Steinbeck puts it. "The first tortured question 'why?' and then acceptance, and then the child becomes a man."

In "The Gift," Jody's initiation begins with the gift of a pony by his father. The boy's curiosity is excited. But severe restrictions are laid down to thwart his enthusiasm to ride the pony. He must scrub the pony, polish the saddle, and feed the animal, but he should not ride him yet. In the course of his training under Billy Buck the boy experiences pain and horror, which invariably accompany the rites of passage. When the pony catches a severe cold an operation becomes necessary. To help the animal breathe a hole is drilled in his throat. Jody is made to watch and help in the operation. He keeps a close watch over the ailing pony and witnesses his futile struggle against death. With the death of the pony, Jody is entrusted with greater responsibility. In "The Promise," he is placed in charge of the mare Nellie. He is asked to get her bred, and to take good care of the mare during the gestation period, if the newborn colt is to be his. Once again an operation becomes necessary. To save the colt the mare has to be killed. The boy is made to watch Billy Buck take a hammer and knock down the animal, saw through her belly, and bring out a dripping bundle of a colt. With this ritualistic killing of the mare the novice realises that birth and death are only phases in a continuous process of life.

The horse is the central symbol in The Red Pony, as in D. H. Lawrence's "St. Mawr." All knowledge of pain, suffering, old age, death, and even the knowledge of sex comes to Jody through the three horses in the story. The proud red pony gives him the first glimpse of death, which is repeated in the death of the mare Nellie. The mating of the mare and the stallion provides a vicarious lesson in sex for the boy. In "The Great Mountains," there is the horse Easter, which had served the master faithfully for years, but is now disliked by the master Tiflin for being old and useless. Tiflin equates the old horse with Gitano, an old paisano, who seeks shelter on the ranch. Tiflin is not impressed by the fact that the paisano was born on the ranch long before he bought it and now wishes to die on the place. He has no feeling for either the old horse or the old man. Luckily for Jody he has, as models, the defence of the old horse by Billy Buck and his mother's sympathy for the paisano. It is through Billy Buck and his mother that Jody gets a proper initiation to the right understanding of other's sorrows. For there is a repetition of the father's rudeness and the compassionate response of Jody's mother and Billy Buck in the fourth section of the story cycle. It is here, in "The Leader of the People," that Jody shows signs of growth. In the teeth of his father's opposition he asks his grandfather to tell stories about "Injuns" (Indians), which he had told a number of times. Tiflin considers his father-in-law a bore. The story ends with the efforts of the boy in consoling the grandfather who has been insulted by his father. It is as though Jody were the grown-up man, and the grandfather a child. (He offers to get a lemonade for the old man). The growth of Jody to adult experience is suggested by a humorous change of his name into Mr. Big Britches.


Unlike the initiation of Root and Jody the initiation of Pepé takes place overnight. It is actually a case of improper initiation, and reflects "the pathos of inverted emphasis" in the United States where, as Joseph Campbell observes, "The goal is not to grow old, but to remain young; not to mature away from Mother, but to cleave to her." Although nineteen years old and the father dead, Pepé is not called upon to shoulder the responsibility of the adult male. An early initiation would have been the most natural thing in his case. Instead we find Mama Torres dismissing her son's claim to manhood as that of a "foolish chicken." Yet, it is not as though she is unaware of the need for boys to grow up in time. For she tells her second son (after Pepé rides away for the first time by himself) that "A boy gets to be a man when a man is needed. Remember this thing. I have known boys forty years old." But, in spite of this wisdom she goes on waiting for a need to arise. Initiation rites are meant to prevent precisely this sort of danger, men of forty remaining boys, by preparing the boys to be ready for adult life well in advance. What actually happens is that Pepé finds himself unprepared when the need at last arises.

Pepé rides to town. He has been allowed to use his father's saddle. He carries with him his father's knife, which has always been with him. In Monterey he drinks wine with some people. Some one calls him names and makes a gesture of attack. And Pepé throws the knife at him as unerringly and as thoughtlessly as he had been throwing at a redwood post in a playful manner. The knife "went almost by itself. It flew, it darted before Pepé knew it." Like Phaëthon he is ignorant of the proper use of the weapon (the bridle of Phoebus), and he has to pay for it with his life. Taken by surprise at his own action Pepé rushes back to the protective mother. Mama Torres ruefully realises that the son has attained manhood. She prepares him for his flight into the mountains. With the severance of her son from her imminent, she takes on the role of an initiator for a brief time. She gives Pepé her husband's black coat, and rifle. She gives him food and water. And she gives good advice concerning the dangers on the way and how to surmount them. When at last he rides away she raises a formal death wail: "Our beautiful—our brave, he is gone." With this Pepé completes the rite of severance from the mother, and a symbolic death, and enters upon the next stage of the great ordeal.

So far it has been a story of maturation. With the commencement of the hero's ordeal the story gathers a new dimension. Pepé's ordeal is his flight; and the flight becomes the magic flight of the mythical hero. In his flight (ordeal) Pepé does not encounter the elders of the tribe or a father-surrogate in person. The hurdles he crosses and the physical torture he undergoes are not due to any human agency. (The flight itself is caused by human pursuers, who are not on the scene of action). For three days and nights he flees, gradually losing his hat, horse, the coat, and the rifle. He is incapacitated by hunger, thirst, and a poisonous wound. Finally, he gives up the struggle and stands up to welcome death. In all his ordeals Pepé is alone, without a sympathetic initiator. The initiator, if there is one, is his dead father, represented by his black coat, the hat, the rifle, and the saddle. When all these articles are lost the hero is ready to die. The unseen but ever-present father, then, puts his son to a severe ordeal after the severance from the mother. At the end of the ordeal the son becomes himself the father. There is no return to the normal world for him who achieves an atonement with the father. Having shed all "infantile illusions of 'good' and 'evil'" the hero is purged of hope and fear, and at peace in the understanding of the revelation of being."

Pepé's flight is an inversion of the mythical hero's magic flight. In the latter's flight the hero discards objects which grow in size and delay the pursuers. For instance, a discarded hairbrush grows to be a huge wooded mountain. But here Pepé leaves behind him, quite unintentionally, articles which are of great use. The coat or the hat or the rifle, instead of delaying his pursuers, serve only as clues in the chase. This is so because the hero is not fleeing from anything. He is only making "a return to the origin."

Steinbeck's use of the symbolic regressus ad uterum lends a third dimension to the story "Flight." According to Mercea Elaide the mythical hero is swallowed by a sea monster and re-emerges breaking through the monster's belly; or the hero goes through an "initiatory passage through a vagina dentata, or the dangerous descent into a cave or a crevice assimilated to the mouth or the uterus of Mother Earth." Pepé's passage belongs to the latter type. But unlike the adventures of the mythical hero, which are accomplished physically, Pepé adventures are symbolic in the oriental tradition. Pepé descends into narrow dark valleys three times, and when he meets his death, he rolls down the mountain and is covered over by an avalanche of rocks, thus entering the womb of the Mother Earth. Further these initiatory adventures of the spiritual type do not end in the hero becoming, even spiritually, a new being; they end in the searcher becoming one with "the Primordial Great-One," as visualized by the oriental mystics for whom "the goal ceased to be beginning a new life again here below, on earth, and became 'going back' and reconstituting the Primordial Great-One."

I believe there are many ways of looking at this most interesting story. It is possible to see in it the murderer, pursued by his sense of guilt and failing to shake it off, finally welcome death as proper wages for his sin. It is also possible to see in it "the emergence of Man from the primeval darkness."

John H. Timmerman (essay date Autumn 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4113

SOURCE: "The Squatter's Circle in The Grapes of Wrath," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, Autumn, 1989, pp. 203-11.

[In the following essay, Timmerman discusses the function and significance of the squatter's circle as a symbol of patriarchal authority and unity.]

In John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the indomitable Ma Joad emerges as a hero and the leader of, in her words, "the fambly of man." In so doing, however, she also displaces Pa Joad from his traditional position of authority in the family. While several critical studies have examined those qualities of Ma Joad that direct her leadership—qualities of humor, a steadfast vision, and a resilient ability to bend and adapt to new situations without breaking—Pa Joad has disappeared from critical scrutiny as if of no account. In fact, Steinbeck very carefully directs the reversal of leadership roles through the use of the "squatter's circle" motif.

That the migrant family of the 1930s was strongly patriarchal has been demonstrated by Tom Collins' detailed reports on California migrant camps during the late 1930s. Collins was the manager of the Kern County Migrant Camp and was also Steinbeck's most profitable source of information about migrant traditions. He personally escorted Steinbeck through both the established government camps and the squatters' camps. More importantly, Steinbeck took back with him to Los Gatos hundreds of pages of Collins' reports and assessments of migrant families. These reports figured directly into Steinbeck's composition of his novel.

Collins' weekly reports from Kern County's Arvin Camp, prototype for the Weedpatch Camp in The Grapes of Wrath, testify that these migrant families, while traditionally patriarchal, were experiencing a revolution of matriarchal uprising. As the men foundered in the bewildering tides of joblessness, indirection, and poverty, the women assumed dominant authority in the family.

One of the most revealing parts of Collins' reports in this matter of family authority appears in his weekly entry entitled "Bits of Migrant Wisdom." Here Collins diverges from his statistical information, his detailed accounts of camp activities, and his necessarily objective analysis to satisfy the governmental bureaucracy, to probe intimately the nature of migrant lives. Frequently such musings and probings focus upon marital relationships. After recounting at some length in his report for June 6, 1936, one protracted and often violent lover's quarrel, Collins observes: "We just let her cry. In fact we encouraged her to cry and bawl to her hearts [sic] content. That's what she wanted to do. Migrant women are that way." But he does not leave the portrait with this traditional depiction of the weakly crying woman. There is tougher stuff in the camp women, and one has an idea that Collins appreciates the woman he quotes two paragraphs further in the story: "A woman neighbor summed the incident thusly; 'She aint ole nuf ter u'stand men folks. She'll larn sum day. What she shuld a-dun was ter kick him plenty in the fanny, only she wont.'" Collins observes, "we believe she will do that soon." While he portrays the migrant women in their customary matriarchal roles of canning, housekeeping, and sewing, he also senses a tide of revolution sweeping through them.

A second observation of Collins, appearing in his report for June 13, 1936, recounts a specific example of a woman revolting against the patriarchal system:

Reversing the usual migrant system whereby the man is the master of the house, the bride in this instance rules the roost. She can be heard every evening after the boy's return from work, laying down the law. On one occasion we saw her sitting down giving him orders on proper dish washing and later, instructions regarding sweeping out the tent and doing the family wash. He grunted a lot but went about the task as "ordered."

Collins closes with a terse reflection: "Maybe a new day has dawned for the migrant woman, eh?" If it had, nowhere would it be more evident than in Ma Joad's reversal of the patriarchal role in the family.

In The Grapes of Wrath, Ma Joad rises as the force that unifies and directs the disintegrating family. In order to do so, however, on several occasions she stands up to and eventually displaces Pa from his family role. The first such incident occurs on the road to California, when Ma brandishes a jack handle and orders Pa to keep the family together. Tom Joad has offered to lay over with Al to repair the blown connecting rod on the Wilson car, while the others travel ahead. Ma's rebellion is forthright and undeniable:

And now Ma's mouth set hard. She said softly, "On'y way you gonna get me to go is whup me." She moved the jack handle gently again. "An' I'll shame you, Pa. I won't take no whuppin', cryin' an' a-beggin'. I'll light into you. An' you ain't so sure you can whup me anyways."

Repeatedly, she defies and threatens Pa, and he finds himself bewildered in the face of her assertion of authority. Tom Joad wonders, "Ma, what's eatin' on you? What ya wanna do this-a-way for? What's the matter'th you anyways? You gone johnrabbit on us?" To which Ma replies with the first annunciation of her vision of the primacy of the family: "Ma's face softened, but her eyes were still fierce. 'You done this 'thout thinkin' much,' Ma said. 'What we got lef' in the worl'? Nothin' but us. Nothin' but the folks.'" The effect is undeniable: "The eyes of the whole family shifted back to Ma. She was the power. She had taken control."

Certainly there is steely resolve in this woman's spine. When the family camps along the Colorado River, and Granma lies hallucinating in the unbearable heat of the tent, Ma has her care of Granma interrupted by a pompous law officer who tries to threaten her. Ma stands up to him, brandishing her skillet like a war club. When Ma recounts the scene to Tom, he responds, "'Fust you stan' us off with a jack handle, and now you try to hit a cop.' He laughed softly, and he reached out and patted her bare foot tenderly. 'A ol' hell-cat,' he said." Truly Ma can be "a ol' hell-cat." Once before she lit into a tin peddler with a live chicken, beating the peddler until "they wasn't nothing but a pair a legs in her han." Ma's standing up to Pa Joad, however, is not a fit of pique, nor a momentary explosion of temper; rather, it is a standing up for a vision and a dream of her family.

This struggle for the family becomes clear in the second major episode of Ma's assertion of authority. Having enjoyed the comforts of the Weedpatch Camp for some time, having been solaced in the compassion of its members so that, in Ma's words, "I feel like people again." Ma nonetheless insists that the family move on. The family is disintegrating through lack of challenge and work; its dependency, in her view, breeds a slovenliness of spirit. Ma's order is terse and to the point: "We'll go in the mornin'," Pa remonstrates: "'Seems like times is changed,' he said sarcastically. 'Time was when a man said what we'd do. Seems like women is tellin' now. Seems like it's purty near time to get out a stick.'" But his comments are no more effective against Ma's steely will than they were earlier. When Pa and Uncle John wander off, Tom remains to question Ma: "You jus' a-treadin' him on?" Work, Ma believes, absolves worry. Pa has had too much time to ponder; insufficient opportunity to provide: "Take a man, he can get worried an' worried, an' it eats out his liver, an' purty soon he'll jus' lay down and die with his heart et out. But if you can take an' make 'im mad, why, he'll be awright."

A third time Ma Joad asserts her dominance over the family. After Tom strikes one of the landowners' goons and has to go into hiding, Ma again makes the decision to go. This time Pa readily accedes: "Come on now. Le's get out to her. Kids, you come he'p. Ma's right. We got to go outa here." He capitulates to her authority, but not until his own authority has been hopelessly battered. In fact, the Joad family has no reasonable place to go; all order seems destroyed.

Huddled in a boxcar, afflicted by the deluge of winter rains, Pa reflects: "Funny! Woman takin' over the fambly. Woman sayin' we'll do this here, an' we'll go there. An' I don' even care." Pa himself recognizes the transference of authority, and in response to this recognition Ma delivers her eloquent and compassionate eulogy to the power of the woman: "'Woman can change better'n a man,' Ma said soothingly. 'Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head. Don' you mind. Maybe—well, maybe nex' year we can get a place.'" She adds, "man, he lives in jerks—baby born an' a man dies, an' that's a jerk—gets a farm an' loses his farm, an' that's a jerk. Woman, it's all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that." At this final, bleak scene, a thoroughly defeated Pa, like a bewildered child, seeks the restorative comfort of Ma Joad, whose spirit flows like the river.

That moving description of man and woman by Ma Joad, however, also underlies the displacement of authority in the novel from thinking man to spiritual woman, from a rational life jerked apart to a life led by the heart that bends and flows like the river. To demonstrate this, Steinbeck parallels Ma's rise to authority with Pa's displacement from, and the destruction of, the squatter's circle. In the novel Steinbeck depicts the traditional physical posture for decision-making among the male leaders of the family as squatting on the haunches in a circle. It represents a high formality among the migrant men and functions in the novel as a testament to rational order and male authority.

In his typical pattern of introducing an event or condition in its broadest scope in the intercalary chapters and then focusing upon the microcosmic unit of the Joad family in the narrative chapters, so too Steinbeck introduces the traditional posture of the squatter's circle in Chapter 5, an overview of the dispossession of the migrant families. As the landowner's spokesmen come to evict the tenant farmers, "the tenant men stood beside the cars for a while, and then squatted on their hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust." The farmers band together in the face of adversity, drawing upon each other's strength to plot a course of action. When the owners drive away, the men are left to consider matters on their own. Steinbeck provides the first carefully ordered description of the squatter's circle according to the male hierarchy in the tenant family:

The tenant men squatted down on their hams again to mark the dust with a stick, to figure, to wonder. Their sun-burned faces were dark, and their sun-whipped eyes were light. The women moved cautiously out of the doorways toward their men, and the children crept behind the women, cautiously, ready to run. The bigger boys squatted beside their fathers, because that made them men. After a time the women asked, What did he want?

In this instance, all their pondering and figuring prove ineffective, as the monstrous roar of Joe Davis' son's tractor drones over the land, destroying the homes, despoiling the family's hope. From the start of the novel, the male authority structure is threatened.

While the intercalary chapters introduce the large, universal, macrocosmic scenes, the narrative chapters place the particular instance of the Joads within that pattern. A more detailed rendition of the squatter's circle is delivered in Chapter 10 as the Joad family prepares to leave Oklahoma. Here each male member assumes his hierarchical position in the squatter's circle, the women and children rimmed around its edges:

Pa walked around the truck, looking at it, and then he squatted down in the dust and found a stick to draw with. One foot was flat to the ground, the other rested on the ball and slightly back, so that one knee was higher than the other. Left forearm rested on the lower, left, knee; the right elbow on the right knee, and the right fist cupped for the chin. Pa squatted there, looking at the truck, his chin in his cupped fist. And Uncle John moved towards him and squatted down beside him.

Grampa Joad comes out of the house and, too old to bend physically to the squatter's circle, takes his seat of preeminent authority on the running board of the old truck. That, Steinbeck writes, "was the nucleus," the three male heads of the family. But Tom and Connie and Noah "strolled in and squatted, and the line was a half-circle with Grampa in the opening." After them, Ma, Granma, and the children come: "They took their places behind the squatting men; they stood up and put their hands on their hips." It is a careful order in a careful ritual, this pattern of the dominance of male authority. As the only non-family member, Jim Casy has the good sense to stay off to the side; only after the decision is made to include him on the journey may he come over and squat on the sidelines, a member of the male ruling hierarchy but still an outsider.

The squatter's circle represents several things in The Grapes of Wrath. First, the circle represents the hierarchy of male authority in the family. The men are ranged from the ruling eldest to the youngest or newest members; women and children are excluded from it as bystanders who only await the decisions. Second, it represents order, both a physical order in which the combined strength of the males unifies against the world, and a rational order in which decisions affecting the family may be discussed and decided. Third, it represents a chain of human unity; the members, within the hierarchy of authority, are one body. Within the circle there may be discussion and dissension, but when a decision is made the body is of one mind.

The squatter's circle is an emblem of unity, a physical testament to the preservation of old ways and the freedom to make choices. In his journalistic reports on the migrants, written for the San Francisco News, Steinbeck assessed this unique spirit of the migrants: "They are men who have worked hard on their own farms and have felt the pride of possessing and living in close touch with the land. They are resourceful and intelligent Americans who have gone through the hell of the drought, have seen their lands wither and die and the top soil blow away; and this, to a man who has owned his land, is a curious and terrible pain." Despite their travail and oppression, Steinbeck asserts that "they have weathered the thing, and they can weather much more for their blood is strong." Elsewhere in his journalistic entries, Steinbeck discourses on the most devastating blow to the migrants: the loss of dignity. The disruption of the squatter's circle in The Grapes of Wrath is also a dissolving of the fragile fabric of human dignity; as the circle breaks down, so too do the independence, freedom, and dignity of the migrants.

All levels of significance for the squatter's circle are severely tested in the drama of the story. The dissolution of the Joad family's squatter's circle lies in direct correlation to Ma Joad's assumption of authority. When the Wilson car breaks down and Tom proposes his idea of laying over to repair it while the others go ahead, Pa and Uncle John automatically drop to their hams in a makeshift squatter's circle to discuss it. This time, however, Ma Joad makes her defiant gesture of threatening Pa with the jack handle, thereby disrupting the circle.

The raw conditions of the long journey and the rough introduction to California also serve to break up the circle. At the first California camp, Tom and Al help Floyd repair his car. About them men are squatting in small circles, driven to the solace of the unit as they try to figure out the woeful working conditions. When a man drives up to contract workers, all the squatting groups move up and gather around him. The squatter's circles disrupt under the authority of the landowner, but the men also coalesce as a larger unit than that of the family. Floyd tries to galvanize the separate units of men into one unit, encouraging them to stand with one circle against the contractor.

In the larger artistic pattern of the novel, Steinbeck has anticipated this scene in intercalary Chapter 14, Here, too, men squat around, lamenting their common loss, trying to determine what action to take. The scene parallels the action of the California camp:

And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here "I lost my land" is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting brews the thing you hate—"We lost our land." The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one.

In the California camp, Floyd's voice is the echo of this. And indeed this is the thing the landowners hate. They fight back with the indictment "he's talkin' red, agitating trouble." Under this banner they are free to disperse any group of men, disrupt any unit, abort any zygote. In the California camp, the collection of men remains simply that: a collection. No cohesive unity cements their spirits together. The disruption in the Joad family is poignantly encapsulated in one sharp portrait where Ma fries potatoes over a hissing fire and "Pa sat nearby hugging his knees," almost as if Pa, in a degraded stance of the squatter's posture, clings futilely to a position now much diminished.

Just as the later stay at the Weedpatch Camp is restorative to the Joad family spirit, so too it restores the dignity of the menfolk, particularly when they do unify here against the threat of outside aggression. Not surprisingly, the squatter's circles appear frequently in the narration as old routines are restored for a time. Yet, none of the men can escape the reality of joblessness. As if to turn their shoulders in protection against the fear, the men huddle frequently in the squatter's circle. At one point, the men squat by the porch of the manager's office. Pa opens the speculation on work, and the frightening reality of no work to be had. The mood of the circle changes; these men are restive, nervous. The strength of the circle has dissipated. Steinbeck repeats a grim refrain: "The squatting men moved nervously"; "The circle of men shifted their feet nervously." The squatter's circle is no longer a hierarchical arrangement of authority, vision, and, unity; it is a nervous assembly of men huddling in fear.

On the evening of the Joads' departure, the men fall back into the routine of the circle: "The evening dark came down and Pa and Uncle John squatted with the heads of families out by the office. They studied the night and the future." The future they see is grim indeed: the squatter's circle is a communion in despair. Only Ma's steely will drives them on. She makes the decisions. She instills order. She possesses the hope for the future. The family moves once again.

As the cold rains inundate the California valley, Pa and a body of men, unnamed and disorganized now that the family order has been ruptured, band together in a battle against the floods. The people's spiritual enervation and the depletion of male authority have already been established in intercalary Chapter 29. There Steinbeck establishes an overview of the dismal rains scouring California's valleys and depicts the men, weak and dejected, before the onslaught: "On the fields the water stood, reflecting the gray sky, and the land whispered with moving water. And the men came out of the barns, out of the sheds. They squatted on their hams and looked out over the flooded land. And they were silent. And sometimes they talked very quietly." The silence of the men is profound; here there is no purpose, no decision to be made, no work to go to. Only the vast desolation of the rain speaks.

This overview focuses in Chapter 30 upon Pa and a ragged band of migrants in their individual battle against the flood. That final warfare of male strength is paralleled neatly by the turbulent events of Rose of Sharon's birth and ultimately paves the way for her ascendancy to a position of authority as she changes from a naive, egocentric young girl to one who mysteriously rises to share Ma Joad's vision of the family of man. That ascendancy happens only with the thorough dissolution of Pa's preeminence in the squatter's circle.

After slogging in the mud all night, bending his physical strength with a rag-tag band of warriors against the onslaught of the flood, Pa staggers into the boxcar where Rose of Sharon has just given birth. In one explosive passage, Steinbeck clenches the transference of authority: "Pa walked slowly to Rose of Sharon's matters. He tried to squat down, but his legs were too tired. He knelt instead." Pa tries, terribly hard, to adopt the squatter's pose, his old position of authority and order, before Ma and Rose of Sharon, but he cannot. Weariness staggers him and he falls to his knees before them. From a position of authority he falls to a position of abnegation and supplication. He bends now before the authority of Ma. And Ma offers him the solace of her compassion: "Ma looked at him strangely. Her white lips smiled in a dreaming compassion. 'Don't take no blame. Hush! It'll be awright. They's changes—all over.'"

That transference also signals the victorious thematic closure to the novel, for Ma once more goads the family to action. She directs, gives orders. When the battered family enters the barn, Ma commands the men to get out. But there is no commanding of Rose of Sharon; there is only the mystical passing of authority based upon human giving, the needy giving all they have to the needy. Ma and Rose of Sharon look deeply into each other, and Rose of Sharon murmurs, "Yes." It is more than assent to Ma's will and authority. She ascends to this new order, not of protecting the one family, as in the male-ordered squatter's circle, but of giving to others in the "fambly of man."

Rose of Sharon does not squat. Hers is not the posture of authority and order as in the squatter's circle. Bearing one of the names of Jesus from the Canticles (2:1), she enacts the Christ-like posture of laying down her life for another. The Rose of Sharon of the Canticles is described as having "breasts … like clusters of the vine," and here she gives the new wine, not the grapes of wrath, but the wine of human compassion and nurture to the starved father next to her. Once, perhaps, he too held his place of authority in the squatter's circle. And just as Pa Joad kneels before Ma's benediction of compassion, this man too is nurtured by the one who bends down beside him.

The pattern of displacement in The Grapes of Wrath is from the male-dominated squatter's circle of hierarchical authority to Ma Joad's vision of caring for the "fambly of man" and Rose of Sharon's physical enactment of it. That pattern also undergirds the thematic heart of the novel. In his reports for the San Francisco News, Steinbeck observed that "a man herded about, surrounded by armed guards, starved and forced to live in filth loses his dignity; that is, he loses his valid position in regard to society, and consequently his whole ethics toward society." In The Grapes of Wrath, the migrant male does indeed lose his position, but not his ethics, for those ethics are nurtured by the ascension to authority of Ma Joad and her ethical vision of the family of man.

David Cassuto (essay date Winter 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7598

SOURCE: "Turning Wine into Water: Water as Privileged Signifier in The Grapes of Wrath," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 67-95.

[In the following essay, Cassuto examines the symbolic and socioeconomic significance of water as a scarce resource and commodity in The Grapes of Wrath, particularly in relation to the history of agriculture in the American West.]

Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free.

—Henry David Thoreau

The Old Testament describes wilderness as "a thirsty ground where there was no water." When the Lord wished to punish, He threatened to "turn the rivers into islands and dry up the pools and … command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it." When granting redemption in Isaiah, God promises instead that "waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert" and that "the desert and dry land shall be glad" (Deut 8:7, 15; Isaiah 5:6, 35:1, 6, 43:20). The Garden of Eden provided the antithesis of desert wilderness, a place where water flowed freely and bounty of all sorts lay ready to spring out of the ground. This is the legacy which spawned what Henry Nash Smith termed the "myth of the garden" in the American West. At the dawn of the common era, John offered Jesus his baptism in the River Jordan. Two millennia later, Casy baptized Tom Joad in an irrigation ditch.

I will argue that The Grapes of Wrath represents an indictment of the American myth of the garden and its accompanying myth of the frontier. The lever with which Steinbeck pries apart and ultimately dismantles these fictions is a critique of the agricultural practices that created the Dust Bowl and then metamorphosed into a new set of norms which continued to victimize both the land and its inhabitants. Both nineteenth-century homesteading (based on the Homestead Act of 1862) and agribusiness, its twentieth century descendant (born from the failure of the Homestead Act), relied on the (mis)use of water to accomplish their respective goals. And both policies resulted in ecological disaster.

The Plains were called upon to supply grain for the international war effort in 1914 and to feed a hungry nation whose population continued to multiply exponentially. Throughout the nation, industrialization held sway as the isolationism of the nineteenth century gave way to the globalism of the twentieth. These transitions required great expenditures of resources and, in the grain belt, the resource most in demand was water. As farmers poured their short-term profits back into land and seed, their fates became ever more dependent on the availability of water. When the climatic pendulum swung back toward aridity, Plains farmers had to declare hydrological bankruptcy, though neither they nor the federal government would abandon the myth of the garden. As the government scrambled to dam rivers and force water into the desert, farmers clung fast to their vision of uncountable abundance amidst a green world.

Water was a commodity, symbol of wealth and expanding capabilities. Admitting its unattainability involved acknowledging the limited productive capabilities of the land. Such an admission also meant conceding the limitations of the nation and its people, a prospect that remained anathema to a culture steeped in the dominant myths. Myra Jehlen notes that "the conviction that farming brought reason and nature together (since man and nature had the same reasons) inspired cultivation … but made it particularly difficult, in fact, contradictory to contemplate basic changes in agrarian policy." Instead of abandoning the American Dream, the dream itself underwent an ideological shift. The myth of the garden remained intact but its form evolved from an Edenic Xanadu to a neo-Baconian Atlantis which no longer awaited manna from heaven but wrested it instead from the grips of Nature.

Water's primacy as both commodity and signifier in the Southwest arose through a combination of its scarcity and utility. Its privileged place in the biotic schema predates its commodification by the state and corporate apparatus, but the two forces are by now inseparable in the history and mythology of the American West. The social and environmental conditions in the Southwest made water an ideal unit of exchange and this led to its concurrent fetishization. As Gregory Jay characterizes commodity fetishism, "Capitalism structures symbolic exchange so as to elicit desire, manipulate its character, and teach it to find sublimity in prescribed objects." Since water is necessary to a number of human biological functions, in an arid region a dominant state apparatus would need to expend relatively little effort to transform water into a commodity whose scarcity would privilege it as well as its controllers. Once established as a commodity, any item of exchange value acquires symbolic value, connoting power and wealth and thereby enhancing the prestige of its possessor. In this sense, water becomes not just a measure of economic value, but a culturally powerful symbol as well.

The class stratification depicted in The Grapes of Wrath arose from corporate control over the region's most precious resource. However, the region's aridity made water an absent signifier. Both in the novel and in the desert itself, water's conspicuous absence is what makes it so powerful. The flooding that climaxes the novel is thematically situated to provide maximum counterpoint to the drought which originally forced the Joads to migrate west. Disenfranchised and dehumanized, the Joads can only curse the rising floodwaters even as they once prayed for a deluge to feed their parched crops. The cycle of alienation appears complete; people whose humanity was once integrally tied to the land and the weather now care nothing for the growing season or the health of the earth. Their survival has come to depend on shelter from the elements rather than the elements themselves. They have become components of the factory-farming process, economically distant from their bourgeois oppressors but closely tied to the industrial ethos which rewards the subjugation of nature. The primary difference between the growers and the migrants now lies in their respective relationships with the privileged signifier. The growers—owners of the irrigation channels, centrifugal pumps, and watertight mansions, control it—while the Okies, starving and drenched, are at its mercy.

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck presents an archetypal Plains family caught in the modernization of the American dream. Forced to adapt to the realities of a closed frontier and a desert in the country's midsection, Americans retrofit their dominant myths to encompass corporate capitalism and, in so doing, accepted water's scarcity and preeminence as commodity in the western region. This shift in ideology completed the antiquation of the Joads' way of life. Ecological realities had long ago proven their lifestyle quixotic, but it took the formidable alliance of the Dust Bowl and corporate agribusiness to dislodge the Okies from their land and homes. Later in his life, Steinbeck returned to criticize the America-as-Eden myth by writing East of Eden, a novel whose very title suggests alienation from paradise. It is in The Grapes of Wrath, however, that he is most concerned with the hydrological causes for that estrangement.

Steinbeck acknowledges water's primacy in the West by documenting the social ramifications of the ideology which permits its monopolization and waste. At the same time, his abiding affection for the yeoman agricultural ideal forms a strong undercurrent throughout the novel. Donald Worster feels that this nostalgia comes at the expense of a coherent critique of the water-based oligarchy primarily responsible for the ecological demise of the Southwest and its accompanying human suffering. While Worster's criticism has substantial merit, it fails to address the symbolic power attached to water that pervades the novel. From the drought in Oklahoma to Noah's refusal to leave the river in Arizona to the raging floodwaters that climax the text, Steinbeck weaves water into the novel's structure as well as virtually every thematically significant event.

This tendency to privilege water, either by absence or surfeit, appears frequently in the Steinbeck canon. For example, Of Mice and Men opens and closes on the banks of a river; The Log From the Sea of Cortez, with its fascination with tide pools, offers the clearest presentation of Steinbeck's eco-philosophy; and The Wayward Bus, like The Grapes of Wrath, utilizes floodwaters in the desert to spur its characters to action and the acquisition of wisdom. That in The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck chose to stress his affection for the yeoman tradition rather than explicitly condemn modern hydraulic society does not detract from the book's acknowledged success in subverting that same hydraulic apparatus. The reactions of the state and federal governments to the book's publication as well as that of the oligarchy-controlled media clearly demonstrate the novel's effectiveness. Vehement condemnations of the book and its author followed shortly after its publication in 1939 and continued for years afterward. That the most vociferous denunciations came from the water-barons and their political allies demonstrates that, contrary to Worster's contention, Steinbeck did indeed understand the politics of water-use and that his novel attacked it successfully.


Water's dominance in the cultural and agricultural hierarchy of the arid region is neither new nor surprising. Not just in the Hebrew Bible but throughout history, the habitability of any region has traditionally been determined by the availability and accessibility of its water. The Spanish explorers who first traversed the Southwest deemed it an inhospitable wasteland, unfit for human settlement except by those savages already content to scrape an existence from the unforgiving rock. American trailblazers including Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike held little hope that the arid region could sustain American settlements. Such criticism, however, quickly disappeared in the storm of patriotism that surged through the new United States. Parallel visions of world dominance and transcendental bonding with nature created a unique blend of ideologies which sought to simultaneously sustain an extractive economy and an unspoiled, untrammeled frontier. Not till near the turn of the twentieth century did the inexorable collision of these visions loom close enough to draw the notice of the nation's policymakers. The resulting tension between ecosystemic requirements and the modes of production caused a "transformation in consciousness and legitimating worldviews," a phenomenon Carolyn Merchant has termed an "ecological revolution."

Settling a "virgin land" offered Americans the chance to reincarnate themselves in a world whose history had no relevance to their inherited Eurocentric worldviews. This rugged new continent, rather than representing a continuation of European cultural hegemony, offered a singular destiny for those brave enough to seize it. Without an acknowledged history, America offered a new beginning wherein land and settler could merge into a single corporate entity and recover, through diligence, husbandry, and mettle, the lost paradise of Eden. Myra Jehlen argues that this vision reified the American tendency to merge selfhood into a collective national ideal while preserving a uniqueness defined by one's own relationship to the land:

The American incarnation fused continent and civilization, nation and citizen, man and nature to constitute a universe where oppositions amounted to different versions each of which was the other's cathartic, so that their difference was itself transmuted into "necessary" means to the emergence of the single and unchanging truth.

For nineteenth-century settlers in the Southwest, that truth lay in the juxtaposition of aridity with the Jeffersonian yeoman ideal. The synthesis of these two poles created the "truth" of the yeoman Plains farmer.

American history shows that people traditionally migrated to the Plains during periods of high rainfall. When the rains subsided to typical levels, people retreated or pressed on. But by the 1920s, the frontier was closed and Americans had bought solidly into the notion that technology and God would see to it that the Great Plains became the agricultural capital of the world. Unable to accept that meeting the grain demands of a global market economy in a region where annual rainfall fluctuated between seven and twenty inches made little ecological sense, Dust Bowl residents lashed out at the weather, believing it caused their woes. There was not enough water, they complained; the weather had failed them. Such an argument is analogous to blaming the mint for not making people enough money. I do not mean to belittle the very real human tragedy of the Dust Bowl nor to deny the nobility of many of those who suffered through it. Nevertheless, the Dust Bowl's ecosystemic catastrophe was both avoidable and remediable except that neither option was palatable to the region's residents. Worster describes the typical Plains farmer's position as follows:

… [F]ail to anticipate drought, underestimate its duration when it comes, expect rain momentarily, deny that they are as hard hit as outsiders believe … admit that some help would be useful, demand that the government act and act quickly … without strings … pooh-pooh the need for major reform … eagerly await the return of "normalcy" … But whenever the New Deal tried to become new and innovative, plainsmen turned hostile. The fate of the plains lay in the hands of Providence, and Providence, not Washington, would see them come out all right.

It is precisely this sort of stubborn adherence to traditional values while implementing ecologically pernicious agricultural methods which brought on the "dirty thirties."

The Joads' saga offers a fictional version of the consequences of this myth of the garden and the accompanying myth of the American Frontier. Both were driven by a perceived superabundance of resources, a national fantasy that prodded the Joads towards Oklahoma and then later to California. Belief in an infinite national trust fueled the American dream of individual wealth and world dominance amidst a rugged land which would never cease testing all those attempting to wrest an existence from it. West of the 99th meridian, water's scarcity threatened to undermine this popular vision of America as a limitless Edenic paradise. Rather than permit a subversion of the prevailing value system, Americans bought heavily into a myth of hydro-abundance promulgated by Western ideologues such as William Gilpin. Gilpin and his followers' insistence that "rain follows the plow" and boasts that the West contained infinite supplies of minerals and timber convinced people like Grampa and Gramma Joad to move west, settle in the arid region, and take up the yeoman agricultural ideal first written into American mythology by Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, however, lived in Virginia. His philosophy stemmed from his unquestioned intimacy with farming practices in the humid region, yet he was profoundly ignorant of agricultural techniques west of the Mississippi. A century later, John Wesley Powell labored for close to thirty years to bring American western land use policies closer to terrestrial and hydrological realities. Only after Powell's death in 1902 did the regional and federal governments begin acknowledging that agricultural practices in the arid lands required severe retooling. By then, however, powerful corporate interests already dominated the region's economy. The conflict between misguided government policies, yeoman land-use ideals, and geographical realities had expanded to include the profit-centered machinations of agribusiness concerns.

Early in the novel, Steinbeck establishes the fundamental conflict between the yeoman farmer and the land and then diagrams the imperialist maneuverings of corporate agribusiness:

Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow a little money. An' we was born here

… our children born here. And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then…. Sure cried the tenant men, but it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were even born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours…. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.

The above passage reveals several of the guiding principles governing life in the Plains. First, the term "bad year" refers to inadequate rainfall and an accompanying water shortage, a cyclical reality of Plains life that formed one of the bases for the collapse of the yeoman lifestyle. Second, right of ownership was established through displacing the native peoples. That act in and of itself constituted (in the farmer's eyes) a right of title. Last, birthing and dying on the land created a blood-right of succession that no financial transaction could negate. And most importantly, working the land formed the litmus test of possession. The quotation reveals the teller's sadness that the laws of the country conflict with the laws of the land. The agrarian ideology held that only those who work and love the land can truly own it:

If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it's part of him and it's like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn't doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him…. Even if he isn't successful he's big with his property.

Such feelings descend directly from the dual myths of the frontier and the garden. The frontier myth posited that land in the West was uninhabited by anybody with legal rights and that the strength of the nation lay in its boundless and unsettled western frontier. The myth of the garden held that the land would yield bountiful harvests to any American willing to work it. Rain would fall in direct proportion to the farmer's needs. Any failure in these natural laws was necessarily transitory and had no lasting relevance. This supposed law of nature was disproven by the Okies' experiences in both Oklahoma and California. After a prolonged drought revealed the unsustainability of their farming methods and drove them from their homes, the wet/dry cycle in California nearly caused their demise.

Not only did meteorological laws conflict with the yeoman belief system, the Okies also found their way of life colliding with the policies of a nation committed to corporate capitalism. Empiricism and a bottom line mentality created rigid parameters for the decision-making process. While for agrarians land constituted a part of themselves and their culture—something for which the term "market value" lacked a referent—banks and corporations translated it into assets on a balance sheet. Where the Joads spoke of "bad years," account managers acknowledged the reality of sparse rainfall and a semi-arid climate. Historical climatic patterns decreed that "bad years" for rainfall were the norm for the Plains, a fact which made tenant farmers a poor investment. For banks, it became a matter of short-term profit at any cost. Years of drought and over-reliance on nutrient-draining cash crops had left the land ecologically devastated. Those keeping accounts looked to squeeze out every vestige of production before abandoning it for more lucrative investments:

But you'll kill the land with cotton.

We know. We've got to take cotton quick before the land dies. Then we'll sell the land. Lots of families in the East would like to own a piece of land.

The sight of faceless corporate "monsters" intentionally destroying the land's fertility moved the tenants to violence. Yet the Joads and their neighbors had often planted cotton and were at present sharecropping frenziedly in order to build up a stake to take west: "The whole bunch of us chopped cotton, even Grampa." The differences between the Okies and the banks lay more in scale and philosophy than methodology and eventual result. Both sides participated in the capitalist mechanism, but the banks had better adapted to thrive within it.

Mining the land of nutrients and leaving it for dead demonstrates a new, production-oriented allegiance to the frontier myth. Treating the nation's breadbasket as an expendable resource necessarily assumes an infinite resource reservoir from which to replace it. Short-term profiteering, by its very nature, posits that the future will take care of itself. Such a position depends on a telos of inexhaustible plenty, a concept central to the frontier and garden myths. This pattern of behavior again shows that the onset of the Industrial Age and accompanying supremacy of corporate capitalism did not eradicate the dominant myths, but simply adapted them to twentieth century exigencies. Richard Slotkin offers an intriguing explanation for this transition. He argues that the systems of myth and ideology that developed in this country depended on a positive association with physical migration which revolved around two geographical poles: the "Metropolis" and the "Frontier." The Metropolis must have a negative association or no one would want to leave, while the Frontier need offer riches enough to satisfy all of our dreams. Emigrants suffer in the wilderness while temporarily regressing to a more primitive state. The results, though, more than compensate for the ephemeral loss of civilization's comforts:

The completed American was therefore one who remade his fortune and his character by an emigration, a setting forth for newer and richer lands; by isolation and regression to a more primitive manner of life; and by establishing his political position.

This discussion offers striking parallels to the Joads' saga. Slotkin's analysis takes the city or the "Metropolis" as the emigrant's point of departure, but we can substitute the Dust Bowl region without interfering with the argument. Since the trappings of the Industrial revolution came late to the Plains, the region lacked the large, mechanized urban areas that pose such an effective antipode to the wilderness frontier. Instead, mechanization and factory farming—both consequences of industrialization—provided the major impetus that drove families like the Joads from their homes. In the Dust Bowl, wage-slavery and the specter of starvation resulting from technological and economic displacement offered the negative contrast to the frontier. Not present was the traditional coupling of those factors with the dense population centers that characterized urban industry. The Okies' choices, in Steinbeck's view, were either to drive a tractor through their neighbors' homes while raping the land with machinery and cash crops, or to leave.

When the Joads first emigrated to the Sallisaw, they endured isolation and primitive conditions while homesteading their land and seeking to fulfill their yeoman ideals. Aridity and untenable agricultural practices caused the dream's collapse, forcing thousands of people like Steinbeck's Joads to again move west. This time they settled in California, the geographical border of the once limitless frontier, now a privatized corporate fiefdom. Once more the Okies suffered primitive, dehumanizing conditions while attempting to exercise their supposedly inalienable human rights. The growers' cartel, however, had disenfranchised them even before they arrived, forcing them, into a nomadic existence designed to destroy the homesteading instinct so central to the Frontier Myth.

Despite uncountable acres lying fallow, no land was available for the Okies, a reality Steinbeck often demonstrates. Their dreams of subsistence farming were fundamentally incompatible with the market economy that allowed a select few to grow vastly wealthy on the toil of disenfranchised adherents to the old American Dream. What ultimately kills Casy and exiles Tom is—just as in Slotkin's paradigm—an urgent desire to participate in the political process. They do not succeed, for the moment, because the growers' control over water rights allows them complete dominion over the local government and media. I will discuss this phenomenon at greater length later in the essay. Its relevance here stems from water's role in the third major cause for the Okies' westward migration: inadequate irrigation and a perceived drought.


Steinbeck's humanistic bent impelled him to focus on the human side of the agricultural morass that drove the Okies west. However, the underlying motivation for both the Okies' behavior and that of the agribusiness concerns can ultimately be analyzed in hydrological terms. Rainfall in the Southwest in the 1930s fell well within historical norms; cycles of drought are more common than periods of heavy rain. Drought did not cause the Dust Bowl; a more accurate description of the region's troubles should instead focus on the Depression and local agricultural mismanagement. The Depression, though, did not seriously affect the Great Plains until the onset of the Dust Bowl. If local farmers had been able to continue planting and harvesting cash crops at the rate they had in the 1920s, the plains might have escaped the worst of the Depression. Unfortunately, by the end of the decade, they had borrowed heavily and expanded their acreage to maximize annual yields. When the crops failed and the "black blizzards" came, the national plague of poverty and joblessness infected the Plains states as well.

By the 1930s, Plains farmers had plowed under virtually all the region's grasslands. Without sod and other vegetation to hold the topsoil in place, the land became extremely vulnerable to ecological disturbance. When the drought hit, the land had no natural defenses with which to keep its topsoil intact. The resulting dust storms stripped the land bare. Yet, if the region had retained its indigenous vegetation, the drought would have had little long-term effect on the land. Profit-oriented agriculture and ecological ignorance turned a cyclical shortfall of water into a disaster.

High-yield monoculture is a dubious ecological proposition even in humid regions, but in the Southwest such methods become disastrous. When Grampa Joad cleared the land and put it to plow, he hoped to fulfill the traditional yeoman ideal. Barring precipitation shortfalls, the average homestead proved more than adequate for subsistence farming. The region could not, however, sustain the rigors of a capitalist-based agriculture, a task which the metamorphosis of the American Dream soon demanded. Steinbeck condemns what he sees as a dissolution of the values so cherished by the people who settled the region: connectedness to the land coupled with love and gratitude for its sustaining them. Such reverence became obsolete with the ascension of factory farming.

The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died….

Steinbeck mourned this change in values but could offer no viable solutions. Even as they cursed the technology that drove them west, the Okies traveled in cars bought through the trade of their mules and watched with sadness as tractors did their work in a fraction of the time. The yeoman farmer was an anachronism; the American ideal had to be modified to meet the evolving needs of society.

The Okies formed the pivot point for the western land's transition from earth mother to degraded resource. As the yeoman ideal gave way to the wages of capitalism, the Okies adapted their methods to meet the parameters of a market-based economy. Even as they clung tenaciously to their pre-industrial, terrestrial reverence, they grudgingly accepted the new dominance of the capitalist shift. Muley Graves, unable to relinquish his ties to the land, cannot go with his family when they move west. Rooted to the place where he was born, Muley rages against the dual inequity of bad land and evil bankers:

'Cause what'd they take when they tractored the folks off the lan'? What'd they get so their margin a profit was safe?… God knows the lan' ain't no good. Nobody been able to make a crop for years. But them sons-a-bitches at their desks, they just chopped folks in two…. Place where folks live is them folks. They ain't whole, out lonely on the road in a piled-up car. Them sons-a-bitches killed them.

For Muley, the link with the land still stained with his father's blood is stronger than his ties to wife and family. He cannot leave even as he acknowledges that he is a living anachronism ("You fellas think I'm touched?"). Sadly, Muley's protestations held little weight with a population caught up in the quasi-divine status allowed them by technological advance. It did not matter if the land was poor because human ingenuity could and would transform it. No longer need the land yield forth its bounty, it will instead be mined and harvested. Modern agriculture provided the means to merge Henry Adams' classic juxtaposition of the dynamo and the virgin. Through this synthesis, the earth ceased to be a virgin and became a wife. Similar phenomena occur often both in the American landscape and literary corpus. The masculine, aggressive machine assaults and reshapes the idyllic, feminine landscape.

As farmers were forced more and more to mistreat their holdings, they degraded it further to sexual plaything and chattel. This ideological evolution progressed naturally from the dominant myths. As industrialism began to dominate the West, the accompanying mindset fit a unique niche in the American dream of rugged individualism and merit-based achievement.

Bacon, anticipating the Industrial Revolution, advocated reclaiming Eden through industry and science; a century later, Americans embraced the challenge as their destiny. Westerners could reclaim the garden but it involved literally "reclaiming" their place in paradise through diligence and industry. Men would finish what Nature had begun. Eden, ideologues hastened to point out, was after all an irrigated garden. Adam fell; Americans will stand tall. The Reclamation Act of 1902 established the Bureau of Reclamation, intending to fulfill Powell's credo of "rescuing" and "redeeming" the land from its arid state. The true meaning of the word "reclamation" lost all significance in the technological assault on the region's hydrology. The verb "to reclaim" infers prior ownership; the people seeking to irrigate the desert could make no such claim. Nevertheless, whatever needed to be done would be done to get water to the land and restore it to its imagined, bountiful state. Any water that ran into the sea without serving some agricultural purpose was "wasted," a Providential oversight correctable through human diligence.

Denying the hydrological realities of the Southwest while modernizing the dominant mythology permitted Westerners to reject the implication that all is not within the grasp of any perspicacious American. Henry Luce's Time magazine trumpeted the rediscovered limitlessness that irrigation technology brought to the frontier: "Irrigation experts are now convinced that the rapidly growing U.S. can expand indefinitely within its present boundaries." This quotation is pregnant with the contradictions inherent to the American and specifically western dream of infinite abundance. The notion of indefinite expansion within acknowledged boundaries is fundamentally self-contradictory. Attributing this ability to accomplish the impossible to the calculations of irrigation experts beautifully underscores the incongruities within western water policy. Western land barons relied on irrigation to accomplish the impossible and ignored or destroyed anyone or anything that interfered with their pursuit of that grail. The Joads and their contemporaries were ill-equipped for the ramifications of the growers' zeal. They clung fast to traditional yeoman values even while participating in the market economy. Caught between two worlds, they could not linger in Oklahoma and set out instead for the land where corporate growers had re manufactured the traditional Myth of the Garden to entice exodusters westward.

As they traversed the migrant highway, the Joads met many who, like themselves, had readily believed the leaflets spread by agents of the California growers.

"Why, I seen han'bills how they need folks to pick fruit, an' good wages, Why, jus' think how it's gonna be, under them shady trees a-pickin' fruit an' takin' a bite ever' once in a while…. An' with them good wages, maybe a fella can get hisself a piece a land an' work out for extra cash. Why, hell, in a couple a years I bet a fella could have a place of his own."

That the Great Plains could no longer sustain the yeoman ideal did not necessarily spell the death of the American dream for a dispossessed people, barely literate and ready to jump at any hope of salvation. The California growers cartel, already enmeshed in a cycle of wage-slavery, remained convinced that additional workers could only lengthen their profit margins. They recruited Dust Bowl refugees with promises of a vast, temperate paradise wherein they might recreate the homesteads they had been forced to leave. This new myth of the garden presented an even more seductive exterior than the Plains by adapting the Jeffersonian ideal to a region where husbandry was allegedly secondary to the munificence of Nature. Grampa, before becoming overwhelmed by his attachment to the land he cleared and raised his family on, fantasized about bathing in a washtub full of grapes where he would "scrooge aroun' an' let the juice run down my pants." But this vision of unchecked abundance was less a cultural phenomenon than a calculated product of the growers' propaganda mills. The agribusiness consortia dangled visions of their own wealth and massive land-holdings before the Okies in order to fuel their (the cartel's) hegemony. And the irony of that vision, as Steinbeck depicts it, is that the growers were as alienated from their land-wealth as they forced the Okies to be:

And it came about that the owners no longer worked their farms … they forgot the land, the smell and the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it…. And the owners not only did not work the farms any more, many of them had never seen the farms they owned.

The California growers had become immensely wealthy and powerful as the result of an uneasy but mutually profitable alliance with the Bureau of Reclamation. Having already incarnated themselves in the image of the new garden which depended heavily on the tools of the technocracy to subdue the land, they looked to consolidate their holdings by enacting the Social Darwinism which fueled their telos of industry. They had managed to consolidate the dual definitions of "garden" into one highly profitable vision of production and wealth. No longer could "garden" signify either a region of natural, providential splendor or an area of human-created agrarian abundance; the Edenic garden propounded by Gilpin and his nineteenth-century allies was completely replaced by its opposing Baconian definition of a human-engineered paradise achieved through work and intellect. Humans—specifically men—had invented the tools necessary to subjugate nature. Those tools had brought water to the desert via centrifugal pumping and, more importantly, through the diversion of rivers.

By shaping the perceived objectivity of science to fit the needs of western agriculture, an elite group's control over the dissemination of knowledge led to dominion over the region's geography. Literally overnight, worthless land became incredibly valuable through shady, often illicit dealings that brought subsidized water to the region. The men whose schemes created this technological garden stood to profit most from its enactment and it was they who formed the powerful growers' cartel that enslaved the migrants. Those who controlled the water controlled the entire regional economy, and that domination bled into every other facet of life.

Californian agribusiness's command over nature required large temporary workforces while the capitalist regime necessitated that this transient labor force be paid very little. The growers had traditionally indentured immigrants and other disenfranchised groups since little public outcry arose from their mistreatment. However, the arrival of the Okies, a large, skilled, English-speaking labor force whose migrant status left them bereft of any governmental protection, appeared to be a tremendous windfall to the growers cartel. In the novel, however, the latent power of the oppressed becomes the looming threat to the water-based oligarchy. The Okies come to embody Marx's concept of alienated labor. Their corporate oppressors force them to work ever harder and faster in order to eke out a subsistence, yet each hour worked and each piece of fruit harvested bring them that much closer to unemployment and starvation. They must further compete against each other by underbidding fellow workers in a futile attempt to participate in an exclusionary economic system. Conversely, growers must dehumanize the workers, degrading them as they do the land so that their acts of subjugation can be perpetrated on objects beneath contempt. In In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck treats the worker/grower relationship as a matter strictly related to class struggle. In The Grapes of Wrath, he elevates it to the realm of epistemology, viewing the schism between workers and land barons as symptomatic of the larger issue of human alienation from the earth and as a catalyst for the synthesis of humans and their surroundings into the all-encompassing organismic one.

Three hundred thousand, hungry and miserable; if ever they know themselves, the land will be theirs…. And the great owners, who had become through their holdings both more and less than men, ran to their destruction, and used every means that in the long run would destroy them.

The cycle of poverty imposed on the Okies contained a seasonal period of starvation during the rainy season. Water again, this time through super-abundance, became the immediate threat to the Okies' survival. When Rosasharn goes into labor, the men outside labor frantically to erect a dam to keep the boxcar shelters dry. Water, priceless commodity and building block of life, endangers the birthing process and threatens to starve an entire class of people. Both attempts—the birth and the dam—are unsuccessful. As the floodwaters force the Joads to flee, Uncle John is assigned the task of burying the stillborn child. Rather than do so, he coopts the water, using it and the dead child to spread his message of despair and defiance:

Go down an' tell 'em. Go down in the street an' rot an' tell em that way, That's the way you can talk…. Go on down now an' lay in the street. Maybe they'll know then.

Driven from Oklahoma where widespread refusal to acknowledge water's scarcity resulted in an unsustainable way of life, the Okies found themselves in a new region with an already intact and sophisticated capitalist infrastructure with water at its plinth. As a disenfranchised and powerless class, the migrants had no opportunity to gain control over water rights and consequently could not participate in the dominant discourse. John's act represented an ephemeral yet powerful appropriation of the preeminent unit of capital. Using water to convey a message of worker defiance strikes at the heart of the power structure: if the Okies were to gain actual control over the region's water, the growers' cartel would collapse and the legions of migrants could seize power and redistribute the land according to need and fairness.

The dual hopes for the migrants, according to Steinbeck, are class alliance and worker control over the tools of domination. When Tom takes over the task of organizing the Okies from the martyred Casy, the class struggle takes a symbolic step forward. When Uncle John seizes control over the water that enslaves his people and threatened their lives, he takes another major step towards toppling the ruling class. Shortly after Uncle John's act of defiance, Rosasharn's gift of her maternal milk to another starving Okie demonstrates that both Tom's and John's acts will eventually bear fruit. Sheltered from the water by a barn, itself a potent symbol of the yeoman agricultural ideal, Rosasharn's offering her breast to a fellow migrant demonstrates the class cohesion that will ultimately topple the ruling class. While her stillborn infant rots in the town below, Rosasharn breast-feeds an old man whose advanced state of starvation has caused him to regress to a pre-lingual state. Her act and the old man's condition represent the succoring of the infant movement toward social change. Each act, while primarily symbolic, is also genuinely subversive. In these small acts of defiance and hope, suggests Steinbeck, lie the restoration of traditional ties between people and between people and the land. So, despite their socialization into a culture in which water is both hoarded and feared, the Okies have not completely acquiesced to their role in the factory-farm mechanism. They retain their dreams of an idyllic land where the family farm reigns supreme and water and land are distributed according to need and connectedness to the land rather than amassed corporate capital and political dominance.

In the final analysis, however, the migrant dream of resurgent family farms reclaiming their place as the preeminent agricultural ideal cannot work in the arid lands. Water reclamation projects, because of their expense and complexity, require the participation of an elite, educated class. The projects therefore become political pawns. The family farmer, allied with a subsistence ideology and unwilling to exploit the land past its carrying capacity, cannot compete with wealthy, powerful, corporate interests. For this reason, the novel, though hopeful, does not offer any quantifiable hope. Worster feels this lack of an attainable goal to be the novel's major failing. Decrying the system of land distribution without explicitly condemning the accompanying hydrological autocracy leads to the specious conclusion that simply putting the land in the hands of the migrants will solve the region's agrarian morass. In a section of Rivers of Empire entitled "The Grapes of Wealth," Worster argues:

Nowhere in The Grapes of Wrath does Steinbeck draw attention to the elaborate hydraulic apparatus that has been required to create the California garden…. Grapes, carrots, cotton and the like are the products, it would seem, of spontaneous nature, not the contrivances of advanced water engineering and the social organization it has required.

Since Steinbeck failed to acknowledge the inherent oligarchic nature of irrigation-based societies, he creates the false impression that equitable land distribution and a classless society will return the region to ecological stability. Historically, there are no precedents for this vision being realizable. In fact, returning the family farm to the arid region without altering the national capitalist infrastructure will, given the Plains example, cause devastating ecological harm.

Worster's critique does raise the problematic issue of Steinbeck's unrepentant affection for the family farm but does not, as I mentioned earlier, address the powerful critique of hydraulic society implicit in the novel's structure. That he used water throughout the novel as an absent signifier suggests that Steinbeck was well aware of its power and complicity in the region's power hierarchy. When, at novel's end, Steinbeck suddenly introduces water as a tangible presence and powerful symbolic force, it empowers the migrants by demonstrating their class cohesion and latent strength. Structuring the novel in this manner permitted Steinbeck to criticize the extant hydraulic society more effectively than he could through overt polemics. Indeed, the novel's reception, both locally and nationally, bears witness to its powerful subversive nature, a fact which under-scores the most crucial flaw in Worster's argument. If the novel caused both the government and the nation-at-large to reevaluate federal irrigation subsidies for corporate growers, clearly it must have effectively criticized the inequity and corruption infusing California's water-appropriation schema.

The migrants' struggle became a national cause celebre and the novel's verisimilitude was debated at the highest levels of government. The Hearst-Chandler-Copley yellow press pilloried the novel and its author throughout California. Only after a Life magazine expose and Eleanor Roosevelt's endorsement of the book's veracity did the tide of public opinion begin to turn in Steinbeck's favor. The rage and furor from agribusiness conglomerates and their allies arose because The Grapes of Wrath shook the very foundations of the water-based oligarchy. Worster himself acknowledges this:

Up to the very end of the decade, both the Bureau [of Reclamation] and the Department of the Interior were placidly moving forward … avoiding any cause for alarm on the part of the growers in California … What changed all of that undoubtedly was … the publication in 1939 of The Grapes of Wrath … Suddenly, it became rather difficult for a liberal government in Washington to give subsidized, unrestricted water to groups like the reactionary Associated Farmers, to underwrite their labor policies and their concentration of wealth.

Nevertheless, despite a temporary surge in popular and governmental concern, neither the novel nor the reform movement it generated achieved any lasting change in western water policy. Porkbarrel appropriations bills continued to subsidize corporate growers who continued to couch their greed within the rubric of a technologically controlled Eden which they believed would and should form the destiny of the West. The migrants' struggle faded into the background with the outbreak of World War II. U.S. entry into the conflict stoked the fires of nationalism and the nation turned to the West once again to fuel the American war machine. The Okies benefited from the wartime surge in production, finding work in munitions factories and other war-related industries. Relieved, the growers turned once again to immigrant labor, a class of people they could be relatively certain of keeping disenfranchised and powerless. So, the cycle of exploitation resumed after only a brief hiatus. Public interest in the issue peaked again two decades later when Cesar Chavez briefly managed to organize the Migrant Farm Workers Union into an effective national lobby.

Only in the 1990s, after a prolonged drought and numerous aborted attempts at reform, has the Californian agricultural machine seemingly run dry. Faced with a severe, unremitting drought and a recession-locked nation unwilling to finance any more quixotic reclamation projects, the Californian growers now face a complete embargo on federally supplied water. Years of drought and insupportable agriculture in an arid land are seemingly on the verge of accomplishing what neither Powell nor Steinbeck nor any individual person could accomplish on his own: decanonization of the myth of the garden and its accompanying myth of the frontier. These two myths, dominant since the birth of the nation, eventually ran headlong into the realities of a closed frontier and a finite hydrology. Steven Goldstein, spokesman for Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, aptly summed up the situation when announcing the curtailment of further water-subsidy, saying: "We recognize … what a hardship this will be. But we cannot make it rain."

Nicholas Visser (essay date Spring 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7597

SOURCE: "Audience and Closure in The Grapes of Wrath," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 19-36.

[In the following essay, Visser discusses the historical context of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's persuasive depiction of social injustice, and narrative strategies employed to present a politically radical message to a large public audience.]

Although The Grapes of Wrath continues to be regarded as Steinbeck's major achievement, changing critical fashions have ensured that the novel's status remains uncertain. The novel's standing came under pressure as early as the decades immediately following its publication, as literary studies with the onset of the Cold War intensified a longstanding tendency in modern poetics to strip literary texts of social and political implications. It was not difficult to decontextualize most of the literature of earlier times, but because the thirties were part of living memory, and because so much of the decade's literature was politically left-wing, the need to depoliticize it was particularly urgent. Where critics could not manage that task, if only because social content was too firmly in the foreground to be obscured, they simply declared such literary works unworthy of serious attention. So strong were these pressures that one of the first critics to write a full-length study of Steinbeck, Harry T. Moore, later wrote an epilogue to the second edition of his book recanting his earlier approval. Why he would have bothered to publish a second edition is unclear.

Recent criticism has done little to reverse the situation. Poststructuralist critics generally ignore, when they do not derogate, writers who presume to represent actual material conditions and social processes; accordingly a writer like Steinbeck, particularly the Steinbeck of In Dubious Battle or The Grapes of Wrath, has little to offer them. Even recent Marxist criticism has largely ignored Steinbeck. Eager to demonstrate its intellectual respectability, which apparently requires that in order to distance itself sufficiently from the Stalinist penchant for socialist realism it repudiate representation altogether, recent Marxist criticism, particularly that current which has responded to the powerful gravitational tug of poststructuralist theory, has generally shunned politically explicit literature. What all this has meant is that The Grapes of Wrath has been either ignored or disparaged.

Since what follows seeks to examine the interplay of politics and form in the novel and as a consequence of that endeavor points to certain unresolved or incompletely resolved formal problems raised by The Grapes of Wrath, I am concerned that my comments will seem to grant attention to the novel at the cost of issuing in yet another negative assessment. There are problems in The Grapes of Wrath, even large problems, but no more so than in any number of more politically conservative novels of the same period that have enjoyed critical esteem. Furthermore, David Craig and Michael Egan are surely correct in their view that Steinbeck is "incomparable at presenting [working people's] way of life, with an attention to people's manual skills and their self expression which is signally missing from nearly all literature to date," and that the "bulk of [The Grapes of Wrath] is unrivaled in Western literature for describing, dramatizing, and explaining a large socio-historical process." These are hardly insignificant achievements.

A substantial part of the novel's achievement lies in the way Steinbeck both renders such processes and simultaneously shields the novel from the abstraction and generalization such a description would seem to entail. Even in the interchapters, much of the purpose of which is to generalize the particular experiences of the Joads, the emphasis is on rendering process rather than abstractly describing it. And for the Joad family, socio-historical process is not something consciously perceived as trends and circumstances prevailing in the society in which they live—the Depression, the dustbowl in the southwest of the United States and the mass migration to California, the increasingly rapid transformation of American farming into the highly mechanized, capital-intensive agribusiness of today, and the like. Rather, such broader processes are experienced as daily pressures in their lives. The farm which they once owned but on which they have been reduced to labor tenancy is lost through events and means that remain largely mysterious to them. They undertake their exodus to the false promised land of California through decisions both deliberately (and therefore apparently freely) taken by the family and utterly constrained by their material and social conditions. And when they arrive in California, the extreme exploitation to which they are subjected baffles them and destroys them as a family. Indeed, lacking analytical categories like "socio-historical process," the Joads and others in their situation feel an urgent need for some way of making these pressures more immediately present, more concrete and personal, so that they can attempt to gain some sort of purchase on them.

For all that it passionately castigates the social and political conditions under which the Joads live, there may be reasons for questioning just how politically radical The Grapes of Wrath ultimately is. At the same time, however, the generative context for the novel is the international left-wing political culture of the 1930s, and Steinbeck's novel takes its place among the radical novels produced by that culture. In rendering the efforts of the Joads to cope with the collapse of their world, The Grapes of Wrath brings to the surface two problems that arise repeatedly in politically radical novels. First is the obvious, but usually overlooked, question of how radical novels manage to gain access to an audience. What formal or discursive strategies do they adopt to that end? Second is the question of how radical novels conclude, especially when, as in The Grapes of Wrath, the "large socio-historical process" of which Craig and Egan speak had not ended when the novel was published.

The problem of audience for politically radical fiction was succinctly identified by Engels in his famous letter to Minna Kautsky written in November 1885. After indicating that he is "not at all an opponent of tendentious writing as such," Engels nevertheless urges Kautsky to avoid revealing an overtly political stance in her novels on the entirely practical grounds that "the novel primarily finds readers in bourgeois circles, circles not directly related to our own." Accordingly, Engels suggests something quite different from the notion that radical literature should be directly insurrectionary. We may infer from what Engels says that in his view it is not properly the function of the "socialist tendentious novel" to mobilize the oppressed, since for practical reasons such as the lack of disposable leisure time, of the privacy and quiet needed to spend long periods reading, and in some cases even of the requisite levels of literacy, the oppressed are not realistically available as an audience. Instead, the project of the radical writer should be to act on the audience that is available for novels; more specifically, Engels writes, to shatter "the optimism of the bourgeois world," thereby "causing doubt about the eternal validity of the existing order." The argument is persuasive, but there is one important consideration it does not address. Why, especially given the glut of novels which endorse bourgeois optimism, would bourgeois readers bother to read radical novels? How, then—to put the problem another way—does the radical novelist gain access to that actually available audience?

A good part of the answer to these questions lies in the contexts of a work's production and initial reception. In times of social and political crisis, for instance, the readership for politicized literature typically expands, if only for the duration of the crisis. At the same time, the awareness that authors gain of prevailing material and social forces and constraints can prompt them to develop formal strategies designed to win over readers, or at least to allay their suspicion and resistance. The strategies of The Grapes of Wrath derive from Steinbeck's understanding of what audience he was addressing and in what relation to it he wished to stand.

Much of the early debate over the novel hinged on the question of address, the opposing positions revealing how intimately address is understood to be bound up with the political position the novel stakes out. Peter Lisca examines expressions of the two standard views, one from an early attack entitled The Truth about John Steinbeck and the Migrants and one from an established critic, Stanley Edgar Hyman. The author of the first says that he "can think of no other novel which advances the idea of class war and promotes hatred of class against class … more than does The Grapes of Wrath." Hyman disagrees: "Actually … the central message of The Grapes of Wrath is an appeal to the owning class to behave, to become enlightened, rather than to the working class to change its own conditions." Warren French sides with Hyman, arguing that Steinbeck does not advocate revolution; rather "he speaks as an observer, warning what may happen—what it regrettably appears will happen." He goes on to suggest that any apparently revolutionary passages in the novel

are not rabble-rousing speeches inciting an outraged proletariat to rise against its oppressors; rather they are warnings to a comfortable and negligent propertied class to awaken it to what is happening around it. The Grapes of Wrath in its treatment of contemporary events is a cautionary tale.

Both views misconstrue Steinbeck's handling of address in the novel. That the oppressed themselves are not the object of address—even accepting that Steinbeck could have made the mistake of assuming it was possible to address that audience directly—can be inferred from, among other things, the strongly "anthropological" mode of the novel, much of which is devoted to (re)presenting one social group to another. Hence the use of dialect and the explanations offered for details of daily life. Much of the novel's effect derives from giving the impression that it is engaged in revealing the hitherto unknown to an audience socially and culturally distant from the novel's characters.

The assertion that the "owning" or "propertied" class is the audience directly addressed is superficially more plausible but ultimately fails to account for much that goes on in the novel, especially the sustained and impassioned attack on "big business." Calling The Grapes of Wrath a "cautionary tale," as French does, links it with the long tradition of English-language reformist fiction in the manner of Dickens and Gaskell. Steinbeck shares much with the conventions of reformist or ameliorative fiction, but he differs sharply in one significant respect. Reformist fiction not only addresses the dominant class, it also depicts the dominated classes from a vantage point outside and above their own experience. That perspective is largely absent from The Grapes of Wrath. Instead, even though the anthropological mode of the narrative at times entails an exterior view, just as the occasional lapses into sentimentalism similarly establish a narrating position above the represented people, that discursive situation is never permitted to persist for long or to stray far from the textures of daily experience. For most of its course the novel, as Craig and Egan indicate, penetrates fully into the way of life, the everyday habits and skills and even the self-expression of the characters portrayed.

If oppressed social groups are not the prospective audience for the novel, they may nevertheless assert their presence not as a directly addressed group but as what Sartre called a virtual public, made up of dominated groups who lack access to "high" or official culture. Since awareness of this virtual public typically exerts a certain pressure on progressive writers, Sartre's notion can tell us something about an author's alignment if not something directly about the actual or intended audience. They are the group an author would wish to address if that were practicable, or on whose behalf an author writes. Responding to a virtual public would have been consonant with Steinbeck's developing feelings about the people he was depicting in his novel. His first effort to write The Grapes of Wrath resulted in a satire which he felt obliged to withdraw even though his publishers had already announced its impending release. He wrote to his publishers:

I know that a great many people would think they liked this book. I, myself, have built up a hole-proof argument on how and why I liked it. I can't beat the argument, but I don't like the book … My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other and then I deliberately write this book, the aim of which is to cause hatred through partial understanding.

Useful though the concept of virtual public is in grasping the puzzling modes of address in radical fiction, it is necessarily silent about the social bloc whose attention and interest Steinbeck did wish to engage. His conception of his audience stemmed from his awareness that in a time of acute social and economic crisis, the bourgeois audience of which Engels writes is unusually fractured, so that a much larger than usual segment of it is, temporarily at least, susceptible to the appeal of politically progressive ideas. As Sartre puts it: "If the real public is broken up into hostile factions, everything changes." Steinbeck frames his novel neither, strictly speaking, for the oppressed groups, necessarily present only as a virtual public, nor for the owners. Instead he writes with a peculiarly modern notion of audience that comes into existence with the modern nation state and the forms of communication and cultural practice (including, centrally, the novel) that construct and sustain notions of national identity. He writes, in short, in the effort to influence "public opinion." The discursive situation Steinbeck imagines is not a bilateral relation between author and a readership but a triadic relation of author, audience, and owners. He seeks to influence public opinion to put pressure on a putatively beneficent national government to ameliorate the impossible conditions which big business and greedy landowners have imposed on the landless migrants in California. He is not, in other words, supposing that he is directly addressing the owners in the cautionary mode suggested by French, nor is he addressing the migrants: he may write for them as virtual public, but he does not, if only because he cannot, write to them.

The wish to influence public opinion makes it all the more urgent for Steinbeck to ensure that his project does not fail to reach its audience. Public opinion, after all, can equally be influenced to ignore or reject his message. One of the devices he employs to overcome the expected difficulties is attempting to gain control over the operative definitions of the words "Okies" and "reds." To reach his audience, Steinbeck had to find some way of bridging the social and cultural distance between them and his characters. An anthropological mode of discourse can create and even sustain interest in unknown social groups, but Steinbeck required more than interest. For his project to succeed he needed active sympathy: he needed his readers to wish so wholeheartedly for the amelioration of the conditions suffered by the migrants that public opinion would be swayed in their favor. One way of accomplishing that end was to neutralize the terms of contempt with which dominant groups label those they dominate.

The migrants are in one respect unusual as objects of prejudice: they lack a history of victimization. Because prejudice is not something they have grown up with, they actually have to be taught the meaning of the term used to vilify them.

"You gonna see in people's face how they hate you. What the hell! You never been called 'Okie' yet."

Tom said: "Okie? What's that?"

"Well, Okie use' ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you're a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you're scum. Don't mean nothing itself, it's the way they say it."

For those who use the word, "Okies" functions to establish the greatest possible distance between themselves and those to whom it is applied, to constitute the latter as utterly different, absolutely other. Our privileged position as readers enables us to see the inadequacy of such labels and the descriptions which accompany them, to see how self-serving they are, how they end up blaming the victims for their oppression, how they seek to dehumanize the migrants and wind up instead desensitizing and dehumanizing those who use them. By situating us within the ambit of the migrants' experience, the novel decisively separates us from those who would use such words, from the landowners and their retainers.

If constituting readers as people who would not use a word like "Okie" shows canny insight into ways of managing social prejudice, Steinbeck, with equal canniness, recognizes that access to an audience as abstract, impermanent, and vacillating as "public opinion" requires anticipating and neutralizing anything likely to prompt rejection of his project. All it would take would be for one of the customary charges of the period—"radical" or "communist sympathizer," in short, "red"—to be convincingly leveled, and even the more open-minded members of his audience would shun the novel. The Joads begin to hear about troublemakers and agitators and reds even before they arrive in California. A campsite owner who regularly swindles the migrants retaliates when Tom Joad jokes bitterly about the owner's money-grubbing:

The chair-legs hit the floor. "Don't you go a-sassin' me. I 'member you. You're one of these here trouble makers."

"Damn right," said Tom. "I'm bolshevisky."

"They's too damn many of you kinda guys aroun'." Tom laughed as they went out the gate.

Laughter on the reader's part is exactly the desired effect. It comes partly from Tom's mangling of the word Bolshevik or Bolsheviksi: his ignorance is transparently his innocence. More important, the reader already knows Tom, and of course also knows the owner. The perspective of the narration ensures that accusations are subsumed under the valuings that have already been established for characters.

The same management of perspective shapes the reader's response to a later incident. The Joads leave a migrants' camp shortly before local vigilantes and hired goons violently destroy it. The newspaper story reporting the event reads:

Citizens, angered at red agitators, burn squatters' camp. Last night a band of citizens, infuriated at the agitation going on in a local squatters' camp, burned the tents to the ground and warned agitators to get out of the county.

Because we have vicariously experienced the camp in the company of the Joads, we reject the report as an outrageous distortion. We might be inclined to assume from such passages that Steinbeck's point is that the Joads are not reds. But more is at issue. The crucial insight is provided by Tom immediately after he reads the newspaper account: "I watched it a long time. There's always red agitators just before a pay cut. Always." The accusation is a deliberate effort to discredit the migrants through a word so powerfully charged that once deployed it can usually be counted on to issue in stock responses. Such attempts to discredit the characters are equivalent to and anticipations of attempts to discredit the novel through using the same epithets. In devising strategies to deflect the one, Steinbeck seeks to deflect the other.

The discussion of the newspaper story continues until finally the migrants themselves are able to grasp what is going on in the accusation. When Tom asks, "What the hell is these reds anyway?" he is told a story about another man who had asked his boss the same question. The boss replied:

"A red is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we're payin' twenty-five!" Well, this young fella he thinks about her, an' he scratches his head, an' he says: "Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain't a son-of-a bitch, but if that's what a red is—why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever' body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we're all reds."

After hearing this, "Tom laughed. 'Me too, I guess.'" Once again, then, laughter, our own as well as Tom's, is the response, but behind Tom's laughter and that of the other migrants is a growing political consciousness, an increasingly developed realization of how the owners and their hirelings deploy all the resources at their disposal, including discursive resources, to entrench and expand their domination of the migrants.

The interrogation of the word "reds" leads finally to a roundabout but unmistakable association of the word with Christ. As Tom tells Ma of Casy's murder, he relates Casy's last words, which, in keeping with the Biblical parallels established in the novel, closely echo Christ's last words on the cross:

"Casy said: 'You got no right to starve people.' An' then this heavy fella called him a red son-of-a-bitch. An' Casy says: 'You don' know what you're a-doin'.' An' then this guy smashed 'im."

Ma looked down. She twisted her hands together.

"Tha's what he said—'You don't know what you're doin'?'"

In probing and contesting the meanings attached to "Okies" and "reds" Steinbeck seeks to disarm the discursive authority of the holders of social power, whose control over meanings is a powerful tool in maintaining social hegemony. To undermine the discursive practices of the dominant group is to steal their ideological magic, as it were. By prizing words out of their customary associations and valuings and laying bare the interests served by certain usages, thereby hampering efforts by the powerful to maintain control over meanings, Steinbeck makes it more difficult for public opinion to be turned against his project. It will not be enough to count on the social distance between audience and represented, nor will it be enough to dismiss the book as "red." Without those two weapons, the owners and those who labor for them in the management of public opinion are reduced to having to claim not that "Okies" are unworthy of sympathy—a tactic as likely to backfire as to succeed—or that Steinbeck is a "red," but that he gets his facts wrong, that he misrepresents the experience of the migrants in California. They are forced, in other words, to shift the terrain of dispute from a straightforward ideological plane to an empirical plane. And in the event empirical claims were easily dismissed.

Efforts to resolve disputes over a novel by attempting to verify or falsify what it depicts may seem odd—even, in light of the way notions of reference are called into question by current literary theory, frivolous. Yet such efforts not only makes sense in relation to The Grapes of Wrath, they disclose a significant dimension of the novel's relation to its audience. Central to the reading experience of The Grapes of Wrath is the acceptance that what the narrative relates actually occurs in the life-world. In the absence of a tacit but absolutely binding contract between author and reader that the reader can rely on the novel's general veracity, the novel would be almost entirely lacking in meaning. Moreover, if it could be established that Steinbeck had distorted the truth, the novel would be felt to lose a substantial component of its value, and not just its value as social documentation (a function I would not wish to disparage) but its value as a novel, for who would read it today, when its documentary value alone could not count for much, if it had been successfully exposed as a fraud? At stake here, then, is not a question of the putative lifelikeness or verisimilitude of the realistic novel. We may not ordinarily feel compelled to ask of novelists if the events they depict can be matched to events of the real world; in the case of The Grapes of Wrath, however, the relationship between reader and text depends on the reader's conviction that people in the dustbowl actually lost their land when banks foreclosed on their loans, migrant camps really were raided and burned out, goons and vigilantes really were used to harass migrants and stymie efforts to organize labor unions, owners and their organizations genuinely colluded to drive down wages, and so on. Steinbeck revealed his sensitivity to the demands of the tacit contract with his readers in a letter: "There's one other difficulty too. I'm trying to write history while it is happening and I don't want to be wrong." Being discovered to be wrong, especially deliberately wrong, would have proved fatal to the success of the book.

Even leaving aside whether it is theoretically possible for a novel (or any other discursive form) to give the reader access to the real, it is at least a challenge to the adequacy of such theorizing about reference to note that certain literary works, for all their fictiveness, depend for their import as well as their impact on successfully securing the reader's acceptance that reference is being actively accomplished. There should not be anything particularly surprising about such a conclusion. To cite just one example, Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich absolutely requires that its readers grant a referential axis of meaning, for in the absence of certain beliefs about Stalinist labor camps, not to mention the belief that the author experienced those camps at first hand, the novel could have no meaning. Similarly, the relationship which The Grapes of Wrath continues to establish with its audience, even long after the circumstances it depicts have been transformed, depends on readers accepting that those circumstances once actually existed.

Steinbeck's handling of his relation with his audience is one of the most interesting and successful features of The Grapes of Wrath. Somewhat less successfully handled is the other major formal challenge of the novel: how to end the narrative. Radical novels regularly encounter difficulties with closure. Although it is obviously not part of the project of radical novels to promote defeatism, they nevertheless repeatedly end either inconclusively or in failure. To cite just a few representative cases from among the many radical novels written in the same period as The Grapes of Wrath, Richard Wright's Native Son ends with the death of Bigger Thomas, while the insurrectionary movements of Andre Malraux's Man's Fate and Ignazio Silone's Fontamara end in crushing defeat. The list could be expanded to cover practically the entirety of radical fiction. Part of the problem stems from the customary attachment of radical fiction to the external world, to history. Since in most cases the material conditions and social iniquities portrayed in radical novels have not been resolved in the external world, or where they have been resolved they have issued in the defeat of progressive forces rather than in their victory, and since the success of the political project undertaken in a political novel hinges on persuading the reader that these conditions and iniquities actually exist or have existed, closure becomes a significant problem at a juncture where the formal properties of the novel and the political project undertaken in radical fiction converge.

Many things could be said about Steinbeck's ending, and it has probably as many defenders as detractors. But whether we find the moment when Rose of Sharon offers her breast to the starving stranger genuinely moving in the way it enacts the compassion the novel has promoted throughout, or painfully mawkish in the way it entraps the reader in a position tantamount to voyeurism, it remains the case that closure is operating on an entirely personal level. The intensely intimate moment is obviously not generalizable in any literal sense, and even if it is given a more abstract form, the form, say, of "Do unto others," it shifts the arena of values from the social and economic and political to the personal and private and ethical, and does so without indicating how the one may be actively linked to the other. In short, the final moments end up telling the oppressed and exploited the old story: social justice can emerge only when there is a universal change of heart, only when people decide to be kinder to each other—a message which has always consoled those who gain advantage from the status quo more than it has those who bear the costs of social inequity.

Why does a novel which has required the destruction of the bonds of family and neighborliness so that a broader collectivity can take their place suddenly, at the very last moment, provide resolution only at the most intimate, most personal level? Even Ma, the normative center of familial values in the novel, comes finally to comprehend that the family must give way to broader affiliations if the conditions confronted by the migrants are ever to be overcome: "Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do." Rose of Sharon's moment of exemplary humanity in feeding the stranger, especially since it is the first generous action of a hitherto utterly self-absorbed person, may at first appear to enact that "more"; however, up to this point the novel has intimated that the social lesson being proffered is not the parable of the good Samaritan but the Aesopean fable of the bundle of sticks or the three-fold cord of Ecclesiastes, exempla rarely invoked by those in positions of religious or secular authority as models for social conduct precisely because, unlike the more frequently cited "golden rule," they disclose the potential strength of the group acting in concert and on its own behalf.

The move towards collective political action promises, ultimately falsely, to be the central trajectory of the novel's meanings. The destruction of the family, the developing political consciousness, the beginnings of an organized labor movement, the instilling of cooperative values in the Joad children during their stay at the government camp—all these and more in the novel ascribe preeminent value to collective social action. Such action would seem the logical culmination of the prophetic threats and warnings strewn throughout the novel. Whether they are "rabble-rousing speeches inciting an outraged proletariat to rise against its oppressors," the prophetic passages are explicit, pointed, and sustained. Not just obscurely phrased dire warnings to the powerful that if they do not act promptly to regain legitimacy something terrible may happen (terrible in the narrator's view as well in the view of the owners), the passages declare apocalyptically that, unless there is rapid, radical social change, this is what is coming. That at least seems to be the force of passages like the following:

Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here "I lost my land" is changed; a cell is split and from the splitting grows the thing you hate—"we lost our land." The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first "we" there grows a still more dangerous thing: "I have a little food" plus "I have none." If from this problem the sum is "We have a little food," the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours…. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from "I" to "we."

A later passage in a similar vein adds, "if they ever know themselves, the land will be theirs."

Eventually the warnings of what will eventuate when isolated individuals and families join together in mass political action connect with the novel's title, a device which endows them with immense centrality, particularly since the title derives from a patriotic song ("Battle Hymn of the Republic") which in turn draws on the Bible. As the migrants approach the limit of what can be humanly endured, we read: "In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."

These rumblings of ancestral voices prophesy revolution repeatedly in the novel (though much more in the interchapters than in the main narrative), but pointed and sustained as they are, they do not converge in or project any particular insurrectionary endeavor. They are prophecies without outcomes (even outcomes projected into the future)—portentous, apocalyptic, stirring, but finally never more than rhetorical. The gap they leave between prophecy and praxis is particularly clear in one feature of the narrative language of the passages: throughout, the reference is to what "they" will do; the threatened course of action is never unambiguously endorsed, never transformed into a "we" that includes the narrating voice. Of course, the anthropological mode of the novel presumes that Steinbeck's social locus is closer to his audience than to the social group he depicts. Nevertheless, not even optatively does the novel ever fully identify itself with any revolutionary action that might be undertaken by the oppressed; there is always a sense of holding back at the last moment, of taking fright at the very possibilities for widespread uprising which the novel discloses. What is promised in the interchapters is withdrawn in the main narrative, and particularly at its conclusion. What prevents Steinbeck from carrying prophecy through to action is not only that "history"—the material and social circumstances both within which and about which he writes—had not yet provided a solution to the problems he investigates. He is incapable of imagining a resolution. He is confident enough at a purely oratorical level, but the level of actual social initiative is another matter. The source of his difficulty in the analysis he provides of existing American society and the vision he projects of an alternative to it.

From both the novel itself and statements he made at the time concerning his growing compassion for the migrants in California, we might reasonably infer that Steinbeck saw his role in writing The Grapes of Wrath as contributing to an effort to change their immediate conditions rather than providing in addition a critique of the social and economic structures and relations that create and maintain such conditions. At the same time, the novel has to account for the situation in which the migrants find themselves. The prolonged drought in the southwest accounts in part for why the migrants undertake their exodus, but it cannot on its own explain how they lose their land or make sense of what they experience once they arrive in California. For their suffering to be more than adventitious, the narrative has to provide some sort of explanation. The furthest Steinbeck is able to go to satisfy this narrative demand is to place blame on impersonal business and financial institutions and greedy landowners.

What he is unable to account for is how such institutions and individuals are able not only to act the way they do, but to persist in their actions. Where are the laws that could constrain them? How are they able to use the police to assist their efforts? Why is there no speedy political resolution to the growing conflict? Steinbeck makes it all but impossible to confront such issues once he carefully dissociates the state from the injustices he depicts. Throughout the novel, the state is assumed to be outside and above the causes of the migrants' suffering. Responsibility for all injustices falls to business corporations and avaricious individuals. The state is not only deemed separate from capitalism, the defining and enabling context of these institutions and individuals; it is seen (in a distinctively American strain of political populism) as positively antithetical to capitalism and the social relations it produces. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the government camp in which the Joads find temporary refuge. Discussing the actions of the owners and the police, one inhabitant of the camp says: "An' that's why they hate this here camp. No cops can get in. This here's United States, not California."

This view of the state is entirely consistent with, and might even be entailed in, the way Steinbeck defined his project. Only a neutral state, available for the role of impartial social arbiter, or a benevolent state, eager to remedy social ills once they are identified (Steinbeck hovers between the two views), can be envisaged as open to the influence of an awakened public opinion. Conceiving the state in these terms, however, thoroughly mystifies the deeply complicit relation between the state and capital, which in turn means that the narrative can provide no coherent account for the oppression and exploitation depicted. At no point does Steinbeck raise the obvious question: if the federal government is as well disposed towards the migrants as the government camps would suggest, why has it not already intervened to end oppression and relieve the migrants of their suffering? Such a government would not require a novel designed to outrage public opinion to be written before it responded. Paradoxically, then, the very act of writing The Grapes of Wrath refutes the analysis of American society on which the novel is based.

From the opening moments of the novel, when the issue of how Tom could have been so unjustly imprisoned is almost but never quite made explicit, to the conclusion, when the inaction of the state permits the wholesale destruction of migrant families, questions like these continually threaten to rise to the surface of the narrative, only to be pushed back out of sight. So consistently does Steinbeck decline to engage with the questions his narrative provokes that the question of bad faith eventually arises, for it is difficult to imagine any other way of accounting for how the novel ultimately issues in the familiar message: "The fundamental institutions of society are not bad, just certain individuals and isolated practices. Once these are corrected, things will be just fine." A novelist who gives every appearance of writing from a social and political perspective somewhere on an axis of left-liberal to radical socialist nevertheless produces a narrative which ultimately endorses the existing scheme of things (barring a few unfortunate anomalies) and declines to contemplate the possibility that the scheme itself needs overthrowing. Instead of seeing the novel as an expression of bad faith, however, we might more fruitfully think of it, with its radical impulses and less than radical projections, as a "fellow-traveling" novel, bearing in mind Trotsky's important insight:

As regards a "fellow-traveler," the question always comes up—how far will he go? This question cannot be answered in advance, not even approximately. The solution of it depends not so much on the personal qualities of this or that "fellow-traveler," but mainly on the objective trends of things.

Steinbeck's inability to confront the most profound implications of his own narrative leaves him no way to end the novel, since the social horrors he has been depicting with such compassion require at the very least giving serious thought to a form of redress he is incapable of imagining except, as in the prophetic passages, in the most abstract and oratorical way. Unable to resolve the novel at the level of the social, economic, and political iniquities he renders in such compelling detail, he withdraws at the conclusion of the narrative to the merely interpersonal.

So reluctant is Steinbeck to confront the depredations of capitalism analytically rather than emotionally that he undermines still another dimension of his project. Implicitly or explicitly, the kind of novel Steinbeck has written, for which Craig and Egan have proposed the suggestive term "social tragedy," projects an alternative to the depicted social order, a social and political "possible other case." That projection is a vital part of the utopian impulse of social tragedy as it gestures towards a realm beyond necessity. Deducing Steinbeck's projected alternative, at least in its broad features, seems at first glance a simple task. Most of the novel would seem to imply that a new social order would have to be built on collective principles and would have to exclude economic practices which depend on exploitation. Property would no longer be presumed as an absolute right, since accumulation would have to be regulated to ensure that land did not again fall into the hands of a few. Profit would have to give way to or at least be modified by notions of social benefit, so that people would no longer have their homes confiscated. No one would be permitted to have wealth beyond a certain level, and the gap between the richest and poorest in society would be kept fairly narrow. The rights of workers to a living wage, to organize in labor unions, and to strike would be placed above the claims of owners. Or so the novel implies.

Yet surprisingly, whatever the society ultimately prefigured in the novel, it is certainly not any form of socialist or even social-welfare society. Tom's farewell to his mother—one of the few times the portentous tone of the prophetic passages, for the most part restricted to the interchapters, enters the main narrative—reveals in its closing sentence the boundaries of Steinbeck's vision of an alternative America: "An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build—why, I'll be there." This is Steinbeck's alternative social order, a reiteration of Jefferson's vision of a society made up of independent small farmers eating the food they grow and living in the houses they build. Where in this is collective social life? How, if it was necessary for the family to be destroyed in order for people to discover their collective destiny, do the nuclear families return who will presumably inhabit these houses and grow the food? Where in the reconstituted household economy of small farms will be the space for what is ostensibly projected as a new status for women, achieved at such cost? All such considerations are overwhelmed by the "ache of ownership" which, far from rejecting in favor of collective ownership, Steinbeck gladly ratifies.

A second strand to Steinbeck's vision of an alternative order emerges earlier in the same conversation, at the point where Tom remembers something Casy had once related to him: "Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an' he foun' he didn't have no soul that was his'n. Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul." Here, as collectivity gets absorbed into the ideas of yet another seminal American thinker with the barely veiled reference to Emerson's conception of the oversoul, Tom's memory takes on a regressive quality, for at this point the novel doubles back on its own development in character and action. Tom recalls not Casy the labor organizer, who late in the novel, just before he becomes the victim of violent reaction, speaks eloquently and lucidly of revolution and counter-revolution, but the Casy of their first encounter, who at the outset of the action was the prophet of the oversoul.

Tom's final conversation with Ma reveals the strains and confusions of the proffered resolutions of the novel's conflicts as the concluding chapters work to contain and defuse the revolutionary implications of the depiction of mounting class conflict. For all that Steinbeck may be linking his narrative to notions deeply embedded in American hegemonic cultural traditions, Jeffersonian and Emersonian ideas are inadequate to the weight placed upon them. The oversoul suggests something entirely different from revolutionary action; indeed it suggests no action at all, only some state of being exempt from the immediacies of the social and historical. Similarly, collective life is negated by the Jeffersonian ideal, a negation which can be felt in the contradictory quality of statements like "All work together for our own thing—all farm our own lan'." To further complicate matters, by the time of the conversation between Tom and Ma near the end of the novel, the appeal of the Jeffersonian ideal has long since been diminished by repeated suggestions of the guilty secret behind the land the farmers till—the violent dispossession of the Indians whose land it once was.

The difficulties Steinbeck had with closure in The Grapes of Wrath may stem in part from the very success he had in gaining access to his audience. Appealing to public opinion entails granting a measure of legitimacy to the social order the presumptive audience inhabits. Appealing to specifically American cultural tradition further confirms legitimacy. Once legitimacy is granted, any revolutionary implications arising from the narrative must be curtailed, even if that means skirting some of the narrative's most profound insights into how the social order is actually constructed and in whose benefit it operates. What is involved here is not a question merely of an author's intention, even broadening that notion to include how authors of radical novels define for themselves the political projects in which they are engaged. At issue here is the very possibility of writing a novel that both reaches a wide audience and remains politically radical. Victor Serge's Birth of Our Power, a major radical novel of the 1930s, is remarkable among other things for the way it succeeded in keeping its leftist politics intact, but it did so perhaps at the cost of remaining all but unknown for many years. From its original publication to today it has probably not sold as many copies as The Grapes of Wrath sells in an average year. One conclusion we can draw from Steinbeck's example is that the advice Engels gave Minna Kautsky about eschewing overtly "tendentious writing" in order to reach the "bourgeois circles" who are the only available audience may understate the consequences of the techniques novelists may have to use to accomplish that task. Reaching that audience might entail the simultaneous (and intimately related) dilution of the novel's politics and distortion of its form.

Lorelei Cederstrom (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6184

SOURCE: "The 'Great Mother' in The Grapes of Wrath," in Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., University of Alabama Press, 1997, pp. 76-91.

[In the following essay, Cederstrom examines the significance of archetypal maternal figures and feminine values in The Grapes of Wrath. According to Cederstrom, "An archetypal analysis of Steinbeck's novel reveals that in assessing the economic problems of the 1930s he had, perhaps unconsciously, arrived at an alternative to the dominant structures of Western civilization."]

Pagan cultures identify the earth, with its seasonal cycles of birth, growth, death, and renewal, with a feminine principle. Such cultures worship an earth goddess, on whose fecundity and compassion men depend, and depict her as a maternal figure, a "Great Mother." In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family, with Ma Joad as matriarch, adopt the Great Mother's ethos and iconography. On the road to California, they become a matriarchy valuing family and nurture, a social system with roots deep in a primitive time when men lived in harmony with the land and in direct opposition to the patriarchal forces driving the Dust Bowl disaster. The novel's famous final image, in which Rose of Sharon gives her breast to a starving man, is not Christian iconography but the culmination of the pagan, earth-directed values of the Great Mother.

In his depiction of the destruction of the fertile earth and the lives of those who have depended upon her abundance, John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath presents a visionary foreshadowing of the universal ecological disaster that looms so prominently on the horizon today. Equally visionary is his evocation of the primordial alternative to the patriarchal structures and attitudes that are destroying the earth. Throughout the novel, he describes the reemergence of the archetypal feminine and asserts the importance of matriarchal cultures that understand the relationship between the cycles of their lives and the natural world. An archetypal analysis of Steinbeck's novel reveals that in assessing the economic problems of the 1930s he had, perhaps unconsciously, arrived at an alternative to the dominant structures of Western civilization.

This alternative surfaces among the people who are the first victims of the decline of the old order, the migrant families. The failure of Western civilization to provide the necessities for these disinherited wanderers leads them to establish a more primitive social order based upon feminine values and matriarchal structures. Concurrent with the development of the matriarchy is the irruption of images, patterns, and attitudes associated with the primitive and transformative forms of the matriarchal deities. Throughout the novel, patriarchal culture and its attitudes give way to manifestations of the presence of the archetypal "Great Mother."

The powerful closing scene of the novel in which Rose of Sharon suckles a starving man at her breast provides an iconographic image of the Great Mother: "Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. 'You got to,' she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. 'There!' she said. 'There!' Her hand moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously." The haunting power of this image indicates the presence of a powerful archetype. Sensing an archetypal pattern, critics have related Rose of Sharon to the Madonna, and her nurturing gesture has been seen as a manifestation of Christian love. One must keep in mind, however, that Rose of Sharon is not a mother suckling her child; her baby was born dead, "a blue shriveled little mummy." At her breast is a starving stranger, a fellow refugee from a rising flood that has already destroyed many homes and families. This archetypal gesture and mysterious smile are, nonetheless, the fitting conclusion to the novel, for it is in this affirmation of the power to give life and to take it, to nourish even while surrounded by the death and destruction she has wrought, that the full power of the Great Mother is evident. A detailed analysis of the archetypal Great Mother as she appears throughout the novel reveals more clearly the iconographic significance of this scene.

It is necessary to define the limits of this archetype as Steinbeck has used it, for in her many facets, the Great Mother encompasses virtually everything. "Woman=body=vessel=world," is the formula Erich Neumann uses to define the all-inclusive quality of the archetypal feminine. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Great Mother appears in both her elementary and transformative characters. In the former, she can be seen as a primordial spirit behind both the positive and negative forces of nature, manifesting herself in soft sunlight and scourging drought, in gentle rain and destroying flood, in food and shelter as well as famine and deprivation. In her elementary character she is also present in the home and in the cultural activities that grow out of the establishment of facilities for sleep, food preparation, and so on. In her transformative character, the Great Mother is a force for change in the individual and society; this change may involve growth or destruction, rebirth or death, for both are within her domain.

This last point must be emphasized, for destruction is as much a part of the Great Mother as is creation; she who gives life can also bring death to the natural world or the individual. A well-known icon of the Great Mother, the nineteenth-century Indian statue of Kali dancing on Shiva, indicates both aspects of her character; Kali holds a sword of destruction in her upraised hand and holds out a bowl of nourishment in the other. Similarly, among the dual mother goddesses of Central America we find the Mayan earth goddess who "gives all life, all food—and then cries in the night for human blood, her food." Even the more familiar Near Eastern goddesses like Isis, Astarte, Ishtar, Artemis, and Diana have a dark face in which they represent the "womb-tomb, abysmally prolific with children and with death." This same ambivalence is present throughout Steinbeck's novel and is profoundly expressed in the paradoxical situation of the final scene, when the man near death by starvation and flood, two disasters particularly associated with primitive earth goddesses like the Great Mother, is given the nourishing breast, the most elementary symbol of her life-giving quality.

On the most basic level, the Great Mother as the giver of life or death appears as a personification of the Earth itself. In Steinbeck's earlier novel, To a God Unknown (1933), the earth is constantly imaged as a female presence, a presence that like "an ancient religion" might "possess" those who come to know her. The Indian, Juanito, shares with homesteader Joseph Wayne his understanding of this ancient power: "My mother said how the earth is our mother and how everything that lives has life from the mother and goes back into the mother." Joseph spends his entire life trying to understand the Great Mother as she is manifest in the earth he tends. Indeed, he can be seen as a priest assisting in her mysteries, as he works to ensure the fertility of the earth. He views these priestly duties as "the heritage of a race which for a million years had sucked at the breasts of the soil and co-habited with the earth."

It is apparent from the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath that man has lost awareness that the earth is both sacred and living. Mother Earth is still fertile, but the crops are covered with dust. The land has been raped, and growing the same crop year after year under these conditions has destroyed the ability of the earth to nurture those who treat her this way. The Joad family suffers because they too have been guilty of this kind of neglect: "'Ever' year,' said Joad, 'Every year I can remember, we had a good crop comin' an' it never came. Grampa says she was good the first five plowin's, while the wild grass was still in her.'" The novel opens many years after the last of the wild grass; the land is not even owned by people any more but by banks or corporations.

The matriarchal consciousness has also been lost, for as Neumann notes, it is dependent upon man's "participation mystique with his environment." The participation mystique has been replaced by an attitude of unemotional domination: "No man touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses." The land is worked by a "machine man" who sits on an iron seat on an iron horse. Steinbeck has embodied the lack of connection to the land in a number of small details as well. Tom Joad, returning to his home, discovers that all the artifacts that symbolize a life close to the earth are askew. The well is dry; there are no weeds under its trough. The house is aslant, all of the windows are broken, and there is a hole where there once was a stovepipe. The machine man's lunch is another detail of this kind. It is wrapped in waxed paper, and all his food is processed: Spam, white bread, "a piece of pie branded like an engine part." The result of this process of alienation from the earth, the Great Mother, is separation and exile. The machine man "goes home, and his home is not the land"; the Joads have lost both home and land.

Both the male and female characters in the novel are depicted in terms of their relationship to the Great Mother. The women are divided between those who have no relationship to the earth, land, or a natural life and those whose lives demonstrate the many faces of the archetypal feminine. The female counterparts of the machine men are defined by the objects with which they surround themselves: big cars, cosmetics, clothing and potbellied husbands. Their feminine attributes are disguised: breasts are confined, "stomachs and thighs straining against cases of rubber."

These women are also distinguished in terms of their relationship to time. The matriarchal consciousness is at work when a woman lives in tune with the cycles of nature. Mircea Eliade in Cosmos and History notes that primitive peoples experience the sacredness of life by living in tune with seasonal cycles and the recurrence of crops. In opposition, our contemporary world measures life linearly, as history, a progress from one point to another, stamping masculine measurements upon feminine cyclicality. Women, even in an industrial society, experience themselves at least in terms of biological cycles. Steinbeck's nameless women on the road, however, have accepted linear time and have lost the regenerative capacity that comes from recognizing oneself as part of an eternally recurring pattern. Steinbeck is explicit about this: the eyes of these women are "sullen, disliking sun and wind and earth, resenting food and weariness, hating time that rarely makes them beautiful and always makes them old."

In contrast, the Joad women are linked to the cyclicality of the archetypal feminine. Granma, Ma, and Rose of Sharon manifest the three ages of the Great Mother: hag, mother, and nubile daughter. The youngest girl, Ruthie, remains outside; she has not yet achieved her initiation into womanhood, so she merely watches and learns. Granma is shrill, ferocious, and assertive, true to her mythical forebears, Hecate, or Athene as Crone. She once shot off one of Grampa's buttocks, an act that indicates her tendency toward matriarchal dominance. Her power is apparent; she outlasts her mate, without succumbing to grief. Her acceptance of death as a part of a pattern of renewal is indicated by Ma's assertion that Granma "always et a good meal at a funeral." As her own death approaches, Granma becomes "like a little baby." A sense of her involvement in the recurrent cycles of life is suggested by the mysterious whisperings between dying Granma and pregnant Rose of Sharon.

Tom describes Ma as the "citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken." Neumann describes numerous instances in which the primordial Great Mother is similarly depicted as an encompassing shelter. Ma is the center and source of the family and its emotions; Tom sees her position as "great and humble." Her beauty arises out of her services within the family: "From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess." At the center of the humble recurring cycles of family life, Ma continually reflects the many aspects of the nurturing force of the Great Mother.

The first time we see Ma she is cooking pork, food from an animal that is associated with her throughout the novel. Neumann notes that "the pig is a symbol of the archetypal feminine and occurs everywhere as the sacrificial beast of the Earth Goddess." It is the pork that Ma has salted and prepared that keeps the family alive on the road. Like Granma, Ma lives in tune with recurrent cycles and is contrasted with the male characters. On the road, the men are concerned with maps, miles, and time: "From Sallisaw to Gore is twenty-one miles and the Hudson was doing thirty-five miles an hour. From Gore to Warner thirteen miles; Warner to Checotah fourteen miles; Checotah a long jump to Henrietta—thirty-four miles, but a real town at the end of it." Ma sees the journey differently: "it's jus' the road goin' by for me. An' it's jus' how soon they gonna wanta eat some more pork bones."

Before the journey, Ma was just one voice among many in making group decisions. As the novel progresses, Ma becomes more dominant. She forces the men to accede to the human needs of the family and decides when they will stop and go on. Pa threatens to reestablish patriarchal dominance with a shovel to the side of her head but acquiesces to her rule every time. Off the land, yet unable to relate to industrial society, the lives of the Joads are organized around primitive, matriarchal cultural activities. Preparing food and making shelter are their most immediate concerns, and Ma is the prime mover in creating the rituals of this primitive civilization. Ma also instructs Pa and the others about the importance of the family over property and the superiority of cyclic time over linear. A conversation between Pa and Ma establishes their separate priorities:

"Funny! Woman takin' over the fambly. Woman sayin' we'll do this here, an' we'll go there. An' I don' even care."

"Woman can change better'n a man," Ma said soothingly. "Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head. Don' you mind. Maybe—well, maybe nex' year we can get a place."

"We got nothin', now," Pa said…. "Seems our life is over and done!"

"No it ain't," Ma smiled. "It ain't, Pa. An that's one more thing a woman knows. I noticed that. Man, he lives in jerks—baby born, an' a man dies, an' that's a jerk. Woman, it's all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain't gonna die out. People is goin' on—changin' a little, maybe, but goin' right on!"

Ma is also a purveyor of matriarchal folk wisdom. She knows about burial rites, for example; Grampa is sewed neatly into his shroud, coins traditionally placed on his eyes. Ma also presides at births, acting as midwife, and she initiates Rose of Sharon into womanhood by piercing her ears: "Does it mean sompin?" Rose of Sharon asked. "Why course it does,… course it does," Ma replied. Everything Ma does is in accord with her function as an archetypal mother. She experiences herself as a provider of nourishment; others experience her as a source of strength. Her character has a positive effect on those around her for it is firmly rooted in the generating spirit of the Great Mother.

Rose of Sharon in her preoccupation with her pregnancy represents the transformative and life-giving power of the Great Mother. From the beginning of the novel, Steinbeck links Rose of Sharon to fertility: "The world was pregnant to her; she thought only in terms of reproduction and motherhood." This pregnancy transforms her husband, Connie, as well. Steinbeck describes both Rose of Sharon and Connie as drawn together in contemplation of this central female mystery: "The world had drawn close around them and they were in the center of it, or rather Rose of Sharon was in the center of it with Connie making a small orbit about her. Everything they said was a kind of secret." "Fecundation," Neumann notes, "makes the woman into a numinous being for herself and for the male."

Removal from their home and land disrupts their relationship and focus on the child to be. Uprooted, Connie and Rose of Sharon both attempt to adjust to the patriarchal structures of the larger world. Connie begins to dream of a new life in the machine age, hoping to work in a store or a factory or to learn a technical trade, and eventually, he deserts the family in pursuit of these fantasies of power in the world of men's work. Rose of Sharon hopes to have her baby in a hospital, attended by doctors, rejecting traditional female wisdom by her willingness to accept male authority over female functions. Rose of Sharon's defection is strongly punished, however, for Connie abandons her, and her child is stillborn. Her recovery is directed by her mother as she reinitiates Rose of Sharon into the female mysteries of life and death: "Ma lay close to Rose of Sharon. Sometimes Ma whispered to her and sometimes she sat up quietly, her face brooding."

It is at Ma's direction that Rose of Sharon transcends her individual suffering by giving her breast to the starving man. Neumann notes that the production of milk is an archetypal transformation mystery, involving a woman's transition from nubility to motherhood and focusing a woman's awareness of herself as a nurturing force. As she holds the starving man in her arms, Rose of Sharon develops into full womanhood. She moves from the inturned self-obsession of her adolescent passion for Connie to an understanding of self-less maternal love. Her smile reflects her recognition of the Great Mother within.

The male characters in the novel also experience the transforming power of the Great Mother. Speaking of the power of the feminine to act as a catalyst in men's lives, Neumann notes that "the male experiences … the feminine directly and indirectly as provocative, as a force that sets him in motion and impels him toward change." The details that surround the various transformative experiences in the novel indicate clearly that the change is brought about as characters realign their former patriarchal attitudes in accordance with matriarchal values, rather than as the result of Christian conversion or the development of social consciousness. Steinbeck has created strong patriarchs in his other novels, but one looks in vain for sustained masculine attributes in either Pa or Grampa. Grampa, for example, was a force to be reckoned with until he left the land; it took only a few days of separation from his vital relationship to the earth for him to die. Pa, too, as we have noted, off the land becomes more and more an auxiliary of Ma, indicating a consistent dependence on the feminine whether manifested in land or woman.

Pa's attitude toward the archetypal feminine remains a troubled one, characterized by fear and misunderstanding, a fault for which he pays. Although Mother Earth fed him, he did not know how to ensure the fertility of his land; the constant raising of the same crop contributed to the failure of his farm and the removal of his family from their roots. In the scene that describes the birth of his first son, Noah, Pa is depicted as someone who fails to understand the fundamental transformation mystery of birth. Noah is sacrificed to his father's impatience and fear of the natural functions of the feminine:

For on the night when Noah was born, Pa, frightened at the spreading thighs, alone in the house, and horrified at the screaming wretch his wife had become, went mad with apprehension. Using his hands, his strong fingers for forceps, he had pulled and twisted the baby. The midwife, arriving late, had found the baby's head pulled out of shape, its neck stretched, its body warped; and she had pushed the head back and molded the body with her hands. But Pa always remembered and was ashamed.

As a result, Noah is strange, aloof and alienated from the rest of the family. Halfway to California, however, Noah undergoes a symbolic rebirth, a baptism that brings him back into connection with the Great Mother. The rite of passage takes place in one of the domains associated with the feminine, a river where the men have come to wash and cool themselves. The river is too shallow to allow them to submerge their heads, signifying that their masculine consciousness will impede them from receiving the full benefit of their experiences in the female element and must be left behind. Noah's limited intelligence is a benefit in this case, and he is the first to respond to the call of the instinctual life promised by the Great Mother in the river. He tells the others: "I was in that there water. An' I ain't a-gonna leave her. I'm a-gonna go now,… down the river. I'll catch fish an' stuff, but I can't leave her. I can't." Noah's use of the feminine pronoun is significant here. When told that Noah is gone, Pa does not understand, and his failure places him in the position of a child in the family, subservient to Ma, who seems to understand everything.

The case for the centrality of the Great Mother in the novel is challenged by the frequent and obvious association of Jim Casy with Christ. It is obvious that Casy not only shares Christ's initials but also delivers the Christian message of love and professes a willingness to sacrifice himself for his fellow man. His relationships with women, however, reveal him as a truer disciple of the Great Mother than follower of Christian dogma. Casy tells Tom that he is no longer a preacher because love of God and religious ecstasy led him to express that love physically. "Tell you what," he said, "I used ta get the people jumpin' and talkin' in tongues, an' glory-shoutin' till they just fell down and passed out…. An' then—you know what I'd do? I'd take one of them girls out in the grass, an' I'd lay with her. Done it ever' time." This combination of religious ecstasy and sexuality causes Casy to question how the so-called working of the devil could be present when a woman felt full of the divine spirit and leads to his abandonment of his ministry. Sexuality is, of course, perfectly compatible with the worship of the Great Goddess and has always played a part in her rituals.

Casy's concept of spirituality also departs from the narrow Christian view and emphasizes a unity between body and soul, in which sex and food reflect spiritual mysteries. His attempt to define a divine principle that includes both body and spirit leads to something akin to the oversoul of cosmic consciousness: "Maybe it's all men an' all women that we love; maybe tha's the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of." He explicitly separates his spiritual ideas from Christianity, asking, "Why do we got to hang it all on God or Jesus?"

Casy's views seem very similar to those that Steinbeck himself expressed. Robert Bennett, in The Wrath of John Steinbeck; or, St. John Goes to Church, reports that when Steinbeck was in college, he could not refrain, upon visiting a church, from responding to the minister's comments on the necessity of nourishing the soul: "A lot of crap," he remarked rather loudly. "If the soul is immortal, why worry about it—it's the body that—" Casy, too, respects the body; although he expresses guilt at betraying his Christian principles through his sexuality, his experience of woman as a "holy vessel" leads him to take her to the grass time and again. Casy also feels alienated by the sexual prudery of Christianity and enjoys laughing at the old joke about the bull and the heifer.

Unlike the Father whom Jesus worshiped, Casy's god is a god unknown. Moreover, it is a divine principle that expresses itself through a feeling of unity with the natural world and an unqualified maternal love. Casy's rejection of formal religion is apparent in the scene when Granma asks him to bless their food. Here he explains his reluctance to participate in rituals of Christian tradition but agrees to present a more general blessing based upon a redefinition of holiness in terms of the central functions of the Great Mother, food, and love:

Sometimes I'd pray like I always done. On'y I coudn' figure what I was prayin' to or for. 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…. An' then I got thinkin' I don't even know what I mean by holy…. I can't say no grace like I use' ta say. I'm glad of the holiness of breakfast. I'm glad there's love here. That's all.

As Casy travels with the Joad family he becomes more and more closely attached to Ma and is initiated by her into some of the mysteries of the Great Mother. His first communal gesture is to help slaughter a pig, which is, as mentioned earlier, one of the Great Mother's sacrificial beasts. For the other men, this slaughter is simply part of their ordinary work, but Casy involves himself in the women's task of salting down the meat, thereby becoming an initiate in one of the fundamental mysteries of the Great Mother, that of food transformation. Ma is dubious about his participation at first: "It's women's work," she protests. "It's all work," the preacher replies. "They's too much of it to split it up to men's and women's work."

In the final analysis, interpreting Casy as a Christ figure leaves out too much of his fundamental earthiness. If he is seen as the unconscious prophet of a primitive earth goddess, both his sexuality and his feeling that "all that lives is holy" and "what people does is right" can be taken into account. Nor do Casy's sacrifices of himself take him beyond the realm of the Great Mother, for she has always demanded sacrifices in her honor; pain and deprivation are associated with her most primitive rituals. Casy's first sacrifice was for the Joad family, the second for the family of man. Casy's last words are reminiscent of Christ's as he tells the men who are attacking him: "You don't know what you're a doin." But his rationale for this remark is not that they do not know they are killing a son of god but that they do not know that they are "starvin' kids," a basic concern of the matriarchs and the Great Mother.

Tom Joad is more nearly a Christ figure than Casy, but he is even more profoundly the son of his mother. He is badly abused by the patriarchy both before the novel opens and later in the work camps and rejects the hierarchies of patriarchal society as well as the violence toward the weak that sustains those structures. After each confrontation with men and authority, he returns to his mother for support and spiritual nourishment. Before he leaves the family, he undergoes an initiation into the mysteries of the Great Mother. The initiation begins with a symbolic reentry into the womb, as he hides in the maternal, cavelike darkness of a culvert. His mother brings nourishment to him, and he discusses with her his plans to aid the other migrants by organizing them. He envisions an apotheosis for himself, one in which he is absorbed into a maternal darkness, maintaining a transcendent presence at food rituals: "I'll be all aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever' where—wherever you look. Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there." His transformation from bitter ex-con to fighter for humanity is the result of his developing matriarchal consciousness in which the needs of the family, the earth, and those who live close to it are primary.

Unlike Tom, Casy, and Noah, Uncle John has been transformed before the novel opens. He has been punishing himself with drink and celibacy for contributing to the death of his wife, suffering in atonement for his sins against the Great Mother. He remains in the background for the most part, a living reminder of the failure of patriarchal rule and values. Ma gives him a bit of appropriate and useful advice when she warns him not to burden others with his crimes against life: "Don't tell'em," she warns. "Go down the river an' stick your head under an' whisper'em in the stream." John does not take her advice at this point, but at the end of the novel, he performs a ritualistic sacrifice in the river that can be seen as an act of reparation to the Great Mother for all of their sins. He takes Rose of Sharon's dead baby and casts it on the stream as a warning to others that they are betraying life: "Go down an' tell 'em. Go down in the street an' rot an' tell 'em that way. That's the way you can talk…. Maybe they'll know then."

Beyond the manifestations of the transformative power of the Great Mother in the central characters, Steinbeck's descriptions of the migrant camps also indicate a strong matriarchal principle at work: "In the evening, a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all." The highlights of life in these camps, culminating in the Weedpatch camp, are the rituals that develop around the basic functional spheres of the feminine. Birth and death incite community celebrations: "And it might be that a sick child threw despair into the hearts of twenty families, of a hundred people; that a birth there in a tent kept a hundred people quiet and awe-struck through the night and filled a hundred people with the birth-joy in the morning."

Food preparation and laundry are social events on a smaller scale. Ma, for example, finds herself feeding twenty or more waifs in one campground. She is also told about the laundry rituals: "You wait till the women get to washing … know what they did yesterday, Mrs. Joad? They had a chorus. Singing a hymn tune and rubbing the clothes all in time. That was something to hear, I tell you." The principles on which families are established in the camps are based on the needs of women and children. The legal aspects of marriage, invented so that men can pass on their names and property, are no longer useful. The rules are simple: "a man might have a willing girl if he stayed with her, if he fathered her children and protected them. But a man might not have one girl one night and another the next, for this would endanger the worlds."

This last custom, the development of a matrilinear principle, is responsible for Al leaving the Joads. Like Connie, Al had previously been a man of the new age. With his mechanical abilities he performed several small miracles in keeping the car on the road between Oklahoma and California. By the last scene of the novel, however, he has been absorbed by matriarchal principles and matrilinear necessities. His mechanical abilities fail at last, and he leaves his own family for the family of his wife, a custom demanded by the matriarchal world of migrant living. This is not regarded as a desertion of the family but a reestablishment of the basic principles on which the family can continue.

Steinbeck makes it clear that life in the migrant camps does not represent an emergent Christian communism. Rose of Sharon is frightened by a dour Christian woman who warns her against the sinful dances and wicked plays that are held in the camp, insisting that "they ain't but a few deep down Jesus-lovers left." During the dancing, the "Jesus-lovers" remain aloof and keep their children under close scrutiny, safely protected from these pagan celebrations. Ma, however, urges husbandless Rose of Sharon to attend the festivities, telling her that she will be especially welcome because "it makes folks happy to see a girl in a fambly way."

Thus, although the concluding scene has generated much debate, Rose of Sharon's nurturing of the starving man is the appropriate culmination of the many manifestations of the Great Mother throughout the novel. Critics who fail to see the importance of the developing matriarchal consciousness and to recognize the transformative power of the feminine interpret Steinbeck's final image in naturalistic terms, seeing the helpless humans at the mercy of the elements when the diminished family—Ma, Pa, Rose of Sharon, Ruthie, and Winfield—are driven from their boxcar home by the rising river. Other critics, unwilling to accept the implications of the ending for their theories about the Christian or communistic patterns, have tended to concur instead that "the ending is intentionally inconclusive," albeit generally supportive of an optimism about the survival of the family of man. In its poetic and paradoxical completeness, however, the image of Rose of Sharon nursing the stranger while the flood moves to engulf the family unites both the naturalistic and optimistic views.

Failure to recognize the culmination of the archetypal pattern in this has led to such realignments of the final message as John Ford's replacement, in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath, of the powerful iconographic image of Rose of Sharon with Tom's farewell speech to his mother. Although the film's final scene, perhaps at Steinbeck's insistence, focuses on Ma Joad, the young Tom Joad, portrayed by rising star Henry Fonda, is the hero. Concluding the film with Tom's assertion of his ubiquitous, God-like presence "all around in the dark … ever' where—wherever you look," with its echoes of Christ's "insomuch as you do it to the least of them you do it unto me" restores an emphasis to patriarchal values and Christian masculinist perceptions of spiritual power that the novel undercuts.

Steinbeck, however, had no ambivalence about the conclusion of the novel, feeling its correctness, although he did not fully express the reasons for his decision. He certainly intended to take the predominant social attitudes to task, and whether he articulated it intellectually or not, the archetypal alternative to Western patriarchal values comes to the surface in the novel. Each of the characters is forced to choose between patriarchal and matriarchal attitudes toward the natural world and each other. Muley Graves provides an example at the beginning of the novel when he refuses to be driven from the garden by the appearance of the man on the machine. He will not leave the land that has been soaked by the blood of his father or the grass on which he first "laid with a girl." So he remains, living in caves and eating wild rabbits, thereby aligning himself with the vestiges of the Great Mother in nature, as he haunts the machine men who ride unfeelingly over the living earth.

The Joads confront the Great Mother within: the women learn to understand themselves as a part of the natural cycles of life and death; the men are forced to atone for their sins against life and are either transformed or die in the process. In each case, the Great Mother is experienced as a dual power, a womb/tomb that can nurture or destroy. In a brief scene toward the end of the book, Steinbeck reinforces this message, as Ruthie teaches Winfield a stern lesson about the gifts of the Great Mother. When Winfield attempts to grab a flower from Ruthie, she bangs "him in the face with her open hand." Winfield is learning early that the gifts of the Great Mother cannot be taken by force but must be earned by virtue of a reverent attitude toward nature and the feminine. He is also learning that she can withhold or bestow her gifts at will. The image of Rose of Sharon with the starving man at her breast expresses the paradoxical power of the Great Mother completely. Sword in one hand, bowl in the other, Kali, like Rose of Sharon, wears a smile.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4475

SOURCE: "Natural Wisdom: Steinbeck's Men of Nature as Prophets and Peacemakers," in Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney, Jr., University of Alabama Press, 1997, pp. 113-24.

[In the following essay, McEntyre discusses the self-knowledge and compassion acquired by Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath and Doc in Cannery Row through solitary communion with nature. According to McEntyre, "In these two figures, Casy and Doc, Steinbeck incorporates a complex vision of wisdom derived from attentiveness to the natural world."]

Steinbeck's prophets, men of broad understanding and acceptance, draw their vision from the natural world. Jim Casy, a lapsed preacher and wise counselor to the Joad family, finds new faith in love of nature and renewed purpose through his involvement with the people of the earth. At the center of Cannery Row, is Doc, marine biologist, whose holistic vision and compassionate attention to human needs are similarly drawn from close observation of his environment and nature. Through a nonteleological acceptance of what is, both the rigorous scientist and the intuitive preacher recognize the interconnectedness of creation.

Steinbeck's indebtedness to the American transcendentalists, particularly Emerson and Whitman, has been noted frequently. That relationship lies partly in his way of looking upon the natural world as a source of knowledge, a text to replace or expand upon Scripture, which teaches those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. For Steinbeck, as for his predecessors, the wise man was above all else defined by his discerning relationship to the natural world, allowing it to inform his understanding of human relations and enterprises.

In several of Steinbeck's novels we encounter variations on the type of the wise man—a character whose self-knowledge, compassion for human frailty, and sharp intuitions come from close association with the natural world. Two of the most notable of these are Casy, the preacher in The Grapes of Wrath, and Doc in Cannery Row. Both are solitaries who take frequent "flights into the wilderness" but who live among people who rely upon them for guidance. Both understand themselves and others with an insight that at times seems prophetic, and indeed in the motley circles they frequent they are accorded special status as counselors and wise men. Both are more educated than those around them, but each in his way has rejected the institutional forms and frameworks that endowed him with professional credentials and lives as a maverick of sorts, moving easily among circles of people to none of which he belongs. Both are explicitly linked with images of Jesus, though neither is conventionally religious. Both are "nonteleological thinkers" in the sense in which Steinbeck claimed that he himself viewed the world: not in terms of defined purposes, but with what he called "is thinking"—acceptance without second-guessing of the divine plan.

For each, the source of wisdom and virtue appears to lie in communion with nature. And each, communing with nature, assumes the status and role of prophet in his community. Indeed it might be said that in these characters Steinbeck is working out a definition of prophecy and the importance of the prophet in modern life, not as one who calls for specific acts of repentance and return to a convenantal tradition, but as one who sees into the heart of nature and speaks forth what lesson it teaches. In doing so he, in effect, issues a warning call to turn away from those forms of civilized life that remove us from what Robinson Jeffers, Steinbeck's contemporary and fellow Californian, called "the great humaneness at the heart of things." And like Jeffers, he writes as one who is himself a visionary trying to find a language for the ultimate interconnectedness of all creation as a means for understanding what as humans we must do.

Steinbeck's most explicit articulation of this vision is given in Sea of Cortez, where he describes "nonteleological thinking" as a way of understanding the natural and thence the social world independent of the causal relations and presumed purposes we so readily posit to satisfy our need for comprehensible meaning. Freeman Champney sums up nonteleological thinking as "a mixture of philosophical relativism, the rigorous refusal of the scientist to be dogmatic about hypotheses, and a sort of moral fatalism." Steinbeck himself explains, "Nonteleological thinking concerns itself primarily not with what should be, or could be, or might be, but rather with what actually 'is'—attempting at most to answer the already sufficiently difficult questions what or how, instead of why."

To think in such a way entails a kind of humility related to Jeffers's idea of "unhumanism"—a rejection of the myopic anthropocentrism that distorts our understanding of the functioning of whole systems, the large patterns of evolution, the nature of natural and human communities as organic wholes that transcend the life and purposes of any individual within them. This capacity for "whole sight," as well as what Champney sees as relativism, antidogmatism, and ultimate acceptance of what is, defines the prophet in Steinbeck's world. In The Grapes of Wrath it is Casy, the unpretentious fellow traveler in the Joads' pilgrim band and maverick Christian in self-imposed exile from institutional religion, who embodies the nonteleological or "is" thinker capable of prophesying and ultimately enacting a larger truth than those around him are able to grasp.

Casy, who was once a preacher, now makes it a point of honor to reject his status and its privileges, assuring the Joads, who receive him as a kind of family chaplain, that he doesn't pray any more. But the habit of prayer is as ingrained in him as the way of life he leaves behind on the road to California: "'Fella gets use' to a place, it's hard to go,' said Casy. 'Fella gets use' to a way a thinkin', it's hard to leave. I ain't a preacher no more, but all the time I find I'm prayin', not even thinkin' what I'm doin.'" His prayer is no longer a petition to an omnipotent God but a way of being and a largeness of awareness that comes to him in moments of solitude in the wilderness. He recognizes in himself a natural kinship with the Jesus who fled the crowds and went up into the high desert to pray:

I been in the hills thinking, almost you might say like Jesus went into the wilderness to think his way out of a mess of troubles. I ain't sayin' I'm like Jesus,… But I got tired like Him, an' I got mixed up like Him, an' I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin' stuff. Nighttime I'd lay on may back and look up at the stars; morning I'd set and watch the sun come up; midday I'd look out from a hill at the rollin' dry country; evenin' I'd foller the sun down. Sometimes I'd pray like I always done. On'y I couldn't figure what I was prayin' to or for. 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 idea of the holy has expanded for Casy since his rejection of the church. It springs from an awareness of nature honed and trained by his frequent retreats, his attitude of receptivity, and a habit of mind that links what he knows of the unconscious natural world to a deepening intuition about the ways of human nature. To be in the wilderness "without no campin' stuff" is to be in more direct sensual contact with the earth than those for whom the multilayered insulations of clothing and shelter dull the raw sensate experience of nature. Casy's reflection here also traces a line of thinking that begins in Christian typology and ends in a rejection of that tradition in favor of a universalistic mysticism removed from the claims of any institution. Like Emerson, the transcendentalist who left his pulpit and went out among the people, and like Thoreau, who turned eccentricity to high purposes, Casy opens his heart to a wider calling than the pulpit afforded—to return to the earth and live close to it and the people who till the soil and to learn from them:

I ain't gonna baptize. I'm gonna work in the fiel's, in the green fiel's, an' I'm gonna be near to folks. I ain't gonna try to teach 'em nothin'. I'm gonna try to learn. Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear 'em talk, gonna hear 'em sing…. Gonna lay in the grass, open and honest with anybody that'll have me. Gonna cuss an' swear an' hear the poetry of folks talkin'. All that's holy, all that's what I didn' understand'. All them things is the good things.

In both these speeches there are echoes of transcendentalism, Protestant theology, and Whitmanian democracy. Frederick Carpenter points out the rich soil and deep roots that underlie Casy's philosophical statements as he "translates American philosophy into words of one syllable." And Peter Lisca comments that in these same articulations, Casy moves "from Bible-belt evangelism to social prophesy." As a social prophet, however, his task is to prophesy to a particular and peculiar people. It is in his shared life with the Joad family that he works out his destiny and mission, often in terms reduced to their own simpler way of understanding what he is about.

Despite Casy's protestations, the Joads and others continue to take him for a preacher. The title sticks, and in that assigned role Casy assumes a place in but not of the Joad family, increasingly committed to a vision of things and a version of action that might be described as natural Christianity. His models for prayer and action come from Jesus, but his epistemology emerges not from any organized doctrine but from observation of, trust in, and love for the natural world and the people who live close to the earth.

"I can see it like a prophecy," Casy says, prognosticating about the fate of the people when tractors have made work "so easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of the land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation." Like his Old and New Testament prototypes he sees the broad connections among things, understands the ominous signs of destruction of the natural order, and longs to save "the people" from the legal and economic machinery that is devouring their lives and driving them off their land. "If ya listen," he says, "you'll hear a movin' an' a sneakin', an' a rustlin', an'—an' a restlessness. They's stuff goin' on that the folks doin' it don't know nothin' about—yet. They's gonna come somepin onto all these folks goin' wes'—outa all their farms lef' lonely. They's gonna come a thing that's gonna change the whole country."

Casy knows these things because he watches and listens and understands signs and portents. He stays awake nights, watching the stars and listening to the sounds of animals in their burrows. He frequently speaks what he knows in parables drawn from nature:

But they's somepin worse'n the devil got hold a the country, an' it ain't gonna let go till it's chopped loose. Ever see one a them Gila monsters take hold …? Grabs hold, an' you chop him in two an' his head hangs on. Chop him at the neck and his head hangs on. Got to take a screwdriver an' pry his head apart to get him loose. An' while he's layin' there poison is drippin' an' drippin' into the hole he's made with his teeth.

Casy's sense of the enormity of the evil coming upon the people is commensurate with his great reverence for creation. At Grampa Joad's funeral he quotes, "All that lives is holy." He has little respect for the laws of man, returning repeatedly to simple expressions of natural law as the only reliable guide for human action: "Law changes," he says, "but' got to's' go on. You got the right to do what you got to do."

His understanding of human nature as well as his rudimentary awareness of the profound involvement of human emotions and desires and needs in the life of the physical body as well as the body politic make him a healer. When Grampa falls sick, Ma finds Casy and asks him simply, "You been aroun' sick people…. Grampa's sick. Won't you go take a look at him?" Significantly enough, he can't fix a car, though he can administer comfort, healing, and leadership. All he can do when the car breaks down is shine the light for Tom and Al to see by. His work is with matters of "the sperit."

As the awareness of evil grows on Casy, so does his sense of mission. "I hear the way folks are feelin'," he says. "Goin' on all the time. I hear 'em an' feel 'em; an' they're beating their wings like a bird in an attic. Gonna bust their wings on a dusty winda tryin' ta get out." Casy eventually dies by the principle of natural law, leading a strike, telling his attackers, "You got no right to starve people," and then, "You don' know what you're a-doin'"—final words that powerfully recall Jesus' words, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Casy's homegrown natural theology has been the subject of much critical comment, especially the Emersonian echoes in his much-cited insight that "maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of." It is from this essentially pantheistic vision that his politics derive. Ownership makes little sense to him beyond the natural claim to what one needs. The arbitrariness of man-made boundaries seems not simply to ignore but to violate natural laws of distribution and interdependence. Frederick Carpenter in his essay "The Philosophical Joads" sums up Casy's story in this way: "Unorthodox Jim Casy went into the Oklahoma wilderness to save his soul. And in the wilderness he experienced the religious feeling of identity with nature which has always been the heart of transcendental mysticism … the corollary of this mystical philosophy is that man's self-seeking destroys the unity or 'holiness' of nature."

Casy's cosmic perspective on human affairs, his involvement in the immediacies of human needs, and his deep attention to the natural world as a source of wisdom are all reiterated in a new key in the character of Doc, the wise man of Cannery Row. Robert Benton has pointed out that the "ecological" cast of Steinbeck's thinking is reflected in his characterization of Doc—a way of thinking that "causes him to see man as an organism related to a vast and complex ecosystem." In chapter 2 of that book, the narrator pauses characteristically to take a step back from the canvas on which he is painting the colorful local scene and take a cosmic perspective. He sees Lee Chong the grocer and Mack and the boys "spinning in their orbits." The short chapter ends with a prayer: "Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature."

In light of this presentation of natural religion as the ideological backdrop to the narrative, Doc's close and attentive knowledge of nature endows him with not only professional but also prophetic credibility. In subsequent chapters the virtues of a good naturalist, as attributes of Doc's character, are manifestations of virtue in a much larger sense; Doc's patience in observing and collecting specimens for study, his steady commitment to objectivity, and his curiosity itself are seen as forms of compassion. He answers Hazel's desultory questions with more seriousness than they deserve because "Doc had one mental habit he could not get over. When anyone asked a question, Doc thought he wanted to know the answer. That was the way with Doc. He never asked unless he wanted to know and he could not conceive of the brain that would ask without wanting to know." The simplicity and straightforwardness of his scientific habit of mind appear as an almost child-like innocence, a quality of guilelessness that wins him universal trust among the ragged crowd who surround him.

At times Doc's steadiness of focus is broken by a kind of whimsy, itself related to wider spiritual vision. When Hazel, observing a crowd of stinkbugs on the ice plant, asks "What they got their asses up in the air for?" Doc's first answer is, "I looked them up recently—they're very common animals and one of the commonest things they do is put their tails up in the air. And in all the books there isn't one mention of the fact that they put their tails up in the air or why." Pressed further with "Well, why do you think they do it?" Doc answers, "I think they're praying," and to Hazel's shocked response adds, "The remarkable thing … isn't that they put their tails up in the air—the really incredible thing is that we find it remarkable. We can only use ourselves as yardsticks. If we did something as inexplicable and strange we'd probably be praying—so maybe they're praying." The exchange speaks volumes about the way Doc brings together observation, research, deductive and inductive reasoning, contemplation, and a gentle humor that seems to proceed out of a detachment from the entangled human perspective that few men achieve.

Steinbeck's narrators take whole chapters to give voice and color to the natural environments the characters inhabit, embedding in those descriptions much philosophy about the right relation between earth and its creatures. But it is in these small exchanges that draw attention to the minute designs of the natural world that the novels reveal how nature shapes vision and character, how a place known intimately—a farm, a field, a tidepool—can become, as Casy puts it, "a way of thinkin'."

Doc's general wisdom, like Casy's spills over the boundaries of professional definition. At various times he has to remind petitioners that he is neither a medical doctor nor a veterinarian nor a psychiatrist. Like the Joads with their proprietary expectations of Casy as personal chaplain, Doc's cohorts expect him to be all of these things as well as spiritual counselor, confessor, and source of ready money:

Now Doc of the Western Biological Laboratory had no right to practice medicine. It was not his fault that everyone in the Row came to him for medical advice. Before he knew it he found himself running from shanty to shanty taking temperatures, giving physics, borrowing and delivering blankets and even taking food from house to house where mothers looked at him with inflamed eyes from their beds, and thanked him and put the full responsibility for their children's recovery on him. When a case got really out of hand he phoned a local doctor and sometimes one came if it seemed to be an emergency. But to the families it was all emergency. Doc didn't get much sleep. He lived on beer and canned sardines.

Doc maintains his own spiritual and mental health by means of frequent retreats into music, poetry, and nature. His scrupulously scientific habit of mind is a counterpart to Casy's broadly intuitive epistemology but expresses the same deep reverence for what can be learned from the natural world.

Doc had to keep up his collecting. He tried to get to the good tides along the coast. The sea rocks and the beaches were his stock pile. He knew where every thing was when he wanted it. All the articles of his trade were filed away on the coast, sea cradles here, octopi here, tube worms in another place, sea pansies in another. He knew where to get them but he could not go for them exactly when he wanted. For Nature locked up the items and only released them occasionally. Doc had to know not only the tides but when a particular low tide was good in a particular place. When such a low tide occurred, he packed his collecting tools in his car, he packed his jars, his bottles, his plates and preservatives and he went to the beach or reef or rock ledge where the animals he needed were stored.

Doc doesn't even need a clock but lives by a tidal pattern: "He could feel a tide change in his sleep." His knowledge has penetrated to his very body and bones. This kind of knowledge depends on humility, attentiveness, and long fidelity to the habit of patient contemplation—qualities that are also the basis of Doc's legendary compassion. But committed as he is to scientific accuracy and truth-telling, he has also had to learn that "people didn't like you for telling the truth." Once, he recalls, on a walking trip through the South, he repeatedly encountered people who asked him why he was walking through the country but were disturbed by his honest answer:

Because he loved true things he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot. And people didn't like him for telling the truth. They scowled, or shook and tapped their heads, they laughed as though they knew it was a lie and they appreciated a liar. And some, afraid for their daughters or their pigs, told him to move on, to get going, just not to stop near their place if he knew what was good for him.

And so he stopped trying to tell the truth. He said he was doing it on a bet—that he stood to win a hundred dollars. Everyone liked him then and believed him. They asked him in to dinner and gave him a bed and they put lunches up for him and wished him good luck and thought he was a hell of a fine fellow. Doc still loved true things but he knew it was not a general love and it could be a very dangerous mistress.

The recognition in this passage that the solitary poses a subtle but vividly felt threat to the community recalls some of well-known stories about the suspicions Thoreau encountered among his fellows in Concord or, more dramatically, the association of intimacy with nature with witchcraft and occultism. Hawthorne's Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter illustrates this latter point; an herbalist whose compendious knowledge of the healing powers of herbs derives from long association with Indians and a solitary life dedicated to this study appears as a practitioner of "dark arts." More benevolent images like that of "Johnny Appleseed" still mark as an eccentric the individual who forsakes community life and communes with nature.

Doc understands this common suspicion, and with a diplomacy that is the measure of his great charity he takes care to foster his own needs in a way that does not threaten or alienate him from the community that depends on him. His understanding of the natural order, like Casy's, informs his social behavior. Much of Doc's activity among his cohorts on Cannery Row is a kind of pastoral subterfuge. Like Casy he is a shrewd assessor of human nature and calculates his demands and concessions accordingly. He also serves as a hub that draws people together in a way that makes community possible. He understands, like Casy, the wide web of interdependency that binds the things of this world and makes a mockery of short-sighted ideas of ownership. His generosity has a character of matter-of-fact common sense to it; it is simply the way of nature.

We do get an occasional ironic comment on the effects of such natural sanctity on the more commercially minded: "Lee was indebted to Doc—deeply indebted. What Lee was having trouble comprehending was how his indebtedness to Doc made it necessary to give credit to Mack." But Doc knows that somehow things even out, like water seeking its own level. He trusts some principle of natural distribution as a basis for all moral action: people do what they can do, they act on what they can understand, and as long as they act in harmony with their nature things even out and we learn from one another. Thus his admiration for Mack and the boys escapes condescension because he understands the necessity of their presence in a world that needs just such a corrective. "Look at them," he says:

They are your true philosophers. I think … that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.

Chapter 31 of Cannery Row, which details the life and frustrated enterprises of a gopher, serves as a parable to describe Doc's solitary, industrious life in the face of the social changes and chances that defeat his human ambitions. The gopher, like him, is busy, solitary, in the prime of life. He burrows into rich soil "on a little eminence" where he could watch Mack and the boys. He prepares an elaborate place for a female to join him and raise a family, but no female appears. He goes out to court one but comes back bitten. Finally, "he had to move two blocks up the hill to the dahlia garden where they put out traps every night." Doc is, finally, the gopher in the dahlia garden. He adapts to an environment diminished in natural richness, unsympathetic to his higher ends but livable. He is a prophet unhonored by a mechanized, commercialized, secular culture, quietly, stubbornly cherishing ideals that culture has begun to threaten.

In these two figures, Casy and Doc, Steinbeck incorporates a complex vision of wisdom derived from attentiveness to the natural world. The best of what we call human virtue—compassion, forgiveness, clarity, flexibility—comes from the habit of attention. And in characters like these he would seem to be suggesting that nature teaches us what we need to know—and that our best teachers are those who have learned her lessons.


Steinbeck, John (Vol. 1)


Steinbeck, John (Vol. 13)