Table of Contents
2. Background Information on The Grapes of Wrath
2.1 Historical Context
2.2 Steinbeck’s Personal Experiences
3. Analyzing The Grapes of Wrath
3.1 Setting and Structure
3.3.2 The Individual vs. Changing Conditions
3.3.3 The Individual vs. the Group
3.3.4 Steinbeck’s Social Criticism and Roosevelt’s New Deal Policy
4. The Grapes of Wrath and Its Adaptability to the Big Screen
7. List of Works Cited and Consulted
Table of Figures
Figure 1: John Ernest Steinbeck
Figure 2: The Dust Bowl of the 1930s
Figure 3: The ’30s migration west
Figure 4: U.S. Route 66
Officially published on April 14, 1939, The Grapes of Wrath is the novel for which John Steinbeck received both his greatest acclaim and his sharpest criticism. Although it was Steinbeck’s intention from the start to create a highly political novel that would provoke a lively public discussion, he did not anticipate that The Grapes of Wrath would actually cause an uproar similar only to some of the most controversial novels in the history of American literature—in that respect, it seems justified to mention Steinbeck’s epic novel alongside such works as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (an account of the deplorable conditions in Chicago’s slaughterhouses, published in 1906) or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); nor did he anticipate that, apart from bringing him fame and fortune, it would cast a long shadow on the rest of his career as a writer. While Steinbeck continued to be commercially successful, The Grapes of Wrath turned out to be a heavy burden in that the literary value of all his subsequent work was continually compared to that milestone. Many critics claimed that, although published at a relatively early stage in his career, The Grapes of Wrath was the pinnacle of Steinbeck’s literary output and that his later work never really measured up to it. It is interesting to note that even Steinbeck himself, while publicly assailing those same critics, was privately never quite sure of the quality of his work, feeling like it was somehow not worthy of a truly great author (cf. Burkhead 2002, p. 7). Leaving such considerations aside, however, it is safe to say that none of Steinbeck’s later works had as strong a political focus as The Grapes of Wrath, and that none stirred as great a reaction.
In this paper, I will first present some background information concerning the making and the reception of The Grapes of Wrath. This will be followed by a closer analysis of the novel with regard to such aspects as setting, structure, characters, themes, and symbolism. Before ending this paper with a short conclusion, I will very briefly deal with the question of whether the novel lends itself to a film adaptation and how director John Ford handled the subject in his classic film version from the year 1940.
2. Background Information on The Grapes of Wrath
2.1 Historical Context
The Grapes of Wrath is a novel which, both with regard to its making and to its content, is firmly embedded in its historical context. In the United States, the 1930s were a decade that is particularly remembered for three coinciding phenomena of great magnitude: the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policy. The New Deal, which will be discussed in greater detail at a later stage in this paper, was essentially the political reaction to the two phenomena mentioned first, and was designed to address the severe social and economic problems that were caused by them.
The Great Depression, which started in the United States but quickly became a worldwide economic slump, began with the dramatic collapse of stock-market prices at the New York Stock Exchange in October 1929 and lasted until around 1939. The notorious stock-market crash triggered an economic downward spiral, which resulted in countless banks and other companies going bankrupt, a drastic decline in U.S. manufacturing output, and an unprecedented increase in unemployment: by 1932, between 12 and 15 million American workers, equaling 25-30 percent of the total workforce, were unemployed. Many Americans, upon losing their job and thus their main source of income, piled up huge debts and ultimately ended up in poverty.
Particularly in the southern part of the Great Plains, this social and economic crisis was aggravated by the so-called Dust Bowl of the 1930s (see figure 2). The Dust Bowl was caused by agricultural malpractices as well as years of sustained drought and incessant strong winds. Unlike the native grasses of the Plains, which had stabilized the soil, the crops (mainly wheat) that substituted them did not have that effect. This and the deep plowing of the ground allowed the wind to blow away the completely dried-up top soil, so that, while the land had yielded rich harvests in the years when there was plenty of rainfall, the picture now changed to the one described by Steinbeck in the opening chapters of The Grapes of Wrath: the sky could be darkened for days by the huge clouds of dust raised by the strong wind, all the land and even the floor and furniture inside people’s homes was covered by a thick layer of dust, and the better part of the harvest was destroyed. As a consequence of the farms not yielding enough profit anymore, the farmers who still owned their farms had to sell them, and the landowners (for instance the banks) forced the sharecroppers off of the land they had cultivated. In the end, this development culminated in the massive westward migration of uprooted and impoverished farmers on which The Grapes of Wrath is based (see figure 3):
And then the dispossessed were drawn west—from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless—restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do—to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut—anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land. (Steinbeck 1992, p. 317)
2.2 Steinbeck’s Personal Experiences
John Steinbeck’s motivation to create an epic story about a fictional family of Dust Bowl farmers and their journey to California in search of better living conditions stems to a large part from personal experiences he made in the course of his own life. Having to finance his studies at Stanford University, which he pursued without much interest for anything other than writing, he frequently entered the world of hard menial labor during the summer breaks or when he took time off during the semester. These working experiences, for instance as an itinerant ranch hand, exposed him to the life of working-class Americans and influenced much of his later writing. Even after his time at Stanford, which he left without a degree, and before his career as a writer paid him enough money to make a living, he had to take on numerous low-paid jobs to see him through, e.g. as a sailor on a ship going to New York by way of the Panama Canal or as a worker for a construction company (cf. Burkhead 2002, pp. 3-4).
However, the one thing that most influenced his decision to write The Grapes of Wrath was the first-hand taste of the exploitation and pitiable living conditions of California’s migrant workers he got when he wrote a series of news reports, titled “The Harvest Gypsies,” on the subject for the San Francisco News in October 1936. In the following year, he even accompanied some of the migrants on their trip from Oklahoma to California. In the end, all these experiences added up to his wish to write a novel that would draw the public’s attention to the grave injustices and hardships these people had to endure. As it turned out, The Grapes of Wrath, which Steinbeck began writing in May 1938, more than accomplished this task.
In many ways, The Grapes of Wrath was a great success for Steinbeck. Though he created several other well-known narratives, including Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), Cannery Row (1945), and East of Eden (1952), his fame as a writer is for the most part based on this one novel. Upon its publication on 14 April 1939, it became an immediate bestseller, and the subsequent sale of film rights meant that Steinbeck’s financial struggles were once and for all a matter of the past. The Grapes of Wrath was also an artistic success. While some bashed it for allegedly being overly sentimental and others saw it more as a piece of social documentation or journalism rather than a novel, most critics acknowledged its literary value. Steinbeck was even awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for it in 1940.
But apart from these positive aspects, The Grapes of Wrath also had an unexpected negative impact on Steinbeck’s life. For one, Steinbeck had difficulties coping with the pressure the overwhelming success of the novel, both financially and artistically, put on him with regard to his subsequent work as a writer. Moreover, he was not prepared for the consequences his newly acquired fame brought with it. Steinbeck did not feel comfortable standing in the spotlight, particularly not considering what came after the publication of the novel. Not even in his wildest dreams could he possibly have imagined the magnitude of the controversy spawned by The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck became the target of countless angry attacks by people or organizations that did not agree with the way he had presented them in his book. Based on charges that the novel created a distorted picture of the migrant situation and that it ultimately came down to Communist propaganda, Steinbeck was, among others, assailed by private groups such as the Associated Farmers of California and from local and state government representatives from both California and Oklahoma. The book was banned from many public libraries and was even fed to the flames by angry mobs in cities such as East St. Louis, Illinois (cf. Burkhead 2002, p. 64). The extent to which Steinbeck was caught off guard and even scared by the outrage the book inspired becomes evident from what he wrote in a letter at the time:
The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad. The latest is a rumor started by them that the Okies hate me and have threatened to kill me for lying about them. I'm frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing, it is completely out of hand; I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing that is not healthy. (National Steinbeck Center)
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- Steinbeck Grapes Wrath Novel Amerikanische Literatur Amerikanistik Roman Great Depression Social Criticism New Deal