The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
The Grapes of Wrath directed by John Ford (1940)
I was supposed to read Frankenstein, but after reading The Long Valley and The Red Pony but John Steinbeck, I just couldn’t resist reading The Grapes of Wrath (the curse of the mood reader!) Frankenstein is fantastic though and I will still cover it, it will just be moved to November.
Based on past Steinbeck books I have read; I was expecting this to have more symbolism. While there is a lot of symbolism in the ending, the majority of the story seems pretty straight forward, unless I am missing something, which could very well be the case. When I read some of these big books on my own, I sometimes feel like I am out to sea trying to dog paddle! I need someone smarter who has studied this in college to through me a floaty or something and help me out lol. But I do the best I can, plus there is the internet which is a huge help when reading books that can go over my head.
Anyway, to cut to the chase though-I loved this book! I wish it was one I had read in school. That ending was so powerful it almost brought me to tears. (And boy do I love when a book can do that!) It was such an intense book, and each of the characters are so distinct and typical to Steinbeck, they are all so nuanced and complex. They all have distinct arcs and I loved where everyone ended up, both literally and figuratively, in the end.
Historically, this is an important book to read as it documents the experience of those who migrated from the Midwest to California when the dust bowl happened. There was so much prejudice towards them and reading about how it the banks and the big corporations who are to blame.
It also tells the very human experience of having hopes and dreams be dashed, having people let you down and abandon you, experiencing embarrassment and shame, but also experiencing kindness from strangers, and finding a strength you didn’t know you had.
There are smaller chapters intermixed with the longer chapters about the Joads, and these smaller chapters set the scene for what comes next. He does this in a very skillful way, writing certain sections from the perspective of people who interact with those heading west-car salesmen, gas station workers, ect. Then other chapters explain the situation of the migrant camps, the way food is wasted, but it is written in an almost poetical way. So, it isn’t an exposition dump, but rather a beautifully written interlude of sorts that delves into an aspect of the story. There is even a chapter about a turtle, which is symbolic of the people moving west.
In a 1938 letter, Steinbeck wrote about his writing of Grapes saying, “My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other. . . .”
This book reminded of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because both were written to bring to light the suffering that was happening and told in an effort to humanize the people. Also with both books, people suspected the authors were exaggerating the events, but if anything, the suffering was even more so in real life.
This movie is directed by John Ford who was known to be a staunch conservative. He took on the film though because he saw it as a human story of these people’s individual struggles. I love that he didn’t let his political views cause him to be prejudice against these peoples suffering.
Henry Fonda is in the role of Tom Joad and Steinbeck was very happy with the movie and especially loved Fonda in the role. He and Fonda became friends (they are very close in age) and Fonda even spoke at Steinbeck’s funeral.
I also wanted to give a shout out to the two that played Grandpa and Grandma, they are in the first 30-40 minutes and aren’t the main characters, but I loved them both. They were hilarious, but also had some touching moments.
Both book and movie we have Tom Joad who is released early from prison on parole and when he returns home, they are preparing to leave west because they are being kicked off their land.
The whole family, along with former preacher Jim Casey, load up their car and head out.
On the way, grandpa and grandma die and Noah, Tom’s oldest brother, decides to stay by the Colorado river. In the movie Noah is just kind of gone, but in the book, we learn that Noah is mentally handicapped and the dad feels guilty about it because he thinks it’s his fault because of how he pulled the baby’s head when he was being born. But Noah tells Tom that he wants to stay with the river and that he is at peace there.
Once they arrive in California and they see it isn’t the dream they though, Rose of Sharon’s husband, Connie leaves and never comes back.
Then there is a scuffle in the camp, and Casey takes the blame and goes to jail.
The family goes to different areas to find work, and at one point Tom comes across Casey who has become a leader of a group who want to go on strike. Casey ends up being killed by police and Tom kills the cop who killed Casey.
Tom then needs to go into hiding and in the end, we see him talking to Ma and she gives him money, telling him he needs to go far away because Ruthie accidently told about him (in the book, in the move he leaves because they are checking license plates and will be back in the morning to find him). He tells her he will follow in Casey’s footsteps and help lead the people to a better life and better treatment.
Meanwhile, the camp the family is at is flooding, and they get up and find a barn to stay in.
This is in the book though, and everything else with the book ending I will save for later to discuss because there is a lot of symbolism and meaning in it!
The movie ends with Tom leaving to lead the people, and the family heading somewhere else and Ma Joad saying that they will last and find a way to survive.
I’ll start by talking about the different main characters because in the book especially, they have such a great character arc!
Jim Casey is a former preacher, and we see that he is conflicted. People still regard him as a preacher, even though he no longer knows if there is a God and doesn’t really know what it means to sin. When he would preach, he said the “holy spirit” made him and some women want to have sex and he would go off with one of them and then feel regret afterwards because as a preacher, he is supposed to see women as something greater than just a body.
He is a talkative person though and but also very observant. When he stands up for the Joad’s, feeling it is his way of repaying them for bringing him along on the trip, he is put in jail. While there, he meets other men who were jailed for being “agitators”.
Once he gets out, he joins the group of people who want to have fight for regulations to be put in place that prevent the farms from screwing them over basically. When Tom finds him at this point, it seems that Casey has found his way and is doing something he believes in.
Tom is a very likeable character throughout the book. He is responsible and is someone people trust. At one point he says he wants to be like Uncle John and drink, or be like Al and be focused on women, or be like Pa and get mad. But Ma tells him he isn’t like the others and that she depends on him.
There is also a scene in the book where the car needs a new part and Tom and Al go to a mechanic place and get a new part. The guy working there is missing an eye and laments all that’s wrong with his life and how it’s all because people judge him for not having an eye. Tom gets fed up with it, and tells him it isn’t his eye, it’s him and that maybe if he wasn’t so caught up in his missing eye, his life would improve. To which the guy is inspired.
In the end, Tom thinks about the future, not just his, but everyone. He thinks about how Casey said we don’t have one soul but are all parts of one who soul and that is why people are better together. He wants to follow in Casey’s footsteps and fight for people’s rights.
The movie has this ending as well, but they leave out the part with the guy with one eye as well as the part where he tells Ma he wishes he could cop out in one way or another like all the other men.
In the book and movie, but even more so in the book, we see how back home the men were in charge. Yet, once they are on the road and especially once they are in California, Ma ends up taking the lead. Pa admits that he isn’t any good because he spends his days thinking of home and wishing life was back to how it was. Ma says that women are better able to go with the flow of life and are better at adapting to difficulties, and that is why she has been able to take the lead rather than fall apart as well.
Her character is strong from the start, and Tom comments on this change in her, compared to how she was four years prior. She says she never had to go through the things that have happened before, and so she never felt the need to be harsh or mean before.
Rose of Sharon
Rose of Sharon, aka Rosasharn, has one of the bigger arcs in the story. On the way to California, she and Connie are in love and dreaming on their future. Once Connie leaves, she is of course sad and upset and doesn’t see how she can go on. She is often complaining (but I mean come on, can you really blame her?) and can be self-centered at times. She is worried about the baby, especially after a mentally unstable woman in the government camp tells her that women that lost babies recently, lost them because they were evil. When in reality, they lost their babies because of the lack of food. But despite her complaining, she works with everyone else the majority of the time.
When she gives birth, the baby is stillborn. Afterwards, they go up to a barn to be protected from the rain. In the barn, there is a man and his son and the man is dying of starvation because he kept giving any food to his son instead. The man can’t keep any food down and needs milk. Rosasharn has breastmilk and has the man drink some. This is a moment of hope, as she is happy to help someone else rather than thinking of herself.
While it is hopeful, it also shows what desperate times these were. It is also reminiscent of the painting of Mary holding the adult Jesus to her.
Someone named Judith on a quora thread said of this ending, “I believe the ending of the book proclaims Steinbeck’s hope and belief that Good can overcome Evil, especially if people bond together and work for the common good and the benefit of society. I believe Steinbeck saw in the ‘average man’ a strong sense of right and wrong, an innate feeling for justice, and a willingness to sacrifice for the benefit of others. He particularly saw empathy, strength, and generosity in the women he wrote about. Ma Joad saw what needed to be done, and I think, as long as she was with her family, they would survive to have better days.”
In the movie we don’t see what happens with her pregnancy. But in the book, it is stillborn. This seems not only realistic, but also symbolic. As babies can represent new life and the birth of a baby is something so special and brings a joy to everyone around. The baby never being alive, shows their lack of joy and how dark their future will probably be.
They put the baby in an open box and tell Uncle John to bury it. He instead takes the box and puts it on the river which is flooding and has the box float in the direction of the town. He tells the baby to be an example to the people, to show to the others the suffering that is happening.
This can also be seen in a biblical sense, comparing it to Moses’s mother placing him in the basket and floating him down the river.
I actually read that the whole book can be compared to Exodus in the bible. With Moses leading the people, them being in the forest, the plagues and other such hardships.
The book ending also has Ruthie finding a flower and sharing part of it with Winfield (albeit grudgingly at first) and they place the petals on their face. This seems significant showing the life and growth that the rain brings.
And going back to Rose of Sharon breastfeeding the man, we see how something terrible can still potentially have some hope. She wasn’t able to feed her own baby, but she can use that milk instead to feed her fellow people.
The movie of course couldn’t show the stillborn baby, or Rosasharn’s breastfeeding a man, so the movie instead ends with Tom leaving and Ma giving her inspirational speech. Ford didn’t want this ending, but Darryl Zanuck did so Ford told Zanuck he could direct that last scene in the car.
Small movie changes
In book and movie, they go to the government commune which is run by the people and police aren’t allowed in. In the book, after that first camp they go to which is burned down, they go to the government camp. Whereas in the movie, after that first camp, they then go to the farm with the peaches and the ranch store.
But in the book, they are at the government camp for a month and love it. The book and movie have the part where guys go to the Saturday dance to try and start a fight, but a farmer had warned them so they are prepared for it and all is well. In the book they have to leave because there just isn’t any work in the area. It may have running water and kind people, but there just isn’t any money and therefore there isn’t any food. It is from here that they go to the peach farm.
We also have the scene early on when Ma is making stew and all these kids gather around wanting some. She can’t say no and lets them have what is left over. Such a powerful, sad scene in book and movie! Both have the kid who doesn’t want to admit he is hungry and lies about eating well. In the book though, after this a mom comes up to Ma and is angry at her for feeding her children. The women feel insulted that she isn’t able to feed her own kids, and they had to go to someone else for food.
Which, talk of charity is brought up a few times. In the government camp they say they don’t give out charity, and everything that is borrowed is to be paid back. Everyone is so against accepting “handouts” and says how children and adults are scarred by taking charity. This made me think of The Glass Castle when one of the daughters talks about how they could get food stamps or something like that and the mom says she would never allow her kids to accept charity because it is something you can never forget. Uhhh, as if starving as a child because you aren’t taking charity can be forgotten more easily?? So, I don’t agree with being so proudful you don’t take “charity”. Yet, I get that when you are that destitute, your stubborn pride is all you have to hold onto in some ways.
I had thought that Steinbeck came up with the title, which I absolutely love. But turns out it is from a song called The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Anyway, there is a chapter explaining how farmers had to get rid of food and they would throw it in the river and prevent hungry people from getting it. Or they would spray the food down with a chemical so it would be inedible. So, there is so much waste, yet so many are starving. A section of the book reads,
“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
Book vs movie
The movie leaves out quite a bit of the book, yet all in all, it is a very faithful adaptation and one I enjoyed (if enjoyed is the right word) watching. The book wins, because of the powerful writing and the ending. But the movie does a great job at showing their interactions with various people like the gas station attendants and the café workers and the truckers. It leaves out an interaction Ma has with the guy who works in the ranch store though. Here the man is kind of making fun of her, and she comments how he deals with angry, tired people all the time, and that is why he makes light of the situation. Also, as a way to numb himself to the job. However, he does show her compassion when she doesn’t have a dime for sugar, he takes one from his own pocket so she can buy it and she says how when she is in need, she turns to other poor people because they are the ones who care.
But yeah, I would highly recommend the book! But I know there are people out there who just don’t like to read, and if you are one of those, you can watch the movie and it is surprisingly close to the book.
Oh, and I forgot to mention Muley! He was in the book and movie and I loved his character. He has gone a bit crazy from living like an animal basically. Roaming the land and hiding from the cops. He had such a sad story, and I loved him in both.