The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Taken from my film blog:

As my faithful readers know (thank you!), this is a blog devoted entirely to analyzing film. And, I normally stick pretty closely to the unspoken tenets of only writing about films. But once before on this blog, I ventured into writing about Arthur C. Clarke’s Odyssey Tetralogy because of the corresponding films and my overpowering desire to write about the books in a place where I knew it would be read. So I suppose I justify my actions now in that same way.

Now, I haven’t watched the 1940  Henry Fonda/John Ford film version yet because I like to read the book first and then watch the film, but I did just add it to the top of my Netflix queue.  But, I feel compelled to write about the novel right now because I just finished reading it this morning and it evoked a particular reaction in me.

I don’t know if I had the same reaction as every one else who has read this novel or not. The older I get, the more I realize how similar we all react to things. So what I say about this, or anything else I write about on this blog, is just what comes out: untainted, unfiltered.

I’ll get to my point in a bit but I’d like to build up to it by explaining that the reason I picked this novel up at the Library was because it’s a classic and I’d never read it. I’ve started to feel ashamed lately because of my lack of experience reading some of our great American classics.  I didn’t specifically pick the book up because I thought it had some relevance to today’s “economic hard times” as we keep hearing on the news…now, after reading The Grapes of Wrath, I know the real hard times is yet to come, folks!  (A side effect of reading this novel is that you want to write in Okie dialect too).

But as soon as the novel began, I started seeing the connection between the state of affairs in the novel and what we’re experiencing today: big businesses and banks taking the land and livelihoods away from the American people in order to turn a bigger profit.    But by the end of the novel, in the last paragraph actually, it really hit home for me that we’re not any where near the level of desperation and human suffering that Steinbeck was describing. I know this for a few reasons.

I know this because we’re still taking vacations and planning weddings; we’re still shopping online for iTunes; we’re still filing sexual harassment lawsuits; we’re still protesting gay marriage rights; we’re still having parties at our houses and inviting friends and feeding them all night long.

We’re nowhere near the level of desperation Steinbeck describes. I agree with you that that is an obvious statement. But until you’ve gone through the novel and you’ve let your imagination run wild with the characters and their plight, I think it’s too easy to say to yourself as a reader in 2009: the same thing’s happening now!

No, the same thing isn’t happening now. We keep hearing “these tough economic times” every time we turn around. Yeah, we are experiencing tough economic times. Yeah, many of us don’t have jobs or have jobs that don’t come close to paying the bills. Yeah, I know. I’m living it too.  But the connotation that the media is trying to convey with “these tough economic times” is something much more grande than we can fathom in 2009.

I know this because I know what Rose of Sharon did in that last paragraph of the novel, and I know what the penultimate chapter was foreshadowing. Don’t worry, I won’t give it away. In the paragraphs leading up to the final paragraph of the novel, I didn’t realize what was happening. I stopped and re-read it a few times before I got to the end because I couldn’t figure it out. Then, I finished the last paragraph and I knew.  And I cried. I can’t remember the last time I cried reading a novel.

I cried first because of the beauty of human nature. And the confusing part became clear.  Then I cried because of my confusion and I realized that’s the difference between us and them: we can’t fathom it, and Rose of Sharon and Ma both knew what had to be done.

Despite the 4-5 weeks it took me to read this 450 page novel (I won’t lie:  it’s long and it’s depressing, and that makes it hard to read for long durations), I made it to the end and found it to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. At first, the rotating descriptive chapters are tedious because the reader hasn’t been brought thoroughly enough into the Joad Family story line yet.  But as the novel progresses, the descriptive chapters provide much-needed details and foreshadowing about the general state of affairs for migrants.  And by the penultimate chapter, it’s clear that it’s foreshadowing beyond the last words of the novel. It’s a lot like reading The Odyssey:  the narrative seemingly just ends without giving the reader the satisfaction of a truly happily-ever-after for Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus, but the reader has to recall the prophecies and the omens and then he or she will know what is to come for them, and the reader can take some peace from that because the end is known.

Steinbeck has done the same thing for his readers but his Odysseus and Penelope and Telemachus will not grow old on Ithaca, and that is part of the sadness and beauty of this novel. We do not know what will specifically happen with Tom, but we know what happened to Casy. We do not specifically know what will happen with the rest of the Joad family, but we know what the penultimate chapter foreshadows. And we do not know what will specifically become of Rose of Sharon but we know that she is the embodiment of all that is good and pure in the human soul.

People relying on people who are in the same state of being as they are. People being good to others because they are good people, not because they’re being forced to for some ulterior motive.  People recognizing their own suffering in others and doing their best to assuage the pains of life.

This novel moralizes while also de-emphasizing the necessity for a fear of God. In fact, I think it is one of the best aspects of the book, and it is why Casy is in the narrative: to show that goodness and moral-ethical behavior do not have to be followed by God’s wrath. In fact, Steinbeck makes a point of showing that good judgment is just good judgment. (And there’s plenty of suffering for the living without having to worry about suffering after death).  And sometimes when wrong is being done to you, and you react in a way to protect yourself, bad things happen accidentally. I don’t think Steinbeck is justifying murder or violence; just the opposite. I think he’s justifying human behavior in the face of highly unethical treatment and oppression: the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.  I think he’s pointing out that if you push men to the brink, they will have no other choice (i.e. Tom) than to protect themselves, and at the same time, they will make the right choice (i.e. Rose of Sharon). When you’ve stripped man of his autonomy, you’ve opened up the can of worms on yourself; but when the can is empty, you’ll find the core of human nature.

Steinbeck was writing about real people.  We’re not quite real yet.  Nope. Far from it.  But I know there are Roses of Sharon out there waiting in many of us.

The Stranger, Camus (1942)

I haven’t updated this blog with my readings lately. For what reason, I know not, because I have been reading a lot since my last post.

So we’ll start with the most recent. I just finished The Stranger. It reminded me a lot of Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, although Spark’s novel was published in 1970.  So I should say that now that I’ve read The Stranger, The Driver’s Seat reminds me of it!  I’ll get to that more in a bit.

I was impressed with the poesy of Matthew Ward’s translation of The Stranger. His introduction states that he maintained the integrity of Camus’ short sentences. This tactic speaks well against the curtness of Meursault’s character because he gets to the point and merely says what’s on his mind in the shortest way possible, because that’s natural. 

Meursault reminds me of Lise (or Lise reminds me of Meursault) from The Driver’s Seat because both are apathetic to the world around them, and seemingly detached from what the reader would perceive as the real world, or a more fitting perception of reality. I sometimes think that we all assume that everyone has the same basic sense of reality but it is the great authors who remind us that is not the case.

In Lise’s case, she is an automoton; she works in an office, keeps a meticulously sterile apartment, and seemingly has no “life.” She would not be classified as a loser, per se, but she is definitely not on the high end of the scale of those who relish life, or even pay attention to it, on a daily basis.  Meursault is the same, he seems to go through his life without ever stopping to smell the roses. His interactions with Marie, his girlfriend-fiance, are indicative of this. When she asks him to marry her, he says okay, but that if someone else was to ask him, he’d be just as likely to marry that girl too; he told her he didn’t love her but if she wanted to marry him, he would be fine with that.  His utter detachment from all emotions creates a major problem for him that he does not realize until he is in his cell for months.

The same for Lise: she is so detached from the world around her, from her own emotions and the emotions of others, that the reader has to wonder what is the point of even living. Well, that’s the point Spark is trying to make because Lise goes on a trip and her goal of this trip is to find someone to murder her. She finds someone to do it and the novel ends.

There are many literary characters that fit this m.o. of detachment and/or apathy toward life.  Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov from Crime & Punishment comes to mind, but he is an intellectual in a bind.  Meursault and Lise are not intellectuals at all. They are part of the uber-mundane class who never tried to learn anything because they were so un-preoccupied with life.

Is it sad, the predicament Meursault is in? Not really. As he says, it’s normal. You kill someone, you go to jail and get your head lobbed off.  So what is the point?  Besides all of the existential mumbo jumbo you read about this novel, what else is happening? Sure, it’s about the potential for the non-existence of God and all that, but somewhere in the novel someone says to Meursault (I think it was the Magistrate) that even if you don’t believe God exists, you still believe in God. For to believe he doesn’t exist is to at least have considered he did.  Therefore he does. 

I’m going to consider this novel as a reminder that life should be appreciated and savored. Meursault and Lise did not do either, and they lost out.

I would also like to mention that it is clear that characters like HBO’s Dexter Morgan, possess the same detachment and feigned emotion as Meursault does in this novel.  Part of Dexter’s training as a child was to feign emotions and to act normal. Meursault does the same thing, and his inner monologue gives him away throughout the novel.

By the end, Meursault has come to look forward to his moment of execution, and he hopes that the crowd of spectators will spew chants of hate at him for what he’s done.  I suppose it is because he lacks such emotion in his real life that he has come to at least appreciate the capacity for emotion in others. Ironically, the final scene is the only instance of emotion for Meursault (when he rages against the Chaplain), and that was an emotional outburst against an insistence that God exists. At least he feels strongly about something.