The reasons of wrath

October 22, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 1939 French title: Les Raisins de la colère.

Steinbeck_englishI finished The Grapes of Wrath a few weeks ago and I’ve been procrastinating. What can I write about such a classic? Being French, The Grapes of Wrath is not part of the usual high school curricular. So I have no bad memories of reading this in school and I started it without knowing much about the plot. I expected the exodus of Okies to California, that’s all.

A quick reminder of the plot, if someone needs it: the Joad family leaves Oklahoma during the Great Depression because their farm has been purchased by banks and farm labourers are replaced by tractors. They’re headed to California because they’ve seen leaflets saying that workers were wanted. When they leave, the family is composed of the grand-parents, Uncle John, the parents (Ma & Pa), Tom who came back on parole just in time, Noah, Al, Rose of Sharon, her young husband and the two youngest Joad children. The novel describes their journey to California via the Route 66, their arrival in the Californian Promised Land. They live in tents along the way, in shanty towns, in government camps. Steinbeck describes their perpetual quest for work, their hard working conditions and the lack of job security.

I found the descriptions of the Joads departure, their journey and living conditions quite moving. As they leave their farm and Oklahoma behind, the loss of their home dismantles their family. Their family dynamic changes too. Pa loses his authority because only his sons know how to operate the truck; Ma switches to survival mode and takes over when it comes to harsh decisions. Pa just has to tag along and I felt sad for him. There are plenty of bleak scenes in the book like the death of the grand-mother or the description of life in settlements. I couldn’t help thinking about the illegal shanty towns we have here near the city. I drive by them every day and I see the shabby cabins, the smoke of chimneys and I wonder how we accept to have humans living there. While reading The Grapes of Wrath, I kept wondering how the children would grow up since they couldn’t go to school while on the road. Joan Didion answered my question. In Run River, a character mentions that one of his schoolmates was two years older than him because she came from Oklahoma and missed two years of school because she was on the road with her family.

In French, The Grapes of Wrath is Les raisins de la colère. Change an i for an o in raisins (grapes) and you’ve got raisons instead of raisins and a perfectly apt title for this novel: The Reasons of Wrath. Steinbeck is on a mission with this book just like Zola has a purpose with the Rougon-Macquart series. Anyone who’s read both writers knows that their style is very different though. Zola’s style is lush and graphic. Steinbeck’s reflects the characters he’s defending and it appears in the construction of the novel. He alternates chapters between the Joad family’s story and generic chapters demonstrating that the Joads’ experience is not unique but the common lot of migrants. The language is always tainted with peasant vocabulary and grammar mistakes. We never change of point of view and Steinbeck makes sure we never forget that by writing prose in spoken language. It’s a great literary device but it’s difficult for non-natives. Passages like this…

The preacher stirred nervously. “You should of went too. You shouldn’t of broke up the fambly.’’ “I couldn’,’’ said Muley Graves. “Somepin jus’ wouldn’ let me.’’

Or this…

She was in a family way, too, an’ one night she gets a pain in her stomick, an’ she says, ‘You better go for a doctor.’ Well, John, he’s settin’ there, an’ he says, ‘You just got a stomickache. You et too much. Take a dose a pain killer. You crowd up ya stomick an’ ya get a stomickache,’ he says. Nex’ noon she’s outa her head, an’ she dies at about four in the afternoon.

…were difficult for me. It took me a lot of time to read the whole book but I survived.

Steinbeck_frenchSteinbeck’s political orientation becomes obvious in the description of the government camp where the Joads settle for a while. It’s clean, organised and with showers and toilets. It’s luxury compared to camping along the Road 66. It’s a settlement self-managed by the migrants. They take turn to do chores like cleaning the lavatories and they are organised in committees to rule the everyday life of the inhabitants. It sounds awfully like an idyllic version of a kolkhoz. Pardon my sarcastic mind but I almost heard Candide say All is for the best best in the best of possible worlds. The Grapes of Wrath is a condemnation of wild capitalism. Steinbeck violently criticises the banks and their greediness, the farmers’ organisations that push their adherents to exploit workers. He dissects the job market workings and shows how hunger and desperation lead workers to accept lower wages and thus enrich their employers and further destroy their chances to better pay. It’s a plea for more control and regulation from the authorities. Steinbeck’s points are valid. It bothers me that his points are still valid nowadays. Uncontrollable financial markets? Check. Dirt poor workers? Check. Job insecurity? Check. Agriculture ruled by stock markets? Check.

Steinbeck also pictures how the poor treatment of workers fosters despair and aims at proving that hopeless people have nothing to lose, that uprisings stem from this. The novel portrays the slow dehumanization of the migrants and the increasing hatred of the locals towards them. It pictures the difference between them and the Californians. I had to remind myself that this was the 1930s. The Joads live, behave and think like peasants of the 19thC. They’re far behind from the California of the 1930s described in Run River or even They Shoot Horse, Don’t They? The Californians see them as we Westerners look at the migrants running aground on our coasts. Think of Lampedusa.

The Grapes of Wrath is a masterpiece which should not be read in high school without the help of an excellent teacher. I barely scraped the depth of its contents here especially since I didn’t say much about the interactions between the characters and how the events affect their dreams and their chance at a future. The Grapes of Wrath analyses the historical events it pictures and examines the damages they did on small people. It also explores the feelings and thoughts of its characters. History has a face. Collateral damages of uncontrolled capitalism have a face. This face has a name, Tom Joad.

  1. October 22, 2014 at 10:52 am

    I love the title of this post. In Shakespeare’s day, “reason” would have been pronounced like “raisin”. (All “ea” sounds were pronounced like this: we still do sometimes – e.g. “steak”, “break”, etc.) Falstaff even puns on reason/raisin (this pun is lost with modern pronunciation):

    If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion. (From Henry IV, Part 1, II, iv)

    I had never thought of applying this pun to Steinbeck’s novel, but it’s appropriate: I shal always think of this book now as “The Reasons of Wrath”.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen John Ford’s film version of this, with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. It was made shortly after the publ;ication of teh book, when these events were still current, and I think it’s a masterpiece.


    • October 22, 2014 at 11:10 am

      Well, I had it the other way round. It took me a long time to remember it wasn’t Les raisons de la colère because it makes so much sense than Les raisins de la colère. 🙂

      I haven’t seen the film version. To be honest, I haven’t found an easy way to watch classic films on demand here.


  2. Catherine
    October 22, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Never read it (yet). Would you advise the french version or english version?


    • October 22, 2014 at 11:08 am

      If you can read it in English, I think it’s better. I haven’t seen the French translation but from experience, I know that the accents, spoken language and so on aren’t well translated into French. (Except in the translation of Manhattan Transfer, maybe)


  3. October 22, 2014 at 11:09 am

    Oh, I agree, the film is a rare example of one that is as good as the book.
    I wonder what John Steinbeck would make of today’s uncontrolled greed and exploitation. Where are today’s American writers putting a human face on it? Marina Lewycka is doing it in England, writing about the ‘guest workers’.


    • October 22, 2014 at 11:16 am

      I have to find a way to watch the film, then.

      I too wonder what he’d think of our society. The other thing we have in common with the Joads is that most of us don’t think their children will have a better life.

      I haven’t read Marina Lewycka. By “guest workers” does she mean the workers coming from other countries and working under their local working law instead of the law of the UK? Like here, Polish workers getting Polish level of wages instead of French minimum wages & social protection? They are what we call “personnel détaché”, still on the payroll of their Polish company but “temporarily” working in France on a construction site (for example).


      • October 22, 2014 at 1:33 pm

        I’m not quite sure. It’s a while since I read the book but I don’t remember there being any mention of a local working law: I think it was more that they didn’t have the right kind of paperwork so the people they worked for took their passports and paid them much less than the proper rate and they couldn’t do anything about it because they were there illegally. They were from Ukraine, I think, which is not in the EU?


        • October 22, 2014 at 1:57 pm

          That’s even worse since it’s illegal. What I mentioned is exploiting the loopholes of legislation which is unfair. (and in France results in even more regulations to fight against the loophole and bother all the other companies in the process)

          Ukraine is not in the EU.


          • October 23, 2014 at 8:49 am

            I thought so. So that makes those workers even more vulnerable.
            What I don’t understand is how people can buy all these too-cheap goods and kid themselves that it’s ok. Goods that are too cheap are being produced by people who are not paid a decent living wage.


            • October 23, 2014 at 11:31 am

              When you have low wages, you don’t have any other choice than to buy cheap stuff whatever the way they were produced. It’s hard to think beyond yourself and your family when you struggle. That’s what Steinbeck demonstrates too.


              • October 23, 2014 at 12:58 pm

                That’s true. But I was thinking of middle class people I know who happily buy $5 T-shirts, and they must know that they come from places like that Bangladeshi factory where all those people died.


              • October 24, 2014 at 10:26 pm

                I agree with you. Here it’s even worse because it happens right in front of them and not in some faraway country you can more easily ignore.


  4. October 22, 2014 at 11:26 am

    This is indeed a great work.

    It is still very relevant, at least is the United States, today.

    You have gotten me thinking about some of the famous words spoken by Tom Joad.


    • October 22, 2014 at 11:58 am

      It is a great work and one I really think should be read when you’re an adult.


  5. October 22, 2014 at 11:53 am

    It is incredible that it remains relevant, and shameful too.

    Sadly I hate this book. I did it for A level (exams taken at 18) and had to read it in class under compulsion. We trudged through it like the turtle in the intercalary chapters (I’ve only ever used the phrase intercalary chapters in the context of this book). In the end I didn’t finish it.

    When I came to my A level English exam I was terrified. I knew we were going to be examined on this book, I hadn’t reread it and hadn’t even finished it in the first place. I still remember the exam question. “Discuss, without reference to other chapters, the themes and symbolism of the first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath”. I may have the question slightly wrong, but the key bit was it required you to discuss the first chapter only without referencing what happened afterwards.

    I reread the first chapter there in the exam, wrote about it and got an A. Still the luckiest break I’ve had in my life. If they’d set a more normal question I’d have struggled to get a B at best I suspect.

    Put another way, I agree it shouldn’t be set at high school level.


    • October 22, 2014 at 12:09 pm

      What you relate reminds me of so many literature classes I had and how I never read Maupassant or Balzac again until after I was past thirty. Reading Une Vie or La peau de chagrin in class does that to you. Only Molière comes out of lit classes unscathed.

      My daughter is studying 19thC literature this year and among all the great, small and easy books (like Carmen or Un Coeur simple) or Le Comte de Monte Cristo, the teacher had to pick Les Misérables. Nothing’s worse than Hugo’s puffy prose when you’re 13. I wonder how she’ll fare with that one. Hugo as a poet and a playwright, yes, as a novelist, not so much.

      That said, I think you should give The Grapes of Wrath another chance, it’d be a book I’d pick for you.


  6. October 22, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    Many years have slipped by since I read Steinbeck, but your review reminds me of the depth of this novel (and the relevance of its themes to today’s world).


    • October 22, 2014 at 2:01 pm

      It’s really a masterpiece because it combines thoughts on the “state of the nation” and a strong exploration of the characters’ inner thoughts. It’s multi- dimensional and only the best achieve this. I’m not literate enough to know if the style is an innovation or if it’s been done before.


  7. leroyhunter
    October 22, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    I also read it in school, along with The Pearl and Tortilla Flats. For that reason I’ve always associated Steinbeck with didacticism, with heavy-message writing that you just don’t always find digestible. Probably unfair to him. I have mixed feelings about him, although I recently read his reportage collection Once There Was a War and was quite taken by his wry tone and eye for (often absurd) war-time detail.


    • October 22, 2014 at 8:09 pm

      I’ve read The Pearl in school too, the same year as The Old Man and the Sea. Never read Steinbeck and Hemingway again until recently. Did you read books in translation in school too?
      I have Once There Was a War at home too. I’m glad to know it’s good.


    • October 24, 2014 at 11:15 pm

      I think Once There was a War is a masterpiece. It’s 15 years or more since I read it but I remember that piece about the troopship on its way to D-Day, and the smell of the damp uniforms and the steady breathing of the thousands of men.
      Another one I would recommend is his Russian Journal, I reviewed that one on my blog. It has some unforgettable scenes too, like the girls from Kiev coming up in spotless frocks out of the cellars where they had to live after the retreating Germans had destroyed the city.
      Steinbeck has the gift of making memorable scenes in simple prose.


      • October 25, 2014 at 8:45 am

        Cannery Row is a great one too. He was gifted and deserves his reputation of great writer.


      • leroyhunter
        October 28, 2014 at 5:20 pm

        Will look up the Russian Journal Lisa, thanks.


  8. October 23, 2014 at 3:53 am

    You make a good point that this shouldn’t be a high school requirement w.o the right teacher. Too many times wonderful books are assigned to teenagers who are then bored to death and put off for life.

    I saw a photography exhibit in SF some years ago of the people in the depression. Of course the photos made me think of this book, and I’ve never forgotten some of those faces and the complete lack of hope they showed.

    Do you think you’ll read East of Eden?


    • October 23, 2014 at 8:08 am

      I’ve seen some pictures too in a museum about the Route 66. There was a whole room with pictures and references to The Grapes of Wrath. The photos were really moving. It’s hard to imagine what these people endured.
      Reading it this summer added to the experience.
      I will read East of Eden. I wonder why we read The Pearl in school; it doesn’t do Steinbeck any justice.


      • October 23, 2014 at 11:19 am

        Walker Evans? He was an extraordinary photographer of the period who helped to document much of this.


        • October 23, 2014 at 11:33 am

          Sorry, I don’t remember the name of the photographer.


      • October 27, 2014 at 2:59 am

        East of Eden is my favourite Steinbeck…


  9. October 23, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    I’ve got this and always wanted to read it. I’m even more temptes after having read your excellent review. It’s indeed shameful that everything he writes about is still relevant.
    I don’t have a problem understanding vernacular but I’m not keen on it. It gets on my nerves.
    Plus it’s chunky.


    • October 24, 2014 at 10:27 pm

      It’s worth reading, Caroline. I have to admit the style was a challenge for me. I haven’t checked the French translation. I wonder how the translator managed to give the style back. It’s a powerful device to never let you forget who they are.


  10. October 24, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    I’m never sure why his books are down for schoold kids , they aren’t the easiest to get ,I had to read of mice and men at school , I have since read many books by him but know lots of readers but of him by reading him at school ,


    • October 24, 2014 at 10:29 pm

      The Red Pony is easy. Reading chunksters in school is not a good idea, in my opinion. It makes the reading and studying last longer and those who were bored are bored longer. There are enough good and short works to use in class.


  1. November 1, 2014 at 11:57 pm
  2. December 30, 2014 at 10:36 pm
  3. November 5, 2016 at 3:08 pm

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