There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
I think all of us have had the experience of being assigned a critically acclaimed classic in school and absolutely hating it. For me, this usually wasn’t the case. My parents encouraged me to read classics from an early age, and, for the most part, my English teachers chose wonderful, thought-provoking books (Fahrenheit 451, Night, The Kite Runner). Generally, I’m willing to stick it out for a book, no matter how long, how boring, and how repetitive.
That being said, my willingness to finish reading The Grapes of Wrath is a testament to how much I admire Steinbeck’s prose. When I first encountered Steinbeck last year, I was blown away by the elegant, simple, and descriptive prose. As in East of Eden, the writing in The Grapes of Wrath is astoundingly straightforward and poetic without being flowery. The narrative mostly focuses around the Joad family, who migrate from their native Oklahoma to California in search of work during the Great Depression. Slotted in between the Joads’ story are chapters focusing on the life of migrant farmers in general, and this is where Steinbeck’s genius for prose shines.
As much as I enjoyed the prose, however, I simply didn’t enjoy The Grapes of Wrath. While I acknowledge it as historically significant and an important work of art, I could not sympathize with the Joad family. Logically, of course, I felt sympathetic towards their poverty. However, the characters seemed fairly one-dimensional, and there were so many characters in the family (all introduced around the same time) that it was difficult for me to form a lasting attachment to any of them. I didn’t feel that the characters experienced much growth, or what growth they did achieve happened inorganically. Rose of Sharon, in particular, drove me crazy – although I understand that Steinbeck was showing the debilitating effects of poverty, especially on a young, pregnant woman, I found her to be an irredeemable character.
What I did find relatable in the novel (which I wasn’t expecting) were the acts of police brutality depicted in the novel. Law enforcement officers, and authority figures in general, are clearly depicted as taking advantage of and marginalizing the Joads and their fellow migrant farmers. Although race is not a focal point in The Grapes of Wrath, the acts of police brutality depicted are still discrimination: discrimination against the poor and against those from a different region. With police brutality so often discussed in media today, the novel forced me to remember that such acts, whether racially motivated or not, have an irrefutable history in North America.
YES OR NO?: NO. As much as I love Steinbeck, I simply could not appreciate this book. The characters were bland and the narrative so repetitive that its elegant prose couldn’t save it for me. I’m still glad I read it, since it’s such a beloved classic, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to someone else.