The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

November 11, 2010 at 22:33 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Politics) (, , , , )

7/10

This was a very frustrating book. There is a noticeable lack of closure in almost every one of the many complex storylines. The truncated ending does not leave an optimistic flavour, and it seems implicit from the penultimate chapter that the Joads will probably end bad…ly, and without exception. The snapshot method of telling the story is effective in a literary sense, but very unsatisfying for the reader. It is hard, for instance, to sympathise with Noah or Connie when they drift out of the periphery as silently and unimpressively as they arrived. No splash, as it were.

Steinbeck’s characterisations are the strong point of this book, and tends to be his strong point as a writer in general. The premonitions he writes are occasionally so strong as to make any effort at actually telling the story almost redundant; how the tragedy unfolds is to be discovered, but rest assured: unfold it will. This method certainly makes for an awful lot of immediate investment on the part of the reader, but this swiftly turns into impatience as Steinbeck leaves his captives hanging.

Tom Joad is a strong protagonist, if that is what one is looking for, and makes for a good hero; but his mother is really John Steinbeck’s hero, and the one character who sets things in motion. Behind all these characters, and occasionally welling up to distort them, Steinbeck’s half-hearted pantheism and self-conscious socialism stand sturdily. As philosophies they tend to be too lukewarm for any real energy to be expended upon them. They are emblems of…something. Perhaps in them the Joads are to find solace, or salvation. Maybe they are warnings of some kind. Steinbeck is not clear or evangelistic in his message, and the tragedy of the story does not bode well for either pantheism (Casy’s death and Tom’s rather undefined and indeterminate doom make that philosophy ring a rather hollow knell) or socialism (the Joads’ disaster seems to echo the author’s disillusionment). Certainly a better story than a message, and a better than average story.

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