The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Book # 593

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

TGOWI have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing all of John Steinbeck’s entries on the 1001 list.  I started with Of Mice and Men back in 2012 and followed up with Cannery Row last year.  I had put off The Grapes of Wrath because in my head I had an image of a long, dour story of hardship that I would not enjoy, despite loving Steinbeck’s writing style.

I was both right and wrong.  It is a long story; it is a story of hardship and yes, I still love the way Steinbeck writes.

The novel was published in 1939 and is set during the Great Depression.  It follows both the story of the Joad family, sharecroppers from Oklahoma who are forced off their 40 acres and join the mass migration to California looking for work and a new life, and the mass of migrant labour that was caused due to the Dust Bowl phenomenon of the 1930s.  Steinbeck intertwines both the personal narrative and the larger, more generalised story of the masses through alternating chapters.

We start by meeting the Joad family.  Tom, the second son, is released from McAlester prison after serving a sentence for homicide.  He meets an itinerant preacher on his way home and they travel together to the family farm.  When they reach the farm they find it deserted.   It is at this point Steinbeck begins his social themes around the hardships of the sharecroppers.

The houses were left vacant on the land, and the land was vacant because of this.  Only the tractor sheds of corrugated iron, silver and gleaming, were alive; and they were alive with metal and gasoline and oil, the disks of the lows shining. The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight.  And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive.  There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life.  But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from.  The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse.

There is considerable time spent on this theme of people having a connection to their land and that the mass farms and mechanisation by tractor is cold and disconnected from the land and therefore so are the ‘tractor men’.  It reappears throughout the story in the searching, wishing and dreaming of having a bit of land that each of the Joads expresses.

Once Tom and the preacher, Casy, find out that the family are planning to leave for California with his uncle John, they make their way to his land and join with them in preparation.  Even though it means breaking parole, Tom goes with them as he and his younger brother, Al, are the only ones able to drive the cheap, broken-down vehicle they’ve had to buy in order to leave.  Once on the road Steinbeck breaks in to another theme, that of being refugees on Highway 66.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there.  From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads.  66 is the mother road, the road of flight.

Steinbeck writes some terrible, moving passages in this section of the novel.  The pathos is palpable.

Listen to that gasket whistle.
Chee-rist! There she went.  Blowed tube an’ casing all to hell. Have to fix her. Save that casing to make boots; cut ’em out an’ stick ’em inside a weak place.
Cars pulled up beside the road, engine heads off, tires mended. Cars limping along 66 like wounded things, panting and struggling. Too hot, loose connections, loose bearings, rattling bodies.
Danny wants a cup of water.
People in flight along 66. And the concrete road shone like a mirror under the sun, and in the distance the heat made it seem that there were pools of water in the road.
Danny wants a cup a water.
He’ll have to wait, poor little fella. He’s hot. Nex’ service station. Service station, like the fella says.
Two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road. Fifty thousand old cars – wounded, steaming. Wrecks along the road, abandoned. Well, what happened to them? What happened to the folks in that car? Did they walk? Where are they? Where does the courage come from? Where does the terrible faith come from?

It is a brutal story but it is, for the most part, told in a way that makes it readable and relatable.  You feel a whole range of emotions for this family as they meet hardships at every turn.  Ma Joad is one of the strongest characters I’ve come across in my reading.  She has terrible faith and determination despite all that happens to her family.

I have barely touched on the ideas raised by Steinbeck, others being around ownership and waste, unionism and enslavement.  This is a fabulous book, with wonderful writing, but at around page 300 it began to lose me.  Only with a bit of determination did I keep it up and finish off the last 230-odd pages.  This last part I read with constant trepidation of what was going to happen.  I’m glad I kept at it, and with the exception of finding it a touch too drawn out, would recommend this highly.

As a piece of historical, social fiction and part-treatise, it is a must to read.  We like to think we are civilised enough that such displacement couldn’t happen again, but I think there are timeless lessons to be learned in the Joad’s story and we’d be well advised to think on it.

Happy reading.


Quote of the Week


“Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author’s words reverberating in your head.”
― Paul AusterThe Brooklyn Follies

Tom Jones – Henry Fielding

Book # 975


TJTom Jones is not only Henry Fielding’s masterpiece; it is also considered to be a key stepping stone in the development of the modern novel as a literary form. For this reason alone, it very much belongs on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list. If you’re interested in the development of the novel, you’ll be fascinated by Fielding’s experiments and ideas which continue to be reflected in novelistic style even today. If you’re not, there’s still the creative and comic story of Tom Jones and Sophia Western.

Each of the eighteen ‘books’ that are part of this novel includes a preface, and Fielding most often uses these prefaces to explain his style decisions and what’s important to him in writing what he calls a realistic ‘history.’ These prefaces are sometimes funny, sometimes silly, very often argumentative, and always interesting. Fielding is spot on when he writes:

“In like manner, the excellence of the mental entertainment consists less in the subject than in the author’s skill in well dressing it up.”

One style choice Fielding makes is to depict and discuss both ‘high’ and ‘low’ life and characters in the novel. There are scenes among peasants in inns and on the highway, and there are scenes among the gentry in their homes and social gatherings. Fielding contrasts the two sometimes, but more often he sheds light on similarities:

“The great are deceived if they imagine they have appropriated ambition and vanity to themselves. These noble qualities flourish as notably in a country church and churchyard as in the drawing-room or in the closet.”

He also pokes fun, at fashionable notions or ideas that are ridiculous to him, as when Mrs. Western, in attempting to convince her niece to marry a man she hates, says:

“I have known many couples, who have entirely disliked each other, lead very comfortable genteel lives. Believe me, child, I know these things better than you. You will allow me, I think, to have seen the world, in which I have not an acquaintance who would not rather be thought to dislike her husband than to like him. The contrary is such out-of-fashion romantic nonsense, that the very imagination of it is shocking.”

In my opinion, Fielding’s most important contribution to the development of the novel is his relatively well-rounded characterization. Earlier writing tends to have characters who are either perfectly good or villainously evil. There is no complexity to them and, therefore, no reality. As a reader, I tend to hold excellent characterization as critical to my enjoyment of a novel – it’s well above plot for me, though of course I know that plenty of people feel the opposite. What Fielding chooses to do in his novel is to adhere to reality, to human nature, and only have characters who ring true as people:

“For we do not pretend to introduce any infallible characters into this history, where we hope nothing will be found which hath never yet been seen in human nature.”

Overall, considering his attempt is one of the first forays of this kind, I think he is relatively successful, particularly in the main character, Tom Jones, who is virtuous and kind-hearted, but also naïve and impulsive. In Sophia Western, the other principal character, Fielding is less successful. I think this has more to do with his prejudices towards women than anything else. Fielding’s thoughts on women, which I discuss more below, were liberal for his time but are certainly ridiculous now.

Fielding also tackles the issue of plotting in new ways. Earlier writings feature characters having adventures episodically and, for the most part, the ordering of these events doesn’t matter at all, the secondary characters in the scenes are interchangeable and often don’t reappear from one event to the next, and there is no real unity to the story. Here, however, Fielding develops a large cast of secondary characters, most of whom reappear throughout the novel. They know information or take part in scenes that are needed to further the plot. The whole novel is a progression from happiness to tragedy, and then back to happiness, rather than a series of discrete scenes.

While all these things are clear steps forward for the novel as a form, there are still lots of problems. The one that bothers me the most (and that still bugs me in plenty of contemporary novels) is the reliance on miscommunication and far-too-convenient near misses and twists of fate to further the plot and, especially, to tie things back together in the end.

Beyond all this work on the development of the novel, I also enjoyed Fielding’s ongoing commentary on religion and virtue, why they matter, and where they go wrong. For example:

“…both religion and virtue have received more real discredit from hypocrites than the wittiest profligates or infidels could ever cast upon them; nay, further, as these two, in their purity, are rightly called the hands of civil society, and are indeed the greatest of blessings, so when poisoned and corrupted with fraud, pretense, and affection, they have become the worst of civil curses, and have enabled men to perpetrate the most cruel mischiefs to their own species.”

Fielding sets up a dichotomy between religion and philosophy, which is physically embodied in two characters (Thwackum and Square) both of whom have their good points but also their faults. Ultimately, Fielding argues that choosing one over the other is problematic. The two together are needed:

“True it is, that philosophy makes us wiser, but Christianity makes us better men. Philosophy elevates and steels the mind, Christianity softens and sweetens it. The former makes us the objects of human admiration, the latter of Divine love. That ensures us a temporal, but this an eternal happiness.”

While Fielding has such interesting ideas about virtue and goodness, and their importance in making a person worthy of admiration, he ultimately succumbs to the sense that high birth is just as important, and very much an indicator of whether or not someone is virtuous. This made the ending of the novel a little disappointing, but I can’t fault Fielding too much for being a man of his time.

2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke

Book # 389

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

2001I must confess to never having watched the entirety of the film, of which this novel is the precursor and close colleague, so the story was entirely new to me.

The novel, according to Clarke, started with his 1948 short story The Sentinel as the base and was expanded to include ideas from five other short stories in turn.  Adding in a whole lot of new material and there the novel developed in to it’s final form.  The whole work was intended as a precursor to Stanley Kubrik’s movie from the outset.  As Clarke puts it:

Because a screenplay has to specify everything in excruciating detail, it is almost as tedious to read as to write. John Fowles put it very well when he said: “Writing a novel is like swimming through the sea; writing a film script is like thrashing through treacle.”  Perhaps because Stanley realised that I had a low tolerance for boredom, he suggested that before we embarked on the drudgery of the script, we let our imaginations soar freely by writing a complete novel, from which we would later derive the script.
This is more or less the way it worked out, though towards the end novel and screenplay were being written simultaneously, with feedback in both directions.

For those familiar with the film, the basic storyline revolves around large alien monoliths.  The first section, Primeval Night, deals with the man-apes’ contact with the giant monolith which turns up near them one day.  Moon-Watcher and his tribe come down from their caves one morning to find the New Rock.

It was a rectangular slab, three times his height but narrow enough to span with his arms, and it was made of some completely transparent material; indeed, it was not easy to see except when the rising sun glinted on its edges.

This becomes the stepping stone in human development as the man apes are captivated and manipulated by the strange monolith, leading to Moon-Watcher’s experience of feeling dissatisfaction with his life and his subsequent stretching in to new ideas.

It was a vague and diffuse sense of envy – of dissatisfaction with his life. He had no idea of its cause, still less of its cure; but discontent had come into his soul, and he had taken one small step toward humanity.

We then skip forward to a time when man has a base on the moon, and space flight has become a part of life.  In this case we follow Dr Heywood Floyd on his special trip to the moon in order to see TMA-1.  In one of those wonderful precursors to real life, Clarke describes Floyd’s access to technology on his flight.

There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth.  One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers, he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad.  Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.  Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle world expand until it  neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort.

Yes, here is a seed for the internet and the iPad.

Once we have met TMA-1, and have heard the scientists explanations for what it means, we are then transported to the spaceship Discovery and it’s two crewmen – David Bowman and Frank Poole.  They are part of Project Jupiter, a two-year voyage to the giant planet.  After TMA-1 is discovered, their mission is added to. No longer just heading to Jupiter, but on to Saturn as a one-way trip.  Five years would be spent in hibernation before being rescued by a still unbuilt Discovery II.

We follow the voyage of Discovery and meet it’s onboard computer, a HAL 9000, or colloquially to the crew – Hal.  In light of the recent film release “The Imitation Game“, it’s interesting to note Clarke’s reference to Alan Turing and his ‘Turing test’.

Whether Hal could actually think was a question which had been settled by the British mathematician Alan Turing back in the 1940s. Turing had pointed out that, if one could carry out a prolonged conversation with a machine – whether by typewriter or microphones was immaterial – without being able to distinguish between its replies and those that a man might give, then the machine was thinking, by any sensible definition of the word.  Hal could pass the Turing test with ease.

And Hal’s thinking becomes one of the focal points of the middle of the story.  Without this, the latter denouement is unlikely to have occurred as Bowman would not have had sufficient motivation to make the choices he does.  But I will leave you to find out the fate of Bowman, Poole, Hal and their hibernating colleagues on your own.

It is quite an quick read at a touch over 200 pages.  Not having watched the film, I struggle to see how this story could turn into a feature length piece, but now have some incentive to see it in comparison to the novel.  The language is straightforward, and in Arthur C. Clarke’s usual forward-looking style, he gives us an interesting idea to ponder on how we evolved and where that might take us in the future.
I have to note that there are little snippets that annoy – such as the odd overt sexist throw-away comment that belies the novel’s age and the author’s world-view – but on the whole it is a pleasant and relaxed read.

Happy reading.