The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’m not sure how many times I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath. I know this is the sixth year I’ve taught it in my AP Literature class. Since it is the 75th anniversary of the book’s publication and my group of AP students is an exceptional one, I decided to re-read the novel this year. As always, I found something new. And my students taught me something about it, too.
The book is full of symbolism, animal imagery, and biblical allusion. From the land turtle of Chapter 3 to the very last scene everything is rooted in archetypes that are the foundation of Western thought. Steinbeck was a master at this. As on my final test, it all comes back to the theme of Over-Soul as written by Emerson and espoused in Grapes by Rev. Jim Casy (note those J.C. initials, kinda like Jesus Christ).
There are numerous places you can go for summaries and analysis of this near perfect novel. I’ll just discuss the two new things that were revealed upon this reading. THERE ARE SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT!
Chronologically, the first one is when Ma takes Tom his last meal. Tom leads her to a covered tunnel that they have to crawl through to get into a hollowed out hill where he’s been living/hiding out. They talk in there and there is no light. Tom tells Ma what he’s going to do with the rest of his life, how he’ll fight for the little man and how, if the big farmers kill him, he’ll be even stronger, he’ll be everywhere. Then Ma crawls out of the tunnel and into a light rain, and she understands that there is more than just “the fambly.” She understands the Over-Soul. Hmm. Dark room underground, accessed by a tunnel? A person goes in, and comes out changed? Obviously this is a womb and birth canal. Ma emerges reborn, another disciple of Jim Casy, and in case the reader still didn’t get it Steinbeck gives us that short little rain shower, a classic symbol of cleansing away the old. I feel like such a dunce for never noticing this before.
The second “new” thing came about due to a question from a very perceptive student. She asked why Rose of Sharon has a “mysterious” smile on her face at the end. I winged the answer at the time, but the more I think about it, the more I think I was right. During the whole book Rose of Sharon (whose name is loaded with biblical allusion!) has been a selfish woman thinking of nothing but herself, her baby, and the fine life they’ll have with Connie. At the end, though, after losing everything, she makes that monumental selfless act that totally transforms how we see her. I think Steinbeck used the word “mysterious” in this case to tie Rose of Sharon’s action to the Greco-Roman mystery religions that used secret or mystical acts to initiate new members. In a piece of realism like The Grapes of Wrath, what could be more mystical than what Rose of Sharon does to help the starving man? Like Tom and Ma, she is initiated into the religion of Over-Soul (Casy says they’s only one big soul and everyone just got a little piece of it).
Obviously this is one of my favorite books ever. It is beautifully constructed and written, and it is a novel that made a difference in our country. It’s the backbone of my AP Lit course and a novel I look forward to introducing to students every year. There’s no way I can recommend it enough. The Grapes of Wrath is America, the good and the bad.
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