John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of WrathOn my self-assigned course called “Books I Should Have Read Years Ago,” I recently finished Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I’m not going to write about the characterizations or images or plot, because I think they’re all pretty straightforward and I think it’s easy enough that pretty much anyone could read it, so I think it’s justifiable how frequent it’s listed as required reading.

What interests me about The Grapes of Wrath is how hopeless the situation of the Joad family seems to them, and indeed how hopeless it becomes. I won’t spoil the ending image because it’s exceptionally powerful and I count myself fortunate that I managed to run in the circles I’ve run in without hearing the ending before I finished it myself. Suffice to say that the Joad family manages to steadily lose or have taken from them everything over the course of the novel, and find themselves destitute and helpless by the end.

The reason I find this interesting is that their helpless situation represents a low point in a string of highs and lows throughout history, and one that is more or less caused by the previous high. Farmers irresponsibly farmed wheat where it didn’t belong, resulting in loose soil that was picked up by the plains’ high winds and the Dust Bowl, which resulted in cataclysmic crop failure at the first major drought. Things were not helped by the Great Depression, and migrants from the Dust Bowl found little relief when the moved to California. Continue reading

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John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men

Lennie is the character I’ve heard the most about, probably because he’s the most memorable: the seeds of his eventual downfall are expertly planted in his first appearance—he’s helplessly easy to scare and far too strong to handle the soft things he loves to touch more than anything:

“You crazy fool.  Don’t you think I could see your feet was wet where you went acrost the river to get it?”  He heard Lennie’ wimpering cry and wheeled about.  “Blubberin’ like a baby!  A big guy like you.    (10)

Lady, huh?  Don’t you even remember who that lady was.  That was your own Aunt Clara.  An’ she stopped given’ ’em (mice) to ya.  You always killed ’em.   (11)

But I’m far more interested in George’s character.  He’s the center of the novel: all of Lennie’s actions revolve around him and all the things he says or does in one way or another.  Even though Lennie commits the accidental murder that climaxes the novel, it’s due to George’s warnings that he gets scared enough to panic and cause the death.  George even motivates Lennie’s fantasies with his stories about the farm they’re going to buy—though it starts as a pleasant fantasy about Lennie being able to care for rabbits, Georgie himself starts to believe it as more than the mere carrot he uses to keep Lennie going.

I think I knowed from the very first.  I think I knowed we’d never do her.  He usta like to hear about it so much I got to thinking maybe we would.    (92)

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