John Steinbeck | Critical Essay by Louis Owens

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of John Steinbeck.
This section contains 3,505 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Louis Owens

Critical Essay by Louis Owens

SOURCE: "The Culpable Joads: Desentimentalizing The Grapes of Wrath," in Critical Essays on Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, edited by John Ditsky, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 108-16.

In the following essay, Owens draws attention to Steinbeck's effort to evoke sympathy for the Joad family without sentimentalizing their plight. According to Owens, Steinbeck incorporates panoramic interchapters to offset over-identification with the Joad family.

The Grapes of Wrath is one of John Steinbeck's great experiments, perhaps his greatest, a novel that exploded upon the American conscience in 1939, bringing home to American readers both the intimate reality of the Joads' suffering and the immense panorama of a people's—the Dust Bowl migrants'—suffering. In spite of howls of outrage from opposite ends of the novel's journey—both Oklahoma and California—America took the Joads to heart, forming out of The Grapes of Wrath a new American archetype of oppression and endurance, survival if not salvation. So warmly did readers embrace the Dust Bowl Okies, in fact, that critics began almost immediately to accuse Steinbeck again of sentimentality in his portrayal of the downtrodden proletariat. Edmund Wilson was one of the first serious critics to take such a position, declaring that in this novel Steinbeck learned much from films, "and not only from the documentary pictures of Pare Lorentz, but from the sentimental symbolism of Hollywood." Bernard De Voto had anticipated Wilson when he complained that the novel's ending was "symbolism gone sentimental." Still a third major American critic, R. W. B. Lewis, found Steinbeck's fiction "mawkish" and "constitutionally unequipped to deal with the more sombre reality a man must come up against…."

As Steinbeck's most imposing and both popularly and critically successful work, The Grapes of Wrath has been studied from a multitude of angles, with critics focusing on its historical, political, philosophical, religious, symbolic, structural, and stylistic aspects. Steinbeck's great formal experiment in this novel—the interchapters—has been often studied and commented upon. What has been little noted in this novel, however, is the care Steinbeck takes to counterbalance the narrative's seemingly inevitable drift in the direction of sentimentalism as the story of the Joads and of the migrants as a whole unfolds in all its pathos. While Steinbeck is undeniably intensely sympathetic in this novel to the suffering of the croppers and to the plight of the seemingly powerless "little people" caught up in the destructive path of corporate America, he is at the same time painstakingly careful not to sentimentalize these figures, a fact of utmost importance to a critical understanding of The Grapes of Wrath.

A primary means by which Steinbeck attempts to unsentimentalize this story of displacement and suffering is through his use of interchapters. As has been often noted, the most obvious value of the intercalary chapters is to provide the big picture, to ensure the reader's awareness of the panoramic dimensions of this socioeconomic tragedy. At the same time, the narrative chapters focusing on the Joad family stem from Steinbeck's self-professed awareness that "It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving." Through the interchapters we feel the scope and dimension of the Dust Bowl drama; through the narrative chapters we experience the tragedy of one family on a personal, intimate level. A second very important function of the interchapters, however, one that has gone largely unnoticed, is that of offsetting the intimacy of the narrative chapters, of creating necessary distance between the reader and Steinbeck's representative family, the Joads. Steinbeck uses the interchapters skillfully as a means of preventing the reader from identifying too closely with the Joads. Again and again, just as we begin to be drawn fully into the pain of the Joads' experience, Steinbeck pulls us away from the intimate picture into the broad scope of one of the interchapters, reminding us that these are merely representative people, that the scale of suffering is so great as to dwarf the anguish of one small group such as Ma Joad's family. Chapter 18 ends, for example, with the Joads about to descend into the promised land of California's Central Valley, weighted with the emotionally charged burden of the dead Granma. The heartbreaking courage of Ma, who has lain beside Granma all night to ensure that the family gets "across," is deeply moving, and as the Joads drive down into the highly stylized Eden of the valley the reader must respond emotionally to the courage and suffering of the family. Immediately, however, with the opening lines of chapter 19, Steinbeck shifts the reader's focused away from the Joads onto a broad, impersonal sweep of California's agricultural history culminating in a view of the Hoovervilles and a generic portrait of the migrants. The Joads' suffering is put into perspective as we realize once again that this family's tragedy is every migrant's, that there must be a thousand Granmas and as many Ma Joads, and that the family is about to descend into a sea of families in precisely the same circumstances and facing their predicament with roughly the same proportion of courage and cowardice. In place of the familiar voices of Tom and Ma Joad and reader now hears the voice of history, and the perspective is readjusted once again. It is more difficult to become sentimental about the fate of the individual when one is simultaneously aware of the fate of the species.

In addition to the depersonalizing distance achieved through the movement from narrative chapter to interchapter, Steinbeck also takes advantage of a more familiar device to desentimentalize his treatment of the downtrodden sharecropper in this novel: the objective authorial stance that he exploited so successfully in the earlier study of oppressed workers, In Dubious Battle. In that novel, published just three years before, Steinbeck was careful to underscore the failings of the migrant workers as well as those of the oppressors—both sides are greedy, selfish, lazy, blood-thirsty, and ignorant. These are simply aspects of the human character, says Steinbeck in that strike novel, simply the way it is, nonteleologically. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck does not assume the purely objective stance of the narrative voice of In Dubious Battle, choosing not to become "merely a recording consciousness, judging nothing" as he claimed to be in the earlier strike novel. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck allows his authorial voice the freedom to intrude in the guise of a modern Jeremiah, judging, condemning. However, once again in spite of his sympathies with the displaced Okies, as he did in In Dubious Battle in Grapes Steinbeck takes care to similarly undercut the nobility and "goodness" of the migrants.

Tom, for example, is a loner who begins the novel looking out only for number one, as his solitary initial appearance and his aggressive manipulation of the witless truck driver indicate. Only gradually, through the tutoring of Casy, does the unsympathetic Tom grow into his role of proletarian savior. Throughout the novel, Pa Joad is self-centered and weakwilled, too ineffectual to assume the role of leadership demanded of him, a character thoroughly incapable of igniting the reader's sympathy, as Tom makes clear when he tells Casy late in the novel "Think Pa's gonna give up his meat on account a other fellas?" Tom's brother Al is concerned chiefly with his own concupiscence, eager even near the end of the novel to abandon his family and strike out on his own with his wife-to-be, Rose of Sharon's husband, Connie, proves himself to be a selfish and soft-minded believer in the American Dream advertised in comic books and a deserter of his pregnant wife. Rose of Sharon, in turn, forces the reader to suffer through hundreds of pages of whining self-pity before her miraculous conversion near the novel's end. Even Ma, larger-than-life Earth Mother and obvious heroine of this novel, demonstrates her limitations as she rambles on pointlessly about "Purty Boy Floyd," repeating herself tediously the way real people really do as she intones one of the folkmyths of Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl region.

While the trials of the Joads engage us, even excite our admiration and pity, Steinbeck takes pains to deny is the luxury of sentimental attachment. The Joads, including even the ultimately heroic and Christ-like Casy, are no better, no greater, no less human than they should be. Nor are any of the other migrants in the novel.

More important than either Steinbeck's illumination of the human failings of his characters on such limited levels or his use of the interchapters as distancing devices is his care to emphasize the migrants' culpability, their portion of responsibility for what has happened to the land and to themselves. Certainly Steinbeck makes it clear that the sharecroppers are victimized by an inhuman economic monster that tears at the roots of Jeffersonian agrarianism. However, when Steinbeck causes his representative migrant voice to plead with the owners for a chance to remain on the land, he qualifies the celebrated Jeffersonian agrarianism and love-for-the land by tainting the croppers' wish: "Get enough wars and cotton'll hit the ceiling," the cropper argues. A willingness to accept war and death as the price for further cottoning out of the land is difficult to admire on any level. And Steinbeck goes a step further, to make it clear that the migrants are firmly fixed in a larger, even more damning American pattern. Though the tenants have tried to persuade the owners to let them hang, one hoping for a war to drive up cotton prices, the tenant-voice also warns the owners: "But you'll kill the land with cotton." And the owners reply: "We know. We've got to take cotton quick before the land dies. Then we'll sell the land. Lots of families in the East would like to own a piece of land." With their words the westering pattern of American history is laid bare: we arrive on the Atlantic seaboard seeking Eden only to discover a rocky and dangerous paradise with natives who aggressively resent the "discovery" of their land; the true Eden must therefore lie ever to the west, over the next hill, across the next plain, until finally we reach the Pacific Ocean and, along with Jody's grandfather in The Red Pony, we end up shaking our fists at the Pacific because it stopped us, breaking the pattern of displacement, a pattern put into focus in Walt Whitman's poignant query in "Facing West from California's Shores": "But where is what I started for so long ago? / And why is it yet unfound?"

That the croppers are part of this pattern becomes even more evident when the representative tenant voice informs us that their fathers had to "kill the Indians and drive them away." And when the tenants add, "Grampa killed Indians, Pa killed snakes for the land," we should hear a powerful echo of the Puritan forebears who wrested the wilderness from the Satanic serpent and his Indian servants, killing and displacing the original inhabitants of the new Canaan.

It is difficult to feel excessive sorrow for these ignorant men who are quite willing to barter death to maintain their place in the destructive pattern of American expansion, a pattern that has ravaged a continent. That Steinbeck thought long about the American phenomenon of destroying the Garden just discovered in the search for an even better Garden is suggested in his declaration more than a decade later that in East of Eden, his great investigation of the myth of American, "people dominate the land, gradually. They stripe it and rob it. Then they are forced to try to replace what they have taken out."

The tenant and owner voices are wrong, of course: you cannot "kill the land." The land can be altered, made inhospitable for the sons of Cain who inhabit it, but it will survive. The epic perspective with which the novel begins suggests the enduring nature of this earth, the land which "abideth forever."

The first paragraph of The Grapes of Wrath opens with an impressionistic swath of color reminiscent of Stephen Crane as Steinbeck intones, "To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth." He continues:

The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

A close look at this paragraph shows that following the panoramic, generalized opening, the paragraph begins to focus, to zoom in: "The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks." And finally, from the impressionistic opening image our vision has closed the distance to focus very closely upon not just "the growing corn" but the "line of brown" that spreads "along the edge of each green bayonet." At once the narrative eye begins to pan back to register broader details of clouds and generalized "weeds" until the paragraph ends where it began, with a panoramic image of the earth, which "became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country." "In the second paragraph, the camera's eye again zooms in for a close-up: "In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams." And again this paragraph expands to end with a panorama: "The air was thin and the sky more pale, and every day the earth paled."

In these first paragraphs, Steinbeck is introducing the pattern upon which The Grapes of Wrath will be structured; a pattern of expansion and contraction, of a generalized panoramic view of the plight of the migrants in the interchapters followed in the narrative chapters by a closeup of the plight of the representative individuals, the Joads. As early as the novel's opening paragraph, the reader is being subliminally programmed for this movement in the novel, and he is being introduced to the idea that beyond the Joads is the pattern made up of the migrants and the Dust Bowl phenomenon as a whole; beyond the seeming tragedy of the drought and the cropped-out land is the pattern made up of the panoramic earth itself. The shifting focus is designed to remind us that the individual tragedies are played out against a backdrop of enduring life. In teleological terms, as defined by Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, the drought, the Dust Bowl, and the tragedy of the migrants seem immeasurable disasters for which blame must be assigned; in nonteleologically terms, however, we are reminded by the panoramic sweep of the author's brush that we are seeing only part of the picture, partial indices of what the Log defined as "all reality, known and unknowable."

Paradoxically, such a nonteleological perspective serve to make the Dust Bowl a tragedy only insofar as it is judged according to transient, human values. From a distance, the drought-wasted land is lovely, a sweeping panorama of pastels; up close, the picture becomes one of horror, but only in human terms. For the sharecroppers this is a tragedy; the larger picture suggests that the tragedy is limited, transient, that the earth abides beyond man's errors and shortsightedness. To believe, as the croppers and landowners in this novel do, that one can "kill the land" is to see only part of the picture, to commit the error Joseph Wayne commits in Steinbeck's early novel To a God Unknown of believing that the land can die. The biblical prose style of these opening paragraphs, recalling the incantatory force of Genesis, also underscores the power of primal creation that precedes man and exists beyond man's ability to effect or effect. Like the people who, drawing their strength from the earth, "go on," the earth cannot be destroyed, and Steinbeck's style and tone in these first paragraphs is designed to reinforce that message.

If Steinbeck's message in the opening paragraphs is that the land cannot die, he nonetheless begins as early as the second sentence of the novel to subtly imply human responsibility for the disruption of the drought. In the second sentence, he tells us that "The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks," superimposing an ultimately self-destructive human patter—the erosion-inducing plow lines—upon the natural watershed pattern. The rivulet marks are a sign of the earth's flow, cycle, continuum; their crossing and erasure is a sign of a failure of human understanding. The wheels that "milled the ground," and the hooves that "beat the ground" until "the dirt crust broke and the dust formed" further underscores man's responsibility for the human tragedy depicted in the first paragraphs and developed throughout the novel. By the novel's end, the rain will come again in a great, destructive, cleansing flood, erasing in its turn the pattern of human failure set upon the edenic valleys of California.

Steinbeck also foreshadows in these opening paragraphs the fate of the migrants. The "weed colonies" that are "scattered … along the sides of the roads" suggest the colonies of migrants that will soon be scattered the length of Route 66; and the minuscule ant lion trap, a funnel of finely blown sand from which the ant simply cannot escape, serves as a naturalistic image to define the situation of the sharecroppers. They have no further in the cropped-out region of blowing dust and sand; they have sealed their fates should they stubbornly struggle to remain. Muley Graves, whose name hints strongly at his character and fate, chooses to remain in the trap, a "graveyard ghos'" without a future.

Through this burnt country cut the tracks of walking men and machines, raising dust clouds as signs of their passage. When Tom Joad appears, he will be the representative walking man, the individual who must accept responsibility for what man has done to himself and to the earth. Along with Tom, the Joads and all of the migrants will be sent on the road on a quest to rethink their relationship with humanity as well as with the land itself. What Warren French has aptly termed the "education of the heart" is a journey toward a new national consciousness, one that may, Steinbeck seems to imply, finally break the grip of the westering pattern in this country, causing Americans to free themselves from the delusive quest for a New Eden and this from the destructive process of exploitation and removal entailed in such a pattern.

Once the Joads and their fellow migrants have reached California, they can go no farther. The Joads are the representative migrants, and the migrants are the representative Americans. The migrants' westward journey is America's, a movement that encapsulated the directionality of the American experience. The horrors of the California Eden confronting the migrants have been brought on by all of us, Steinbeck implies; no one is innocent. When Uncle John releases Rose of Sharon's stillborn baby upon the flood waters with the words, "Go down an' tell'em," Steinbeck is underscoring the new consciousness. This Moses is stillborn because the people have no further need for a Moses. The Promised Land has long ago been reached, and there is nowhere else to go, no place for a Moses to lead his chosen people. The American myth of the Eden ever to the west is shattered, the dangers of the myth exposed. The new leader will be an everyman, Tom Joad, who crawls into a cave of vines—the womb of the earth—to experience his rebirth and who emerges committed not to leading the people somewhere else but to making this place, this America, the garden it might be. The cleansing, destructive flood that prepares for the novel's concluding tableau rises not merely around the threatened migrants but over the entire land.

The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck's jeremiad, his attempt to expose not only the actual, historical suffering of a particular segment of our society, but also the pattern of through, the mindset, that has led to this one isolated tragedy. In this novel, Steinbeck set out to expose the fatal dangers of the American myth of a new Eden, new Canaan, new Jerusalem, and to illuminate a path toward a new consciousness of commitment in place of removal, engagement instead of displacement. And in making his argument, Steinbeck was careful not to sentimentalize his fictional creations, careful to emphasize the shared guilt and responsibility—there are no innocents; a new sensibility, not sentimentality, is Steinbeck's answer.

(read more)

This section contains 3,505 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Louis Owens
Follow Us on Facebook