The Grapes of Wrath | Critical Essay by M. R. Satyanarayana

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of The Grapes of Wrath.
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Critical Essay by M. R. Satyanarayana

SOURCE: "'And Then the Child Becomes a Man': Three Initiation Stories of John Steinbeck," in John Steinbeck: A Study of the Short Fiction, edited by R. S. Hughes, Twayne, 1989, pp. 181-8.

In the following essay, Satyanarayana examines the theme of initiation in "The Raid," The Red Pony, and "Flight."

In his introduction to John Steinbeck (1965) Joseph Fontenrose observes: "Myth has been a more consistent factor, profoundly affecting the form and content of all his (Steinbeck's) novels since 1929. In most of them we see a palimpsest upon which Steinbeck has inscribed a realistic tale of contemporary men." Yet, in his actual interpretation of the works, Fontenrose makes no reference to the use of myth in three stories from The Long Valley: "The Raid," The Red Pony cycle and "Flight." He considers only The Red Pony as a story of initiation in which the hero passes from "naive childhood to the threshold of adulthood through knowledge of birth, old age, and death, gained through experience with horses." As a matter of fact all the three works are about the growth of boys into men, each different from the others, in its use of myth. "The Raid" is an excellent example of a sociological initiation, in which the boy hero is initiated to an altogether new social order. In The Red Pony the hero's initiation is brought about within the same social order into which he is born, with a view to preserving the traditions cherished by that order. Further, the hero is also introduced to the existential aspects of pain, age, and death. "Flight" is somewhat complex as an initiation story. It deals with the improper initiation of the hero leading to tragedy as in the myth of Phaëton; and at the same time it is a story of the hero's magic flight and the mystic return to the origin.

I

The structure of "The Raid" falls neatly into four parts: (1) the hero's severance from the mother, (2) the revelation of the mystery of adult experience, (3) the ordeal, and (4) the symbolic death and rebirth. Root, the hero goes through all the well-known rites of passage except the change of name.

The story begins with Dick, the initiator, and Root, the novice, walking away from the well-lit streets to a dark and lonely place where they expect to hold a radical meeting. Severance from the mother has already taken place for the boy, he having been thrown out by the father for his radical views. The boy looks back in regret at his childhood innocence, and is at the same time anxious to experience a new life. This state of confusion, typical of all the novices, is symbolically expressed by an old tune, "Come to me my melancholy baby," which haunts the boy, and try as he might, he is unable to get it out of his head. Passing through the dark streets he observes that "it's a good night to get away if anything happens." The dark night is the mother whose protection the boy seeks. The novice is quickly pulled back to the road by Dick (father-surrogate) who holds out the threat of a denial of the much desired new experience. He warns Root that his party would have nothing to do with cowards.

In the second part we find Dick and Root in a lonely store lit by a small kerosene lamp. They put up the picture of their leader on the wall, along with a certain red symbol on a white background. As they wait for their audience Root becomes more and more nervous. He asks for the time of the night thrice in three quarters of an hour. He keeps on pestering the senior man as to how it would be to face a group of vigilantes. He is scared of them and the cops, having heard of their brutality. Although annoyed and irritated by the boy's questions Dick allays his fears by kind words. With the picture of the leader presiding over the ceremony, the initiator passes on the magic formula (the mantra) to the novice, a formula he himself had been taught in similar circumstances: "The men of little spirit must have an example of stead—stead-fastness. The people at large must have an example of injustice." And therefore no sacrifice is too much and the initiate must remember that "If some one busts you, it isn't him that's doing it, it's the System. And it isn't you he's busting. He's taking a crack at the Principle." This initiatory ceremony is observed on the lines followed by secret societies like the Free Masons.

The tension caused by anxiety and suspense is itself an ordeal. But the real test for the initiate is physical torture which includes bleeding also. Just as the male adults of the Australian tribes surround the initiate and beat him up, Root is buffeted by the vigilantes when they raid the place. As he begins the prepared text of his speech he is knocked down by a blow on the side of the head. When he struggles to his feet, "his split ear spill[ing] a red stream down his neck," he is no longer a boy. "His breath burst passionately. His hands were steady now, his voice sure and strong. His eyes were hot with an ecstasy." As he goes down again under a wave of violence he cries, "You don't know what you're doing."

When Root falls unconscious he goes through the last phase of the initiatory rites, symbolic death, from which he emerges a new being. The last words of the boy before he falls down unconscious, add a new dimension to the story. His death and rebirth become a re-enactment of Christ's death and resurrection. Later, in the hospital, Root recalls how he felt like saying those words of Christ to his killers. Written in 1934, "The Raid" reveals Steinbeck's interest in some of the most devoted radicals he knew. Root is also a symbol of all the good Christians, who in the 1930's looked toward Russia for an answer to the economic questions which the democratic Europe had failed to solve. This same Root, who appears as Jim in In Dubious Battle, "grows" to become the radical Christ, Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath.

Ii

In The Red Pony the boy Jody Tiflin is initiated to the chores of an agrarian life on his father's ranch. Here there is no sudden severance from the childhood links for the boy. It is a slow transition from childhood innocence to experience, and the transition takes place without a change of scene. His initiators are his parents and Billy Buck, the ranch hand. And because it is a transitional type of initiation the ordeal is spread over a considerable length of time. Jody's loss of innocence occurs when the shock of realization of death comes upon him. "Perhaps this is the first adulthood of any man or woman," as Steinbeck puts it. "The first tortured question 'why?' and then acceptance, and then the child becomes a man."

In "The Gift," Jody's initiation begins with the gift of a pony by his father. The boy's curiosity is excited. But severe restrictions are laid down to thwart his enthusiasm to ride the pony. He must scrub the pony, polish the saddle, and feed the animal, but he should not ride him yet. In the course of his training under Billy Buck the boy experiences pain and horror, which invariably accompany the rites of passage. When the pony catches a severe cold an operation becomes necessary. To help the animal breathe a hole is drilled in his throat. Jody is made to watch and help in the operation. He keeps a close watch over the ailing pony and witnesses his futile struggle against death. With the death of the pony, Jody is entrusted with greater responsibility. In "The Promise," he is placed in charge of the mare Nellie. He is asked to get her bred, and to take good care of the mare during the gestation period, if the newborn colt is to be his. Once again an operation becomes necessary. To save the colt the mare has to be killed. The boy is made to watch Billy Buck take a hammer and knock down the animal, saw through her belly, and bring out a dripping bundle of a colt. With this ritualistic killing of the mare the novice realises that birth and death are only phases in a continuous process of life.

The horse is the central symbol in The Red Pony, as in D. H. Lawrence's "St. Mawr." All knowledge of pain, suffering, old age, death, and even the knowledge of sex comes to Jody through the three horses in the story. The proud red pony gives him the first glimpse of death, which is repeated in the death of the mare Nellie. The mating of the mare and the stallion provides a vicarious lesson in sex for the boy. In "The Great Mountains," there is the horse Easter, which had served the master faithfully for years, but is now disliked by the master Tiflin for being old and useless. Tiflin equates the old horse with Gitano, an old paisano, who seeks shelter on the ranch. Tiflin is not impressed by the fact that the paisano was born on the ranch long before he bought it and now wishes to die on the place. He has no feeling for either the old horse or the old man. Luckily for Jody he has, as models, the defence of the old horse by Billy Buck and his mother's sympathy for the paisano. It is through Billy Buck and his mother that Jody gets a proper initiation to the right understanding of other's sorrows. For there is a repetition of the father's rudeness and the compassionate response of Jody's mother and Billy Buck in the fourth section of the story cycle. It is here, in "The Leader of the People," that Jody shows signs of growth. In the teeth of his father's opposition he asks his grandfather to tell stories about "Injuns" (Indians), which he had told a number of times. Tiflin considers his father-in-law a bore. The story ends with the efforts of the boy in consoling the grandfather who has been insulted by his father. It is as though Jody were the grown-up man, and the grandfather a child. (He offers to get a lemonade for the old man). The growth of Jody to adult experience is suggested by a humorous change of his name into Mr. Big Britches.

Iii

Unlike the initiation of Root and Jody the initiation of Pepé takes place overnight. It is actually a case of improper initiation, and reflects "the pathos of inverted emphasis" in the United States where, as Joseph Campbell observes, "The goal is not to grow old, but to remain young; not to mature away from Mother, but to cleave to her." Although nineteen years old and the father dead, Pepé is not called upon to shoulder the responsibility of the adult male. An early initiation would have been the most natural thing in his case. Instead we find Mama Torres dismissing her son's claim to manhood as that of a "foolish chicken." Yet, it is not as though she is unaware of the need for boys to grow up in time. For she tells her second son (after Pepé rides away for the first time by himself) that "A boy gets to be a man when a man is needed. Remember this thing. I have known boys forty years old." But, in spite of this wisdom she goes on waiting for a need to arise. Initiation rites are meant to prevent precisely this sort of danger, men of forty remaining boys, by preparing the boys to be ready for adult life well in advance. What actually happens is that Pepé finds himself unprepared when the need at last arises.

Pepé rides to town. He has been allowed to use his father's saddle. He carries with him his father's knife, which has always been with him. In Monterey he drinks wine with some people. Some one calls him names and makes a gesture of attack. And Pepé throws the knife at him as unerringly and as thoughtlessly as he had been throwing at a redwood post in a playful manner. The knife "went almost by itself. It flew, it darted before Pepé knew it." Like Phaëthon he is ignorant of the proper use of the weapon (the bridle of Phoebus), and he has to pay for it with his life. Taken by surprise at his own action Pepé rushes back to the protective mother. Mama Torres ruefully realises that the son has attained manhood. She prepares him for his flight into the mountains. With the severance of her son from her imminent, she takes on the role of an initiator for a brief time. She gives Pepé her husband's black coat, and rifle. She gives him food and water. And she gives good advice concerning the dangers on the way and how to surmount them. When at last he rides away she raises a formal death wail: "Our beautiful—our brave, he is gone." With this Pepé completes the rite of severance from the mother, and a symbolic death, and enters upon the next stage of the great ordeal.

So far it has been a story of maturation. With the commencement of the hero's ordeal the story gathers a new dimension. Pepé's ordeal is his flight; and the flight becomes the magic flight of the mythical hero. In his flight (ordeal) Pepé does not encounter the elders of the tribe or a father-surrogate in person. The hurdles he crosses and the physical torture he undergoes are not due to any human agency. (The flight itself is caused by human pursuers, who are not on the scene of action). For three days and nights he flees, gradually losing his hat, horse, the coat, and the rifle. He is incapacitated by hunger, thirst, and a poisonous wound. Finally, he gives up the struggle and stands up to welcome death. In all his ordeals Pepé is alone, without a sympathetic initiator. The initiator, if there is one, is his dead father, represented by his black coat, the hat, the rifle, and the saddle. When all these articles are lost the hero is ready to die. The unseen but ever-present father, then, puts his son to a severe ordeal after the severance from the mother. At the end of the ordeal the son becomes himself the father. There is no return to the normal world for him who achieves an atonement with the father. Having shed all "infantile illusions of 'good' and 'evil'" the hero is purged of hope and fear, and at peace in the understanding of the revelation of being."

Pepé's flight is an inversion of the mythical hero's magic flight. In the latter's flight the hero discards objects which grow in size and delay the pursuers. For instance, a discarded hairbrush grows to be a huge wooded mountain. But here Pepé leaves behind him, quite unintentionally, articles which are of great use. The coat or the hat or the rifle, instead of delaying his pursuers, serve only as clues in the chase. This is so because the hero is not fleeing from anything. He is only making "a return to the origin."

Steinbeck's use of the symbolic regressus ad uterum lends a third dimension to the story "Flight." According to Mercea Elaide the mythical hero is swallowed by a sea monster and re-emerges breaking through the monster's belly; or the hero goes through an "initiatory passage through a vagina dentata, or the dangerous descent into a cave or a crevice assimilated to the mouth or the uterus of Mother Earth." Pepé's passage belongs to the latter type. But unlike the adventures of the mythical hero, which are accomplished physically, Pepé adventures are symbolic in the oriental tradition. Pepé descends into narrow dark valleys three times, and when he meets his death, he rolls down the mountain and is covered over by an avalanche of rocks, thus entering the womb of the Mother Earth. Further these initiatory adventures of the spiritual type do not end in the hero becoming, even spiritually, a new being; they end in the searcher becoming one with "the Primordial Great-One," as visualized by the oriental mystics for whom "the goal ceased to be beginning a new life again here below, on earth, and became 'going back' and reconstituting the Primordial Great-One."

I believe there are many ways of looking at this most interesting story. It is possible to see in it the murderer, pursued by his sense of guilt and failing to shake it off, finally welcome death as proper wages for his sin. It is also possible to see in it "the emergence of Man from the primeval darkness."

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This section contains 2,818 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Lorelei Cederstrom