Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Grapes of Wrath still a classic seven decades on

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck tells the story of the Joad family of Oklahoma, who are forced to abandon their home due to crop failures and technological advancements during the Great Depression. The family buys a battered old Hudson Super Six and heads west to the so-called Promised Land of California, hoping to find work and to rebuild their shattered lives.

Along the way, the Joads encounter one hardship after another, along with countless humiliations, as they try to cope with the reality of having no work, no food and no money. Steinbeck shows us (with an unflinching eye) what it must have been like for thousands of families, whose worldly possessions have been reduced to the tattered clothing on their backs and occasional scraps of foods.

Although the Joads have few possessions, and despite a continuous stream of misfortune and bad luck, there is a sparkle of hope and humanity that shines through on almost every page. This is a family that has been kicked and beaten and knocked down, and yet they manage to maintain their dignity.

Reading The Grapes of Wrath in 2012 gives one pause to reflect on how the standards of living in the West have improved over the last seven decades. Compared to the Joads’ struggles and challenges, our own don’t seem quite so bad. It also speaks to a generation of Americans and Europeans who now find themselves impoverished and out of work, wondering how their lives will ever get back on track. I’m sure there are people reading this novel today who recognize the stark parallels between the fear and desperation felt by the Joad family and their own fear and desperation.

The Grapes of Wrath is not an easy read, and it will leave many readers feeling uncomfortable. Steinbeck wanted to shock readers into knowing and understanding the plight of the downtrodden during a particularly difficult period in American history, and he succeeded with exceptional brilliance. 

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