Classics Bookclub - The Grapes of Wrath


There was a sense of déjà vu when the Classics clubs sat down to discuss John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath with many of our members having read it once or even twice before.  Simultaneously lauded and reviled on publication, the vast majority of our readers agreed with the prizes and the best seller lists and loved the novel for its powerful prose, its political perspective, its relevance to modern life, its depth of characterization and its inspiring take on the power of the human spirit to triumph over adversity.  However, for a small minority, the unrelenting arduousness of the Joad’s journey was too distressing to get past and mirrored their own experience of reading the book.   

For most, The Grapes of Wrath was an exquisite combination of the personal and the political. The months Steinbeck spent living with migrant farmers and their families in a government camp like ‘Weedpatch’ gave his writing a remarkable authenticity. Although some readers struggled with the ‘Okies’ heavy dialect, the descriptions of their ways of relating to each other, of walking and talking, eating and working brought the characters to life and provided some moments of much needed humour.  

We were all rooting for the Joads individually and as a family even if the more cynical of us felt like their innate goodness and love for each other was a little idealized. We envisaged Tom - on any objective view a double killer with poor impulse control - becoming the hero who saved the workers from oppression. We hoped Al’s rooster-like strutting and tomcatting was put to good use in raising a large family and running a successful automotive business. We had only affection for Uncle John and his guilty demons, Rose of Sharon and her unflinching faith in Connie’s big plans for their future, Ma’s feisty seizure of the reins of power in the family and Pa’s capitulation and respect for her.   

We found the social commentary or ‘big picture’ chapters particularly poetic and powerful. We tasted the dust, felt the mental exhaustion of the women, the avarice of the car salesmen, the sadness of letting go as possessions and lives were abandoned, the anxiety of the men listening to the engines as they drove, the hunger and hope of the children looking at the candy in the roadside café and understood that this unbelievable hardship was not just one family’s struggle but one of epic proportions that nearly divided America.   

On its publication, the book was seen as a one-sided and scathing critique of capitalism and we all agreed that Steinbeck was firmly on the side of the migrant workers. Steinbeck himself loved manual labour and we noticed his respect for people who work with their hands in the many lovingly detailed passages describing men fixing car engines, women baking fried dough and workers picking produce.  His image of the banks as a hungry monster whose need for profits trumped basic human rights was seen by some as a call for socialism. However, most readers felt that he was merely advocating for a version of capitalism that balanced economic growth with a concern for the collective good. Many thought the book and the crisis at its heart conveyed a philosophy peculiar to America -  a combination of a belief in self-reliance, the supreme nature of the individual and the virtue of competition.  While we observed a trend towards this attitude spreading across the world we hoped and believed that Australia has retained its belief in a safety net for our most marginalized citizens. Despite all this, we felt some sympathy for the Californian citizens whose jobs and way of life were threatened firstly by the great depression and then by a tsunami of migrant workers from across the country and we discussed the relevance of this to the current refugee crisis.   

The book was replete with symbolism and we spent some time identifying the biblical references. Steinbeck had been raised reading the bible daily and he used it to give the Joads' journey and struggle an almost religious significance.  Tom as the prodigal son, the 12 people on the jalopy as the 12 tribes of Israel crossing the desert to the promised land, the dead baby being sent down the river like Moses and the preacher - whose initials were JC - coming back with a new type of faith after his time in the wilderness.  Even the title came from the Book of Revelation via the Civil War anthem, Battle Hymn of the Republic. However, for many readers it was the philosophy that Steinbeck developed after abandoning formal religion – the interdependence and unity of all species and all events good and bad - that gave the book a spiritual dimension. This shone through in the speeches of Casey and Tom and in the many references to man’s connectedness to the land and the natural world and culminated in the powerful ending where in the face of great individual tragedy, nature provided a solution and ensured that life went on.   

We could go on and on – and we haven’t even got to the Tortoise or Tom’s cap and what they signified but suffice to say the discussions were wide ranging and stimulating with many people saying that reading or revisiting this great American novel made them reflect deeply on the way the world works, feel grateful for what they had and inspired them to live in a kinder and more connected way.  As always it was a joy to hear everyone’s views and insights.   

Hope to see you all again in September when we tackle the Russian classic Anna Karenina.   

Laura and Vicky.