Today marks a break from my usual Lit Maven Monday critical book review post. Rather, I am bringing you an example of literary criticism. This was originally written for my senior seminar class which explored road imagery in American Literature. John Steinbeck will forever rank as one of my favorite authors.
Bonding with the Joads: Attaining Closure in The Grapes of Wrath*
Many readers, from literary critics to students, feel that the ending of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath is unsatisfying. They believe that the unsettling image of Rose of Sharon breastfeeding a starving stranger does not bring about the right measure of closure for a book that undertakes the huge task of depicting the predicament that the migrants were up against.
Indeed, such a powerful and revealing moment like the final scene offers little in the way of definitive satisfaction for the reader. Steinbeck’s ending does leave the reader hanging because he does not intrude as an author and give the Joads an ending that rises above their hopeless situation. Doing so would destroy the spirit of the story that portrays how desperate the lives of the migrants have become. It is a story that cannot end triumphantly.
Instead, closure in The Grapes of Wrath must be found in the disturbing ending that Steinbeck invokes. After taking the reader through six hundred pages of strife it would not make sense for the author to paint a rainbow when winter is setting in, work is nonexistent, and the Joads have nowhere to go.
In the article “Audience and Closure in The Grapes of Wrath” Nicolas Visser too easily dismisses the emotional relationship that Steinbeck achieves with his audience by stating that the novel does not grant closure to the reader. For Visser, the ending of the book is too intimate and does not follow a logical conclusion in keeping with the form of radical novels (28). He feels that collective social action on behalf of the characters would be an appropriate ending (29).
Contrary to Visser’s view, it can be argued that the ending is appropriate since the novel so painstakingly portrays the results of the Dust Bowl migration west. While The Grapes of Wrath is political in nature, first and foremost, it is a novel about people. That is why Steinbeck’s relationship with his audience matters so much.
Before the situation of an entire class of people can begin to change, the circumstances they live within must be made explicitly clear. Someone must be made to care about the situation—that “someone” is Steinbeck’s audience. Visser may want a political uprising in order for the book to adhere to its supposed radical form, but that’s a big demand when a malnourished fetus is born dead and a mother’s unused milk goes into the mouth of a dying man.
The first half of Visser’s article explores how the novel finds a way to its audience as a radical work of fiction. He first points out that the oppressed are not a “realistically available” audience and that the middle class can only become an audience when they have a reason to read the literature (21). Such was the case with Steinbeck’s book. He wrote a novel that was a reaction to the times, and because hundreds of thousands of displaced farmers were actually heading west, Steinbeck was aware he would have the interest of the middle class readership.
Visser ultimately concludes: “Reaching that audience might entail the simultaneous (and ultimately related) dilution of the novel’s politics and distortion of its form” (34). Visser feels the politics of the novel are lessened because Steinbeck chooses not to end the book with an uprising to action. The muted ending of the book speaks to the reader and overtakes any political shadows that are present.
It is feasible that the author did intend to lessen the political aspects of the book by rendering such a personal ending. Steinbeck reduces life and politics to one desperate moment in a barn. By doing so, he fully draws the audience into the unfair conditions that the Joads must attempt to survive within—conditions created by the government supported systems of big business and the control granted to the unstoppable presence of the bank.
Perhaps political novels encounter problems with closure since politics are such a shaky area when it comes to reaching a consensus on any side of an issue. This shakiness is at the heart of the novel, so the ways that Steinbeck gains the sympathies of his audience also directs the way that he ends the novel. Steinbeck creates a family with strengths and flaws. This mixture ennobles the Joads. Ultimately, it is kindness, the family’s greatest strength, which becomes a detrimental weakness.
Also, chapters that focus on the family are supplemented by generalized chapters, which expand the scope of the journey beyond a single family. It is the creation of such a widespread and unfamiliar situation that entices the reader. While it may not be as strange as walking on the moon, the combination approach of Joad chapters versus general chapters create an ebb and flow where each chapter flows organically from the other, further enhancing what preceded it. In this way, the novel’s structure captures the sympathies of the reader and attaches their emotions to the family.
Visser addresses the ways that Steinbeck exerts his influence over the public’s opinion by creating “a triadic relation of author, audience, and owners” in order to side public force against government practices (23). Visser does such a great job eloquently expressing the depth of Steinbeck’s ability to capture the attention of his audience, that it is hard to imagine that he can push such an achievement aside in order to criticize the political nature of the book.
In praise of the book, he writes: “Much of the novel’s effect derives from giving the impression that it is engaged in revealing the hitherto unknown to an audience socially and culturally distant from the novel’s characters” (22). Visser also upholds Steinbeck’s use of the terms “Reds” and “Okies” as a way of gaining the “active sympathy” of his audience by “[neutralizing] the terms of contempt with which dominant groups label those they dominate” (24).
While Visser may argue that Steinbeck’s control of the relationship with his audience culminates in the politically inadequate final scene, it can also be the case, that because such a strong bond becomes possible between the reader and the Joads as a result of forming a relationship with the family throughout their journey west and witnessing their ensuing struggles, that the novel’s ending takes the reader right along into the inevitable end and spares the reader, as well as the characters, an ending that becomes politically heavy-handed.
Visser’s insistence that Steinbeck’s book fails to fulfill the political expectations of radical fiction reduces the humanity of the work to nothing. Visser’s demand for an ending anchored in political unrest and uprising would add to the controversy fed by critics who already feel the novel reads too much like socialistic propaganda. Steinbeck resists copping out to a propaganda driven ending by humanizing the situation with the strong and revealing imagery of the final scene.
Visser’s main objection lies with how the book concludes on such a personal level:
In short, the final moments end up telling the oppressed and exploited the old story: social justice can emerge only when there is a universal change of heart, only when people decide to be kinder to each other—a message which has always consoled those who gain advantage from the status quo more than it has those who bear the cost of social inequity. (28)
It is never apparent whether or not the selfish Rose of Sharon actually has a change of heart. Rose of Sharon isn’t so much being kinder as she is acting out in a situation where all of the participants are in dire straights. Steinbeck brings his characters into such a situation in order to end the story on the bleakest note, and yet the audience knows that what is left of the family will keep trying to survive at all costs. Even in her supposedly unselfish act of breastfeeding the starving stranger, Steinbeck implies that the girl may be acting under the pressure created by her mother’s stare. The last line of the novel reads like Rose of Sharon may also be getting some sort of morbid satisfaction out of the act, “her lips came together and smiled mysteriously” (619).
Ma directs Rose of Sharon to do the inevitable which brings another response of eternal optimism from the old woman, “Ma smiled. ‘I knowed you would. I knowed!” (618). Throughout the novel the Joad family, Ma especially, has been kind and hospitable to the people they meet. The kindheartedness of the Joads is a hindrance that makes it impossible for them to move on in a system of government that can’t take the proper measures to assure the basic welfare of the family.
Nor is it readily apparent what type of social justice is taking place. There isn’t much justice to be found in one starving person feeding another. Of course the message can be extended to include political systems and it may imply that such systems need to undergo a change of heart, but Steinbeck’s duty is not to offer a solution. The author’s portrayal of the downfall of the Joad family, as well as the inner chapters that expand the scope of the novel, bring questions of justice to the front reader’s mind. It would be impossible to bring justice about within the parameters of the novel.
Because Steinbeck’s vehicle for telling the story is the entire Joad family, he can only hint at the political action that is necessary to improve the family’s condition. Jim Casy enters into the framework of the family as a former preacher who is wise to the ways of the world. While telling Tom about why the men are on strike, Casy says, “They figger I’m a leader ‘cause I talk so much” (526). Then he is killed for talking too much.
Then, when Tom must leave the family, he carries words of promise and hope for Ma that bear Casy’s influence, “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there” (572). Since Steinbeck upholds the importance of family and the impact of its breakdown, it is not fitting to show the characters that leave the family in action. The story holds the promise of action as a necessary step that must eventually take place, but the family as a unit cannot do so.
Visser states: “Steineck’s inability to confront the most profound implications of his own narrative leaves him no way to end the novel” (32). While Steinbeck may be working toward social uprising as the only feasible solution, he also resists carrying his characters over into action that is beyond their capacity. Visser fails to comprehend that the novel is about people who are starving. Should life be reduced to eating or fighting, most people would choose to eat.
Steinbeck is showing one of the ways that the dominant portion of society can keep a poor man down. The author’s enhancement of the situation at hand matters ten times more then Steinbeck’s offering the solution of political action on behalf of characters that can barely earn a meager living.
Also interesting is that Visser points out that Steinbeck never questions why the federal government didn’t do more to alleviate the suffering of the migrants. Visser insists that the depiction of the government camp in the book points to a government that does not need Steinbeck’s book to raise public awareness (31). Obviously, Steinbeck wrote the book because the federal government wasn’t doing such a great job. A few camps here and there were not enough to alleviate the problem. Even the government doesn’t have magic fingers to snap and immediately fix the suffering of 500,000 people. While the government can offer assistance, it’s important to recall Steinbeck’s emphasis on man’s desire to work and earn a living. The government can only do so much for people who are set on doing for themselves. Human dignity must come before the importance of politics.
Visser is unable to accept Steinbeck’s choice of how to end the book. Not everything has to play out on a larger than life scale. Instead of going global, Steinbeck ends the book on the most intimate level possible. Closure has to be found in the fact that something needs to be done, but Steinbeck chooses not to make the final solution a part of the story since history was still playing itself out.
Most of all, Steinbeck seemed more concerned with reaching the people then he was with demanding a radical overthrow of government. Visser may want the novel to remain politically radical, but it cannot. Due to the bond the audience is able to achieve with the Joad family, politics are pushed aside as Steinbeck seeks sympathy for his characters, since sympathy for a cause is necessary before any political action can take place.
In the end, the relationship that Steinbeck develops with his audience is more important than any political message because he is calling out to the reader to take the action necessary to help people like the Joads. While the book does not end with any sort of uprising, the intimacy of the ending further draws the reader into caring about what is happening, and in that way closure is achieved and it also enables politics to extend beyond the final scene.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Books, 1939.
Visser, Nicholas. “Audience and Closure in The Grapes of Wrath”. Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 22 (1994 Spring). 19-36.
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