A series in which I read books on required reading lists and discuss their merits.
I think you’ll agree with me when I say:
Required reading in schools should teach kids the value of reading. In today’s world, it’s conceivable that some kids will never read a novel. They’ll read summaries online to get through their tests.
Required is allowed to be difficult, but it should be comprehensible and motivating as well.
I won’t bury the lede anymore. The Grapes of Wrath is a great American classic that should be read by all, but it should not be required reading in high school.
Read on to find out why.
Grapes of Wrath Plot
The basic plot is simple: The Joad family experiences great loss with the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. They travel west from Oklahoma to California in search of a better life.
This was what I remembered the plot to be when I read it in high school. But the novel is over 600 pages long. I thought I must not have remembered it fully.
This is both true and false:
The plot is one of the least relevant parts of the book. Around 100 pages go by before they even leave on the trip, and these pages are filled with conversations and essays to give context and characterization.
Very little happens in terms of the plot until the last third of the novel. I won’t contribute to the problem I alluded to above about websites answering kids homework questions for them.
The relevant plot points will be discussed as they come up in future sections.
Grapes of Wrath Themes
Let’s look at some of the key Grapes of Wrath themes. There’s a lot of them, but I won’t sugarcoat it:
The Grapes of Wrath has to be one of the most unapologetically anti-capitalist books I’ve ever read. The other themes support this central message.
Death is everywhere in this novel. I most certainly do not remember this aspect from my own days in high school.
The novel opens with Tom Joad getting out of jail for killing someone. The seeds get planted from the first chapter:
- When is killing justified?
- How valuable is human life?
- How should we react and move on when someone we know or love dies?
Death is so common in this novel that I’m not sure I could tell you all the deaths even though I just finished it.
In Chapter 3, a truck driver swerves to try to kill the turtle for no apparent reason. In Chapter 13, the family dog gets run over by a car on the highway in a truly gruesome scene.
The car doesn’t even slow down to see what they hit, and the gas station owner says it happens all the time. Oh, well. That’s just how things are.
Several members of the Joad family die, and Tom Joad even kills a police officer.
Many of these scenes were shocking and thought-provoking, but I’m not sure I came away from the novel with any coherent takeaway about death.
And that might be the point. Death is often sudden, confusing, and senseless. We have to move on with our lives, and the world keeps pummeling forward.
In fact, the cold hand of capitalism doesn’t give any value to human life. All that matters is profit, even if thousands of people must die.
That brings us to our next two themes.
Organized Labor and Collectivism
If capitalism leads to the dire situation the Joads find themselves in, what is the way out?
This is the closest the novel comes to giving clear answers and themes.
Jim Casy, the ex-preacher, is a social activist and turns into a community leader of the migrant labor camp.
The message is clear that fair wages and good working conditions will never happen on their own. The workers must band together and collectively bargain for these things.
The closer and closer we get to the end of the novel, the more the Joads turn to the view of community and collectivism as a way out of their dire situation.
We’ll discuss this more in the next theme and when we talk about the ending.
The Good Life
What makes a good life?
This question hovers in the background of the novel from the very beginning.
The Joads don’t merely need to move for economic reasons. They’re excited to go. They think of California as the promised land, full of life, sun, and money.
The tone of the novel shifts from this optimism, little by little, as they learn the truth on the road.
Jobs aren’t as plentiful as they thought. Wages aren’t as high. Then it gets worse and worse. The workers end up in labor camps full of death and disease.
In light of the previous theme analysis, it would be easy to say this is Steinbeck showing that capitalism actually destroys the American dream.
But I think this analysis misses the other prevalent theme. The Joads gradually shift their understanding of the good life from material things to that of family, community, and altruism.
Meaning must come from these places because as the book shows, all other measures of worth can be taken away by forces outside your control.
The number one reason people have trouble with The Grapes of Wrath is that the novel consists of “intercalary chapters.” This just means that there are chapters between the traditional narrative chapters.
You may be wondering what these are all about.
A whole class could probably run on the prose of The Grapes of Wrath.
There is no doubt Steinbeck had Moby-Dick in mind when writing this. Melville used the exact same concept with his chapters on cetology. Melville’s were much more focused on the single concept of whales and whaling, though.
Steinbeck’s version is to have vignettes on everything from nature essays to car salesmen. These paint a broader picture of setting for the novel.
I found myself frustrated by the fact that these chapters were the best part of the first half of the novel. The prose style is beautiful in the essays on the red land.
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.
It morphs into fast-paced colloquialisms and jargon in other chapters.
There’s a rhythm and flow to these chapters that doesn’t exist in the narrative chapters. Moreover, it demonstrates Steinbeck’s comfort and skill in a variety of styles.
It reminded me a lot of Annie Dillard’s The Living (or, more precisely, Annie Dillard probably imitated this in her novel).
The intercalary chapters tend to introduce symbols outside of the plot. They then somehow weave themselves in. It’s quite a startling technique.
For example, Chapter 3 is about a turtle crossing the road: an essay unrelated to the plot but symbolic of the treacherous journey ahead for the Joads.
But then in Chapter 4, Tom picks the turtle up only to release it in Chapter 6.
Most of these intercalary chapters feel like they have nothing to do with the plot, but somehow subtly find their way in.
I read this as a commentary on how interconnected seemingly unrelated things are. It’s a common sentiment of the novel.
Everything feels helpless and pointless. These people were hard-working and did what they were supposed to do to reach the good life only to find themselves destitute and in poverty due to unrelated forces outside of their control.
I’m actually a bit surprised this novel didn’t take off in popularity during/after the Great Recession with how remarkable the parallels are.
Even movements like Occupy Wall Street were very similar to the types of demonstrations the Joads find themselves in at the end of the book.
Grapes of Wrath Ending
The ending of The Grapes of Wrath mystifies people in two ways.
Rose of Sharon
The entire novel seems to be building to one moment: the birth of Rose of Sharon’s baby. She’s been pregnant for the entire novel, so it seems like a natural conclusion.
It feels like an obvious choice for a birth to symbolize hope for their new life in California. This is not what we get.
The baby is stillborn, and the novel continues to one of the most startlingly bizarre moments in literature.
Rose of Sharon breastfeeds a dying, starving man. These are the final words of the novel:
Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.
Many people think this is an ambiguous ending, but I don’t. Look at the three themes above. This moment somehow captures all three at once.
Her baby dies, emphasizing how terrible the conditions have gotten. The last ray of hope is gone in a sudden, confusing, and senseless manner.
But then Rose of Sharon understands what must be done. She submits herself to the community. She saves a life amidst the loss and recaptures her humanity.
It may not be the good life she imagined, but the smile shows the act has set her moving in the right direction.
Why does Steinbeck end the novel with a flood?
First, it provides an ironic contrast to the rest of the novel. The whole reason the Joads had to move in the first place was due to a massive drought.
They prayed for rain the whole time. Now that the rain has come, it’s too much. The flooding makes it so they can’t work.
But there’s a much more obvious symbolic reason to end on a flood. It’s a reference to the Biblical flood.
So much of this novel is about how to fix the plight of the migrant workers, and now that they’re on the right path of collectivism, it is time for a divine force to wipe out the bad to create a fresh start.
Should It Be Required?
I’m firmly of the opinion that literature should not be relatable.
The most important books we’ll read in our lives are the ones that open our eyes to perspectives and worlds different from our own. Literature is for the other.
Great books give us empathy for others unlike us.
But for that to happen, the person has to actually read the book. Required reading should meet kids halfway to be successful.
The Grapes of Wrath is too unrelatable and too challenging. Sixteen-year-olds are concerned about pimples and who will be prom queen and if the gossip about Johnny has spread yet.
I want to use the climax to demonstrate my point about this book being a bit too unrelatable.
The Climax as Example
The novel provokes a visceral response when Jim Casy can’t stand getting exploited anymore and tries to organize a union.
Supposing a teenager even makes it to this point in the book, how will they feel the impossibility of this situation? It’s an economic and power struggle beyond comprehension that ends in Jim Casy’s death.
The labor force is too large and desperate, so the farms get away with paying them too little to live on. Everyone is dying in slums. Something must be done.
But when you try to do something about it, the people with money have the power to shut it down. It’s such a pained and morally fraught situation.
Is collective bargaining the solution? Are regulations and minimum wages the solution? Is there any solution that can be reached soon by a single, desperate human being watching their family die from the terrible conditions?
I can explain it in this way that sounds important and exciting.
But put yourself in the shoes of a teenager.
When Johnny has to read this passage out loud for discussion, is Maria going to do anything but yawn and watch the clock wondering when the boredom will end?
This is the easy part! How will any kid even get to these action scenes when there are several hundred pages of slow meditations on the land before it?
Let me reiterate: this book is excellent.
I like to think I was pretty advanced in eleventh grade. I liked long, challenging novels. I read them for fun outside of class.
But even I skimmed and looked up cliffs note summaries for The Grapes of Wrath. I got nothing from this book back then, and neither do most kids.
The novel only works if you’re willing to go deep.
For example, the essay about the sound of the tractor works on your subconscious. It’s the sound of eviction. It subtly suggests that machines replace human jobs.
A kid frustrated at the assignment will get none of this. It’s not an intellectual exercise. It works only if you submit to it as a transformative experience.
All this novel does is reinforce the idea that novels are difficult, stodgy, and unrelatable. Making this required reading has the opposite of the intended effect. It turns kids away from books, not toward them.
We’d never give students Calculus before they’ve done algebra, and likewise, we shouldn’t give students reading they aren’t ready for either.
There are plenty of excellent, difficult novels that are readable and relatable at that age. Those novels will teach kids how rewarding and fun reading can be. Those novels will teach kids how to do prose, thematic, and character analysis as well.
There are 10,000 authors who would serve as great additions to the required reading list. Many schools already require Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, novels that resonate with students much better anyway.
It’s probably time to retire The Grapes of Wrath for a more suitable novel.
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