To say that this is one of the great novels would be fair in two respects: it is a novel many people have heard of and it was widely controversial when it was published. In many ways, it is still controversial today as many people cherish this novel and others, like myself, find themselves confused and disappointed after the final page is read.
I don’t want to put out into the world that this is necessarily a bad novel because I think it is a novel it is quite good. What I’m having trouble with is the story because the purpose of this novel was not to tell a story–it was to make people understand what it was like to live in labour camps and to lose one’s home, and other topics of interest during the Great Depression. It was about informing people which is a bit different form entertaining them–though the two can overlap.
So there are a few hang-ups I have when reading in 2019 and wanting it to be a good story instead of what it is.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression, a book that galvanized—and sometimes outraged—millions of readers.
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads—driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity. A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America. At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s powerful landmark novel is perhaps the most American of American Classics.
There is a lot of amazing prose in this novel. This comes mostly in the in between chapters that don’t focus on the Joad family and instead focus on the country at large. There are all kinds of metaphors and whimsical prose that bring the novel into a place of literature instead of non-fiction.
Steinbeck was doing research for a shorter work that was to give awareness to the labour camps that were scattered across the United States. He visited the camps himself and was alarmed at what was happening to the farmers who were forced from their land as a drought and inability to pay for the land left them without a livelihood or a home. Many of the families had lived on the land for generations.
I think it’s worth putting here that this land was originally taken from the indigenous population–a fact that is conveniently never addressed. Nor is there reference to anyone other than white Americans who had lived in the country for some time.
But anyway, there is a lot that can be learned from reading this novel if you’re like me and a) didn’t grow up in the United States, and b) knew very little about this time period. Since the majority of the story is based on facts it can be an interesting experience for educating yourself–and maybe even to encourage readers to look further into this part of history.
There are a few reasons I didn’t enjoy this novel very much. For one, it is very clearly a piece of persuasive writing–Steinbeck is trying to make the reader agree with his point of view. There is some wiggle room in this, at least when it comes to more literary qualities, but I couldn’t help feeling as if I was being preached to.
Also, I couldn’t warm up to any of the characters–Tom Joad especially. I almost feel as if this has something to do with the writing style instead of the characters themselves because I have a similar problem with Ernest Hemingway novels. Something about journalists writing fiction leaves character a bit in the background.
Also, the ending…
I won’t give anything away but I definitely flipped the page expecting another chapter and instead was greeted by “About the Author”. Moreover, it’s an odd ending to say the least. For those who have read it, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I read it as a bit ominous and even sinister but I’ve also talked to people who read it as optimistic and hopeful. Either way, people seem to agree on the strangeness of it.
I think there are a lot of interesting things in this novel but I don’t think it’s the kind of novel I’ll ever read just for enjoyment. Like, it’s good at being a novel and having a message but bad at being a story (if that makes sense). It’s kind of how I feel about The Catcher in the Rye–it’s an amazing example of a novel but the story isn’t very good.
I know that novel has a large following so writing that might be controversial but hey, that’s how I feel and I’ve read that novel multiple times.
Anyway, this isn’t going to be a novel I come back to anytime soon. I understand why English teachers everywhere probably like it but there just doesn’t feel like there’s enough to the narrative in itself to make me want to give it a second chance.