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Narrative Method in the Grapes of Wrath

 

In the Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck makes bold use of interspersed passages. As he noted in the journals accompanying the writing of the novel, the two narratives, while parallel, treat their subjects from quite different vantage points and need to be contradistinguished. After finishing the interchapter treating the tractors that remove the farmers from the land, Steinbeck remarked, "Yesterday the general and now back to the particular. I find I am not very satisfied with the numbering of these chapters. It may be that they will simply be numbered with large numerals for the general and small for the particular. The reason is that I want the reader to be able to keep them seperate in his mind." Apparently Steinbeck--or his publisher--decided against the use of different-sized numerals in the novel's final version. But the author's comments on this typographical demarcation indicate his intention: the general illuminates, but is merged into, the particular.

      Critics have commented extensively upon Steinbeck's thematic counterpoint in The Grapes of Wrath. Most Steinbeck scholarship posits that the two narrative modes provide mutual rhetorical reinforcement. But the politics articulated in the interchapters and the fictional narrative do not precisely mesh with one another. The prophetic voice remarking upon the larger context and meaning of the Joads' experience formulates insights about politics and history considerably more revolutionary than those achieved by even the most left-leaning of the fictional characters. Casy's intuition that "all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of"...and Tom's promise that "wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there"...remain within the discourse of a militant humanism. But the voice who hectors the growers--"you who hate change and fear revolution"--and warns them of their imminent downfall has undertaken a more searching analysis of the economic crisis: "If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could seperate causes from results; if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into 'I,' and cuts you off forever from the 'we.'" The threat here is barely veiled: the growers will not "survive." Tom's and Casy's actions demonstrate the openness of the disenfranchised masses to revolutionary practice; the prophetic voice articulates revolutionary theory.

      To note that Steinbeck's narrative method gives him useful opportunities for setting forth political doctrine is not to argue that his chosen doctrine is an especially revolutionary one. Steinbeck was a Popular Frontist when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath: he railed against the "fascist utilities and banks" running California and was loosely affiliated with the [Communist Party] through the League of American Writers (of which he remained a member after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact). As the coupling of Paine and Jefferson with Marx and Lenin suggests, however, what this democratic antifascism entailed was an etiolation of the text's class warfare theme, even in the interchapters where the prophet fulminates most angrily. But the interchapters do not always articulate a doctrine to the left of that embedded on the level of the "story." Toward the end of the novel, the depiction of dramatically altered relations between men and women in the Joad family is undermined by the patriarchal claims of the interchapter voice. The novel opens with a description of the ravages of the Dust Bowl in which the women watch the men and wonder whether they will break. The final interchapter reiterates this motif, adding the motif of fermenting grapes that has developed in intervening interchapters: "The women watched the men, watched to see whether the break had come at last.... And where a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right--the break had not come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.".... This passage offsets the sentimentalism of the novel's fictional finale--Rose of Sharon's nursing the starving man--by reminding the reader that the "wrath" of proletarian class consciousness and resistance will continue to mount. But this militant message is yoked with a proposition about the relation of female to male--the women still watch the men for leadership--that intervening fictional chapters have refuted. Pap has just finished conceding to Ma, "Funny! Woman takin' over the fambly. Woman sayin' we'll do this here, an' we'll go there. An' I don't even care".... The more revolutionary geneder politics emerging from the developmental pattern of "story" contradict the image of social conflict rendered on the level of "discourse." By virtue of their positioning external to "story," the interchapters do not produce a political doctrine that is necessarily more revolutionary than that embedded in character and event. On the question of class conflict, the interchapters are generally to the left of the Joad story; on the question of gender relations, they are to the right. What this very disparity reveals, however, is that the interchapters engage in political interpretation and analysis not necessarily subordinated to the thematic demands of the narrative. They derive from and account for experience, but they are not simple reflexes of it.

 

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