Dignity and Transformation in the Face of Tragedy in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Dignity and Transformation in the Face of Tragedy in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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It is not very often, when you read a book that you see hopeful and stirring themes placed against a backdrop of terror and tragedy. The “Grapes of Wrath”, written by John Steinbeck in 1939, is a gritty and realistic picture of life for migrant families in California during the Great Depression in the face of a drought, all struggling to build lives for themselves and maintain their dignity amongst the rampant capitalist self-interest of landowners. “The Grapes of Wrath” is both a novel both a naturalistic epic and a social commentary. Steinbeck tackles major themes such as suffering inflicted from man unto man and the snowballing effects of both selflessness and selfishness, all seen through the eyes of an altruistic, omniscient narrator following the much begotten Joad family on their migrant journey. Through characters such as Tom Joad, a young man struggling to overcome his past and endeavoring to live in the moment who learns to be a leader of all people, and the painful yet dignified character arcs of his entire family and his best friend, Steinbeck shows what he most wants us to take away from this novel, which is the understanding of the transformative power of passion and anger, as well as respect for the holiness of our fellow man.

“Grapes of Wrath” begins with Tom Joad, recently released from prison, meeting Jim Casey, an ex-preacher who believes that holiness is not to be found within the confines of a church but rather in the shared human experience. They team up together and join his family on their expedition across the country in a rickety truck. The family faces trauma after trauma, foreshadowed by the death of their dog right at the start. Both grandparents quickly pass away, Tom’s younger and pregnant sister ...


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...continue his dream. Both grief and compassion are transformative experiences, and this novel keeps that idea in the readers’ heads throughout every chapter.

The California that the Joads knew was both an environmental and spiritual desert. Man against man, brother against brother, all everything conspired against happiness in favor of bitter reality. The mournful tone brings the prose along like a dirge. However, there is dignity in suffering together, a dignity that the Joads possessed in spades. In simply surviving and doing the best they could, this family was sanctified. In carrying on and recognizing their value, they transformed their own lives and the lives of many of those whose paths they crossed. When facing endless animosity, Tom sought togetherness, to improve a situation. A transformation began inside of him, and he transferred it to his fellow man.


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