Student | Niamh Smith
John Steinbeck is probably best known as the author of Of Mice and Men, a mainstay of the GCSE syllabus. Reading the novella for the first time, I quickly fell in love with the characters and Steinbeck’s clear, evocative prose style. Years later, I decided to read his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, upon seeing it in a bookshop.
Aware that it had won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, as well as being a major factor in Steinbeck eventually receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, I had high hopes for this novel. Despite (or perhaps because of) this high praise, I found The Grapes of Wrath an immensely frustrating read. Despite interesting characters and weighty themes, it is easy to lose interest in the novel. It becomes more and more difficult to read with each passing chapter (and it is not accessible to begin with). Lacking the compelling nature and the fast-paced story that made Of Mice and Men so enjoyable, this book requires perseverance – a lot of it.
It tells the story of the Joad family, who leave Oklahoma because of the ‘dust bowl’ sweeping the state, and travel to California (the setting for many of Steinbeck’s works) in search of work. The novel is imbued with a lot of historical context, making the novel a heavy read, but such detail increases the realism that Steinbeck is renowned for.
My main problem with this novel was the structure. The shorter chapters were sometimes impossible to comprehend, due to the absence of speech marks when characters spoke. Despite having come across similar techniques in the work of modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, I found that, here, the lack of distinction between dialogue and description added nothing to Steinbeck’s narrative. On a more positive note, the short chapters contained a wealth of interesting information about life in the 1930s and were much more manageable than the longer chapters, some of which ran to forty-five pages long!
Like Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s prose style is beautiful, with the poetical descriptions perfectly evoking the scenery. The characterisation is also brilliant, with the hopes and dreams of the Joad family feeling achingly real. This is particularly evident in the final chapter, which is among the best endings to a book that I have ever read. I was riveted, and for a chapter nearly forty pages long, that is quite a feat! It is incredibly emotive, with a powerful and haunting climax that lingered in the memory for days afterwards. Despite its problems, I would still recommend giving The Grapes of Wrath a read, mainly because of the outstanding final chapter. However, in my opinion, the level of praise that the book received is not up to the quality of the book itself. If I had been unaware of the book’s awards and reputation, then perhaps I would have been less critical.