The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Title: The Grapes of Wrath
Author: John Steinbeck
Genre: Fiction / classics

Rating: 2.5

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I read this book aloud to Peter. Like a few other books I’ve read aloud to him, I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had been reading it to myself. Why? Mostly because I can read faster than I can talk, and I found the writing very… how shall I put this… boring. I know! It’s a classic! People I love kept telling me how great it was when I was reading it! Peter didn’t think it was boring and he enjoyed the writing, but for me it was kind of drudgery. There were some really poignant passages but I had a hard time visualizing anything that was happening. No accounting for taste, I suppose. And I recognize its importance and everything–I’m glad I read it–but I just plain didn’t enjoy it.

Here are some other things that grated on me:

Sexism: We have Pa lamenting the fact that he can’t beat Ma–at least not yet, boohoo. We have domestic violence apologism. I don’t know if it was just me, but I felt that we were supposed to look down on Uncle John for being upset over his wife’s death, like he’s such a good guy and it wasn’t his fault and blah blah, but you know what, he does have some responsibility to bear for the decision he made because it did contribute to his wife’s death…so his mopey depression seemed warranted. And then there’s this: “And the families learned, although no one told them, what rights are monstrous and must be destroyed: the right to intrude upon privacy, the right to be noisy while the camp slept, the right of seduction or rape […] And as the worlds moved westward, rules became laws, although no one told the families. It is unlawful to foul near the camp; it is unlawful in any way to foul the drinking water…” Okay so rape is just a “right” that people (men) no longer have, but shitting near the tent–now you’ve REALLY gone and done it. Also, nice job comparing rape to being loud at night.
Racism: Okay so… there are no Latino characters in this book. Not only are there no characters, no Latinos are even mentioned. Once. At all. Despite the fact that they totally existed, were trying to organize, and were actually being rounded up and deported en masse at the time the events in this book are happening. On a different front, there’s talk about killing Indians and stealing their land like a lament that it’s not happening anymore. Noble savage BS is utilized. Additionally, there are slurs against both American Indians and black people.

I know some people think that examples like these are realistic and accurate for the time. Sure. People behaved like that back then. People behave like that today, but we don’t usually create stories where people using the n-word and threatening to beat their wives (or mothers who condone and use as a threat violence against their pregnant daughters at their husband’s hands, for that matter) are sympathetic characters, “the good guys,” unless along the way they realize the errors of the ways and change (like in American History X for instance). A lot of people use reflection theory to defend anything from the works of John Steinbeck to gangsta rap. And I mean, I get it, but I just don’t think it goes far enough; I reject the notion that art/books/music/etc only reflect society and do not in turn have any impact on them. The messages conveyed through the expressions of sexism and racism in this book do nothing to cast light on the harm they do. I don’t get the sense that there’s anything wrong with them from the way they are depicted. It didn’t leave a good taste in my mouth. I’m definitely willing to be swayed on the topic but I can’t really get on board with what I’ve seen so far.

Overall, I was kind of disappointed. Despite the complaints listed above, it still managed to get 2.5 stars out of me, so it must have been doing something right. I do think the themes are potent, challenging, and absolutely worthwhile but they fell flat on delivery at times at times. There were definitely parts I could have done without, and elements that could have been utilized more. The book is unfortunately still relevant.

All the reviews of this book I’d come across are so glowy I wondered if anyone had any criticisms along the same lines that I did, and I found this review, from Read Red, that’s worth taking a look at.


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