Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
The Grapes of Wrath
A big topic of conversation these days is the idea that we currently live in the Anthropocene Era; that is, the era defined by the effects of human beings on the natural world, most tellingly the climate. At the same time, there are frequent news stories of “eco-refugees” – people seeking asylum because weather disasters have made their home countries uninhabitable. The linking idea is that human endeavors have caused catastrophic changes to the natural environment, with the result being earthquakes, tsunamis, and droughts that forever alter landscapes and resources.
With this lens, John Steinbeck’s epic, The Grapes of Wrath (#10 on The Modern Library’s list), has renewed relevance.
People live in the natural world, but people also (and no other species does this) impose artificiality on it. Nature reacts, in turn imposing conditions that make it impossible for people to live in the environment. Is a dust bowl a “natural” disaster when over-farming and over-population have rendered an area of land incapable of recovering from a cyclical drought? The natural and the political collide.
The Grapes of Wrath is a great novel for many reasons, but it is especially intriguing to perceive its echoes in our own time. The novel tells the story of the Joads, who have to leave Oklahoma and try to head for greener pastures, quite literally. They are among a vast migration of people who left their homes and tried to make it to California, where the farming was excellent and jobs were in abundance. They are extremely poor people, like so many migrants of our current age, with nothing left to lose but health and life.
It is significant that the novel starts with descriptions of the landscape and weather. A turtle makes an appearance before any human does, and gains character and story trajectory in a passage in which the humans are anonymous agents in the turtle’s life. This is a story of a world and its human inhabitants in battle with one another.
Steinbeck has a way with characters, and the compelling force of this story is the Joad family and the many people they encounter along the way. It’s a great read, for all ages of readers, because of the language and style of the narrative with its biblical overtones, because of Steinbeck’s rendering of dialogue and dialect, and because of the sheer drama of it all. It is, like many other novels on the list, a book you can’t put down.
The novel is biblical not in the sense that it is trying to convey religious doctrine, but in the sense that it evokes the Judeo-Christian mythology that is the heritage of these Americans. Good myths often involve a journey fraught with hardship and obstacles, illustrating the enduring character of people, promising something quasi-magical at the end, once the obstacles are overcome. The traveler encounters other people along the way and shares stories and histories with them, thus breaking wide open his personal world and making him a citizen of the larger one. This story has exactly all of these elements.
America is a great land for migration because there are no political borders to cross. Not to say that the Okies from the dust bowl were welcome in the communities they travelled to. The poor and dispossessed are traditionally regarded with suspicion, their poverty seen as a mark of their undesirability at a basic level. But in America, the fact of free movement has made migration a part of the country’s character. People like the Joads leave their homes because they have to. They can’t make a living in the destroyed land, and the financial institutions – always stronger than any individual – take away what little they own. They repossess it, in fact, because the system of money lending means the people never really owned it to begin with. So they acquiesce, they leave, they reach optimistically for the promised land. They journey and struggle and find moments of abject tragedy and moments of beauty, strength, and community along the way.
The Grapes of Wrath is a great American novel that should be read by everyone.
Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.