Book Club: ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ chapters 7-12

Last week, Jenn and I “discussed” the first six chapters of “The Grapes of Wrath” and then sort of summarized our conclusions as a post. But we didn’t really feel we were letting other people in on the discussion, so we’ve tried a different tack this week: A sort of back-and-forth via email that I’ve posted below, and really we’d like to invite others reading along to weigh in, in the comments. In fact, I’ve left Jenn’s question in the last email open, in part to encourage others to answer. (And in part, it must be said, because it’s a wonderful questions to which I have no answer…)

The reading assignment for the next section is at the bottom.

On Sun, Feb 17, 2013 at 12:11 PM, Brad Barnes wrote:

Essentially these chapters cover Tommy Joad’s reunion with his family and their embarking to California.Twelve people in a Hudson — can you imagine?

In between the narrative chapters, Steinbeck’s still interspersing short non-narrative, maybe metaphorical passages. Chapter 7 is the POV of the used-car salesman. (We just thought we disdained them now…) Chapter 9 shows people selling their belongings to pare down for the journey to the promised land. Chapter 11 shows the decay of an abandoned house — how quickly it becomes one with the landscape.

Curious what you think the house might represent, metaphorically.

I felt that Tom represented the aggrieved man — at least I did until Aimee’s Facebook comment made me hate him a little bit. The turtle seemed like the collective Okies, doggedly determined to survive and move toward the sun.

Is the house their past life? Maybe it represents the land itself, or, more specifically, the farming that man has done on it. We can disrupt it in the short term, but soon nature will rebuild it to her own design.

Thoughts?

On Sun, Feb 17, 2013 at 12:57 PM, Jenn Collins wrote:
While reading the chapter on the decaying house, I thought of the many times my Dad has said, “Everything has a soul and needs to be useful. Even a house. If you don’t believe it, watch what happens when a home is abandoned.”

Maybe the house is an extension of Jim Casey’s collective soul? Maybe we’re all tied together, even the seemingly lifeless things that help us survive.

You could say the same thing about the truck. The Joads are inextricably tied to the Hudson, as they

Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your ears and with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with your feet on the floor boards….that thudding as the car moves along — can’t hear that — just kind of feel it….Maybe a bearing’s startin’ to go. Jesus, if it’s a bearing, what’ll we do? Money’s goin’ fast.

Steinbeck makes the car sound like a living thing, one that has to be cared for if everyone is to make it to California.

On a different topic, the introductory passage about Ma Joad took my breath away:

She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself.

But it makes me wonder about the opening chapter, where the burden of strength, of not breaking, rests squarely on the men of the family. Do you think Ma Joad is representative of all women enduring the Dust Bowl, or is she an example of the shifting gender roles necessary for survival? Jim Casey hints at this when he offers to salt the pig, freeing her up to pack the truck.

“It’s all work,” the preacher replied. “They’s too much of it to split it up to men’s or women’s work.”

What say you?

On Sun, Feb 17, 2013 at 1:16 PM, Brad Barnes wrote:
Jim Casey’s become my favorite character. He’s the preacher who won’t preach. He’s the man who’d rather do “woman’s work” than not work. He’s unassuming and slips into the shadows any time the family has to make a decision.

Who doesn’t love Ma Joad? I feel like her role is to literally be the voice of concern, and to pragmatically say what’s on everyone’s minds. (For example, she essentially asks Tom: Did prison break you? Are you crazy?) I’m sure she represents some facet of the population. But I haven’t decided which, yet.

Glad you brought up the car. I see a lot of parallels between the land and the car. Both were gotten cheap and are quickly overburdened. They’re both things that needed to be cared for, maintained and tended. So in that sense, I do see them both as living things. And I feel like both serve to show us the destruction in the wake of a man’s life. I know California banned “The Grapes of Wrath” on its publication. But when you look at the story this way, it’s not only about a tragedy surrounding these poor Okies, but also a cautionary tale to all of mankind, warning us about the hubris of taking this land — was it truly made for you and me? — for granted.

On Sun, Feb 17, 2013 at 5:32 PM, Jenn Collins wrote:
I would go so far as to say Ma Joad is the family conscience. When the men debate if there’s room for Jim Casey in the truck, Ma snaps:

“There ain’t no room now,” she said. “There ain’t room for more’n six, an’ twelve is goin’ sure. One more ain’t gonna hurt; an’ a man, strong an’ healthy, ain’t never no burden. An’ any time when we got two pigs an’ over a hunderd dollars, an’ we wonderin’ if we kin’ feed a fella–” She stopped, and Pa turned back, and his spirit was raw from the whipping.

Completely agree with the idea that the book is a cautionary tale for all mankind. That explains why it’s still so popular, long after the nightmare of the Dust Bowl has passed. But we can’t dismiss how important the novel was as a social protest back in 1939. It polarized the country and inspired Eleanor Roosevelt to visit California, ultimately leading her to advocate for the migrant workers. (We should link to that wonderful NEA podcast.) I keep trying to think of a modern work of fiction that’s had the same impact, but can’t come up with anything. Can you?

Throughout the book, I’ve been amazed at Steinbeck’s ability to capture people so completely. Just look at the way he describes Noah. From only a few paragraphs, both of us separately came to the conclusion that he suffers from Asperger’s — though not a word was said about any sort of illness (assuming it was even recognized back then as a legitimate condition.)

One thing I’m not clear on. Why do you think Rosasharn says over and over again, “You do not see”?

***

The next assignment: For next Sunday, let’s read chapters 13-17 (pages 157-258 in Jenn’s copy.)

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4 Comments

  • February 18, 2013

    Anstaley

    I’m going to try the response here instead of Facebook – hopefully it will work this week.
    Great discussion guys! I’m enjoying it. These chapters reminded me of a book I read called The World Without Us which discussed the process of nature reclaiming the earth following the demise of humans. Slowly, but inevitably, nature takes back our infrastructure and monuments to the greatness of man. The landscape is our current novel is going through the same process and at a rapid pace. Every daily chore if focused on keeping nature at bay – even just the neverending need to sweep the dust and dirt from the home.

    • February 18, 2013

      Anstaley

      I agree that Ma Joad is the voice of reason, pragmatic. It’s not some romanticized, epic struggle, but a matter of just doing what needs to be done. As opposed to Granpa who is in constant battle – the crazy man jousting windmills.

  • February 18, 2013

    Jenn

    So true. We think we have total control of nature, but over and over again, its true power proves us wrong. I’m reminded of that every day when I pass by an abandoned parking lot on my way to work. I certainly couldn’t break concrete with my bare hands, but a dandelion can do the job in no time. Life would be so much easier if we learned to work with nature, and not against it.

  • February 19, 2013

    Brad

    Curious to seek out that book, Aimee. I do wonder if Granpa has a greater purpose in the book. Right now he’s crazy to the point of almost comic relief. Like B.A. Baracus on the A-Team, they have to drug him up to get him in a vehicle.

    Re: Rose of Sharon — Still not what sure what to think of her “You do not see.” It seems very deliberate in its repetition. But then, she is a woman who acts very knowing. She and her husband — who she seems to intimidate the crap out of — have quiet, secret talks. But if she’s some sort of soothsayer, she’s not saying anything yet. I guess we’ll see. Or maybe we do not see. Ever.

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