75 years of The Grapes of Wrath

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2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, deservingly earning John Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize for its artistic and social merits. The story revolves around a farmer family who leave their home in Oklahoma and travel to California in search of a better life. The novel itself reflects the turbulent 1920s in America at the time; horrid sandstorms and droughts made agriculture impossible. Farmers’ inability to produce a crop led to their failure to pay the banks what they owed, meaning land was taken away from them. California was their promised land, bewitching them with its abundance of young fruit trees and green fields.

With their loaded caravans, thousands of families set off to find work, food and land. Their utopian ideals are shattered shortly after arrival; justly paid work was hard to find. Most of the land there belongs to rich and satiated owners who care only about profit. The farmers’ labour is exploited: they are forced to live in horrible conditions and work day and night for a loaf of bread. They have moved from one hellish place to another, but before long realise that maybe justice could still exist – there are a lot of them in the same boat after all.

Steinbeck skilfully draws parallels with the real happenings in America in The Grapes of Wrath. Every other chapter is an interlude which slows down the pace of the narrative and opens the reader’s eyes to the reality of the non-fictional context. The novel creates the notion of a new world built through a revolution – a fierce united struggle against the oppression. In some places of America, the book was banned and even burnt for its “dangerous” influence. As the book clearly indicated Steinbeck’s stance on capitalism, he was labelled as a communist and as a Marxist ideologist, and the novel itself was considered by many to be an act of propaganda. Even the FBI were watching the author’s every move but found no reason to prosecute him. Conversely however, the association of farmers were also unhappy because of the way Californian farmers were portrayed in the book, condemning it as libellous.

The scope of the book’s effect on the nation was phenomenal, and that in itself is justification for its labelling as one of the great American novels. Equally important however, The Grapes of Wrath is an excellent story about the willingness to go out of your way to help your fellow man, and is one everyone should read at some point in their life.

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