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Mystified about 'classic' status. Very tar'd by the end.
on 25 April 2011
As this novel appears on just about every Top Novel booklist out there, I decided it was high time to see what all the fuss was about. However, I couldn't possibly tell you. Perhaps Steinbeck was onto some quite groundbreaking stuff when he published this in 1939, but historical and literary significance don't excuse the fact that this is a pretty weak effort, as storytelling goes.
The story is set in the Depression era, and follows the plight of the Joads, a farming family, as they are driven off their unprofitable land and replaced by a callous man in a tractor. The action starts when young Tom Joad, recently paroled after 4 years in the can for manslaughter during a bar brawl, teams up with an ex preacher and catches his family just as they are about to set off in search of work in California, as advertised in a misleading "han'bill". As the back-cover quotation from the author himself suggests ("I've done my damnedest to rip a reader's nerves to shreds, I don't want him satisfied"), this journey will not be a barrel of laughs. They face various trials, as hopes are dashed, family members drop off one by one, and harsh reality kicks in. This all sounds like a great yarn, but if we are supposed to feel any compassion for these characters and their situation, or be any way gripped by the harrowing events, then I'm afraid it didn't work for me.
The characterization of the Joads themselves (and every other character) is one of the novel's major faults. They are all so dull-witted, naive and charmless that it is hard to feel that they are getting anything other than their just deserts. They fail to heed any good advice, go round and round in circles in their tedious discussions, and aren't the good-hearted, salt-of-the-earth people Steinbeck and his admirers would have you believe. It is sad that so many people were displaced and forced into poverty by the arrival of machines and progress, but these characters are useless, whose only skills are to breed and stir up trouble. They can't even pick fruit, for heavens' sake.
Another factor which ruins it is the over-egged prefiguring of everything that happens in the story. Not only do we know from the start that all will not be well, but we are told with little subtlety exactly how everything will pan out within the first few chapters. It is all very predictable, ponderous narrative; we have to trudge through over 500 pages to have everything confirmed.
Another poor choice was to present ideas in such a black and white fashion: simple people like the Joads are Good; anyone with half a brain who is interested in industrial progress is Bad. And the communist state is presented as some kind of paradise that will save us all from social decline. I'm sure this was regarded as controversial and revolutionary in the 1930s, but now it just seems naive and lazy. The overall tone of the novel is rather patronizing and didactic; we are not allowed to form our own opinions about capitalism: ideas are fed to us with a very large spoon.
I'm not one to complain about needless description, because descriptions can be powerful and beautiful in their own right, but Steinbeck is not a skilled painter of scenes. One example that sticks out is the pains he takes to describe a mechanical problem: pages and pages of tedious DIY, which does not move the story or the characters on one bit. And there are plenty more examples. The novel needs some drastic editing.
I have given this 2 stars because I appreciate that it is/was an important novel, but the story, message and style leave a lot to be desired. Try Zola for similar themes of poverty brought on by capitalism and family struggles, or William Faulkner for an interesting portrait of southern family life.