Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Why The Grapes of Wrath Fails

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 1, 2010

WARNING: This post was written far too late at night. I cannot be held responsible for its contents.

The Grapes of Wrath is considered to be a great American novel. Perhaps someone can explain why I’m mistaken here, because I really don’t see what’s so great about it.

A typical story — in fact, virtually any story at all — has a problem and a solution. The quality of the story is directly related to both the quality of the problem and the quality of the solution. The characters of the book have some sort of problem, or perhaps a goal, which they work to achieve. Near the end of the book, they solve their problem or achieve their goal. This is how a story works.

That’s the problem with The Grapes of Wrath. Near the beginning of the book, a big problem arises: the Joad family are kicked off of their farm. As the novel progresses, the problem continues to proliferate. Their situation gets worse and worse.

Now, any story worth its salt would end with a solution. For the last hundred pages or so, I kept expecting something good — something really big, something phenomenal — to happen. Even if the Joads weren’t magically lifted out of poverty, I at least expected them to gain some new outlook on life, or to learn an important lesson, or something like that. I kept expecting this right up until I reached the second-to-last page in the book, and I realized that nothing had happened yet. In any other book, something big would have happened. But in The Grapes of Wrath, the problem just kept going and going, kept getting worse and worse, right up through the end of the novel. There was no climax. There was no resolution. There was no conclusion. From page 150 all the way until the end at page 581, the problem continued to compound but no resolution was ever reached. Those 431 pages, while fun to read, showed very little variation in tone or direction. The book could just as well have ended a hundred pages sooner, or two hundred, or three hundred. When the problem continues to compound and no solution is ever found, there’s not much point in even making the novel be any longer. It may as well have ended at page 200, because you as a reader would have gotten the same amount out of those first 50 pages of conflict as you would have out of the full 431. The Grapes of Wrath works very well as the beginning of a story, or as the beginning and middle, but it’s missing an ending. No matter how well-written, poignant, or “American” a novel might be, it cannot be considered very good IF IT’S MISSING THE DAMN ENDING. It works very well as a book that helps the reader understand the plight of the poor farmer in Depression-era America, but as a story, it’s an utter failure. A book that’s missing an ending is like a chair that’s missing a leg. Sure, it looks nice, but try sitting on it.

I got a lot out of reading this book. It helps the reader to understand what a farmer during the Great Depression was going through, and the suffering that he had to endure. It certainly works very well in that respect. I suppose it’s arguable that the anticlimactic ending — the never-ending struggle of the Joad family — was meant to represent the fact that, for farmers, there was no happy ending. Sure. Maybe that’s true. But this isn’t supposed to be a historical account of exactly what happened. It’s supposed to be a story. Stories are supposed to have beginnings, middles, and . . . what was that other part . . . oh yeah, I remember. ENDINGS. Without an ending, without a solution, it’s not a story. It’s a list of grievances. Bad thing #1 happens, bad thing #2 happens, bad thing #3 happens. Nothing is ever resolved. As far as I have been informed, that’s not a story. And I’ve read my fair share of stories.

It has been said that great writers are allowed to break rules. Shakespeare, for example, made up about a zillion words, and people are generally okay with that. So is it okay for John Steinbeck to write a book without an ending? Many people seem to think so. As you may have figured out by now, I disagree. I strongly disagree. It is not only unusual or wrong to write a book with no ending, but I would go so far as to say that it is immoral. What kind of impression are we giving our children? We can’t have them start writing like Steinbeck. First our children will start writing books with no endings, and before you know it they’ll all have become Communists. We cannot let this story fall into the wrong hands.

6 Responses to “Why The Grapes of Wrath Fails”

  1. Linda said

    Michael, I think your observation that “for farmers, there was no happy ending” is a key (but not the only one) to understanding the value of this book. For so many people, the Depression was RELENTLESS. From our relatively secure and cushy lives, we have no truly-felt insights into the utter desperation that families felt as they began to lose the lives they had built for themselves. This story takes one such family and illustrates the subtle and powerful changes it experienced in trying to deal with losses of goods and hope. The CONTEXT of any story is everything, and I wonder how much you’re taking into consideration the zeitgeist of the period.

    Here’s another key: happy endings are an American fiction. Russian, French, Latin American literature. . .they are more character or circumstance driven than American, which is resolution driven. Think about whether you may have bought into that American paradigm of everything having to be wrapped up in a neat little wrapping with a pretty little bow. Life is not like that. Ever. Hollywood and Disney movies have thrust that ideal upon us and it diminishes our tolerance for thinking and for dealing with ambiguity. Books don’t need endings. Movies don’t need endings. We’re just socialized to think that.

    Given these two premises–the cultural context during which the book is set and the Disneyfication of story telling in 21st Century America–do you have any additional thoughts about the book?

    • I do think that The Grapes of Wrath is a very good book up until the ending, or lack thereof. It does tell a good story of what it was like in the Great Depression. But the ending underwhelms.

      Hollywood by no means invented the happy ending. And I don’t mean to indicate that a story needs to have a happy ending, but only that it needs to have some sort of change of tone near the end of the novel. To use examples of books I’ve read recently:

      In Crime and Punishment (a Russian novel, by the way), the main character turned himself in to the police and served a jail sentence. This was a clear change from how he had spent the majority of the novel trying to avoid capture, but it was not happy.

      In Brave New World, the main character became fed up with society and detached himself. It was a clear change from the majority of the novel, which he had spent trying to adjust to a new world.

      In both of the above examples there is not a happy ending, but something still changes at the end. In The Grapes of Wrath, nothing changes. The last 431 pages were completely flat. It’s not even that there was no resolution; it’s that there was no change. It wasn’t a story, it was a list of grievances.

      You refer to the “paradigm of everything having to be wrapped up in a neat little wrapping with a pretty little bow,” as though that is somehow a bad thing. To extend your analogy: isn’t it better to receive a gift with a neat wrapping than a messy one, or even none at all? A “neat little wrapping” can only serve to improve the quality of the story, even if the “wrapping” is not a happy one.

      Other than ranting about how it doesn’t have an ending, I don’t have as much to say about it as about either of the other novels I mentioned (I am currently working on a review of Crime and Punishment). It seems pretty self-explanatory. Brave New World was not at all straightforward, which is why I wrote an essay about its implications.

  2. Luke said

    I agree with Linda that it would’ve been an insincere book if a HAPPY ending had been included. I think it was well-written and full of really interesting character development throughout. Especially the developments that ‘Ma’ (calm and dignified to frantic and mean) and ‘Pa’ (strong and leading to weak and submissive) underwent. So, for these reasons, I would say it is a great ‘story’ and, more importantly, a great book. I don’t think Steinbeck was promising a ‘story’ to begin with.

    And, yeah…. Disney wants your soul. Seriously.

    That being said, I believe a different kind of fault can be found in this novel. There were several short chapters in this book that seemed to elevate the writing above the personal narrative of the story into a new, more universal context. We’ll call these ‘episodes’. I thought that these ‘episodes’, though very well written, were simply overt statements of the author’s opinions. I would’ve rather seen evidence for these sentiments subtly hid throughout the account waiting to be found by the reader as opposed to Steinbeck just handing out the ideas nicely packaged and bubble-wrapped.

    And I also didn’t think Uncle John was a particularly believable character. Especially during that conversation he had with ‘Pa’ in the store towards the end of the book about buying safety razors. That conversation was a childishly obvious allusion to consumerism. That was a particularly unrealistic narrative.

    • I agree that a happy ending would have been a bad idea. But what I have a problem with is that hardly anything significant happened near the end of the book. Rose of Sharon had a baby, and that was it. The story could just as easily have continued for another two hundred pages.

      I thought that the episodes were actually rather nice. I liked how there was the universal perspective, followed by the Joads’ experience of that same event. I thought it was elegant. One qualm I often have with books is that they focus too much on one or a few characters, rather than on a more universal perspective. The Grapes of Wrath didn’t have that problem.

      Regarding the safety razor conversation, it feels sort of like Steinbeck suddenly realized that he forgot to include any commentary on consumerism, so he threw that in at the end. I think the commentary is appropriate, but it was not very well situated within the framework of the novel.

      And whatever happened to Tom?

      • Luke said

        Tom was certainly a loose end. I think the purpose of not bringing closure to Tom’s story is to illustrate the lack of closure ‘Ma’ must face. Perhaps it helps the reader feel empathy for the family’s loss.

  3. barbara said

    It’s been 40 years or so since I read Grapes of Wrath but I found it satisfying enough that I read a bunch of other Steinbeck books. Perhaps satisfying in the way tragedy is, in the awful inevitability of how a pattern of circumstances develops. Also, there was something about Ma’s care and toughness that was sort of heroic.

    I have read several books with less of a climactic ending than this one, one just today. Sometimes they are poetic, just giving you word pictures and an atmosphere. I do prefer stories with beginnings, middles and ends though.

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