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.