Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reading Steinbeck

Change: From Order to Chaos

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” 
― Herman Melville

The scene is changing as we read the opening paragraph of The Grapes of Wrath that begins with the famous line, "To the red country and part of the gray country", and ends with "as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country."

Thus we have at the beginning of the novel becoming -- change in nature witnessed through the landscape of Oklahoma. That signals one of the major themes of the novel. The change is not limited to nature, for the first man who is named, Tom Joad, is also undergoing change. His transition is one from prison to freedom, the freedom of the road and the freedom of parole. But his change also signals another aspect of change. Just as he is moving from the rigid boundaries and rules of prison to the open road and his family the world of the novel and his family, the Joads, is moving from order to chaos. This is not a sudden movement, rather one signaled in steps through incidents and events throughout the novel. Once they arrive in California they descend from the seeming luxury (in their experience) of the "government camp" to the dreary life in the "boxcars". The ultimate chaos, beyond which some will survive, just as a few did with Noah in the Bible, will be the flood at the end of the novel. In between we see the family change and survive severe trials that test their ability to deal with the changes they face.

Within the family the leader is, in many ways, Ma Joad. It is she who demonstrates strength, determination, and, above all, integrity, but as she journeys at the head of the family she also changes. Her change can be seen in her gradual recognition of the importance of the larger community beyond her family as she feeds the children around the family's cook fire (p 253) and, more dramatically in the final chapter of the novel (p 445):

"Ever'body's in the same wagon. S'pose we was down. You'd gove us a han'."
"Yes," Ma said, "we would."
"Or anybody."
"Or anybody." Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do."

Thus we see in the change of Ma Joad and her family perhaps a reaction to the changing of their world with the gradual descent into chaos. A greater need for community with the scarcity of resources for coping with life -- for living itself. The changes of the family seem also to lead to a purpose in life perhaps suggested by the strange yet noble action of Rose of Sharon at the end of the novel. It reminds me of the words of Erich Hoffer:

We need not only a purpose in life to give meaning to our existence, but also something to give meaning to our suffering. We need as much something to suffer for as something to live for. (Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition, p 88)

For out of the chaos of their world the Joads may yet have found something for which to live.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Penguin Books, New York. 2002 (1939).
Reflections on the Human Condition by Eric Hoffer. Harper & Row, New York. 1973.

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