"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on"
--The Battle Hymn of the Republic,
by Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)
published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862
"The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, both repels and attracts you. The horrors of the picture, so well drawn, make you dread sometimes to begin the next chapter, and yet you cannot lay the book down or even skip a page.The book is coarse in spots, but life is coarse in spots, and the story is very beautiful in spots just as life is...Even from life's sorrows some good must come. What could be a better illustration than the closing chapter of this book?"The Grapes of Wrath is one of the titles included on The Big Read website which has quite a bit of interesting information about the novel and some questions for discussion. I read the novel as part of a Grapes of Wrath Readalong.
-- Eleanor Roosevelt, from her column, My Day, 6/28/1939
Overall I didn't love this book. The writing is very powerful, and in some cases very beautiful. I can see why it was an important book in its time (it was published in 1939) because it pulls no punches in its depiction of a terrible situation for the migrant farm workers. As an historical novel I think it is very successful. It brings life to an episode in American history that I don't think can be understood without seeing the human beings who suffered through it. The structure of the novel--chapters about the Joad family interspersed with "generals" depicting details of the the times--works very well. The shifting of perspective from a single family's struggles to a wider lens gives both context and depth to the Joad's story.
When I read chapter 3 I thought the turtle was probably a symbol for the family. After finishing the novel I went back and re-read the chapter and I think the turtle is a symbol of the migrant farmers generally, not just the Joad family.
The role of men and women in the book is interesting. One of the questions the Big Read discussion guide asks is, "At which points in the book does the power in the family gradually shift from Pa to Ma?" and I think the answer to that is that it doesn't. Ma has the power all along, she just doesn't exercise it except when she has to. The very first chapter, which is mostly about the dust, sets up this idea of the women waiting to see if the men are going to break and hanging back as long as they are still whole. As troubles pile up and Pa falls apart, Ma is there to pick up the pieces and to take on the leadership of the family. Whenever Pa rallies, Ma steps back and lets him run things again until the next time he founders.
My experience of reading this book was as Eleanor Roosevelt described, at several points I didn't really want to go on and find out what was coming, but I couldn't really look away.