Saturday, 5 December 2009

Steinbeck's Despair and Hope

Each semester in High School English we would study one main novel, and in Grade 11 we "did" John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. I loved it (as I loved most of what we did in English) despite the curriculum. I was moved by the way the Joad family maintained their dignity in the face of the crushing poverty of the Great Depression and the absurdity and cruelty of their society. As a result I read quite a few other Steinbeck books in my youth, and they were just the thing for a sensitive young man.

Coming back to some of these stories as a supposedly mature person provides some interesting food for thought. Take, for example, The Pearl. This little novella, a kind of meditation on Jesus' parable of the pearl of great value, features Kino, his wife Juana, and their infant son Coyotito, a poor Indigenous Mexican fishing family. One day Kino goes pearling and discovers an amazingly beautiful, enormous pearl, a find that should enable him to live out his dreams. Modest dreams they are too - new clothes, a proper church wedding for he and Juana, schooling for Coyotito, perhaps his own rifle. This, I think, is Steinbeck's version of the Kingdom of God - a simple decent life free from want.

However, the pearl buyers in his town, all agents of the one ultimate buyer (perhaps a stand-in for God) collude in telling him the pearl is of little value and offering him a token price. He knows they are trying to cheat him, and refuses to sell, planning instead to try his luck in the capital. When their attempts to trick him into handing it over fail, the buyers resort to violence, sending men in the night to take the pearl from him. Instead of acheiving his dreams he has his fishing boat destroyed, his grass hut burnt down, and becomes an outlaw after killing one of his attackers. In the end he and Jauna despairingly throw the pearl back into the sea.

Nothing relieves the despair of this tale. Its message seems to be that the wealthy - with God on their side - will conspire to prevent the poor from rising, will always allow their greed to triumph over their humanity. The best course for the poor, he seems to say, is to make the best of their lot and keep their heads low.

If this is the problem as described by Steinbeck, the solution may be found in his comic novels, especially Cannery Row and its sequel, Sweet Thursday. These books centre around a group of characters in a run-down street called "Cannery Row". There's the semi-homeless men of the Palace Flop-House and Grill; the prostitutes of the euphemistically named Bear Flag Restaurant; the successive proprietors of the local grocery store; and the hub around whom the action of both stories revolves, Doc, the owner of Western Biological, a supplier of specimens to educational institutions. Not all of these people are in the depths of poverty and none of them are trapped in it - if they are poor it's because they choose to be. Their low-level and transparent swindles, their clumsy and often disastrous attempts at doing good, are told with a wry humour and a sharp eye for the unexpected twist.

Yet for all the romanticisation of poverty there is a core here of what Steinbeck obviously sees as the good life - the community of Cannery Row is bound together by its members' care for each other. They often fail to do right by each other, but they try. When Doc's loneliness has all the residents worried, and Suzy, the new girl at the Bear Flag, is so obviously unsuited for the work, the community push them together. Their attempts are misguided, they almost succeed in driving the pair apart, but ultimately love blossoms.

This is Steinbeck's hope, and ultimately I guess its the same for all of us. We have comfortable lives. None of us is in the depths of poverty. But our comfort doesn't make us happy and depression and anxiety are at an all-time high in our community. As Larry Norman says "without love you aint nothin'".


Anonymous said...

Jon, I love the section of "Grapes of Wrath" which describes the turtle. It is so poetic, yet so simple. Steinbeck is far and beyond the best English novelist of all time.

Both The Pearl and Grapes of Wrath reflect Steinbeck's Marxist views that culture is built on economic status. I'm not sure I share your interpretation of them as having a religious symbolic meaning, however.

I love (in Grapes of Wrath) how the preacher has such a pragmatic premise for his religion. I'm sure lots of Christians go to church to check out the mating landscape - that heaving chest of the lady singing out the front.

Let's not get too serious about our religion, hey. After all, its just a cultural artefact born of our economic status and the accident of where we were born.

Jon said...

Well now, of course the Pearl is a reference to Jesus' parable, but it's an ironic one. Kino has to give up everything to keep the pearl - his home, boat, child - but the pearl gives him nothing in return. And "God", the invisible master of the pearl buyers (ie capitalism), blocks his way to happiness.

It's the same in Grapes of Wrath, the title being an ironic reference to The Battle Hymn of the Republic, but the Grapes of Wrath are being stored in poor people, and preparing to be trampled by the unions. I don't remember the details of the Preacher's faith very well, except that after he'd preached a sermon he'd head out to the fields with one of the young girls - but that's all over by the start of the story, and he's a lost soul, only to revive when he discovers faith in socialism (although Steinbeck doesn't put it so crudely) and becomes a union leader. However, I don't think it's coincidence that he dies for the cause and that his death inspires Tom to fight in his place.

Steinbeck knew his bible well and wasn't afraid to use it against both orthodox religion and capitalist oppression!

Anonymous said...

Well now, we must both be cautious that we do not degrade Steinbeck's artistry, either by making it a one-dimensional moral tale or just a convenient vehicle for flogging an ideology. I first read The Pearl as an eleven year old and was deeply moved - not until I was older did I realise any significance to poverty globally. But the beauty of the books is in the characters (well, and in the expression as well).

I think many of Steinbeck's characters are lost souls and I dare say looking for saviours in the hands of God or socialism was a motivation for many of them. But the nice thing is the contradictions of the saving - the religious fervour is indistinguishable from the sexual fervour which it is meant to repudiate, the salvation from poverty is steeped in despair and sadness and the promised land, though full of potential and wealth, is not conquered by a convenient blowing of a trumpet or handed to the chosen by a benevolent sky-spirit.