Gabriella Tóth is student at University of Szeged, Department of Hungarian literature and language and Theater Studies: she has an MA in English and in Hungarian and Central European Studies from the same University. Email:
The first half of the twentieth century, regarded as the modernist period, is characterised by a cultural melting pot of various isms, a technological boom, social and political crises on the old as well as the new continent. In terms of cultural studies, the period can be characterized as a time of ambivalence; one may discern a firm belief in the immense technological and industrial power of human beings. In art – according to Habermas –, however, one can detect “a split between an essentially romantic conservatism and progressivism that puts its weight behind science and technology” (Giddens 1981, 16). By the same token due to the experiences of the first world war in which “mass society had produced a form of mass destruction” (Lauter 2006, 852) an immensely pessimistic view of technology came into being. As a result of these events, a sense of alienation was expressed by artists, such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, (ibid.) and, at least to some extent, by John Steinbeck. This notion of alienation, although commonplace by today’s standards, is not general, as it “can take on very different meanings and tonalities” (ibid.) depending upon whether it is a person from society, a person from oneself, or a marginalized group of people. Social classes, such as African- and Native-American communities like the migrant workers in California during the Great Depression era, also experienced alienation.
Literature reacted to the rapid epistemological and ontological crisis in several different manners. A group of modernist American writers such as T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Henry James – known as the lost generation – went on a voluntary exile. While other authors like William Faulkner, Theodore Dreiser and John Steinbeck turned towards regional topics of their homeland. The decaying traditional South struggled with its ties to agriculture, and the transition towards industrialisation. These issues, along with the problem of the Californian migrant workers, appear on the pages of their novels. Although the background of the empirical authors differ from one another, certain common threads in literary oeuvres, such as the theme of alienation, the desire to renew traditional styles and genres (prose fiction, drama and poetry) and the evocation of the remote past have remained. When, Gertrude Stein told Hemingway that they were all a “lost generation” she was acknowledging alienation. (Lauter 2006, 851) Similarly, Langston Hughes’ formulation of Refugee in America and Steinbeck’s passage in The Grapes of Wrath naming man as “part of the monster,” a robot in the tractor’s seat, who “could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power,” (Steinbeck 1976, 37) refer to various sides of the same notion.
Several existing popular novel genres (styles as well) were rediscovered and ‘dusted off’ by these artists. Many used modernist irony as a technique. “The technique of modernist irony was to capture the split many felt between ideals and events” (Lauter 2006, 853). A new type of writing mode, namely the epic novel came to existence. According to Lutwack, the inter- and post-war period “called for epic” (Lutwack 1971, xii). The heroes of these writings, however, differ from that of antique and renaissance ones, since the “absurdity of human behaviour;” the hero as victim and outcast” was “better represented to our present sense of reality” (ibid.) . The myth-creating literary wave has left its marks on the American literature, too. According to Lutwack, “American literature reveals an extravagant appetite for the whole range of western literature, philosophy and theology and sizing again upon the archetypal human dilemmas” (ibid.).
The topic of my paper is one of John Steinbeck’s best known novels, The Grapes of Wrath. The temporal story of the dispossessed Okie family, the Joads, is hoisted into timelessness by allegorized characters. The family’s journey on Route 66 is narrated by the novel’s so-called narrative chapters, while the intercalary chapters present the events with a broad scope thus creating the text’s peculiar oscillation between a very unique and subjective story: the Joad family’s micro-cosmos and the family’s larger environment, their macro-cosmos. The two worlds constantly collide with each other: the macro-world mirroring the micro-sphere and vice versa.
The chronicle of the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s’ is evidently one of the most discussed modernist texts of the American literature. The actual historical background provides the novel’s realistic-naturalistic flavour. Characters stand not only for themselves, but also for a larger unit of society, therefore they might be taken as an allegorical, elevating the family story to a more abstract level. The text balances on the borderline of modernism and post-modernism. It shows the significant characteristic features of modernist myth paraphrases, but in many ways, it also subverts and deconstructs its basic narrative line relying on the Christian myth. At the same time, elements of Native American and other Western myths can be detected throughout the plotline, which creates an impression of a collage of myths.
Myths, the American Epic Novel and Steinbeck
The term mythic is going to be used in a fairly broad meaning in this paper; by it I do not only mean cosmogonies as the creation of universe, human beings, creature and stories about deeds of Gods, heroes and heroines, but I rather refer to legends of primordial cultures, such as Native American legends, and myths created in literature such as the transcendental journeys taken by the Homeric character Odysseus and Virgil’s Aeneas. I consider these narratives as constituting the underlying structure of the text narrative system.
Vladimir Propp’s The Morphology of the Folk Tales, which reconstructs Russian folk tales, proves useful in analysing my target text. His definitions of the functions in a folk tale, regardless of how and by what type of characters they are fulfilled in a given narrative are “universally applicable” (Jameson 2000, 178). Claude Lèvi-Strauss’ argument on the structural study of myth joins to Propp’s basic statement analysis suggesting the idea that myths bare a striking resemblance to languages. That is they have a deep structure as sedimentation and a surface structure that is the manifestation of the underlying structures. This is the reason why myths as to their substance differ, while their deep structures are the same. Mikhail Bakhtin, however, approaches the generic history of epics (myths and narratives) from a different point of view. While Lèvi-Strauss’ and Propp’s arguments approach the subject matter of myth structures from a synchronic view point, Bakhtin and Jameson opt for a diachronic analysis in comparing the epic genre and the novel, and the relationship of romance and modern narratives, respectively.
According to Bakthin novels as genre are like “descendent from a separate species” (Bakhtin 2000, 70), that is, they do not get on well with other genres. He suggests that studying the traditional, so-called “high genres” is analogous to studying “dead languages” (68). He considers generic history to be completed, whereas the novel as a genre is “developing in front of our very eyes” (ibid.), consecutively its problematization should be the equivalent of the method of synchronic linguistic. Even “young languages” to which Bakthin compares novelistic genres are explicable entirely – if we take a look at them in their synchronic and diachronic dimensions. Moreover, even the novelization of a language might take back to an earlier stage of its change. Therefore it is impossible to keep the analogy in describing the novelistic genres and epic (as a new and old genre); as dead versus living languages since we cannot convincingly state that novel is “a radically separate species” (Bakhtin 2000, 70). That is, its development is impossible to tear apart from the historical genres. The novel as a genre is not incommensurable with the more ancient ones, but it behaves more like an “offspring,” living in a symbiotic relationship with its “parent genre, the epic” (Jameson 2000, 167 9). Sometime narratives keep their basic structural elements but change according to given situations. By scrutinizing the most important characteristic features of these genres – the epic and the novel, in general – we can grasp these textual transformations at work in the specific case of Steinbeck’s fiction.
In Bakhtin’s concept on epic as a genre the principle criteria for a narrative text to be epic is identified in its impersonal experience of the national tradition. Only the national past, or as in Goethe’s and Schiller’s view, the “absolute past,” can serve as the subject matter of epic. This absolute epic distance “separates the epic world from the contemporary realm of time; that is from the time in which the ‘singer’ (the author) and his audience live” (Bakhtin 2000, 77). A glaring similarity between Bakhtin’s definition of the epic and novel and Jameson’s study on the generic features of the romance is that, on the one hand, contemporary reality is not available for neither of these genres. On the other hand, both of them operate with the “transfiguration of ordinary reality” (Jameson 2000, 171).
I will use these arguments as a platform of defining The Grapes of Wrath as a forerunner of post-modernist texts. The novel, albeit it appears at first sight a realistic or naturalistic novel by applying elements of tales and parables and transforming various elements of myth, gains a multi-layered discourse. These levels in the narration form a paradigmatic relationship with each other. Neither of these textual layers are more or less important then the other.
In Steinbeck’s text we have a number of stories told (stories of Okie families westward journey, Jim Casy’s being ‘converted’ to a materialist or Emersonian thinker, but also several other little stories of the tenants, families on the road and so on). Different little stories they are, the novel itself show a rather linear reading. The detailed descriptions of characters, landscapes contribute to the realistic or naturalistic features of the novel. This is, nevertheless only the surface. As Robert Murray Davis points out, “documentary precision has uncertain relationships to art, even to an art like Steinbeck’s, and even had he been the most exact recorder of travels in the region, his novel would still be useless as a guide to the contemporary traveller” (Davis 2000, 165). The story of the Okies’ journey through the desert to California was “presented at the time as a work of history as well as fiction and it has been accepted as such ever since” (Windschutle 2002). However, it lacks “the accumulation of sufficient historical, demographic and climatic data about the 1930s to show that almost everything about the elaborate picture treated in the novel is either outright falls or exaggerated beyond belief” (ibid.).
The most voiced interpretations of Steinbeck’s text considered it to be a naturalistic mode of writing while other critics said that that the novel had nothing to do with reality; both approaches seem problematic, Leonard Lutwack’s argumentation appears to be well acceptable, and provides ground for further debate as well. In his study on the epic novel, he defines the mode of existence of this special style in American literature. It is hardly sufficient to claim that those novels which use more epic conventions then others are called epic novels. According to some critiques, the “true American form is the documentary novel,” (Lutwack 1971, 2) as exemplified by the works of Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos. Although these writers greatly influenced their contemporaries, as well as some members of the generations that followed (Steinbeck’s ‘debt’ to Dos Passos is often mentioned as an example) the epic tradition has always been present in modern American literature.
The Grapes of Wrath lies in the contact zone of more genres and styles. It shows the characteristic features of a realistic mode of writing, however, it employs elements of various transcendental narratives (Biblical and mythological) in a subversive manner. This subversion of the transcendental (sacred) texts is often ironic. “The ironic use of myth may be dominant when a realistic mode of writing returns to myth according to Frye” (Jameson 2000, 170-1). The third element of the novel’s generic contact zone – besides epic and realistic novels – is the romance. These texts fit into a narrative stream “in which the heroic, mythic and the transcendental are the chief ingredients and of which the epic is the definitive expression” (Lutwack 1971, 3).
The Grapes of Wrath in terms of its mythic dimensions was almost solely examined from the perspective of the Bible. Shockley provided a very detailed identification of various chapters of the novel and the events in the Old and New Testimony. The ground for his argumentation was based on the analogy of land taking of Israelites and the Okies. The striking anomaly with identification, however, lies in the plotting of the novel itself. The reasons of Israelites and the Okies for leaving their original settlements differ in certain aspects. At least two other and more plausible land taking myths can be traced in connection with the west wandering process of the Okies. One of these – as Lutwack also highlights – is the Virgil’s Aeneid, while the other is a primordial legend about a land turtle that leads a Native American tribe to a new homeland, away from Oklahoma. This means that the novel transforms three different transcendental explanations of the ‘westering’ by employing both plotting and structural modifications.
The presence of Native American themes in Steinbeck’s fiction has been already discussed by many critics, among them, Louis Owens. “Given the two folded concept that runs through Steinbeck’s writing (American Myth and Transcendentalism)” Owens writes, “it was inevitable that Steinbeck wrote about the American Indian” (Owens 1988, 85). The Native American figures appear in several works by Steinbeck. However, it is not only the figures themselves, but also their myths are present in some of his major works. The Pearl in itself is a wonderful amalgamation of an American Indian story with Christian symbolism, as the short story’s central motif, the pearl is the symbol of vanity, “the obvious allegory of worldly treasure” (Shockley 1957, 266) in Christian symbolism. Our attention to the presence of Indians in Steinbeck’s fiction was called upon by Carroll Britch, Clifford Lewis and Lewis Owens. They note that the image of Native Americans is “conjured up from some other world, timeless as memory, and born as in a dream” (Owens 1988, 85). In most cases Steinbeck’s Indian figures are paisanos and mestizos. These characters are usually treated “romantically,” such as the Indian couple, Juana and Kino in The Pearl. The Indian figures “rise from all those of romantic disposition who yearn for something mysterious and magnificent to think upon and dream about” (Owens 1988, 85). These approaches focus primarily upon the social status of the Indians presented in The Pearl, Cannery Raw and Tortilla Flat. Owens nonetheless mentions the parallel of The Pearl to Christian myths. Juana and Kino – according to him – are like a “primordial Adam and Eve” (Owens 1988, 87). By the same token, he concludes that the presence of North Americans in Steinbeck’s oeuvre is “purely as an index to the American myth, never emerging from the shadow of America’s mythic foundations” (ibid.). Neither of these critics ventured into examining the way the Native American legends and Christian myths are interwoven.
The chapter on the land turtle has always been of major importance in the various interpretations of The Grapes of Wrath. In the symbolism of the narrative it is the metaphor of the family – and on a larger scale of the migrant workers – moving restlessly on the road. The question nonetheless, why it is a land turtle, and not another animal, has never been articulated. The turtle, however, is a mythical animal, well-known and wide-spread in several Native American legends. The turtle occurs in different creation myths as well as in a number of different legends. I will, in the following, briefly cite two of these relevant legends in order to see that the different inter-textual references and textual layers go well beyond any Biblical connotations. One of these versions is attributed to the Cheyenne tribe; the other is a Lakota creation myth. In both cases the common prime mover of the myths is a turtle leading people towards a new and unknown land. In the first case fifty young worriers follow a magical creature, usually a water turtle. They climb on its back, thinking they can control it, but this transcendental being punishes them by diving into a lake. A year later their tribe, set out from central Oklahoma to the west, to search for the lake where they had disappeared (Marriott and Rachlin K. 1968, 60-4). This Indian legend encompasses elements that are presented in The Grapes of Wrath, such as the animal symbolism and the fact humans attempt control something that is beyond human force. The second, the Lakota creation myth, tells a Native American cosmogony which resembles the Biblical story of Noah and the flood. In this creation myth the inhabitants of the land are stricken by draught and then by flood. People are punished by the transcendental force for their sins: “[T]here was another world before this one. But the people of that world did not behave themselves. Displeased, the Creating Power set out to make a new world” (Native American Legends 2009). People, according to the legend, are saved by a turtle which is the only animal (the forth that the Creator sends to fulfil its mission) that is able to bring up mud from the water, from which the Creator creates the new land. In parallel, it is interesting to note that the event of the flood (with an apocalyptic vision of total despair) is one of the closing scenes in The Grapes of Wrath.
The linkage among these legends and the novel is that in all cases – and this is applicable for the Bible as well – natural disasters follow from the internal logic of the plotting. People do not regard nature respectfully, which is sanctioned by a transcendental force. In Steinbeck’s novel migrant workers learn to respect nature through their journey from Oklahoma, to the West. Similar to the Cheyenne people in the first legend, they believed that they can master nature. On a symbolic level, the Joad family represents this belief. In chapter four, Tom Joad, on his way home, catches a land turtle that is crawling in the dust, beside the road. It is not explicitly said by the novel’s narrator if that is the same turtle that already appeared in chapter three. More important is Tom’s act which reinforces the image of the Native American legend about the fifty young men and the turtle. In both cases the young and inexperienced people try to take control over the turtle. In the legend, young warriors sit on its back, while in the fourth chapter of Steinbeck’s novel Tom puts the restless animal in a bundle. However, neither in the legend nor in the novel, does it become possible to keep the turtle under control. In the legend it is the leader, while in the novel it is Jim Casy, who calls the younger generation’s attention to the fact that they cannot keep a turtle, no matter how hard they work at it.
These examples of primordial myths in connection with the figure of the turtle in Native American legends contribute greatly to the multitude of underlying texts in the novel. They co-exist and mingle with the European myths, like the dancing couple in chapter twenty-three:
Look at that Texas boy, long legs loose, taps four times for ever’ damn step. Look at him swing that Cherokee girl, red in her cheeks an’ her toe points out. Look at her pant, look at her heave. Think she’s tired? Think she’s winded? Well, she ain’t. Texas boy got his hair in his eyes, mouth’s wide open, can’t get air, but he pats four times for ever’ darn step, an’ he’ll keep a’goin’ with the Cherokee girl. (Steinbeck 1976, 365)
This chapter is an outstanding one, as the story’s self-reflexivity is at its peak. It is not only the hypo-texts of the novel but also the several ‘little stories’ told by various voices that make up of the novel’s textual corporeality. They are joined together sometimes accidentally, similar to the migrant families or people that come together in some of the intercalary chapters. They form a paradigmatic relationship of great in importance within the contact zone of different cultures, just as in the dance of this chapter the two young, culturally different dancers cling to each other.
The occurrence of the flood at the end of the novel and its reference to the Lakota legend of creation remains an open question for the interpreter. The flood – according to the Christian, as well as the Native American mythologies – is supposed to destroy people that committed sin against their fellow beings. This logic does not explain why it is the migrant workers who are almost destroyed by the flood, but – like Noah and his family in Old Testimony – they manage to survive. Their sin is presented in the novel with a short remark: “Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes” (Steinbeck 1976, 34). The logic of the novel, therefore it is not embodied by disregarding nature, but also the ignorance towards other fellow humans. Steinbeck reminds us of “the consciousness upon which America was founded” (Owens 1988, 87). This logic fits into the traditional epic story (known from the Antiquity to the Baroque), which states that a group of people (or nation) is doomed to fall by transcendental forces because of their sins. Owens argues that “attempting to destroy the Indian, Steinbeck suggests, Americans damaged if not destroyed that element within themselves which connected them with the earth, the intuitive self” (ibid.). In case of The Grapes of Wrath the common primal sin of people (the Okies) is manifested in the killing of Indians.
Leonard Lutwack includes The Grapes of Wrath into the tradition of the American epic novel, while Owens labels it as an “unmistakable jeremiad” (Owens 1988, 88). Nevertheless, the western myths and Native American legends mix, as the novel employs elements structural as well as episodic from all of these myths. The Biblical parallels that were highlighted by Shockley – in terms of a Casy-Christ analogy (Sockley 1957, 67-9) and Fontenrose, on the Dust Bowl Exodus parallel to the Biblical story (Fontenrose 2000, 85-6) are not questioned in Lutwack’s study. However, he pinpoints the parallels of the novel to Aeneas’ story, which makes the interpretation of The Grapes of Wrath as a “Biblical allegory” (Shockley 1957, 271) quite problematic. These Biblical associations ignore the fact that while the Israelites were captives in Egypt, from where they went to find their new home in Canaan (which can be in the novel associated with California), the Joads were not captives in a foreign or hostile land. The Oklahomans were forced to leave their lands by, on the one hand, unfavourable environmental conditions and, on the other hand, by external forces. This questions the Egypt-Canaan line in the reading of the story and includes one more phase that preceded the Israelites’ going to Egypt (they left their previous settlements due to a natural disaster and moved further on). The scene of the Joads leaving their home, however in which I agree with Lutwack’s argument –, recalls the events in the Aeneid (Lutwack 1971, 50). The Joads like Aeneas and his saga, taking the old family members with them, hurriedly pack their belongings. Their home is destroyed like Troy by the Greeks, in the first part of the novel. Lutwack in this study emphasizes the elements of the antique myths. He argues that “Steinbeck drops upon two epic traditions of migratory people the account of the Israelites in the book of Exodus and the story of Aeneas” (Lutwack, 1971, 47).
Lutwack’s dualistic view on the sub-textual basis of the novel is, however, as we have seen from the examples of the Native American myths being present in the textual network of The Grapes of Wrath, rather of a triadic nature. The novel presents itself with its allowance for linear reading – as a realistic text. We can indeed discover some historical facts, but these factual elements are turned into mythic dimensions. Nonetheless it is somewhat misleading to identify the Joad family only with the Biblical or even antique people of home taking settlers, exclusively on the basis of certain character names. The Joad family might be identified – as being “primitive” (Pizer 1983, 66), similar to the depiction of the Native Americans, on a highly symbolic level. This might explain the anomaly around the historical evidence treated in the novel. Statistically the number of migrants that arrived to California was a somewhat distorted; however, historical events point to the Allotment Act of 1887, the political act, which “divided tribal land holdings and eventually transferred more than nine million acres from Indian to white control” (Owens 1988, 89) and this might be referred to in the novel. On this event Owens notes that “Steinbeck was not aware of the realities” (ibid.) but rather the contrary. Though the acquisition of Californian lands does not appear literally in the text, the events following the Dust Bowl are significantly recalls when the Native Americans were driven away from Oklahoma. The difference is only in the name of the tribe: it is the Okies, while earlier it was plainly, the Indians. The Allotment Act is only mentioned by a short remark by the man at the river, coming back from California. Talking about the new land he says: “[S]he is a nice country. But she was stolen a long time ago” (Steinbeck 1976, 225). Since the story of the novel is situated during the Great Depression, the phrase “long time ago” clearly refers to an earlier historical event.
Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which bears the very same tone of “blind ethnical chauvinism” (Owens 1988, 90) shows also connection with the Native Americans. “They ate what they could pick up and planted nothing. They pounded bitter acorns for flour. Even their warfare was a weary pantomime,” Owns emphasizes (ibid.). Similarly, The Grapes of Wrath shows the same in connection with the Okies. At a petrol station one of the Californians articulates:
Well, you and me got sense. Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas. (Steinbeck 1976, 243)
Steinbeck seems thus to have made his story universal by employing the Okie family – as part of the so-called WASP society – through basically the same sufferings as the Native Americans. However, the reading of this text allows more mythic dimensions.
The Spiritual Father and the Earth Mother
The characters in The Grapes of Wrath were analysed from various points of view. Shaples Martin Shockley claims that “Jim Casy unmistakably and significantly equates with Jesus Christ” (Shockley 1957, 270). Gender approaches to the characters focus only upon two major characters: the transcendental male and general female figures. While Shockley approaches relationship to the western myth, Nellie Y. McKay argues that as far as the female figures are concerned, “the most well-known positive image in the category of the good woman is the Earth Mother” (McKay 1990, 48). This Earth mother figure – who is associated with the land – is absolutely devoted to her family, and is selfless in nurturing her children. While the male characters – Jim Casy and Tom Joad – are involved in the public sphere of life – as it is in a traditional gender-based division of labour – Ma Joad remains in the private, domestic sphere. Lutwack points out some parallels with the Greek myths here, claiming that the mother-son connection can be read similar to what Thetis and Achilles had. The dualistic parallel can be expanded into a triadic or four-angled matrix in terms of finding the novel’s parallels to the antique Greek myths. Fredric Jameson notes that the “hero of romance is analogous to the mythical messiah or deliverer, who comes from the upper world and his enemy is analogous to the demonic powers of a lower world” (Jameson 2000, 168). What makes this argument relevant, is that, according to Jameson “the conflict takes place in, or at any rate primarily concerns our world, which is in the middle and which is characterised by the cyclical movement of nature” (ibid.). In the following, I will present this analogy by discussing the roles of Jim Casy, Ma Joad and Tom Joad. The different generic and textual connections can be best traced in terms of the character types.
Tom’s and Jim Casy’s characters, on the one hand, recall the antique Greek mythological tradition of representing heroes and heroism. On the other hand, they perfectly fit into the system that Fredric Jameson presented for magical narratives. In agreement with Lutwack’s statements, the novel has indeed almost direct textual references to the Greek myth of heroic fiction; one can easily identify the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Instead of interpreting Casy as a Christ figure and Tom Joad as, for example, Moses as Fontenrose suggests (Fontenrose 2000, 85) this mythological parallel seems to be more justifiable. Considering some of Steinbeck’s earlier works that preceded The Grapes of Wrath (Of Mice and Man and Cannery Row) we might say that his earlier vision of “queer ecology” (S. Person 2004) that he articulated in the so-called Monterey novels, changed from a homo-social imagining of communion to special unity with nature. However, a “sweet comradeship” (S. Person 2004) between characters appears in a highly elevated level in The Grapes of Wrath. Similarly to Homer’s Iliad and the magical narrative, too, Jim Casy’s function is equivalent to the figure of the “spiritual father” (Jameson 2000, 183). According to this function, “secondary male figures” (ibid.) help the protagonist of the narrative, that is, young Tom Joad. In the Iliad the young hero usually had an older and wiser fellow warrior, who acted as a protector and friend to the younger hero. These two functions meet in Jim Casy’s figure, who acts like a spiritual father and comrade of Tom. Casy’s death scene – although it contains direct inter-textual reference to the Bible – is more similar to that of Patroclus’ death, since Christ, unlike Patroclus, was not revenged by any of his apostles. Moreover, Lutwack calls our attention to Tom’s action being compared to Moses, whose revenge by killing the murderer of a Hebrew slave is problematic (Lutwack 1971, 48). In this case, however, the situation resembles rather to that from the Iliad because a fellow warrior is revenged.
Ma Joad’s functions as Earth Goddess, or Mother Earth, as Nellie Y. McKay points out. Her identification, just like Casy’s, is dualistic. Lutwack highlights her role as Thetis, mother of Achilles, protecting and, when his time comes, preparing her son for battle (Lutwack 1971, 59). Her role as an Earth Mother is even more obvious, if we take a look at the mother daughter relationships throughout the novel. If we understand Tom’s hiding place as a mythic underworld, where he descends until his face recovers, Ma Joad appears in the role of Thetis again (ibid.). However, from her daughter’s perspective, Ma Joad is identical with Demeter; like the Goddess of fertility, who looses her daughter temporarily, Ma Joad’s daughter also disappears in the same underworld-like hiding place. Ma Joad’s matriarch character is an important one: she represents a counterpart to the male dominated (hi)story telling.
The individual story telling, as well as the ironic historical view in Steinbeck’s novels, is equally present. The application of the ‘little stories’ (told by the different voices throughout the novel) within the larger narrative are essential in pointing towards the mythic bits of the novel. In The Grapes of Wrath one can indeed read a ‘history summary.’ One is a brief history of the country told briefly by a male narrator: “Grampa killed Indians, Pa killed snakes for the land” (Steinbeck 1976, 34). This perspective of history is characteristic of the male characters throughout almost the entire novel, except by Casy. Men see themselves in this grand narrative as “jerks;” Casy and Ma view life and the nature around them as a natural cyclical always-returning flow exemplified by Ma’s appeals to her daughter short before Granma’s death:
When you’re young, Rosesharm, ever’thing that happens to you is a thing all by itself ….They’s a time of change … an’ when that comes dyin’ is a piece of all dyin’, and bearin’ is a piece of all bearing an bearin’ an’ dyin’ si two pieces of the of the same thing. (Steinbeck 1976, 230)
However, this does not only emphasize the oneness with the natural environment, but also echoes Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, where the reader can understand history, the great narrative as a family-line based story. Stein writes: “We need only realise our parents, remember our grandparents and now ourselves and our history is complete” (Stein 2006, 1300). In this quite ahistorical view, however – similar to Ma’s above quoted speech – the child bearing, as a way of telling, is the key element.
Some of these our fathers and our mothers, were not even made then and the women, the young mothers, our grandmothers we perhaps just have seen once carried these our fathers and our mothers into the new world inside them. (ibid.)
Steinbeck’s novel might easily recall, in this sense, a facet of the experimental narrative of Gertrude Stein, because the family’s symbolic travel contributes to the American myth of westward expansion (history), on the one hand, while the generation renewal, on the other, is child bearing (‘little histories’). The dying of the old, the children and babies, ‘born’ and ‘unborn’ provide the prime structure of Steinbeck’s storyline. In this respect, whatever mythic text we look at, this epic novel fulfils its ‘epic ending’ by suggesting an optimistic, nonetheless unwritten closure. In the end, the narrator informs the readers that, after the flood (and all hardship), spring comes as a symbol of new life and new start.
Little Stories and the Extensive Narrative
As far as the overarching land taking and ‘westering’ myths are concerned, one can see that the novel is employing several other texts to draw upon. It amalgamates elements from Native American creation and wandering myths, as well as the ‘Jeremiad’ and Greek plots. Although the novel can be read as one consistent story, we cannot ignore the fact that its extensive structure is divided into narrative chapters and intercalary parts. Chris Kocela he calls this structure “frame breaking” (Kocela 2000, 248). Moreover, Kocela argues that “the creative process itself is described” (ibid.) in the novel. The “difference between the history and fiction” as described above in the difference between male and female characters and their way of telling, are “established in the text” (ibid.). Then contemporary events of crises such as the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, are narrated on the surface level embedded in layers of mythic texts, which in and of themselves are fused. These classic stories are constantly mingled with the migrants’ individual stories, which can be considered private myths. These private myths constitute the so-called ‘little story’ substance that generates in large, the extensive narrative.
These ‘little stories’ of Steinbeck’s individuals, become, within the text’s corpus, bits of literature works (especially through the storytelling acts in chapter seventeen and later in twenty-three of the novel). The storytelling in the novel, here, bares a strong resemblance to the Bakhtinian singer of the epic narrative. The beset example is when migrants gather around the fire in the camps and tell each other their own stories. In the twenty-third chapter one can read about that the migrants “scuttling for work, scrabbling to live, looked always for pleasure” (Steinbeck 1976, 359). These amusements – as the text describes – lay in sometimes in speech, in music and going to the movies. Various instances of ‘reading’ (by ‘reading’ I mean not only the reading of texts, but movies, as well as listening to stories) are described here, which are reflecting upon the receptive process:
It came about in the camps along the roads, on the ditch banks beside the streams, under the sycamores, that the story teller grew into being, so that the people gathered in the low firelight to hear the gifted ones. (Steinbeck 1976, 360)
The audience of the singer, however, also takes place in the creative process. People “listened while the tales were told, and their participation made the stories great” (ibid.). This part of the novel is a special one; it injects further epic features into this text but not by the overt or latent quotes of classical stories but by describing the narrative process itself. Myths are mingled with little stories; they become part of everyday life as everyday stories can become, with time and in certain novels, myths.
- Bakhtin, M. M. 2000. “Epic and Novel toward the methodology for the study of the
Novel”: In David Duff ed. Modern Genre Theory. Harlow, Longman Company Press, 68-80.
- Davis, Robert Murray. 2000. “The World of John Steinbeck’s Joads”. In Barbara A. Heavilin ed. The Critical Response to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 87-94.
- Fontenrose, Joseph. 2000. “The Grapes of Wrath”. In Barbara A. Heavilin ed. The Critical Response to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 71-86.
- Giddens, Anthony. 1981. “Modernism and Post-modernism” In New German Critique, No. 22, Special Issue on Modernism (Winter, 1981), 15-8.
- Homer, Iliad. Trans. Alexander Pope.  Available: http://publicliterature.org/books/iliad/xaa.php. Access: 27 February 2009.
- Jameson, Fredric. 2000. “Magical narratives or the dialectical means of genre criticism” In David Duff ed. Modern Genre Theory. Longman Company Press, 167-91.
- Kocela, Chris. 2000. “A Post-modern Steinbeck, or Rose of Sharon Meets Oedipa Maas”. In Barbara A. Heavilin ed. The Critical Response to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 247-63.
- Lauter, Paul. 2006. “Modernism and the Self” In The Heath Anthology of American
Literature. Vol. D. Modern period 1910 – 1945. New York, Houghton Mifflin Company Press, 81-4.
- Lutwack, Leonard. 1971. “Introduction” In Heroic Fiction: The Epic Tradition And
American Novels of the Twentieth Century. London: Feffer and Simons Inc.
- ——. 1971. “The Grapes of Wrath” In Heroic Fiction: The Epic Tradition And
American Novels of the Twentieth Century. London: Feffer and Simons Inc.
- Marriott, Alice and Rachlin K. Carol. 1968. “Fifty Young Men and the Turtle”. In American Indian Mythology. New York. Harper & Row Publishers Inc. 60-4.
McKay Y., Nellie. 1990. “Happy[?]-Wife-and-Motherdom: The Portrayal of Ma Joad in John
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath_”. In David Wayet ed. _New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath. Cambridge: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 47-69.
- “Native American Legends.” Available:
http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/LakotaCreationMyth-Lakota.html. Access: 26 February 2009.
- Owens, Louis. 1988. “Grampa Killed Indians, Pa Killed Snakes”: Steinbeck and the
American Indian. In MELUS 15. 2: 85-92.
Pizer, Donald. 1983 . “John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath_”. In _Twentieth-century
American Literary Naturalism: An interpretation. Southern Illinois. University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville.
- S. Person, Leland. 2004. “Steinbeck’s Queer Ecology, Sweet Comradeship in the Monteray Novels.” Available:
http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/steinbeck_studies/v015/15.1person.html. Access: 21 March 2009.
- Shockley, Shaples Martin. 1957. “Christian Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath_” In Wicker Tedlock ed. _Steinbeck and His Critics. A record of Twenty-Five Years. Albequerque: University of New Mexico Press, 266-71.
- Windschuttle, Keith . 2002. “Steinbeck’s myth of the Okies (Another archtypical liberal myth debunker)” In The New Criterion, June 22. Available:
http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/709593/posts. Access: 3 November 2008.