Month: March 2011

Rereading “The Grapes of Wrath”: Chapter 2

He's cleaner-looking here, because he's Henry Fonda.

Before Tom Joad even shows up, we get a throwaway line that almost sums up one of the main theses of The Grapes of Wrath:

In the restaurant the truck driver paid his bill and put his two nickels’ change in a slot machine. The whirling cylinders game him no score. ‘They fix ’em so you can’t win nothing,’ he said to the waitress.

The futility of winning against “the system” is already apparent here. This is a story about maintaining your humanity in the face of that futility – and finding ways to win outside of the normal rules. But let’s talk about Tom.

The clothes of Tom Joad:

The man’s clothes were new – all of them, cheap and new. His gray cap was so new that the visor was still stiff and the button still on, not shapeless and bulged as it would be when it had served for a while all the various purposes of a cap – carrying sack, towel, handkerchief. His suit was of cheap gray hard-cloth and so new that there were creases in the trousers. His blue chambray shirt was stiff and smooth with filler. The coat was too big, the trousers too short, for he was a tall man. The coat shoulder peaks hung down on his arms, and even then the sleeves were too short and the front of the coat flapped loosely over his stomach. He wore a pair of new tan shoes of the kind called “army last,” hob-nailed and with half-circles like horseshoes to protect the edges of the heels from wear.”

A while back, one of the shoelaces on my worn-out old boots (the ones I wear everywhere, even to semi-formal occasions) broke. I strung the boot with one of Liz’s shoelaces, and as a result I now have what Liz calls “Tom Joad boots.”┬áBut reading this description, I realize Tom Joad wears nicer shoes than I do.

Of course, he just got out of prison. And not for some Jean Valjeany “stole a piece of bread” nonsense. Tom Joad straight-up ┬ákilled a guy.

‘Homicide,’ he said quickly. ‘That’s a big word – means I killed a guy. Seven years. I’m sprung in four for keepin’ my nose clean.’

I’m extremely interested in how various media represent the criminal – from the scary, usually-black TV news “perp” that terrifies white-bread suburbanites in their rec-rooms to the shadow of Robin Hood, that socialist icon who stretches through the centuries and can become Jesse James, Joe Hill, Bonnie and Clyde or anyone else in a pinch. One of my favorite songs, lately, because it’s eminently danceable, is the Clash’s “Bank Robber.”

'70s punk rockers are incredibly relevant to this depression-era novel.

Daddy was a bank robber
But he never hurt nobody
He just loved to live that way
And he loved to take your money

Isn’t that glorification of the criminal great? And one of the hallmarks of subversive socialism? And right here, at the very beginning of The Grapes of Wrath, we have a protagonist who is a hardened, unforgiven member of the criminal set. Remember what Debs said: “as long as there is a criminal element, I am of it.” If you want to understand, if you want to accept The Grapes of Wrath, you gotta be right there with Tom Joad. Steinbeck’s beautiful omniscient narrator is your guide, yes, but Joad is your reference point for the resilience of humanity.

Do you need an example? It’s right there in one of Tom’s first conversations.

The hitchhiker stood up and looked across through the windows. ‘Could ya give me a lift, mister?’
The drive looked quickly back at the restaurant for a second. ‘Didn’ you see the No riders sticker on the win’shield?’

‘Sure – I seen it. But sometimes a guy’ll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker.’

We know that Tom is a good guy – even though he’s a murderer and a criminal who just got out of jail. He’s a good guy because he’s not a “rich bastard” – which we should realize right away.