Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Grapes of Wrath Week 1: Gender roles and other thinky stuff

**Disclaimer: This is part of a group readalong, which means if you've never read Grapes of Wrath, this post might resemble hearing only one side of a phone conversation. But maybe you're into that sort of thing? So proceed as you will.**

Steinbeck is doing some pretty fascinating things with gender roles. Right away, he described how the women look to their men to assess how severe a situation is. "Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole" (p. 4). Depression-era women and children depended on their menfolk. This is not news.

Boom . . . serious picture.

But THEN Steinbeck subverts that expected framework (and breaks my heart a little) by throwing Ma Joad into the mix.
"Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. . . . She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone." (pp. 79-80; emphasis mine, and also a good candidate for being tattooed somewhere on my person)
This paragraph WRECKS me, and I think it's because this is a description of MY mom. (Mom, if you're reading this, this is YOU.) It's beautiful, but it's also tragic, because the STRENGTH and self-denial required by such a "great and humble position in the family" . . . I can't even imagine.

And then there's Granma, who damn near took her husband's butt cheek off with a shotgun, and in so doing earned his admiration . . . because he's impressed by that sort of thing.

And Steinbeck made another nod to changing gender roles when the preacher took over salting the pork, despite Ma's protestations that it's "women's work." The preacher replied, "It's all work. . . . They's too much of it to split it up to men's or women's work" (p. 117). Quite right, Casy, and way ahead of your time.

But the Joads do still observe some gender rules of conduct. For example, even pregnant, Rose of Sharon (WHAT is this name? No one wants to say that whole thing every time.) must ride standing up in the back of the truck because the patriarchs of the family get the honor place beside the driver. And that's just how it is, whether anyone likes it or not.

And now some scattered observations:

1. Steinbeck's tangents about soulless tractors, while beautifully written, seem . . . a little overdramatic?


2. "A man didn't get enough crop to plug up an ant's ass" (p. 50). This, my friends, is why Steinbeck is one of the greats. Pure poetry.

3. These people live in a HARSH world. This is how you can tell: Pigs get into the house and eat babies, bulls gore men to death over by the barn, women bludgeon solicitors with live chickens, and a man can get 7 years in prison for killing in self-defense.

4. This description of the oldest Joad boy, Noah: "He lived in a strange silent house and looked out of it through calm eyes. He was a stranger to all the world, but he was not lonely" (p. 85). Whoa.

5. Steinbeck's Tom Joad:
"His eyes were very dark brown and there was a hint of brown pigment in his eyeballs. His cheek bones were high and wide, and strong deep lines cut down his cheeks, in curves beside his mouth. His upper lip was long, and since his teeth protruded, the lips stretched to cover them, for this man kept his lips closed." (p. 5)
Hollywood's Tom Joad:
Eh, close enough



    Also way to be the one to include that picture. ALSO I think we're not thinking enough about this novel being written in 1939, which is like five years after the Dust Bowl started. That's like someone writing about the financial crisis now. SO RECENT.

    Yes to the tractors thing, because c'mon, Steinbeck. And YES awesome description of Noah. It's early Steinbeck, but he's still sometimes super-amazing.

    Rose of Sharon is a reference to Song of Solomon (scandaloooous) 2:1. Maybe they thought it sounded pretty?

  2. It's especially amusing that she was speaking in tongues while she did it. Because that's nuts.

    Rose of Sharon IS a pretty name. But the way THEY say it....Rosasharn? No thank you.

  3. Rosasharn is surely the way to deal with that name? Too bad writing it makes you feel kinda... stupid (which I just realised, by the way!)

    I feel like the men THINK they're in charge, whereas actually the women keep it allll together. Because they're awesome. Especially Ma!

    The tractor thing IS a bit dramatic. But it's more like... No one is touching the earth anymore, so everything you eat and grow, instead of being earned, is SOULLESS. AS IT STILL IS!

    *sighs dramatically over Steinbeck's writing*

  4. Nothing impresses a man like shooting him in the ass with a shotgun.

    I LOVE that terminator gif. I bet that's exactly what Steinbeck was thinking of. The man was head of his time.

  5. Yes! Rose of Sharon - WTF? Couldn't they have a nickname for her? Like just Rose.

    I loved the description of Ma Joad and I feel in love with her right away. It worries me for what's to come...

  6. OH. Like the actual NAME Rose of Sharon is in the Bible. I thought you were saying the naming construct was in the Bible. I GET IT NOW.

  7. Rose of Sharon. She's the stateliest member of the family, which you hear in her dialogue as well as her name. But MAAAAAA! I love her so. Steinbeck is kicking my butt with his descriptions. It's really slowing down my reading having to keep looking up from the book to say "Woah."

  8. It's trueeeee. Even though he was being sort of apocalyptic about it, I kind of agree that farming was so much better (if less efficient) with family farms versus the factory farm monsters we have now. Just...any time someone says that machinery is RAPING the land, I'm going to roll my eyes. It's a reflex.

  9. If she HADN'T shot his butt off, he would have tortured her like a bug! He's not a very nice man, and he's TERRIBLE with buttons.

  10. Yeah, that definitely seems to be a setup for future heartbreak. Because how long can this poor woman keep it together for her family?

  11. I have a feeling I'm not going to like Rose of Sharon. She seems sort of uppity to me.

    Ugh...his descriptions are the kick-buttingest.

  12. If Steinbeck hates tractors so much, I feel like it's a good thing he never made it to 2012. Smartphones would freak him out.

    OMG How did I forget about the buttcheek-shooting incident?? Although judging by everything else Grandpa does and says, he probably deserved it. What old guy walks around with his fly unbuttoned all the time and expects to be respected?

    AND THAT POOR CHICKEN. No creature deserves to die by being beaten against a lawyer.

  13. I kind of thought it was adorable that Gramps had such a hard time buttoning himself. And when he buttoned his shirt buttons into the holes of his underwear. AND how he wets his pants on occasion. Ohhhhhh Grampa.

  14. I'm glad some people feel sorry for the chicken, because chickens aren't that cute, and I was kind of like "Hah, that's funny."


    First pregnancy smug is the worst. That being said, I like Connie a lot and hope she's nice to him.

  16. Song of Solomon is the dirtiest book in the Bible. Just sayin'.

  17. Wait... how did I miss that Granma almost shot of Grampa's butt cheek? That's hysterical! Grampa is my favorite in that he is the only one that really made me smile this whole section. Ma is my favorite in that she is kick-ass.

    Also, Hollywood, why is Tom Joad so damn smiley? DIDN'T YOU READ THE BOOK BEFORE CASTING!?

  18. Yes, Rose of Sharon is so smug. But I think she'll be fine to Connie. She'll prob be all smug to him about how AMAZING she is, what with the whole "bringing life" thing but it seems like he's impressed by it so he doesn't mind the smugness.

    That said, I wouldn't mind Ma smacking her upside the head. Just a little smack.

  19. We haven't solved the problem of gaying up this book. All the guys are so casual about sleeping with ladies, I feel like I can't say they're sekritly liking the mens.

    Ugh if we were reading East of Eden this would be No. Problem.

  20. It's true. I still blush when I read it.

  21. Yeah, Hollywood! Tom keeps his lips CLOSED. But Peter Fonda is nice to look at, so thanks for that, I guess.