Steinbeck’s Pieta

If I could, I would write this post with nothing but teardrops on paper, as that would be a more eloquent tribute to my manly sensitivity and the soul-wrenching grip of one of my favourite novels. Disclaimer: the following verbal abuse is directed specifically towards non-literature-blog-reading-bankers, so we’re cool, yeah?

Hypothetical: What if Rose of Sharon’s baby had survived?

Needless to say, this post will discuss one of the more sensitive aspects of Steinbeck’s novel. Many critics and readers have responded with distaste or disgust to the final chapters of The Grapes Of Wrath. School districts and libraries even enacted a widespread ban on the book shortly after its publication — though that also had something to do with its political partisanship.

risky selfie steinbeck

risky selfie

I’ve heard several times a ‘what’d he have to go and do that for?’ sort of reaction to Rose of Sharon’s miscarriage and all the subsequent events tied up in that misfortune. This hypothetical is less of a constructive re-imagining, and more of a kicking-out the structural supports of a masterpiece so that I can point at the rubble and suggest why that was such a terrible idea.

First, we would notice that the full force of the novel’s climax was lost. Crucially, the miscarriage coincides with the flood — some kind of diluvial cleansing of the land. Rose of Sharon’s screaming from the boxcar ceases and gives way to a moment of silence, she has miscarried; Uncle John falls to his knees, the flood breaks through the dam with a ‘crippling crash.’ The family is now utterly powerless. Despite their work, Steinbeck shows, they cannot sustain themselves: Pa’s line, ‘We — done — what we could,’ could apply to the flood, the miscarriage, or their sustenance.

The foetus is an important symbol in itself, seen first lying atop a newspaper like an article on injustice. The bankers, who are to blame for this death, have not stopped at killing Rose of Sharon’s baby – they have also made it illegal to bury the body, for this would cause them inconvenience. Uncle John grimly obliges, casting the apple-box coffin into the flooded river:

He said fiercely, “Go down an’ tell ’em. Go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell ’em that way. That’s the way you can talk. Don’ even know if you was a boy or a girl. Ain’t gonna find out. Go on down now, an’ lay in the street. Maybe they’ll know then.”

Take away the death of Rose of Sharon’s baby, and we take away too the novel’s defining scene. Some critics wouldn’t have minded as much — Steinbeck is just a rampant communist, after all.

communist steinbeck

The final scene is widely regarded as being based on Roman Charity — an exemplary story from Ancient Rome that tells of a daughter nursing her father, who has been sentenced to death by starvation. Rose of Sharon acts as a wet nurse — a woman commonly employed before the widespread implementation of formula when a mother was unable or unwilling to breastfeed her child — for a man dying of hunger. In this case it is the man’s country, rather than his mother, that has failed to sustain him.

Here we see a development of the titular theme of the novel, no pun intended. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ refers to the growing wrath of the migrants, weighing heavy like the fruit on the farmer’s trees, which is allowed to rot, rather than feed starving families, in order to keep demand high. After her miscarriage, Rose of Sharon is left with an abundance of milk that would otherwise go to waste, so she shares it. Maybe she should have learned a thing or two from the farmers and made a buck, eh? It seems that wrath was not the only thing stirring amongst the migrants; miraculously, generosity grew amongst those who had nothing.

In the original story of Roman Charity, the father’s guard discovers what has happened, but the daughter’s act of selflessness impresses the officials and wins her father’s release. In Steinbeck’s version, there is no discovery of the girl’s selflessness, and no forgiveness. There would be no forgiveness from the men at fault. They have none to give, nor any place in the quiet glory of this final scene — a human camaraderie that runs far deeper than the spidery avarice of their existence.

So does Rose of Sharon smile mysteriously because she’s a sneaky little communist? Perhaps because she’s just a bit kinky? Kinda gross? Up to you. But to me it’s just a wonderful mystery that she does smile, that woman grieving over the death of her baby. Such resilience of the human spirit will always be a mystery to me.

Please leave you vehement disapproval below. Thank you.

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