Tag: john_steinbeck

Jane Austen’s Greatness

I recently think I put my finger on what makes Jane Austen so great, and I did it by comparing her to John Steinbeck, in particular, his novel East of Eden.

East of Eden follows the lives two families in living in the Salinas Valley: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. The Hamiltons are based on Steinbeck’s own family on his mother’s side (in fact, Steinbeck himself appears in a few scenes as a child). The Trasks, however, are purely fictional.

Steinbeck is not quite at the level of the great classic writers, and East of Eden belies this fact, in my opinion, but in a fascinating way. Comparing the scenes that focus on the Trasks to those that focus on the Hamiltons, it’s hard to imagine that they take place in the same universe. The events in the Hamiltons’ lives, based on the lives of real people, seem highly familiar and realistic. A few scenes really hit home compared to my own life, such as the scene after Sam Hamilton fainted and his family realized he was getting too old for farm life, and they were all passing a bottle of liquor around deciding what to do.

The Trasks, however, live in a world of subtle fantasy. It’s not that the events in their lives weren’t real things that happen to people (although there were several events more sensational than most families ever have to deal with). No, the subtle fantasy comes from how the events were arranged to provide a cosmic meaning to the whole thing. Real lives have no comic meaning (that we can discern, anyway), they just happen. Real lives don’t have foreshadowing, don’t follow a three-act structure, and don’t use arc words. The Trasks lives had all these things, and so they seemed fictional compared to the Hamiltons.

I want to point out that this something I felt first, then analysed later. It’s the sort of thing that seems bit odd and uncanny while reading, but one doesn’t identify the discrepancy until reflecting on the story afterward. I’m fairly certain Steinbeck wasn’t doing this on purpose (if he had been I suspect he would have done things to make the contrast more apparent, but who knows?), and that’s where he belies his not-quite-among-the-greatest writing ability.

Jane Austen, however, achieves this level of complete realism, but with characters that are completely fictional. I realized that I’d had the same reactions to scenes in Emma and Pride and Prejudice as I’d had to scenes of the Hamiltons in East of Eden, and that’s when I realized just how life-like Austen’s characters and situations are. For instance, I was awed by the familiarity of the scene when Lizzy and Jane had to correct their mother on aspects of English law. Scenes like this show Austen almost casually finding that familiarity of daily life in her fictional characters that Steinbeck could only find the ones he based on real life.

Oftentimes it’s hard to see what makes a particular creator great. But then you reflect on the their works a bit, analyse them a bit, compare and constrast them to other works, and suddenly they rise up to reveal their greatness. It always amazes when that happens.

The Grapes of Wrath

I’ve often observed that a lot of people have an almost hostile cynicism to anything more sophisticated than ordinary. Whenever a movie tries to be a intelligent, whenever it tries to pass up the common banal snarky dialogue and obligatory shots, whenever it tries to use camera work and writing to tell a more profound story, these people will roll their eyes and say, “That director’s full of himself.” Or, if an actor is acting his part with power to reflect the intended power of the scene, they’ll say, “That actor’s full of himself.” If a novelist tries to pretty up her writing style, and to adopt a tone beyond mere storytelling, they will say, “That writer’s full of herself.” If an artist sculpts a creature that doesn’t exist, if a songwriter creates a beautiful harmony with a new instrument, if a painter paints something in a different color to symbolize sadness, they will roll their ways and say, “Those people are so full of themselves.” Anything that these people believe is “high-falootin'” they denigrate and treat with scorn.

I am not like this. If anything I’m the opposite: I’m cynical of the ordinary, or rather, of contentment with the ordinary. It doesn’t mean I respect anything out of the ordinary (I’m looking at you, people who cast simple cubes out of iron and claim that it represents the suffering of Bengali farmers), but whenever a work tries to be something more profound than ordinary, I respect it, even if it doesn’t quite succeed.

John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath is a work that does try to be sophisticated like this. The chapters of The Grapes of Wrath alternate between an ordinary narrative style, and a non-narrative style that Steinbeck uses to highlight the deeper meaning of his work. And all I have to say about it is this: John Steinbeck is full of himself.

He’s a great narrative writer, and I enjoyed the narrative chapters quite a bit. The best of his non-narrative chapters were the “essay” chapters, the ones where he used full sentences and spoke directly to the reader. Especially good is Chapter 25, the chapter where the words “the grapes of wrath” appear a metaphor for growing discontent among the working class.

But for the rest of his non-narrative chapters: wowsers. They were bad. It seemed as if he had this idea that he would alternate between narrative chapters and essays, but it turned out that there much more story to be told than there were lessons to be learned, and so he had to find aw way to tell the story in a non-narrative style. And the result was not good.

The chapter where the car salesman keeps wishing he had more jalopies was probably the worst thing I’ve ever read. It was the stream of the car salesman’s thoughts, and I don’t think Steinbeck used a complete sentence once in the whole chapter. I guess the point was that evil salesmen don’t think complete thoughts, or something like that, but it was poorly done and pretentious. To make matters worse, its storytelling function was confused, since you don’t know if the people he’s bargaining with are the Joads or not, since you never know if Steinbeck is talking specifically or in general.

Besides the ridiculous quasi-narrative chapters like these, there was another thing Steinbeck used to get his non-narrative chapter count up, an old classic: filler. Such as the whole chapter devoted to a turtle crossing a road. Now, of course the turtle’s trek was really a metaphor, and can credit Steinbeck for finding a creative solution to technical problem, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this wasn’t filler.

Overall, the book was a good read and Steinbeck has written a profound work that makes us think about how we treat our fellow people, but when it came to the non-narrative chapters he was totally full of himself.

While we’re at it, we might as well deconstruct one of the “lessons” from The Grapes of Wrath a little. In the story, after the Joads have had some trouble with the law in some of the labor camps, they find a government-run camp that treats them like actual human beings. The Joads are even introduced to amenities they never had in better days in Oklahoma, like toilets.

Now, it’s clear what Steinbeck was trying to suggest here. But let’s look a little more deeply at this. In the government camp, the people were treated with dignity, but no one had work. And once the Joads’ money ran out, they had to hit the road, and find work with the dehumanizing corporate plantations. But then, though they weren’t living well, they at least got to eat, and even had a little leftover to small luxuries (Cracker Jack).

So. Capitalism treats people as much like dirt as it can get away with, and it requires the Socialism to force it to treat people like human beings. But in a Socialist utopia, there is no production so no one eats. So the lesson here is: if you want dignity, you need Socialism. If you want to eat, you need Capitalism. And if you want both… well you can figure it out. I think it’s a great (if simplified) lesson. I just don’t think it was the lesson that Red commie socialist Steinbeck intended.

Frontier Theme