Literature: The Grapes of Wrath and As I Lay Dying Essay

September 29, 2020 by Essay Writer


A scholar, literary critic and a philosopher among others, Mikhail Bakhtin contributed largely to literature. In his theory of dialogism, Bakhtin claims that language is based on the construct of dialogue where a writer or speaker exchanges information with the respondents and meaning of this language is only definable based on those communicators. In his book Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin comes up with two subtexts; that is, carnival and grotesque realism.

According to Morris (1994, p. 249), “Bakhtin refers to the multiple voices at work within any given culture as heteroglossia, a term which foregrounds the clash of antagonistic social forces. Moreover, he uses the term polyphony with regard to the fully realized form of a novel, a word coined to describe Dostoevsky’s ‘multi-voiced’ novels, whereby author’s and heroes’ discourses interact on equal terms.” This understanding forms the background of The Grapes of Wrath and As I Lay Dying analysis in this paper.

John Steinbeck and William Faulkner’s Grapes of Wrath fits well into these Bakhtinian perspectives. The polyphonic traits of these works have given rise to numerous debates concerning their genre among other philosophical issues. Bakhtin would concern himself with establishing the evolutionary ontogenesis of the genre in these texts. The unity of structure and language in any comical genre take after carnivalistic folklore…”there is a strong rhetorical element, but in the atmosphere of joyful relativity characteristic of a carnival sense of the world this element is fundamentally changed: there is a weakening of its one-sided rhetorical seriousness, its rationality, its singular meaning, its dogmatism” (Bakhtin 1984, p. 107). Steinbeck and Faulkner’s works fit well in this concept. This paper analyses these works from a Bakhtinian perspective employing some of his literal principles. The Grapes of Wrath and As I Lay Dying are carnalized literatures.

The Grapes of Wrath

As aforementioned; Bakhtin talks of two subsets in his analysis viz. carnival and grotesque realism. These two subsets come with different characteristics, which will be exposited in this text. Nevertheless, the outstanding element of Bakhtinian interpretation would be establishing whether these novels qualify as carnivalized literature or not. According to Bakhtin, any carnalized literature should have Socratic dialogue and Menippean satire among other elements and these elements stand the test of time; they do not die from any carnalized literature. Moreover, a carnalized literature detaches itself from traditional sorts like the tragedy, history, and the epic. On the contrary, carnalized literature is serio-comical and relates strongly to carnivalistic folklore. The biggest task here is to determine whether The Grapes of Wrath fit in this description and is it fits, on what scale.

To analyze The Grapes of Wrath from a Bakhtinian perspective, it is good to trace its serio-comical links. Bakhtin points out that, the commixing element of serio-comic genres lies in its relation to carnivalistic folklore and any literal work moulded by this lore, “directly and without mediation, or indirectly, through a series of intermediate links qualifies as carnivalized literature” (Bakhtin 1984, p. 107). The outstanding feature of any serio-comical genre is the inevitability of change. Change underpins the plot of The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck deliberates on how America was rapidly changing in terms of agriculture, economy, and the subsequent displacement of thousands of people as America grappled with change; the basis of Bakhtinian perspective on carnivalized literature.

Change stands out as one of the themes of this novel. As the novel opens, Casy, the preacher, has denounced his faith after realizing life is, “a map with every winding and turning of the road fair set forth” (Kennedy 1951, p. 7). Casy quits his ministry because he cannot bear with Christian teachings on immorality for he sleeps with women in his congregation on a regular basis. He says, “I figured, ‘Why do we get to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figured, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Spirit—the human spirit—die whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of now I sat there thinking’ it, an’ all of a sudden—I knew it.

I knew it so deep down, that; it was true, and I still know it” (Steinbeck 1939, p. 31). This is a change. Casy realizes that his holiness does not come from a faraway god but from people around him and that is why he calls his fellow men and women ‘holy spirit.’ The change also dominates the lives of other characters like Tom and Ma. As the novel opens, Ma’s actions are louder than words. She seriously yearns for change and this is why she burns the letters, which carry her past.

This act of ‘destroying’ the past indicates that this family is ready to accept change as part of facing reality. The fact that Ma notices and acknowledges change, paints her as a heroine even in face of uttermost adversity. As the novel closes, the family goes through trying times; however, she stands out as she claims, “it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on changin’ a little maybe, but goin’ right on…” (Steinbeck 1939, p. 542).

This shows how she is determined to welcome change for she knows; change is inevitable. On the other side, Tom represents the theme of change perfectly. After spending considerable time in jail, he changes greatly. He does not feel guilty of being a murderer and vows to Casy that he would murder again if faced with the same situation. As the novel closes down, Tom has undergone a total psychic transformation and this explains why he ultimately leaves his family to finish what Casy had started before he was murdered. In this context, Tom’s perspective about his family has changed greatly thus accomplishing Bakhtin’s arguments of a carnivalized literature.

Steinbeck’s theme of change touches not only the characters, but also the chapters of the novel. He utilizes literal elements like repetition, apocalyptic tone, and journalistic documentation as he explores the theme of change pointing out how it measures heavily on the affected people. This is yet another feature of serio-comical genre. He says, “…the great owners, nervous, sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change…when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes…here is the anlage of the thing you fear. We lost our land this is the beginning—from’ I’ to “we” (Steinbeck 1939, p.192-94). The application of repetition coupled with apocalyptic tone establishes the bearing theme of change in this novel. Bakhtin insinuates that multiplicity of voice is another characteristic of carnivalized novel.

Use of intercalary chapters throughout the novel increments the multiplicity of voices and tones. For instance, the dominant tone in chapter five is pessimistic and spells doom as the bank representatives embark on evicting farmers from their farms. However, in chapter seven the tone changes to optimism as car dealers try to strike a deal with their customers. Steinbeck further utilizes literal elements like personification, poetic description, and imagery in chapter eleven. In chapter twelve, the tone changes as immigrants march from Mississippi to California along Highway 66. These changing apocalyptic tones herald the fate that awaits these immigrants in California.

First, the job advertisements appearing on newspapers are nonexistent hence no wages. As these immigrants approach the Californian border, a border patrol car prevents them from entering California. The changing nature of tone here agrees strongly with Bakhtin’s arguments. Multiplicity of voices continues through the novel; in chapter, twenty-three people gather along the road to share stories of heroism. In chapter twenty-five, the carnivalistic nature of this novel sets in.

According to Holquist (1981, p. 18), Bakhtin’s element of carnivalesque may be taken to mean, “A literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humour and chaos.” This comes out clearly in chapter twenty-five through humour, irony and chaos. It is ironical and humorous that crops are being destroyed in a bid to keep market prices up while children on the other side are dying because of starvation. It is ironical that the immigrants cannot benefit from the rich Californian land and they can only watch as their children die of hunger. Steinbeck uses this irony to expose how human beings can become inhuman towards their fellow human beings.

As aforementioned, Steinbeck uses both intercalary chapters and narrative chapters, something that ties with ancient Socratic dialogue, “a rhetorical model which emerged from its base in carnivalistic folklore as a sort of remembrance of the actual conversations conducted by Socrates” (Morson 1990, p. 96).

The intercalary chapters elaborate on the immigrants’ sufferings, the gap between the rich and the poor, and the prevailing economic conditions and classes that never favored the immigrants. On the other hand, the narrative chapters shed light on family life in those days as different families grappled with changing environmental, social, and economical times. Differences in chapters bring about symphony in the novel. This mix up has drawn numerous criticisms towards this novel leading to what Bakhtin (1984, p. 111), calls anacrisis, “the provocation of the word by the word; the forcing of one’s opponent to articulate his position, thus revealing through spoken language any deficiencies in the logic or reason of his argument.” Similarly, Steinbeck’s work has drawn this anacrisis by prompting many critics to pick apart this work.

This novel has elicited anacrisis by arousing dialogue amongst differing sides of public thus exposing deficiencies in logic and reason leveled against The Grapes of Wrath. For instance, Kate O’Brien (1996, p. 180), claims that Steinbeck’s work “epitomizes the intolerable sentimentality of American ‘realism…he wrecks a beautiful dialect with false cadences…he is frequently uncertain about where to end a sentence.” This is immaterial and incorrect because there was nothing like ‘beautiful’ or ‘standard’ dialect, in the South; unfortunately, this is what O’Brien insinuates by claiming that Steinbeck was wrecking a ‘beautiful’ dialect. Steinbeck’s objective was to make his characters as real as possible. Numerous critics accuse Steinbeck of representing false religious practices.

Writing this novel off, West (1996, p. 181) concluded that this novel will “lie in that honorable vault which houses the books that have died when their purpose as propaganda had been served.” The fact is, this novel has stood test of time and won the coveted Pulitzer Prize. It is important to note that Steinbeck is not addressing a particular group of people; passive religious people for that matter, no; he is addressing active and physical religious, culturally diverse people. Nevertheless, these criticisms fit well in Bakhtin’s argument of anacrisis.

Another Bakhtinian element present in this novel is Menippean satire. According to Bakhtin (1984, p. 119), Menippean satire “possesses an inner logic, insuring the indissoluble linking up of all its elements…a great external plasticity and a remarkable capacity to absorb into itself kindred small genres, and to penetrate as a component element into other large genres.” This becomes clearer as the reader focuses on what Steinbeck meant by allusions he created about his characters in relation to their folklore. It is important to note that given the time Steinbeck wrote this novel, he was not bound by realism as Bakhtin observes on antiquated genres; actually, in Minippea satire, fantasy and allegory dominate.

Therefore, the extreme conditions that Steinbeck presents in this novel are logical in light of Minippean satire. Tom and Casy spend considerable time in prison where conditions are squalid; the Joads experience extremely tough situations on their way to California. Steinbeck did not need to be realistic in his writing; however, taken from contemporary thematic assertions, Steinbeck’s work does not fit in because they are based on realism. Therefore, does The Grapes of Wrath fit in Bakhtinian theories?

From the above discussion, this novel qualifies as a carnivalized novel because of several factors viz. connection to Socratic dialogue, theme of change, presence of anacrisis and Menippean satire. These elements give this novel a Bakhtinian perspective of interpretation especially the rich application of dialogism theory. Most of the criticism leveled against this work is based on religious stance that Steinbeck takes. Nevertheless, “Bakhtin viewed the account of Jesus in the Christian Gospels as the most highly evolved textual expression of dialogue and of carnival as it manifests in literature” (Morson & Caryl 1990, p. 49). Therefore, these criticisms serve to qualify Bakhtin theories in this novel.

As I Lay Dying

Written by William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying fits well in Bakhtinian concepts of dialogism, carnivalesque, and heteroglossia. The most outstanding feature in this novel is the failure by critics to look at the novel from Bakhtinian perspective. According to Peek and Hamblin (2004, p. 59), “Bakhtinian saw the study of the novel as an entirely separate enterprise from that of analyzing poetry.” Therefore, many of the criticisms leveled against Faulkner and his work simply serves to highlight deficiencies in logic of thought of these critics.

Anacrisis is the most outstanding Bakhtinian concept of this novel. Upon its first publication, As I Lay Dying elicited shock and outrage from different corners. For one, Faulkner chooses to “misuse narrative conventions hence overlooking realism; moreover, Faulkner is a botched realist; a de-constructionist” (Liburn 2000, Para. 9). These criticisms leveled against As I Lay Waiting emerge from what Bakhtin calls failure to detach study of novel from poetry analysis. Other critics have described this novel as a tragedy; however, it qualifies as a serio-comical genre, which is neither a tragedy, historic nor an epic. Nevertheless, these criticisms and differing points of view in interpreting this novel, confers this work one of Bakhtinian elements; that is, anacrisis.

In the theory of dialogism, Bakhtin (1984, p. 107) indicates that, “…there is a strong rhetorical element, but in the atmosphere of joyful relativity characteristic of a carnival sense of the world this element is fundamentally changed: there is a weakening of its one-sided rhetorical seriousness, its rationality, its singular meaning, its dogmatism.” This novel is weakened in its seriousness, rationality, and dogmatism hence eliminating realism. It is important to note that Bakhtin says that archaic writers did not need to be realistic in their writings.

Most of scenes in this novel are unrealistic thus qualifying this novel as a carnivalized literature. Carnivalesque here may be taken to mean, “A literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humour and chaos” (Holquist 1981, p. 18). Surely, humour and chaos dominate the scenes of this novel as exposited next.

Right from the beginning, Faulkner embarks on a journey to kill dogmatism and realism in this novel. As the novel opens up, Addie Bundren is about to die. Contrary to what many contemporary writers would consider ‘unreal’, Cash is busy preparing a coffin for his mother in what contemporary writers would call ‘extreme.’ “A good carpenter; Addie Bundren could not want a better one, a box to lie in, it will give her confidence and comfort” (Faulkner 1985, p. 5).

This is unrealistic; one would expect Cash to be taking care of his mother not making a coffin for someone who is alive. Thereafter, Vardaman comes home from fishing and compares his mother to a fish he has cleaned some minutes earlier. In an unrealistic turn of events, Vardaman is troubled so much by the fact that his mother is nailed inside a coffin. Consequently, as other family members sleep at night, he perforates the lid of Addie’s coffin to allow some fresh air in. unfortunately; two of his drillings go through Addie’s eyes. This scene is comical, a characteristic of subverting a dominant style throwing assumptions off balance through chaos and humour. These incidences herald Menippean satire in this novel.

Menippean satire dominates this novel with scenes of chaos and humor allover. After Addie dies, Anse remembers her dying wish was to be buried in Jefferson; a place of her people. Nevertheless, Anse is not just interested in going to Jefferson to bury his wife; no, he wants to get new false teeth and this journey offers him an opportunity to do so. Cash is like his father, he wants to get out of Yoknapatawpha County and get a phonograph; Vardaman wants to get a toy train, while Dewey wants to abort. This sets in the ironical part of this novel. It is ironical that, whilst these family members know very well that they have lost the mother of the family, they do not care about her well-being in death. This prompts Darl to set the barn in which Addie is housed after realizing his family member’s craftiness and selfishness.

As the journey to Jefferson embarks, chaos dominates the scenes. On their way to Jefferson, there is a heavy downpour leading to floods, which washes away the main bridge forcing the Bundrens to use a makeshift ford to cross the river. Unfortunately, a stray log comes from nowhere and throws the wagon off balance drowning their mules and aggravating Cash’s pain from his broken leg. Fortunately, Vernon Tull rescues them with the help of Jewel who refused to ride with the rest of the family. After surviving this incidence, they continue with their journey but Darl reads mischief in everyone’s agenda apart from Jewel.

Consequently, he decides to cremate Addie for he knows no one is interested in giving her a decent burial. Jewel again rescues the coffin and they manage to burry Addie finally. Meanwhile Dewey falls into a trap of a rogue shopkeeper who pretends to understand abortion issues only to lure her into sex. Darl is sent to a mental institution for the rest of his family thinks he is insane. Finally, the novel closes on an ironical tone when Anse introduces his newfound love, “’It’s Cash and Jewel and Vardaman and Dewey Dell,’ pa says, kind of hangdog and proud too, with his teeth and all, even if he wouldn’t look at us. ‘Meet Mrs Bundren,’” (Faulkner 1985, p. 248). It is ironical that, Anse has barely buried his former wife when he marries another one. Through anacrisis, dogmatism theory and Menippean satire, As I Lay Dying qualifies as a carnivalized literature.


A Bakhtinian analysis of As I Lay Dying and the Grapes of Wrath is made possible by several characteristics of literature that Bakhtin puts across. He points out that literature analysis contains two elements viz. grotesque realism and carnivalism. These two stories are not historic, epic, or tragedy but they are serio-comical. Change is an outstanding characteristic of carnivalized literature and this theme dominates The Grapes of Wrath. The other element is anacrisis. In anacrisis, there are differing opinions and interpretations amongst different interpreters. In As I Lay Dying, many critics have come out to criticize Faulkner’s work branding it extreme due to the chaos and extreme suffering that seem to take place. Similarly, many critics have come out strongly to criticize the extremes that Steinbeck presents in The Grapes of Wrath.

Actually, many critics pointed out that these works would soon be forgotten for they were ’illogical.’ Nevertheless, Bakhtin sees anacrisis as a product of failure to detach novel reading from poetry analysis hence the differing opinions. Menippean satire stands out in these two works as it seeks to root out dogmatism that contemporary writers are used to. It also roots out reality. Archaic writers were not concerned about reality; therefore, Faulkner and Steinbeck are justified in their works. These two works qualify as carnivalized literature for they contain the central concepts of the same.

Reference List

Bakhtin, M 1984, “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics”. Caryl, E, (Ed). Introduction by Booth, C, Theory and History of Literature, Volume 8. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Faulkner, W 1985, As I Lay Dying, New York; Vintage Books.

Holquist, M 1981, “Introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin’s”, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, London: University of Texas Press.

Kennedy, S 1951, “John Steinbeck: Life Affirmed and Dissolved.” Fifty Years of the American Novel: A Christian Appraisal, edn, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Lilburn, M 2004, “Overview of As I Lay Dying.” Literature Resource Centre. InfoTrac, SWVCTC Library. Web.

Morris, P (ed.) 1994, “The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedov, Voloshinov”, New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc.

Morson, S & Caryl, E 1990, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, CA: Stanford University Press.

O’Brien, K 1996, “Fiction: Rev. of the Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck”, Spectator, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peek, C & Hamblin, R (eds.) 2004, A Companion to Faulkner Studies, Westport, Greenwood Press.

Shockley, M 1963, “The Reception of The Grapes of Wrath in Oklahoma”, A Companion to The Grapes of Wrath Ed. Warren French. New York- The Viking Press, Inc.

Steinbeck, J 1976, The Grapes of Wrath. New York: The Viking Press, Inc.

West, A 1996, “New Novels; Rev. of the Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. New Statesman and Nation, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

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