The Grapes of Wrath
There is more than one theme found in Pearl Buck’s 1931 The Good Earth, published by Pocketbook Press. The central idea of the work is a complicated intertwining of ideas that state that the Earth abides while man’s values change for the worse with the accumulation of wealth and the loss of connection to the land. John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, published originally by Viking Press, appears to voice the theme that the world is divided into the rich and the poor.
Its theme seems on the surface to be that this division is the principal cause of all the suffering in the world.
Although there are similarities between these two classics works of literature, there is a subtle difference between them. Themes are universal truths upon which great works are based. The great theme of The Good Earth is that the land is inherently good and people will be good so long as they maintain their close roots to that land.
Buck says, “According to Chinese folk religion every small town has its own earth gods who protect the spot where they happen to be” (Buck p 387). In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck says that the lust for money is, in the biblical sense, the common root of all evil.
Steinbeck says, “The quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’ and cuts you off forever from the ‘we’ (Steinbeck p 153). The two works use similar ideas to prove their theses, saying that the land is a source of enrichment to men and that closeness to it is directly connected to how humans relate to each other in a positive way, though the two authors take different routes to arrive at the same conclusion. Wang Lung, in The Good Earth, is a farmer who makes a living by the sweat of his brow, wresting sustenance from his plot of earth.
It is this direct connection to the earth that gives Wang Lung his character. He owes his spirituality and his very humanity to the good earth, which Buck virtually anthropomorphizes as a source of all good in the world. Buck implies that Wang Lung’s attachment to the earth is the source of all his success. Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath, make a case for man’s extended family, those who come together in a clan for the protection and betterment of all, which is the key to not only survival, but inner peace and harmony as well.
He makes the point that nuclear families can be disrupted and torn asunder but man will organize into a loose family unit with others in like need for the common good, quickly becoming family. On families Steinbeck remarks of Casey, “He knew the government of families and he had been taken into the family” (Steinbeck p 105). Buck uses the impious nature of the Hwang family to contrast the good of Wang Lung, saying that the difference is a direct result of Wang Lung’s connection to the land. The land, to Wang, is like a mother; it fed, sheltered, and clothed him.
To Steinbeck, humanity is the source of all that was good, for it is only through the coming together of men into viable family units that they can survive. While both books show that the land-owners who only take the profits from the land are decadent and wicked, The Good Earth shows Wang Lung changing as he gets further from the land while The Grapes of Wrath portray the Joads as victims of greed brought about by the wealthy land owners. Still, lack of connection to the land is not the over-riding theme of The Grapes of Wrath.
Buck says the direct act of working the land is the source of piety. The land renewed Wang Lung, Buck says. “Then the good land did again its healing work and the sun shone on him and healed him and the warm winds of summer wrapped him about with peace” (Buck p 249). Steinbeck says that having enough land on which to make a living for one’s family is the key to peace and harmony, not the actual working of that land.
References Buck, P. The Good Earth New York: Pocket Books 2005 Steinbeck, J. The Grapes of Wrath New York: Pengu
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