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Title: The Conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath: Steinbeck's Conception and Execution
Author(s): Martha Heasley Cox
Publication Details: San Jose Studies 1.3 (Nov. 11, 1975): p73-81.
Source: Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 135. Detroit: Gale, 2003. From
Literature Resource Center.
Document Type: Critical essay

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning

Full Text:
[(essay date 11 November 1975) In the following essay, Cox reviews critical reaction to the ending of The Grapes of Wrath and examines Steinbeck's own discussion of the novel in his journals to argue that the final scene was not hastily conceived sentimentalism but instead a well-thought-out part of Steinbeck's total plan for the book.]

According to local legend, John Steinbeck completed The Grapes of Wrath about three o'clock on the morning of October23, 1938, awakened his wife and house guests who had gathered in his Los Gatos, California, home for the occasion, and read them the final pages. That celebrated ending has probably aroused more comment and controversy than the conclusionof any other contemporary novel.

Though Howard Levant, in the most recent book-length study of Steinbeck's novels, exaggerates the negative reaction when he says that the final scene "has been regarded universally as the nadir of bad Steinbeck,"1 the conclusion has been the subject of at least five separate articles, 2 none condemnatory, and has been discussed in almost every review and analysis of the novel. John M. Ditsky, in the last published article devoted exclusively to the ending, asserts that the crucial problem of

the value and meaning of the final scene remains unsettled and is as deserving of attention as ever.3 For Levant, however, the conclusion is "a disaster from the outset, not simply because it is sentimental; its execution, through the leading assumption,
is incredible." He sees no preparation and no literary justification for Rose of Sharon's transformation into Ma's alter-ego.4

Both Peter Lisca and Warren French, major Steinbeck critics, have defended the ending. Lisca concludes that the entire finalchapter "compactly re-enacts the whole drama of the Joads' journey in one uninterrupted continuity of suspense," in which Steinbeck brings his novel to a close "without doing violence to credulity, structure, or theme."5 French believes that the final tableau, instead of halting an unfinished story as some critics have charged, shows that the education of the Joads is completed. They have "triumphed over familial prejudices" and "saved themselves from spiritual bigotry."6

No critic shows any indication, however, of having read Steinbeck's unpublished journal, the "Diary of a Book," which he kept as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath.7 The journal, in Steinbeck's words, is "a record of working days and the amount done on each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day." In the diary, Steinbeck comments frequently on the symbolic ending and its significance.

Those remarks reveal that the ending was not merely hastily contrived melodrama replete with false symbolism as its detractors have charged repeatedly. Instead, Steinbeck carefully planned and prepared for the conclusion from the time hewrote the initial chapters of the novel. It helped to determine and control character development, symbolic meaning, andthematic structure. It was an integral part, if not the most important segment, of Steinbeck's design. Steinbeck's comments, furthermore, provide authorial insight into Rose of Sharon's act and dispel some of the ambiguity and disagreement which has resulted from varying critical interpretations. Since Steinbeck's journal was unknown to his critics, it, together with their commentary, provides an opportunity both to assess critical acumen in regard to an author's conception and execution of his work and to judge an author's achievement in the light of his intention. A brief examination of the ending and an overviewof the critical reaction it elicited may make Steinbeck's remarks about his conclusion more meaningful.

The final setting for the novel is a rain-blackened barn where the Joad family--or the half that has endured--seeks refuge fromthe flood. Destitute, hungry, wet, and ill, they have reached the nadir of their devastating experiences: the eviction from their Oklahoma home; the trauma of the trip west with the deaths enroute of Granma and Granpa; the desertions of the sons, Noahand Al, and the son-in-law, Connie; the martyrdom of Jim Casy; the flight of Tom, who murdered to avenge Casy's death and now continues his mission; and the loss of Rose of Sharon's still-born child. Ma's early and worst fears are now a reality. The family unit has disintegrated and only Rose of Sharon, Ruthie, Winfield, Uncle John, Pa and Ma remain. Their meager possessions are under water in the box-car. They have no means of transportation, for the truck, which none of them candrive anyway, is now inundated. It matters little, for they have nowhere to go.

When they have reached the barn, they find it already occupied by other refugees, a starving man and his son. Ma asks themfor a blanket for Rose of Sharon and folds the dirty comforter the boy supplies around her exhausted daughter (Steinbeck mentions the comforter five times in the last two pages). In turn, the frightened boy pleads for help, explaining that his father, who had not eaten in six days, could not retain the bread he stole for him the previous night: "Got to have soup ormilk. ... He's starvin' to death, I tell you." The "two women looked deep into each other"; then Ma at Rose of Sharon's request takes the others into the adjoining tool shed. The girl draws the comforter around her and offers her breast to the starving man. When he slowly shakes his head, she urges, "You got to." Supporting his head with her hand, she looks across the barnand smiles "mysteriously." In their ultimate need, Rose of Sharon and the starving man exchange what each has to share. Taking comfort from the stranger, she gives him life.

This final scene was both censured and commended by early reviewers. Malcolm Cowley considered it "theatrical andinconclusive"8 and a Time reviewer thought it the "most melodramatic" ending in the Steinbeck canon.9 Clifton Fadiman, who called The Grapes of Wrath "the American novel of the season, probably the year, possibly the decade," denounced the ending, however, as "the tawdriest kind of fake symbolism" adding that "just occasionally Steinbeck's dramatic imagination overleaps itself and you get a piece of pure, or impure, theatre like these last pages."10 Other early reviewers of the novel praised the ending, though, as have most later critics. Charles Poore wrote in his review for The New York Times: "The most memorable scene is the last one, where all the ordeals of the journey, from a blighted farm to blighting prospects, are summed up in one final, lucid and completely inexorable view of chaos. In a more sentimental mood, Mr. Steinbeck mighthave provided soft music and a rosy ending. And if he'd done that he would have invalidated the main truth of his story. Everything in the book leads up to it."11

Steinbeck scholars, who tend to agree with Poore's early assessment, offer multiple and far-reaching interpretations for thisconcluding episode. Biblical parallels predominate. Several critics have suggested that Rose of Sharon's milk symbolizes the Eucharist and thus resurrection ("I am the body and the blood.");12 one compares it to the manna given to the Hebrews in the wilderness.13 Such a reading can be supported by other evidence in the text. Rose of Sharon's name, which her mother loved to repeat and pronounced "Rosasharn" is from The Song of Songs ("I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valley"). A
further parallel lies in the title's imagery which informs the entire novel. The figurative grapes, which come from Revelationby way of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," also occur in King Solomon's song to the Shulamite "Let thy breasts be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy breath like apples; and thy mouth like the best wine." Steinbeck knew the Canticlesand had long been fascinated by them, particularly "the delightful chapter headings which go to prove that the Shulamite isin reality Christ's Church."14 He certainly chose Rose of Sharon's name, with all its connotations, in the context of this Biblical knowledge. With her act the grapes fermented into wrath are transmuted into mercy.

Several critics have pointed out additional biblical, mythical, and fictional counterparts for the girl. She has been called "another Eve, another Hester Prynne--if you will, another Zenobia or Pocahontas."15 Others find thematic significance in Rose of Sharon's act, saying that it "symbolically transmutes her maternal love to a love of all people";16 that it symbolizes "the main theme of the novel: the prime function of life is to nourish life,"17 that it merges the themes of Christ and the fertility goddess,18 that it brings together the novel's two counter themes, education and conversion, in a symbolic paradox:
"Out of her own need she gives life; out of the profoundest depth of despair comes the greatest assertion of faith."19

To critics who charge that Steinbeck failed to complete the story or to supply answers to questions he posed, others reply: "Steinbeck finds his answer in love rather than in revolution";20 "It is fitting that the novel ends with the Joads wiser andmore experienced, but still with no sense of belonging, no permanence in the country, no home of their own";21 "Steinbeck ends his book on a quiet note: that life can go on, and that people can and must succor one another. If this is an 'evasion' of some of the social, political, and ideological directions in the novel, then I suggest that it is an honest, honorable, and evenprophetic one."22

For some scholars, like Richard Astro, The Grapes of Wrath ends in triumph.23 George de Schweinitz concurs, noting that the last scene supplies all of the inexplicable, the mystery and the miraculous "that the reader needs in order to feel a heart- stopping resurgence of faith in himself and his fellow man."24 He finds Steinbeck's use of the word "mysteriously" to describe Rose of Sharon's smile felicitous as it evokes religious art and iconography. But Agnes McNeill Donohue disagrees: "The ritual takes place in a barn--a stable--and although the Earth Mother or Divine Maternity is certainly suggested, the child born to Rose of Sharon is no redeemer, but a stillborn messenger of death. In the fallen Eden of John Steinbeck, no redeemer comes."25

Joseph Fontenrose also sees the final scene as ritual, but interprets its symbolic meaning differently: The child that has been born is not that of Rose of Sharon and the selfish Connie Rivers. Instead it is the new collective organism as her final act symbolizes: "It is a ritual act: she who cannot be mother of a family adopts the newly born collective person as representedby one of 'the people [who] sat huddled together' in the barns when winter storms came. It is the family unity and strength imparted to the larger unit. In primitive adoption rituals the adopting mother offers her breast to the adopted child."26 Wright notes, too, that giving the breast was a ritual of adoption, and concludes: "Up to 1640, few decorous readers wouldhave been startled by Rose of Sharon's method of preserving a life. And in many parts of the world today, John Steinbeck would be commended for choosing, as his dénouement, a potent example of 'moral virtue.'"27

Steinbeck should not have been surprised at the clamor his conclusion aroused for he had been forewarned by Pat Covici, hislong time editor, who anticipated much of the reaction. On January 9, 1939, when Covici finished reading the manuscript, hewrote Steinbeck that he considered the ending a possible weakness or fault: "Your idea is to end the book on a greatsymbolic note, that life must go on and will go on with a greater love and sympathy and understanding for our fellow men.

The episode you use in the end is extremely poignant. Nobody could fail to be moved by the incident of Rose of Sharongiving her breast to the starving man yet, taken as the finale of such a book with all its vastness and surge, it struck us onreflection as being all too abrupt. ... As the end of the final episode it is perfect; as the end of the whole book not quite."

Covici thought that the incident needed "leading up to" and "leading away from," that the meeting with the starving man should not be so much an accident or chance encounter.28 Steinbeck replied immediately: "I'm sorry but I cannot change that ending. It is casual--there is no fruity climax, it is not more important than any other part of the book--if there is asymbol, it is a survival symbol not a love symbol, it must be an accident, it must be a stranger, and it must be quick. ... Thegiving of the breast has no more sentiment than the giving of a piece of bread. I'm sorry if that doesn't get over. It will maybe.

I've been on this design and balance for a long time and I think I know how I want it. ... The incident of the earth mother feeding by the breast is older than literature." He concludes: "I know that books lead to a strong deep climax. This one doesn't except by implication, and the reader must bring the implication to it. ... There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won't find more than he has in himself."29

Had Covici read Steinbeck's "Diary of a Book," he would have known how integral the ending was to Steinbeck's plan andhow important to his design. He was not to see the journal, however, until Christmas of 1950, when, more than twelve years after it had been written, Steinbeck sent the diary "an account of a long time ago," to Covici. In an accompanying letter, Steinbeck made two requests: the journal was not to be printed during his lifetime and it should be made available to hissons, "who were born so comparatively late in my life time that it is reasonable to suppose that I will not be around during a large part of theirs" if they should ever want to see it. Steinbeck wrote that his sons might sometime "want to look behind the myth and hearsay and flattery and slander a disappeared man becomes, and to know to some extent what manner of man their father was. And I cannot think of any better way than in this book which was not written for anyone to see."30

Steinbeck started the diary on the same day he began writing, The Grapes of Wrath, Wednesday, the first day of June, 1938. By the end of June, he had completed only Book I, "the background of this book," yet the ending was firmly in his mind: "Yesterday the work was short and I went over the whole of the book in my head--fixed on the last scene, huge and symbolic toward which the whole story moves. And that was a grand thing, for it was a reunderstanding of the dignity of the effort and the mightyness [sic] of the theme. I felt very small and inadequate and incapable but I grew again to love the story which is so much greater than I am. To love and admire the people who are so much stronger and purer and braver than I am."

On July 6, Steinbeck wrote in his diary, "Make the people live. Make them live. But my people must be more than people. They must be an over-essence of people." Two days later, on the completion of the chapter concerned with the first day and night of the trip, including the initial communication with other migrants, he expressed concern about his characters, particularly Rose of Sharon: "I wonder how this book will be. I wonder. Yesterday it seemed to me these people were coming to life. I hope so. These people must be extremely alive the whole time. I was worried about Rose of Sharon. She has to emerge if only as a silly pregnant girl now. She has to be a person." Already aware, of course, of the symbolic role Rose ofSharon is to fill in the final scene, Steinbeck also recognized her importance thematically. Rose of Sharon must learn the lesson essential for survival, the necessity of sustaining not only one's self, or one's husband and child, or even one's kindred, but the whole of mankind. To make that lesson better understood within the framework of the novel, Rose of Sharon is then, designedly, not only a silly pregnant girl, but the most self-centered of all the Joads, the one who frets and complains and demands the most. Perhaps it is morally as well as biologically necessary for her to lose both husband and child, before shecan undergo what Warren French calls "the education of the heart," which he maintains the Joad family achieves.31 To make
her instruction more convincing, her conversion more dramatic, and her recognition scene more symbolic, her transformation must be traumatic.

As weeks passed, Steinbeck became eager to complete his long labor, but wrote on September 21, "I still can't see the end of this book." Two days later, however, he could say: "The book is beginning to round out. I think they go to Shafter. I think I can begin to see the end. But that time jump is bound to give me trouble. I want this book to be perfectly integrated." By September 28, he had decided: the Joads will go to Shafter, "Will go north for the cotton and will end there: Go to the boxcar be moved by flood waters. And the book will end there. But there is a hell of a lot to happen yet. I musn't get impatient. ...
This is the important part of this book. Must get it down." On October 5, Steinbeck again summarized, in staccato fashion but in slightly amplified form, the events yet to occur: "And my story is coming better. I see it better. Ma's crossing with the clerk and then Tom's going out--meeting Casy--trying to move the men in the camp. Arrest and beating--return in secret.

Move. Cotton. Flood. And the end. Tom comes back. Stolen things. Must go. Be around. Birth. And the rising waters. Andthe starving man. And the end." Several more summaries appeared before the diary and novel were complete. Some included actions or events which Steinbeck either subsequently decided to omit or later deleted when he "repaired" a scene: Tom was to return in the flood bringing stolen food (perhaps that contemplated scene generated the brief episode in which the boytold Ma that he broke a window the night before and stole bread for his starving father) and there was to be a "hint of smallpox, measles, measles for Rose of Sharon weakening. Cause miscarriage or rather birth of a dead baby. Breast pump. Then therain."

Steinbeck's decision to omit some of these projected scenes appears to be cogent. Tom's return after the haunting farewell to Ma could only have been anti-climatic. Rose of Sharon had endured quite enough to make her stillborn child, "the blue shriveled little mummy," completely credible without the added debilitation from measles. And it seems unlikely that the box car or its inhabitants could have supplied a breast pump. Rose of Sharon's milk, moreover, was essential for both thematic and symbolic purposes in the final scene.

On October 14, Steinbeck prepared to write his final interchapter. His remarks here show the exhilaration he felt: "I'm getting excited now that the end is coming up. Rather work than not. I'll be sad when this is done. ... The last general must be a summary of the whole thing. Group survival."

The group survival theme was not new to Steinbeck. It had been central in, among other works, "The Leader of the People" and "In Dubious Battle." Now, as he makes clear, it was his major concern in The Grapes of Wrath. The October 14 entry continued: "Yes I am excited. Almost prayerful that this book is some good. ... Now let's see what we have. [Here followsanother slightly expanded summary of action to come.] Not so much you see and concentrated tempo. And ending where Ithought. ..." On October 19, he wrote: "I'm on the very last chapter now. It may be fifteen pages long but I can't help that. It may be twenty. The rain--the birth the flood the barn. The starving man and the last scene that has been ready so long." Steinbeck implied here, then, that his dénouement was carefully planned if not actually written long before he completed the novel.

Steinbeck's exhaustion was clear in these final diary entries and he feared it would affect the book's conclusion. The last week's comments, filled with doubts and pain and illness, reveal too his determination to make the ending commensurate with what has gone before. The October 19 entry continued: "I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don't want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest, but I am sure of one thing--it isn't the great book I had hoped it would be. It's just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best thing I can do." The October 20 entry read "my nerves blew out like a fuse and today I feel weak and powerless. ... I hope the close isn't controlled by my weariness. I wouldn't like that." On October 24 he wrote: "Monday again and I think it is my last week. I'm almost dead for lack of sleep. Can't go to sleep. I don't know why. Just plan for the ending." But the next day's entry revealed that he couldn't work the day before--or that day either: "I don't know whether it was just plain terror of the ending or not. My stomach wentto pieces yesterday. May have been nerves. I lay down and slept all afternoon. Went to bed at 10:30 and slept all night maybe some kind of release. ... Can't work today. ... I think I have every single move mapped out for the ending."

Finally, on October 26, Steinbeck recorded his last day on the manuscript of what was to be his major novel: "Today shouldbe a day of joy because I could finish today--just the walk to the barn, the new people and the ending and that's all. But I seem to have contracted an influenza of the stomach or something. Anyway I am so dizzy I can hardly see the page. ... If I canfinish today I don't care much what happens afterward. ... I wonder if this flu could be simple and complete exhaustion. ..."The last line at the end of the page read: "Finished this day--and I hope to God it's good."

Three months were to elapse before Steinbeck wrote Covici: "I'm sorry but I cannot change that ending. ... I'm sorry if that [its meaning and implication] doesn't get over. It will maybe." He was right; it has. Perceptive critics have read Steinbeck better, perhaps, than he dared hope. Though their interpretations have differed, most have understood the ending of The Grapes of Wrath and many have found it good.


1. The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974), p. 124.
2. Celeste Turner Wright, "Ancient Analogues of an Incident in John Steinbeck, Western Folklore, 14 (January, 1955) 50-51;
Theodore Pollock, "On the Ending of The Grapes of Wrath," Modern Fiction Studies, 4 (Summer, 1958), 177-78; Jules
Chametsky, "The Ambivalent Endings of The Grapes of Wrath," Modern Fiction Studies 11 (Spring, 1965), 34-44, Mary
Clarke, "Bridging the Generation Gap: The Ending of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath," Forum (Houston) 8 (Summer, 1970), 1617;
and John M. Ditsky, "The Ending of The Grapes of Wrath: A Further Commentary," Agoro 2 (Fall, 1973), 41-50.
3. Ditsky, p. 41.
4. Levant, p. 124.
5. The Wide World of John Steinbeck (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1961), pp. 176-77.
6. John Steinbeck (New Haven: College and University Press, 1961), p. 107.
7. Quoted by permission of The Steinbeck Estate and the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. "The
Grapes of Wrath Journal," which continues until January 30, 1941, is in the Steinbeck Manuscript Collection in the
Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas.
8. Think Back on Us ... A Contemporary Chronicle of the 1930's, Henry Dan Piper, ed. (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1967), p. 350.

11/8/12 Literature Resource Center -..Print

9. "Books," Time, 33 (April 17, 1939), 87.
10. "Highway 66--A Tale of Five Cities," New Yorker, 15 (April 15, 1939), 81-82.
11. "Books of the Times," New York Times, April 14, 1939, p. 27.
12. Martin Shockley, "Christian Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath," College English, 18 (November, 1956), 94; H. Kelly
Crockett, "The Bible and The Grapes of Wrath," College English, 24 (December, 1962), 199; Peter Lisca, "The Grapes of
Wrath as Fiction," PMLA, 22 (March, 1957), 303.
13. Thomas F. Dunn, "The Grapes of Wrath," College English, 24 (April, 1963), 124.
14. In a letter to his agents written in March, 1934, five years before he began The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck revealed his
familiarity and fascination with the Canticles. Puzzled at the failure of critics and other readers to recognize his theme in Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck suggested that he revise the novel to make it clearer:
"What do you think of putting in aninterlocutor, who between each incident interprets the incident, morally, aesthetically, historically, but in the manner of thepaisanos themselves?
This would give the book much the appeal of the Gesta Romanorum, those outrageous tales withmonkish morals appended, or of the Song of Solomon in the King James Version,
with the delightful chapter headings which go to prove that the Shulamite is in reality Christ's Church." Lewis Gannett, "Introduction: John Steinbeck's Way of Writing," The Portable Steinbeck
(New York: The Viking Press, 1970), pp. xiii-xiv.
15. Charles L. Sanford, "Classics of American Reform Literature," American Quarterly, 10 (Fall, 1958), 309.
16. Frederick I. Carpenter, "The Philosophical Joads," College English, 2 (January, 1941), 321.
17. Earl W. Carlson, "Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath," College English, 19 (January, 1958), 174.
18. Edwin M. Moseley, Pseudonyms of Christ in the Modern Novel (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), p. 172.
19. Peter Lisca, "The Grapes of Wrath as Fiction," p. 309.
20. Charles C. Walcutt, American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1956), p. 263.
21. Edwin T. Bowden, The Dungeon of the Heart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961), p. 141.
22. Jules Chametzky, p. 44.
23. John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press,
1973), p. 128.
24. "Steinbeck and Christianity," College English, 19 (May, 1958), 369.
25. "'The Endless Journey to No End': Journey and Eden Symbolism in Hawthorne and Steinbeck," A Casebook on the
Grapes of Wrath, Agnes McNeill Donohue, ed. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968), pp. 264-5.
26. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963), p. 74.
27. "Ancient Analogues of an Incident in John Steinbeck," p. 51.
28. John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath: Text and Criticism, Peter Lisca, ed. (New York: The Viking Press, 1972), p. 857.
The Covici/Steinbeck file of correspondence is in the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas.
29. Ibid, p. 858.
30. This letter is placed in "The Grapes of Wrath Journal" in the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas.
31. John Steinbeck, p. 107.
Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition)
Cox, Martha Heasley. "The Conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath: Steinbeck's Conception and Execution." San Jose Studies

1.3 (11 Nov. 1975): 73-81. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 135. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
Literature Resource Center. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.

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