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The Grapes of Wrath



The quest of the field of literature is to search for meanings to life, from the mundane to the exotic, from the blasé to the neurotic; the quest is always about the search for some form of meaning to life or what certain aspects of life mean within given contexts and scenarios: that is, the sole thought not necessarily the whole purpose to the study of the field of art we term as literature. Writers have been writing different writings across the vast span of man’s time on earth, each with a different purpose, each with a different perspective, and each with an ability to control the words in the verses unique to himself. It may stem from the subconscious as a differing outlook as to the real meanings behind everyday life, and its expressions as interpretations may vary not that far from what the ordinary man in the street may deem life to be, but the body of work each individual literary writer churns out is at the end of the day the very expression of life at its most real even if it be just fiction. The writer therefore cannot just afford to live and to exist only as a watcher who does not speak out for or against what is panning out in the larger amphitheatre of general communal life. The primary role of the writer is to decipher what is occurring in society and to make the attempt to define exactly what it means on a specific or universal level of interpretation. There was The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born, Lord of the Flies, 1984, The Grapes of Wrath, Walking Down River Road, Chaka, Rebel and a host of other works by authors such Mda, Kerouac, Hemingway, Achebe and other greats of man’s literary history that somehow all shared a connection to the Medieval Shakespeare in terms of exploring the human condition under differing circumstances. One had to absorb all of these because they tasted good on the tongue of the mind, and all these one had to read because they were prescribed in the curriculum. The reading was tedious at first, but as the years passed and one speed read, the meanings these works contained with regard to the realities of life began to unfold as one delved deeper into the nitty-gritty details of the plots and the themes, the motifs and other literary devices contained within the leafs of the work being read in class or performed on stage. The figures of the lead characters (the protagonist and the antagonist) began to bear some semblance to everyday people one encountered in their everyday journeys. The once supernatural could now be compared to someone the reader knew or was familiar with. The descent from the status of being just an imaginary figure in a work of literature faded as the meanings began to unfold and their real purpose in the plot of the work began to be understood. This was the sole purpose of reading literature in the first place, to be able to draw figures out of the pages into the realm where ordinary people walked and in a sense find their real meanings behind what we experience on a daily basis. Beaten down with the realities of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, John Steinbeck penned The Grapes of Wrath. It is a work that covers the entire experience of families in the face of imminent death as caused by the economic realities being experienced by the world immediate to the characters and beyond in the wider scope of the global economy. It is a fact that those in hardship are open to exploitation, for this is a world of buccaneers sailing the open seas in search of any ship in distress. The poor are more likely to fall victim to the unscrupulous practices of figures that always hide behind some bigger name to justify their pederasty. Defenceless due to the reality that the judicial process is an expensive undertaking, the poor fall victim to matters that would under properly run justice systems be easily resolved without court. However, the poor cannot afford the hefty fees demanded of each figure that needs to solve their arguments through the judiciary process. A scene in Chapter Five of The Grapes of Wrath recounts: THE OWNERS OF THE land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars, and they felt the dry earth with their fingers, and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests. The tenants, from their sun-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed cars drove along the fields. And at last the owner men drove into the dooryards and sat in their cars to talk out of the windows. The tenant men stood beside the cars for a while, and then squatted on their hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust. In the open doors the women stood looking out, and behind them the children— corn-headed children, with wide eyes, one bare foot on top of the other bare foot, and the toes working. The women and the children watched their men talking to the owner men. They were silent. Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank—or the Company— needs—wants—insists—must have—as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained. You know the land is poor. You’ve scrabbled at it long enough, God knows. Dispossession is an issue the poor face on an everyday basis and the world often looks away unconcerned (or concerned but not brave enough to address it). The individuals that come as Red Ants to evict the poor from their land or place of tenement usually have some excuse or name bigger than themselves for their deed. This is not a matter that rears its ugly head only in the case of residential matters, it rears its ugly head even in life and death matters such as livelihoods being terminated or adversely affected in the name of adherence to some law fashioned in the name of some circumstance or catastrophe. The poor and their children helplessly watch their hopes and dreams being slowly washed away as one of the realities of the unfolding circumstances within their immediate environment. There is little they can do because they are poor and are not considered as indispensable by the system. Pretence at helping them is the best they get often, but the real help they need is something that remains elusive for the larger part of their life. These are the circumstances literature often addresses, perhaps in an attempt to show the sectors of society that have the clout to change them the effect the realities of human choice have on the other less privileged sectors of society. An earlier article on a similar vein speaks of a cold season as panned out in the words of the literary giant John Steinbeck. The reality is that one sits many a moment musing on John Steinbeck’s Depression Era account The Grapes of Wrath, not because of the increasing poverty, but because of the unfolding reality that this disease (COVID-19) will leave us more scattered than we were before it came. As the statistics rise and the deaths keep on going higher, the instinctive human tendency to self-preserve kicks in and other members of society are left to fend for themselves even if they lack the means to do so, or, as is the reality, they have been dispossessed of the means to fend for themselves by the lockdowns and laws that came as a result of an attempt by the authorities to curb the spread of the virus. It is a cold season that awaits us this time around with the pandemic entering its second year of havoc. The results are going to be worse than anything we have seen before, because the poor are going to get poorer and with their poverty the levels of crime are going to increase. White collar crimes, blue collar crimes and any other types of crime are sure to increase as desperation levels increase. It is a human behaviour or instinctive tendency to find all means to self-preserve. Had we the eyes to see the beauty of the kingdom, we would perhaps not give in to fears. The realities however, are that poverty and beggar-hood as a nation have blinded us with regard to the wealth we have in the midst of the greatest calamity to befall our time and age in history. The account of a slave one read in the last of undergraduate tertiary education by one Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa) speaks of the musings of a slave that remembered better days as a free man in his land of birth. At this given point in time, it seems that no writer is willing to remember how it was before the Hong-Kong protest that were soon followed by the lockdowns across the globe. Equiano recounts: Our land is uncommonly rich and fruitful, and produces all kinds of vegetables in great abundance. We have plenty of Indian corn, and vast quantities of cotton and tobacco. Our pine apples grow without culture; they are about the size of the largest sugar-loaf, and finely flavoured. We have also spices of different kinds, particularly pepper; and a variety of delicious fruits which I have never seen in Europe; together with gums of various kinds, and honey in abundance. All our industry is exerted to improve those blessings of nature. Agriculture is our chief employment; and every one, even the children and women, are engaged in it. Thus we are all habituated to labour from our earliest years. Every one contributes something to the common stock; and as we are unacquainted with idleness, we have no beggars. The benefits of such a mode of living are obvious. The description by Equiano of his land is how the ordinary African defines their country. However, the same ordinary African cannot explain why their country is not as prosperous as their former coloniser’s land. The perpetual civil wars and Depression Era poverty plaguing the continent of Africa take days and endless conferences to discuss because the reality is that the literary writers of the post colonial era have not been given much heed by the political governments that came in the postcolonial era. The politician may pretend to search, but experiences on the continent now prove that the average politician is only in search of the purse. However hard they may try to deny it, the words of Ayi Kwei Armah’s title The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born ring true each time one assesses the real meanings to the deeds of the politicians in this time and age. Beauty is defined on the terms of the unreachable; the lives of the stars of the silver screen and celebrities that nine tenths of those watching will never reach in seven lifetimes because their circumstances have been set in such a manner that the only way they can get out of their mire is if they are corrupt. We read not only for the sake of reading, we read because we want to gain insight into some of the more oblivious human issues that are realities in our society. Sat in a corner behind some form of a typewriter, the writer of the literary or non-literary school of thought is at all times in search of what it all means to be something or nothing in this life. There are issues that need constant perusal to maintain the harmony needed to carry the human race into the lane of progress. If there are situations where peace is not enough, there are lessons from past works and written words that can guide the human race into that space where there is more to the meaning of life than just living for the sake of being a snob. It is inhuman to think that handouts are the best way to run a society, Achebe and Soyinka wrote about it. It is insensible to think that one is entitled to more benefits than society can afford. What the reality of the pandemic means is that we should go back to the drawing board and remember how it was to be human before we were thrown into the bane of the pandemic. We have to make the attempt to understand what our deeds mean. Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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