I read 'The Grapes of Wrath' first when I was a teenager. Recently, I re-read it, along with ‘Working Days: the journal of the Grapes of Wrath’, and I could understand this novel a lot better through the perspective of the author.
For example, I saw why Steinbeck separated the General Chapters from the Specific ones and why he alternated them, what was the role of the rain in the story, and why he built Ma Joad the way he did. I found reading the two books together moved me a lot more than before.
Tom’s encounter with Casey at the beginning of the story laid the foundation for the transformation of their lives: for Tom, resurrection of his spirituality; for Casey, the resurrection of his practicality. A great complementary role, portrayed subtly and progressively.
The symbol of the tortoise is significant: Tom moving on a perilous ground, being hit by hostilities that throws him off balance, but then he finds his direction again, just like the tortoise. The novel is full of such effective parallels.
For me, it’s one of the rare American novels where I could have access to the inner thoughts of the characters, which makes the novel intimate.
The construction of the micro-society is certainly Steinbeck’s vision of the ideal society, but he didn’t keep his characters in that illusive security. He did just enough to pull them out of the misery, and then left the readers to imagine the end.
The final act of Rose of the Sharon seems so much more powerful because Steinbeck had set her up from the beginning as just the opposite!
But, for me, the most powerful character in the story remains Ma Joad, for her maturity, wisdom, patience, and resilience. Rarely, have I come across a feminine character like her.
What moved me the most in this novel is: how true is what Tolstoy says about the judicial system, even in our world of today. And this is not just in France, but all over the world. When I read those sections on judicial errors, imprisonment for lack of official papers, inhuman treatment of prisoners, and the fallacy of the 'correctional system', I really had the impression that very little has changed since his time.
But, before I get carried out, here are some more points that also moved me deeply, as I could relate to all them personally:
Nekhludoff’s internal void, when he feels he has not really done anything useful so far, to give a meaning to his life. Then he is called into the jury duty, where he sees how his former recklessness has ruined the life of a woman and her child. And, he decides to act.
His transformation is not a linear process. At every instant, he is struggling with two internal forces, equally valid and equally strong, and it’s hard to tell which one is going to win. Tolstoy does a great job in unravelling this process, this severe inner conflict in depth, and the gradual change in the lifestyle of Nekhludoff.
Maslova, over whom Nekhludoff has this conflict, doesn’t make his job easy either. In a less experienced writer’s hand, she would have fallen for Nekhludoff's offer immediately, but that would have been unrealistic, and the story would have lost its challenge. In fact, at the end, just the opposite of what’s expected happens! Yet, what happens also appeases the heart of Nekhludoff, and we see his true sacrifice. Isn't this how life is really?
Nekhludoff had stopped believing in himself and started believing in others. This gave him a serious conflict between his conscience and animal instincts; unconsciously, he started to hate himself, thus others as well. When he starts to believe himself again, he feels tender toward himself, experiences a freedom and joy he has never known before. This is something I can relate to, both in my professional and personal world; it gave me the courage to be like him even more.
Nekhludoff had become so obsessed with the 'social mirrors' that, even when he started to act for Maslova, he kept asking himself if he was really doing all that for his conscience, or to look good in the eyes of others. This is so true! No matter how hard I try, my old habit of looking into the social mirrors always comes back.
I loved Tolstoy’s insight where he shows how Maslove reasons in favor of her ‘profession’, to give a meaning to her life. This is something I've always done about my job of a business consultant, although I know how wrong I am. Yet, I have to keep this job to feed mouths.
Then Maslova starts to transform during her travel across Siberia, under the influence of those two fellow prisoners, whose opinions become important to her. She changes, to live up to their eyes, because she feels they care for her. This happened to me too, when I met someone who cared for me.
In fact, in one novel, Tolstoy has enacted two great resurrections: one of Nekhludoff and one of Maslova!!!
Now, coming back to the judicial system. I absolutely agree with the paragraph where Tolstoy says that those who are the most nervous, strongest, talented, yet the least careful and lacking cunning, fall victim to the judicial systems. And, the ‘correctional methods’ are total misnomers, because they correct nothing; only destroy the individual. This is a universal phenomenon, as I've seen.
How can we 'correct' people, by confining them behind bars, by humiliating them? Why call these methods 'correctional' at all? Can't we think of better means? Let's hope.
In my vacation, over the last two weeks, I visited the birthplace of Victor Hugo in Besançon, his home in Paris where his children were born, and his grave in Pantheon. I also read his “Les Miserables” again, that is 21 years after I read it for the first time in my High School in France, and I was surprised to see how differently I reacted to this book.
Then I realized the book has not changed over these 21 years, but it’s me who has changed!
At the school, I was obliged to read this book as a part of our curriculum, and it came across as something heavy. But, now that I have been blazed a few times in my life, I could relate to this book a lot better, and, at times, even felt healed by it.
The aspect that struck me the most is how Victor Hugo has constructed his characters: they’re neither entirely good, nor entirely bad; they’re humane, yet extraordinary.
The police inspector Javert values his duty of keeping law and order above human beings, until he is humbled by Jean Valjean, when he saves the life of Javert, his worst enemy, during the barricade. Then Javert enters his irreconcilable internal conflict between ethics and law, that is between his moral duty to preserve a good man like Jean Valjean and his legal duty of turning him in as a fugitive, and Javert ends his life to save Jean Valjean.
This comes across as a surprise, because Victor Hugo had set up all along Javert as a man of unbending principles, yet not incredible, because we’ve also seen Javert to be a man of good heart and conscience.
Victor Hugo didn’t set up Jean Valjean as a paragon of virtue either. We can see his humane side, even after his conversion into a good man, when he enters his severe inner conflict vis-a-vis the man about to be condemned in his place, for having stolen the forty sous from Petit Gervais. You can see his temptations to evade law and save his own life; you can also see traces from his life of ex-convict when he gets angry with people, and the use of his force when his personal ethics conflict with the law. And, even for a powerful man like him, you can see his fears, his anxieties, and his insecurities about Cosette.
Even for the rogue Thenardier, Victor Hugo has made him humane, by letting him save the father of Marius in the battle of waterloo!! Hugo also gave Thenardier a realistic end, in the sense that, in spite of all his dirty tricks, he ‘succeeds’ in life, from Thenardier’s perspective of course.
Gavroche, the son of Thenardier, earns his bread by stealing, but he also steals your heart when he saves the two kids, and gives up his life at the barricade. His sister, Eponine, is another thief and manipulator, but she sacrifices her life at the barricade too, trying to save Marius, her secret love. Marius, the closest in resemblance to Victor Hugo (whose middle name is ‘Marie’ by the way), is a political idealist, yet insensitive to many in life, including Jean Valjean; you’re in love with him, and angry at him at the same time.
It’s this powerful use of contrast, in the characters and in the events of the novel, that I find absolutely fascinating in Victor Hugo’s work, particularly in Les Miserables. And, I think this is what makes his works so lifelike, because, just like in life, you can’t really put a definite label on any of his characters or story events; that’s why you can never predict anything, and you remain hooked in suspense till the end.
Of course, there are his big philosophical discourses about life and love, but, if you focus on the core drama of this novel, it’s just absolutely gripping. The way he details the inner landscape of the characters, and the values of the society he touches upon, are as universal today, as they were during his time. It’s because those details are so unique and specific that they no longer remain individual; they become us, the universal.
This evening I’m going to see the grave of Juliette Drouet, who was the muse of Victor Hugo, for fifty years!! As a woman, I wonder what was there in her spirit that could inspire a writer like Victor Hugo, for so long.