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Understatement in The Grapes of Wrath

Instructor: Rachel Hanson
In this lesson we learn how Steinbeck's tone and dialogue represent a kind of understatement in 'The Grapes of Wrath.' Specifically, we'll focus on the author's expert use of restraint.

The Grapes of Wrath

It's no mystery that Steinbeck tackled the dire and heartbreaking circumstances that tenant farmers, such as the Joads, experienced during the Great Depression, a ten-year period of economic downturn in the United States. In fact, a major motivation for writing The Grapes of Wrath was to bring awareness to the plight of the tenant farmers. For an author to successfully convey difficult subjects, they must use restraint. Without it, an author risks losing their reader. Steinbeck handles difficult subject matter with an understated tone. It's helpful to consider Steinbeck's use of tone, the way in which a narrator conveys information and dialogue, to fully understand what we mean when we discuss understatement in The Grapes of Wrath.

Understatement in Narrative Tone

The Dust Bowl

Dust storm much like the ones Steinbeck describes
storm

The narrator's tone in the intercalary chapters, those that break away from the main narrative, is mostly somber or empathetic. Consider the following quote from Chapter 1:

The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds, heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning… An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled up on the roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.

This passage is about what it was like to live in a dust storm, how it affected people and the environment, and the eeriness of dust blanketing the land. The dust storms, as we know, made it impossible for farmers to grow crops, which led to their losing their farms. Yet, this quote, with all its somberness, speaks volumes in its understated tone. ''They lay quietly'' reflects worried farmers as being calm, but the other details from the passage shows us that they are, in fact, anxious. This is just one way Steinbeck uses an understated tone to convey the difficulty the tenant farmers faced.

Dying Granma

A tent shelter much like the ones the Joads used
camp

Another example of understatement takes place in Chapter 18 when Ma and Rose of Sharon are tending to dying Granma. Steinbeck doesn't create a dramatic or overwrought tone as one might expect of two people trying to care for an incredibly ill family member. Rather, it's the simplicity of their actions and the understatement of their surroundings that convey the desperation of this scene. Let's analyze the following quote:

Under the spread tarpaulin Granma lay on a mattress, and Ma sat beside her. The air was stiflingly hot, and the flies buzzed in the shade of the canvas. Granma was naked under a long piece of pink curtain... Ma sat on the ground beside her, and with a piece of cardboard drove the flies away and fanned a stream of moving hot air over the tight old face. Rose of Sharon sat on the other side and watched her mother.

Two things that stand out in this quote are the curtain covering Granma and the cardboard Ma uses to keep the flies away. Although the narrator never says the situation is dire and heartbreaking, these simple details tell us just that. That there isn't even a sheet to cover Granma speaks volumes about the Joads' poverty. Additionally, we understand the severity of Granma's illness not only by her labored sleep but by the fact that Ma sits nearby on the ground to keep the flies away. These details tells us that is Granma so sick she can't take care of herself and that nature, the flies, naturally settle upon the weakest--the dying.

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