Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Social Realism in Literature: In Defense of Steinbeck

So the one book I've managed to read this month (which you'll get an update on later) is East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.  It's a big book and I had a busy month, which is why you're only getting one.  In fairness, if I wanted to, I could probably finish it in a few days, but that involves doing nothing but reading and while I'd love to have the time for that, my life* got in the way and said "HEY WHAT ARE YOU DOING GRACE YOU HAVE RESPONSIBILITIES YOU CANNOT JUST READ YOUR LIFE AWAY DID YOU DO ALL YOUR ASSIGNMENTS AND YOU CANNOT DO ANYTHING ELSE UNTIL YOU HAVE COMPLETED YOUR ASSIGNMENTS"

*I should probably clarify that by "life" I mean "my mother" who does very well at keeping me on task but THE LITERATURE IS CALLING.

That being said, I have two very good friends who, once they heard I was reading Steinbeck, wrinkled their noses in disgust and asked me how I could read such terrible books.  "They're so dark!" they said. "There's nothing good in them!" they declared.

As I am still reading Steinbeck, obviously I have blissfully ignored them and gone on with my merry life, but it got me thinking.

See, they were right, in a way.  Steinbeck did not write happy books.  He wrote about dust and dirt and the useless efforts made by humans to create a good life in a broken world.  He wrote about plowing fields and chasing after fleeting hopes that vanished into thin air as soon as you'd caught them.  My friends weren't wrong.  His books are very bleak.

So why do I read them?  And more importantly, what do you get out of reading something like that?

John Steinbeck wrote from the perspective of Social Realism, which basically means he looked at the everyday life of people with no sparkle or shimmers added.  If anything, he made it a little bleaker.  But I like them!  They make you think.  I'm not going to force them down your throat, but I'm going to point out a few things to try to convince you to at least appreciate them.

1. Steinbeck takes the time to examine humans.
His books don't have massive, epic, and fast-paced plots.  It can make his books seem very slow and long, but he takes the lack of plot and uses it to look at humanity under a magnifying glass.  Each of his characters is well-developed, deep, and multilayered.  You think you know someone, and five minutes later you're not so sure anymore.  The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden both do this really well.  Instead of a fantastic quest or huge battle, you get real people who question themselves, make good and bad decisions, and interact with other people who are going through the same process.

2. All his characters in a book are different.
This sort of goes with the first point.  Not only are each of his characters realistic and well-developed, but they're all different, with their own goals and methods.  East of Eden is doing this splendidly.  Just like in real life, no two people are the same, and not only are they different in theory, but they feel different to the reader as well.  This is very difficult to achieve.

3. He cultivates empathy and lets you see someone else's life.
If you've talked to me or read some older blog posts, you'll know that empathy is very important to me.  The ability to see someone else's life from their point of view, or, as Atticus Finch said in To Kill a Mockingbird, to "climb inside of his skin and walk around in it".  Steinbeck not only encourages you to see things from someone else's point of view, but forces it on you.  You have no choice but to empathize with his characters, and because you've done it while reading a book, you become better at it in real life by default.  Not only that, but he portrays people so that one reader might agree with one character's point of view, and another reader might support another.

4. Instead of a shining and glittering world, he gives you an appreciation for real life.
The extend to which he goes to develop his characters and the way he portrays their walks through life not only gives you a peek into someone else's world, but shows you that your ordinary life and the people that enter and leave it can all be weaved into a story.  His stories point out that every event shapes a person, and both good and bad events can become important in the grand narrative.  Even small events are important in Steinbeck's world.

5. His writing style is amazing.
I have fallen head over heels with John Steinbeck's wording.  It's something you need to read to experience, but it's beautiful.  Take my word for it, pick up one of his books, and believe me, if you hate everything else about his writing you will at least appreciate his beautiful phrases.

6. The stories (especially his endings) prompt thought.
The ending to Of Mice and Men especially got me.  If you asked me what I thought I would have said IT WAS A TERRIBLE ENDING THAT SHOULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED HOW MUCH MORE DEVASTATING COULD IT POSSIBLY HAVE GOTTEN.  Once I'd calmed down, though, I started thinking about why he'd ended it that way and what he was trying to do.  I would argue that there's something in every chapter to make you think.  Whether it's a character's personal philosophy, an event, or an interaction, my brain has something to keep it turning looooong after the book is over.

So there you have it.  Why Steinbeck has become one of my favorite authors.  As someone who analyzes people for fun, his books are the perfect opportunity for me to do that.

I should probably point out (possibly in my defence?) that I don't really like watching the movie versions of his books.  I don't mind reading them, but to see them on a screen can be a bit much.  I've only seen The Grapes of Wrath in movie form, and I don't really want to see any others.  There's also the problem of plot.  Because there's not a lot of action, it can seem even slower on screen when you don't have his descriptions and wording to carry you from one event to the next.  Overall, the feel of the books don't tend to transfer well.  So I'm arguing in defense of the books, not the films.

Also: If someone likes a book, insulting it is not the right thing to do.  I mean, you might love avocado but I'm not going to sit in front of you and talk about how disgusting it is, right?  That would be mean.  Appreciate varied tastes in literature, guys.  If we all read the same things, life would be boring.


  1. What are you doing writing insightful, meaningful blog posts and analyzing literature. You should be doing schoolwork. Oh wait.... :) - Mom

    1. Haha! You've just proved my point! (evil laughter)

  2. Super!!! Great points Grace. Write on!!!

    1. Thank you! And guess what? YOU WERE THE TEACHER WHO INSPIRED ALL THIS GIVE YOURSELF A PAT ON THE BACK YOU'RE FANTASTIC now have a cup of tea. :) Thank you!

  3. I read John Steinbeck's The Red Pony for 7th grade English class way back in 1971/1972.

    1. Awesome! Was it a classic then, too? I'm not exactly sure at what point a book becomes a classic and when it's just old.

  4. My love did you just intimate that Cherie is old??? Smiling broadly.. I am so deeply proud of the woman you've become.. It is beautiful to watch you expand your tent pegs, try new things and blossom�� PS everyone seems old to the very young��

  5. Actually...I would insult an avocado even if you loved it. Because I shall rant against the evil that is avocado until the world does die. (Unless the avocados are in brownies or smoothies [or smoothie brownies]). That's okay.

    Most people do not identify their soul with the component parts of an avocado so I feel alright doing this.

    1. As you are a special snowflake, I do not assume that you will be able to relate to everything I put on here. Of course you would rant against avocados. And WHAT ON EARTH is a brownie smoothie?

  6. Hello, Grace! Have you read Steinbeck's Travels with Charley? It's about his road trip across America with his dog. It's wonderful. Highly recommend it.