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I just finished reading John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. Talk about depressing! It ranks among the most wretched books I've ever read (right up there with Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage). It's one of those books that just hits you in the face with its unrelenting misery, one of those books which continually drops not-so-subtle hints that things are only going to get worse--and they do. Pushing on, I would alternately cry, shake the book, yell at the characters NOT to go do that very thing they were inevitably going to do because doom was the forecast from the start. I found myself five pages from the end, wondering how on earth the misery was going to wrap up, when suddenly, on the second to last page, a glimmer of hope, an ending so strange, so appalling, yet so transcending that it flirts with the sublime.
Backing up a bit, The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family as they are uprooted from the land in the 1930s crisis of the Dust Bowl. In a harrowing journey with many losses, the Joads flee their home in Oklahoma and seek refuge in California, a land of white picket fences and work in abundance. Only, it's not. They arrive in California, exhausted, bedraggled, and eager to work, but work is nearly impossible to come by, and work that pays a decent wage is non-existent. They muddle along trying to make ends meet, with a brief hiatus in a Government Camp that provides much needed relief in an otherwise fraught tale.
Throughout it all, one of the daughters, Rose of Sharon, is pregnant with her first child. (Her schlep of a husband abandons her along the road.) Her self-consciousness about the life within her, and her preoccupation with this fact, is a constant theme. The family does what they can to make sure she gets enough to eat and they dip into their money to get her milk to drink for the developing baby.
In the final pages of the book, Rose of Sharon goes into labor early and gives birth to a stillborn baby. Meanwhile, the rains fall down in such a tumult that fields flood and all hope of finding more work before winter is lost. The family is sheltered in an abandoned railroad car, but as the waters rise, they are forced to leave everything they have and seek higher ground. Trudging along the highway in a heavy rain, with Rose of Sharon just days postpartum, they spot a barn on the horizon and head for it. They stumble inside. Within, the Joads are met by a young boy whose father is recumbent in the corner, starving to death. He had been pretending he wasn't hungry and giving all the food to his son. When the son discovered this, he stole food for his father, but it all came up and the man was left only weaker.
"Got to have soup or milk," the boy says to the Joads who have just entered the barn. "You folks got money to git milk?"
And then the mystery of the ending unfolds:
Ma said, "Hush. Don' worry. We'll figger somepin out."
Suddenly the boy cried, "He's dyin', I tell you! He's starvin' to death, I tell you."
"Hush," said Ma. ... Ma's eyes passed Rose of Sharon's eyes, and then came back to them. And the two women looked deep into each other. The girl's breath came short and gasping.
She said "Yes."
Ma smiled. "I knowed you would. I knowed!"
Ma shoos everyone besides Rose of Sharon and the dying man outside the barn. Then, slowly, Rose of Sharon gets up, moves across the barn, and sinks down beside the dying man. Moving closer, she bares her breast and feeds him.
"There!" she said. "There." Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.
After reading the last words, I sat for some time with the book open on my lap, puzzling over what I thought about the ending. Was it repulsive? Or was it possibly one of the most beautiful endings I'd ever read? To be honest, I'm still mystified when I think on it. I can't get away from it. Since finishing the book, the image has returned to me again and again. I think on how Rose of Sharon lost her baby. I think about the tragedy of such loss after cherishing and waiting for so long. I think about how the cycles of nature play out without regard to the human condition. The rains will fall and flood even as men are desperate for work. Rose of Sharon's milk will come in, even as its arrival will only intensify the pain that there is no baby to feed.
But then I think about how Rose of Sharon saved a life. How she was only able to do so because of the loss of her baby. How the milk was going to flow anyways--it would flow out onto her dress and be wasted. How the only thing the starving man could stomach was the only food available: milk. How nature might not be man's enemy after all. How sometimes a seemingly meaningless loss is transformed into something tremendously meaningful.
As I begin to embrace the final image of the bereaved woman transforming death into life, I hesitate over the scandal of it all. Even as I type this out, I can't decide whether I think it is desperately inappropriate or truly magnificent. But isn't it this very push and pull that draws the ending of The Grapes of Wrath out of the everyday and into the sublime? It is a representation of a Mystery, something that transcends. We can't fully understand it, let alone resolve it. The image rests delightfully within the tension and asks the reader to surrender. Simply to accept. Like the smile that flickers "mysteriously" across Rose of Sharon's lips in the closing line, we will never be able to pin it down. But like a mystery, it draws us ever in and pushes us to move outside ourselves.