Friday, August 3, 2012

Boundaries, Fences, Barbed Wire

Still working on Steinbeck's use of barbed wire in The Grapes of Wrath, re-reading it, awestruck by the easy humor and good-heartedness and bitter anger of the novel.

Besides the passage that initially attracted our interest (the ecstatic whipping with barbed wire under the influence of the Holy Spirit), the wire is also used in more mundane situations, as in this early scene:

They plodded up the little rise on the other side of the water-cut. Now that the sun was on the wane some of its impact was gone, and while the air was hot, the hammering rays were weaker. The strung wire on crooked poles still edged the road. On the right-hand side a line of wire fence strung out across the cotton field, and the dusty green cotton was the same on both sides, dusty and dry and dark green.

            Joad pointed to the boundary fence. “That there’s our line. We didn’t really need no fence there, but we had the wire, an’ Pa kinda liked her there. Said it give him a feelin’ that forty was forty. Wouldn’t of had the fence if Uncle John didn’ come drivin’ in one night with six spools of wire in his wagon. He give ‘em to Pa for a shoat. We never did know where he got that wire.”

Near the end of the novel, Tom has to crawl under a barbed-wire fence to get out of the camp where he and other workers are virtual prisoners. But in the early scene it is just a marker of property farmed by the hard-working Joad family—a marker, by the way, swept away by tractors sent by the bankers who foreclose on the property:

The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects. . . . Snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines. They did not run on the ground, but on their own roadbeds. They ignored hills and gulches, water courses, fences, houses.

The tractors destroy the work of generations and the Joad family and many others move on to California. Descriptions of abandoned houses and their contents reminded me of the book of photos by Eugene Richards, all shot at and in abandoned houses. 

Photo by Eugene Richards, from The Blue Room



During that time, the banks got lots of land, now they get lots of houses on which they lent too much. steinbeck did have a fine easy going sense of humor, it is especially noticeable of course when the them is neither dour nor tragic, as in his and Doc Rickett's THE VOYAGE OF THE AMERICAN FLYER [round the Cabos, into the Sea of Cortez]. barbed wire, as compared to you, does not interest me too much, except i prefer land to be unfenced by anything.
x m.r

Scott Abbott said...

the devel's hatband is interesting in much the same way syphilis is interesting. it's dangerous and you don't want to have it and it works well as a metaphor for hard and tough and dangerous things.