Jane Austin vs John Steinbeck: The Ultimate Smackdown

Okay, so that’s an exaggeration. I’ve never made it through a Jane Austin novel, though I did watch the movie version of Pride & Prejudice. Twice. Mainly because Keira Knightly is in it, and she has the best smile in Hollywood.

The problem is that the book is full of snobby English people who talk fancy and are always trying to one up each other. I keep waiting for one of them to declare, “I do say, my kind sir, why don’t you close your pie hole!”

But that scene never happens.

My ex-wife likes Jane Austin, which is why I once tried to read Pride & Prejudice. She did make it all the way through the novel I recommended, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. But she didn’t like the Joad family. They’re too crude and ignorant. And the scene at the end where Rose of Sharon breastfeeds the old man (to save his life) is kinda gross.

Pride & Prejudice has a point to make, mainly that these vices can blind us to seeing the real person inside. I just can’t connect with the characters. The Grapes of Wrath has a point to make as well. Set during the Great Depression, extreme poverty can create an every-man-for-himself attitude, or it can draw people together.

Rose of Sharon, a poor farm laborer like the rest of her family, has shared the same hardships as everyone else. Plus one. Her baby is stillborn. But despite such suffering, she isn’t thinking of herself when he finds the emaciated old man. And that’s why she breastfeeds him.

There is a common theme with Pride & Prejudice and The Grapes of Wrath, however. Darcy is a gentleman who deserves a high status wife, but Elizabeth is merely middle class. The Joad family, however, is even lower class: poor uneducated farmers who don’t speak proper English, and who find meaning in life through their fundamentalist Christian beliefs. They don’t bathe often because they’re transient worker, they spit a lot on account of chewing tobacco, and one of them did time in the slammer. But they are people of character. They see each other through.

Low social class doesn’t make you a bad person, and high social class doesn’t automatically make you respectable in a way that really matters. It’s about how you treat other people.

I like Steinbeck because he wrote like like a psychologist. East of Eden takes place before the First World War. The novel explores the fear of rejection, and the destructive behavior this fear can lead to.

Adam’s father rejects him because he’s not manly enough. And Adam’s macho brother gets away with physically abusing him. Later, his brother impregnates Adam’s psycho wife (who will never love Adam and actually despises him for loving her). Adam’s wife eventually abandons him and the children, but not before shooting Adam for good measure (he survives).

But it’s Lee who articulates East of Eden‘s central point. Lee speaks broken English when he’s around white people he doesn’t know well. Though born an American, whites can’t see him as anything but a “Chinaman.”

Lee says that Cain and Abel “is the story of mankind.” He asserts that “the greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears.” He concludes that “with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt.”

Eventually, Adam’s son learns the truth that was kept hidden from him. Will the boy seek revenge on his mother? The boy, however, realizes he has a choice. And that’s what breaks the cycle of rejection and revenge.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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