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Literatura y lingüística

versión impresa ISSN 0716-5811

Lit. lingüíst.  n.14 Santiago  2003 

Literatura y Lingüística Nº14

Narrative Techniques in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath
and Dos Passos' The Big Money

Kenton Dunbar
University of Atacama


La función esencial del arte, desde la perspectiva del realista político, es la de proporcionar a la sociedad un foco sobre sus propias condiciones sociales, morales y políticas. La literatura, desde esta misma perspectiva política, es considerada no sólo como un vehículo para la transmisión de ideas y valores, un foro a través del cual los escritores y lectores comparten sentimientos, experiencias y percepciones, sino también como una especie de espejo en el cual el lector puede examinar, analizar y reflexionar acerca de la naturaleza y las causas de esas condiciones. El valor estético, así como también el valor social de la literatura, entonces, al menos desde este punto de vista, está esencialmente determinado por el grado en el que desempeña esta función social/política. John Steinbeck y John Dos Passos, ambos realistas políticos de comienzos del siglo veinte, así como también pensadores históricos penetrantes, fueron artistas cuyas obras literarias se sitúan específicamente en esta categoría social/estética.

Palabras claves: Literatura estadounidense - realismo - estética de la novela.


The essential function of art, from the perspective of the political realist, is to provide society with a focus in its own social, moral, and political conditions. Literature, from this same political perspective, is regarded not only as a vehicle for the transmission of ideas and values, a forum through which writers and readers share feelings, experiences and perceptions, but also as a kind of mirror in which the reader can examine, analyze and reflect upon the nature and causes of those conditions. The esthetic, as well as the social value of literature, then, at least from this point of view, is essentially determined by the extent to which it performs this social/political function. John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos, both early 20th century political realists, as well as penetrating historical thinkers, were artists whose literary works fall specifically within this social/esthetic category.

Keywords: U.S. literature - realism - aesthetics of the novel

The essential function of art, from the perspective of the political realist, is to provide society with a focus on its own social, moral, and political conditions. Literature, from this same political perspective, is regarded not only as a vehicle for the transmission of ideas and values, a forum through which writers and readers share feelings, experiences and perceptions, but also as a kind of mirror in which the reader can examine, analyze and reflect upòn the nature and causes of those conditions. The esthetic, as well as the social value of literature, then, at least from this point of view, is essentially determined by the extent to which it performs this social/political function. John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos, both early 20th century political realists, as well as penetrating historical thinkers, were artists whose literary works fall specifically within this social/esthetic category.

However, before introducing the focus of my discussion, which deals with their formalized artistic/narrative techniques as most notable in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Dos Passos' The Big Money, the third novel in his U.S.A trilogy, I would like to provide a brief background on the social-political perceptions of each writer which will help us understand how and why they both are defined as political realists. First and probably most important, both writers felt a deep sense of moral, political and social responsibility to utilize their creativity to inform, reform and raise social consciousness. Both, especially Dos Passos, were convinced that, in the words of modern critic Alfred Kazin, as stated in the introduction to The Big Money, "...the hopless corruption of the modern age was to be met not by love, religion, or social protest, but by art"(IX), and that it was art that provided "...the highest possible resistance to the swindle of the modern social world"(IX). Both writers were quite hostile to political orthodoxy, the dogmas of capitalism, and eventually communism, materialism, were sympathetic with the radical dissenter, the outsider, the alienated, the broke and hungry, the defeated, and the dispossessed.

Both writers seriously challenged the traditional perception that white anlgo saxon American protestants are somehow superior and more virtuous than other peoples in the world. Both were very critical of the three "P's:" the capitalist doctrine that defines property rights, profit motive and private ownership. Both had high hopes for and were bitterly disillusioned by the communist movement. Both make the reader uncomfortably aware that something has gone wrong with Western civilization, that America in particular has fallen into a deep moral slumber, that America's legendary "Manifest Destiny" has manifested itself in some very questionable, if not very undesirable, social-political characteristics, and that the "American Dream" has become, at most, nothing more than a dream. Both writers masterfully force us to confront the intensity of our greed, graft and materialistic instincts, which they both point out, are much stronger than we had originally suspected and which we seem almost totally unable to control. Both painfully force us to admit that our modern, "civilized" America, maybe even civilization as a whole, seriously lacks a vital system of values and in spite of ourselves we seem to continue on the road to social, moral, economic chaos and to our own eventual suicide. This, then, was Dos Passos and Steinbeck's perception of the social, economic, political and moral reality of the United States of America during the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

In an artistic and technical sense, Dos Passos is characterized by his fast, lean, fluent prose that cuts quick, deep and direct to the matter under analysis; Steinbeck for his acute sensitivity, passionate conviction and masterful ability at dramatization. He is indeed one of America's best storytellers. More specifically, however, both share a very successful tradition of bringing art and politics together in an attempt to increase awareness as to the critical nature of these 20th century social, political, economic dilemmas mentioned above.

It is in Steinbeck's Interchaps in The Grapes of Wrath and Dos Passos' Camera Eye and Newsreel segments in The Big Money, that we see just how creatively and effectively these writers have used their artistic potential to express their criticism of these conditions. These literary techniques allow the writers to compress the energy of their disenchantment into small powerful units of information which force the reader into a broader, deeper level of contemplation on the conditions under examination. The remainder, or the main body of the work, then gives us a more personalized intimate view of these same conditions as they develop and work themselves out through the lives and experiences of the individual characters in the novels.

It is worth mentioning here that Dos Passos' Newsreel sections are a kind of satire on the short news film created in the 1920's and used up through the 1970's at American movie theatres during intermission to provide the short break that divided the famous double feature. It was a pretaped news broadcast actually called "The American Newsreel" and was a short 10 minute news film of current domestic and international events. Most modern film critics, however, agree that they were actually a series of short 15 second commercials selling the American movie goers on America's superior military muscle, the American economic system as an endless source of personal tranquility, security and happiness, the American dream with its unlimited material prosperity, America itself as an infinite supply of fresh air, fresh water, fresh food, gasoline, cars, tires, trees, and freedom, and the American people as the happiest, most just, most beautiful people in the world. Dos Passos, quite to the contrary, used this newsreel idea as a basis for his narrative technique in the U.S.A. trilogy to broadcast to the American reader a warning that possibly this "American Newsreel" America was not really what it appeared to be and was nothing more than a promotion of a distorted perception of America. These newsreel images tempted the public to buy in to a superficial America, owned and operated by the materialistic objectives and pursuits of big industry and big business.

In the trilogy these Newsreel sections are placed at the beginning of each chapter and initiate the reader into the subsequent material by providing a collage of short direct headline-type statements that create a powerful flash effect, imprinting the information on the mind's eye. These statements are not connected by the grammatical laws of syntax, but by the over-all theme of disintegration and degeneration to which the novel as a whole draws our attention. The following are a few pertinent examples as to how this Newsreel technique impacts on the reader and forces focus on the chaotic, violent, absurd, degenerative, schizophrenic conditions of life in America in the early 20th century. Newsreel 47 opens with "Are You New York's Most Beautiful Girl Stenographer"(177), "Lunatic Blows-up Pittsburgh Bank"(177), "Woman In Her Own Home Shot As Robber"(177). Other Newsreels sporadically flash at us with "Two Women's Bodies Found In Murderers Baggage"(78), "Race In Taxi To Prevent Suicide Ends In Fatal Accident"(69), "Philadelphia Man Beaten To Death In His Room"(78), "Yes we have no bannanas, we have no banannas to day"(78), "Husband Follows Wife In Jumping Out Of Window"(353), "Police Turn Machine Guns On Colorado Mine Strikers Kill 5 Wound 40"(519), "Since This Time Yesterday 200 Men Have Changed To Lucky Strike Cigarettes"(251), "Come On Baby Shake That Thing"(69), "Detroit Leads The World In Automobile Production"(299), "Washington Keeps Eye On Radicals"(467) "Police Killer Flicks His Cigarette As He Goes Trembling To His Doom"(520). Dos Passos here clearly captures the psychotic/neurotic ironies of his time. More importantly he forces the reader to pay close attention not only to the dangers of mental fragmentation, but the actual danger to human life, sanity and freedom that this excessive focus on production-consumption values and our insidious material progress are producing. These, then, are some of the conditions in which the central characters of the novel, Charley Anderson, Isadora Duncan, Margo Dowling, Mary French and others, find themselves. All slowly fragment and finally disintegrate under the weight of a social system which has protistuted itself to its materialistic obsessions.

Another caustic example of this narrative technique in which Dos Passos captures the frantic pace and promise of the modern industrial philosophy of work, work, work, get a job, get ahead, go forward, earn more, get more, get bigger, better, faster, is expressed in Newsreel 51:

"The sunshine drifted from our alley


positions that offer quick, accurate, experienced, well recommended young girls and young women...good chance for advancement

Ever since that day
Sally went away
Girls Girls Girls

canvassers, caretakers, cashiers, chambermaids, waitresses, cleaners, file clerks, companions, comptometer operators, collection correspondents, cooks, dictaphone operators, multigraph operators, bill and entry clerks, gummers, glove buyers, governesses, hairdressers, models, maids, mistresses, good opportunity for stylish young ladies...


we are anxious to fill vacancies, we offer good salaries, commissions, bonuses, prizes, business opportunities, training, advancement, educational opportunities, betterment and benefits"(123-4).

The excessive focus on the female gender here is also telling of another dimension in personal moral corruption at the personnel and management levels of corporate America.

The second technique used by Dos Passos in this novel, and throughout the entire trilogy, is called the "Camera Eye." An even stronger literary device, the camera becomes the eye of the reader and visually puts the author directly inside the reader's head forcing the reader to get the picture, and by adjusting focus, sharply intensify the conditions under criticism. Artistically, as well as thematically, the technique functions as an unpunctuated stream of consciousness which portrays an in-depth awareness as to the reality of who is really running the American scene and just how dangerous these individuals are. Dos Passos calls these individuals "strangers", and his focus here is essentially on the newspaper magnates like Randolph Hearst who have "...turned our language inside out and have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul" (468). It is these strangers, with their tremendous financial power who have abused the working man and supressed his attempts to secure economic justice from the corporate bosses, who "... have clubbed us off the streets, are stronger, are rich, hire and fire the politicians, the newspaper editors, the old judges, hire the men with the guns, the uniforms the policecars the patrol wagons" (468 ).

Another Camera Eye section pictures the following:

"walk the streets and walk the streets and walk the streets inquiring of Coca-Cola signs Lucky Strike ads price tags in storewindows scraps of overheard conversations stray tatters of newsprint yesterdays headlines sticking out of ashcans ... to do to make there are more lives walking desperate the streets hurryup suddenly falter ashamed flush red break out in a sweat why not tell these men standing in the wind that we stand on quicksand? urging us to picket John D. Rockafeller, the bastard, if the cops knock your head off it's all for the advancement of the human race while I go home for a drink and a hot meal and read..." (167).

It is Dos Passos' use of, and lack of, punctuation here that provides this rapid fire effect and forces the reader to focus on these images of social corruption and oppression as they slide by the mind's eye like the individual frames on a roll of film under the editor's scrutiny. But Dos Passos tempers his criticism here and somewhat clears the air with his social sensitivity by demonstrating his sympathy for an American nation which

"...has been beaten by strangers who have bought the laws and fenced off the meadows and cut down the trees...and turned our pleasant cities into slums and sweated the wealth out of our poor people, and when they wanted to they hired the executioner to throw the switch" (469). Finally, it is in Camera Eye #51 that he unleashes the full force of his indignation at the thoroughly rotten foundations of the American power structure: "...the law stares across the desk out of angry eyes his face a turkey's neck with the strut of the power of submachineguns sawedoffshotguns teargas vomitgas—the power that can feed you or leave you to starve" (523).

The whole series of Camera Eye, as well as the Newsreel sections, throughout The Big Money gives one the impression that what we are really studying here is a kind of encyclopedic-photograph album of satirical commentary on the entire scope of the modern American dilemma. There is very little in terms of social-political-economic concern that Dos Passos does not bring into focus for the reader with these devices.

Steinbeck's "Interchaps" have essentially the same effect. They are short 1 to 3 page chapters organized in two or three long paragraphs with no dialogue or interaction among the characters; only the narrator in a kind of stream of consciousness articulating, clarifying and speaking out against the modern insanities and intensifying the reader's focus on the hard realities of the social, political and economic conditions under and through which the life of the Joads (Steinbeck's archetype itinerant farmer-immigrant family) is given expression. The reader gets an in depth cut-away view of the philosophical bases of the social-political awareness that this family, specifically Tom Joad, slowly comes to as the novel progresses. It is primarily through Tom Joad that Steinbeck reminds us of the real substance of the true American male: rugged, quiet, sympathetic, courageous, not afraid of change and through whom he speaks suggesting a new social beginning, which centers first in making the transition from the "I, me, mine" to the "We, us, ours"(165).

The most famous of these Interchaps is number 14 which is constructed so as to remind the reader that a traditionally intimate part of the true American spirit is embodied and manifested in the idea of cooperation, that each will help each and will work together. Steinbeck reminds us here that it was historically this attribute cooperation that helped give birth to the spirit that resulted in the development of the Constitution of the United States and was the original impetus behind what has become known as "the American way". The "yours" and "mine" was sacrificed for the "ours", not my land, but our land, the sacrifice of the "I" for the "We", were crucial to the survival of the European immigrants on the north American continent. He also reminds us here that it was this very same cooperative spirit that was behind the development of the modern organized working class, and the growing labor unity; that fought back against excessive taxation and unfair work conditions. It was this transformation from "I have some" to "we have some" that finally began to establish some degree of justice in the work-place. The spirit of that fight for independence according to Steinbeck should still be alive and used against the political and social oppression of the modern day speculator, banker, and tractor driver who along with ploughing up the land, "...turns us off the land" (165), "uproots our homes and families and pushes us out on to the highway" (165).

Steinbeck's major concern in this Interchap however, is with the importance of change and its intrinsinc realtionship to the development of man. Here his technique is at its most penetrating:

"This you may say of man _when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never a full step back. This you may say and know it and know it. This you may know when the bombs plummet out of the black planes on the market place, when prisoners are stuck like pigs, when the crushed bodies drain filthily in the dust" (164).

But the struggle, if it is to be successful, demands that we be willing to change, to sacrifice our long cherished loyalties and worn out political and ecomomic doctrines. We can not live in the 20th century guided by 16th century concepts of law and order and in trying to do so we inevitably invite social and political breakdown. And with the breakdown comes the unavoidable chaos and viloence inherent to all, ironically, meaningful change. To Steinbeck here it is the fear of change, our inability to sacrifice our attachments to time honored doctrines and institutions, that have shackled modern "Manself" to ignorance, tradition and fear. Steinbeck sees that the only fear to fear is not change_but the time when man will no longer make the sacrifices necessary to insure change, to insure his growth and his own continued social political progress, the " ...time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe" (164). Steinbeck's principle motive behind this strong focus on the concept of change is effectively wholistic and mixed with the physical, emotional, the spiritual and the pragmatic: "The causes lie deep and simple _the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow to work to create, multiplied a million times" (164). Steinbeck continues here reaffirming the importance of social change in that man must have the opportunity to be and express his inherent "Manself" and that the social order should be reorganized so as to allow for that expression and inspire man to rise, to transcend the need to simply survive. Man needs to use and express the physical and mental creative forces he has been endowed with as he struggles to become truly human:

"The last clear definite function of man _muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need_ this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work and walks up the stairs of his concepts and emerges ahead of his accomplishments" (164).

The form and content of Dos Passos and Steinbeck's artistic/narrative devices, the cut-away view of the American dilemma they reveal, and the provocative responses they continue to, or should, evoke in the modern reader, reflect probably the most creative and effective blend of art and politics from writers of the modern period. Both have made their narrative techniques serve the most vital function of the modern artist/political realist. And this function is appropriately and acutely expressed by John Steinbeck in the form of a warning at the conclusion of this same Interchap we have been exploring:

"If you who own the things people must have could realize this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Thomas Paine, Karl Marx, Thomas Jefferson, and Vladimir Lenin were results and not causes you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the obsession with owning freezes you forever into the `I and mine' and cuts you off forever _from the `we and ours.' " (16).

Expanding on the points so clearly made by both of these writers through these artistic devices and taking them to their post-modern conclusion in order to lend some relevant perspective to our own social/political experience, it is obvious that both Dos Passos and Steinbeck would have us contemplate with a very critical eye our current social conditions and consider the urgent need for rethinking and restructuring our social/political order so as to make it possible for all people to discover and devlop their innate talents and potentials, and thereby becoming what Steinbeck defines as their "true Manself." Our failure to rethink the administrative machinery that shapes our political/social experience, as Steinbeck so emphatically implies, as does Dos Passos to a lesser degree, comes from our almost instinctual fear of change and our inclination to perceive our social, political, economic experience as essentially static in nature, when in reality it is organic. Thomas Jefferson himself believed that the preservation of the health and strength of the foundations of a nation required "dramatic change from time to time". The following quote by Shoghi Effendi, a 20th century midddle eastern philosopher, expresses cojently what both writers finally would have us consider regarding this issue of change:

"If long cherished ideals and time honored institutions, if certain social assumptions and religious formulae no longer promote the welfare of the generality of mankind, if they no longer minister to the needs of a continually evolving humanity, then let them be swept away and relegated the limbo of obsolescent and forgotten doctrines. Why should these, in a world subject to the immutable law of change and decay be exempt from the deterioration that must inevitably overtake every human institution. For legal standards, political and economic theories are solely designed to safeguard the interests of humanity as a whole, and not humanity to be crucified for the preservation of the integrity of any particular law or doctrine" (5).


Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath, New York: Penguin Books, 1976.         [ Links ]

Dos Passos, John. The Big Money, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933.         [ Links ]

Effendi, Shoghi. The Promise of World Peace, Canada: World Peace Council, 1986.         [ Links ]

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