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Both John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath' and Edith Wharton's 'The Age of Innocence' have been described as tragic novels. How apt is this description?

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Both John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath' and Edith Wharton's 'The Age of Innocence' have been described as tragic novels. How apt is this description? The twentieth century was one of tragedy on a massive scale. The sheer brutality inflicted upon millions of people was witnessed by differing societies scattered across the globe. Edith Wharton (1862-1937) and John Steinbeck (1902-1968) wrote their respective masterpieces in response to various events that contributed to the horror, albeit in slightly differing ways. Wharton wrote 'The Age of Innocence' post-war, and it was written and is read very much with the phrase 'the calm before the storm' lurking in the mind. Published in 1920, it is essentially a novel highlighting the crippling social conventions of a society before it was grotesquely ripped apart and gnarled by World War One. In comparison, in 'The Grapes of Wrath', published in 1939, Steinbeck offers a pointed criticism of the policies which caused the Great Depression, and thereby the flight and anguish of so many dispossessed families. Both novels therefore offer a historical study, although Wharton writes of a society on the brink of profound and permanent change whilst Steinbeck writes of one actually going through fundamental change. Tragic elements are consequently bound to be found in both. Yet, on closer inspection one can see that there is also a positive reading, as by the end of each novel some characters are enlightened, and so understand more about themselves and the others around them. Initially, there appears to be such hope in both novels. Newland Archer describes his feelings at the prospect of his marriage to May Welland thinking 'What a life it was going to be, with this whiteness, radiance, goodness at one's side!' ...read more.


It is tragic that these ruined families make their way across a trail of devastation to such pathetic ends. Or are they so pathetic? In the closing scene of 'The Grapes of Wrath', Rose of Sharon provides a metaphorical beacon of hope. By the finale of the novel, the Joads have suffered incomparable hardships. The grandparents have died, three members of the family have left, there is little hope of worthy unemployment, no food and Rose of Sharon has given birth to a stillborn baby. However, at this point the family rises above this to perform an act of astounding kindness and generosity by nursing the starving man. This again combats the tragic element of the novel by proving that the Joads have not forgotten their sense of the value of human life. It is over the issue of human nature that it becomes even more interesting to compare the two novels. Throughout 'The Grapes of Wrath' we see incredible acts of generosity and kindness, highlighting the best qualities of human nature. The title itself suggests that out of fermenting wrath stems something productive. The travelling families unite together in recognition of the common bond they share; that of suffering. The story chronicles the two 'families'; the Joads and the collective 'family' body of migrant workers. 'Twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream'. An example of this is when the Joads meet the Wilsons, and the two family units merge into one; committing themselves to one another's survival. As Tom eventually realises 'his people are all people'. ...read more.


It seems remarkably easy on reading the novels to declare them both simply tragic stories. 'The Grapes of Wrath' indeed tells a woeful account of the real situation that people were placed in as a result of a cold-hearted and profit seeking government during the 1930s. And similarly, 'The Age of Innocence' ends on a sorrowful note as Archer looks back with a certain amount of nostalgia upon the life he might have had with Countess Olenska. Nostalgia similar to that which Wharton felt towards pre-war New York society. It is perhaps easier to find tragic elements within Steinbeck's social critique than Wharton's, as the former is obviously writing about a conflict within America which happened and did cause huge suffering and distress for a whole class of society. Having said that though, the predominant class of society in 'The Age of Innocence' and their stifling social expectations would soon be devastated by the effects of the First World War, a fact which hangs ominously in the air throughout the novel. Nevertheless, underneath the tragedy of each story lies something more positive. By the closing chapter of 'The Age of Innocence', Archer understands that he did what he and his society considered to be the 'right thing' in standing by his wife. At the opposite end of the social spectrum, Steinbeck wrote and so raised the profile of the appalling treatment of a group of people considered to be the 'underclass' of society in the economically distressed America of the 1930s. And furthermore, these people have proved by the end of the novel that through the united strength of one another they have not been crushed or beaten. So while there are undeniably tragic aspects to the pair, one has to understand that there is far more depth to the novels than simply their stories. ...read more.

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