Grapes of Wrath: Chapter 20 1/2

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Rational for Chapter 20 ½: Connie's Story

            Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath leaves many questions unanswered and ideas unfinished. For example, the audience does not know the final fate of any members of the Joad family or if they even survive the flood. Another mystery left unsolved is that of Connie. As readers, we never know why Connie leaves the Joad family and his pregnant wife, or if he ever had intentions of returning to support his growing family. Chapter 20 ½, the chapter following Connie's sudden disappearance, strives to explain not only how and why he left, but how his life unfolded. While reading Steinbeck's novel, I had nothing but distaste for Connie, but chose to write his story from a more personal and understanding point of view. It is possible that he meant to return, but either could not because of his shame or his inability to locate the family. Also, the chapter is written from an ambiguous point of view to fit into Steinbeck's writing style throughout the rest of the novel. Connie is not named directly, but referred to as "the stranger" or "the loner" because he is no longer a member of society but an outcast by his own choice. The ending is also left vague and up to the reader's interpretation as is Steinbeck's style. Enjoy!

 

Chapter 20 ½: Connie's Story

            The lone stranger wandered the well-beaten paths from town to town lingering nowhere but traveling without a purpose. His pants were spattered with dirt and travel-worn around the cuffs; his shirt, stained with sweat, hung loosely over his emaciated frame. In another time, in a different place, his stooped shoulders and defeated stance would have given others pause, but now he was one among thousands. They traveled the countryside hoping for work and finding starvation, sickness, and intolerance. His appearance and his circumstances drew no extraordinary attention, but the haunted look that never left his eyes made others turn their heads, battling feelings of guilt and pity for the young man to whom life had been so unkind. They had all been hardened by being forced off their ancestors' lands, scrounging for food, and begging for work. Pride had been demolished and dignity was only a memory, but they still had their families. Forlorn and alone, the traveling stranger had not even the comfort of a brother or a wife. Perhaps that was the reason for his tortured countenance.

            Occasionally, families, overwhelmed with feelings of pity for the loner, approached him with offers of food, shelter, and company. These propositions, however, were not met with the expected gratitude and enthusiasm, but rather furtive glances, one word refusals, and guilt playing over every feature. He did not deserve their help or their companionship; he knew he had created his own isolation and should suffer alone. Some migrant families took him for a wanted criminal and hurriedly ushered their young, and always curious, children away, out of his malignant presence. Others assumed he was on a religious journey; they had heard many people turned to religion when the world left them penniless, unskilled, and alone. He was neither a criminal on the run nor a religious fanatic hoping God would provide him with a hot meal and a steady job. Instead, he was a man so riddled with guilt that only his body remained, a soulless shell of what was once a motivated man with dreams and hopes.

            His tears had long since dried up, his sensitivity to world, once highly tuned, lie deaf to the cries of babies at night and the moans of dying men. He existed as a listless island caring for no one, not even himself. Initially, he had been tormented with thoughts of his wife and their unborn baby, but as the reality of his desertion set in, he realized hoping they would survive in this harsh world was simply a fantasy. There was no money or hope in California, a place his new family had once hailed as a land of prosperity and new beginnings. They had concocted delusions of a house in the city, a steady job, and a life of moderate luxury. In flash of insight lying next to his heavily pregnant wife, the stranger had seen the futility in trying. The large family of which he was now a part could barely feed themselves. He could not provide for them, and neither could he stand the disappointment and doubt that clouded his wife's every glance.

            His memories of that day, the cloudless and warm evening on which he left behind all that he loved, haunted the stranger for years, playing in his mind like a broken picture reel. He is, however, removed from the events, as if it were another man making the mistake that will end his life, end his happiness. The anger and the fear that drove him from the tent melt away in his fantasies and he returns begging for forgiveness. When the alcohol poisons his thoughts, he returns to the family a successful businessman ready to offer his wife, their child, and the rest of the family a life of prosperity and fulfill the illusions that initially drove them from their farm.

            During one such reverie, he is forced back into the present and his reality of cowering beneath a lifeless tree in a futile attempt to stay dry when a shadow blocks out the only remaining source of warmth, the last of the sun's rays. Above him towered a giant of a man, a knife glinting sharply, transforming the life-giving rays of the sunset into threatening daggers of pink, yellow, and orange. None of the guilt or pity that the stranger expected reflected in the steel blue eyes that glared down at him. Similarly, the fear of death that registered in the blue-eyed man's victims was gone; instead, he saw relief. Both, shocked by the other's reaction, stood frozen in time, statues trapped in their own expectations. The man who had lost all his potential as a husband, a father, and a productive member of society finally saw an opportunity for peace, permanent peace. The would-be murderer, however, sees not a potential victim to die at his hand, but a man of strength who, despite his despair continues to wander, hope silently coursing from his every pore.

            "I ain't got no money. You'd might jus' as well kill me now," spoke the stranger after a moment so tense that the forest itself became silent. The birds ceased chirping, the leaves refused to rustle, and only the men's breath, shallow and quick, echoed in the space separating their rail-like bodies. "Why'd I do tha'? You ain't even worth the trouble; I ain't yo' executioner," came the would-be murderer's reply. Determination which had so long been absent from the stranger's emotions suddenly glinted dangerously in his eyes; somehow he would convince this criminal to end his suffering or he would do it himself. It was this spark that spoke even more to the stranger's life force threatening to erupt from beneath the surface hardened by isolation. In a sudden transformation, both men leapt forward struggling for the upper hand. Seconds later it was over, and only one man walked away carrying the blade, dripping with the same blood that began to pool beneath the tree, his status as a criminal solidified for the remainder of his miserable life.

 

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