Prison Walls and Scrap Piles

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"The one-eyed man watched them go, and then he went through the iron shed to his shack behind.  It was dark inside.  He felt his way to the matress on the floor, and he stretched out and cried in his bed, and the cars whizzing by on the highway only strengthened the walls of his loneliness."

Steinbeck, chapter 16 page 181

Steinbeck presents an interesting character at the scrap yard that Al and Tom visit for Dodge parts.  The one-eyed yard tenant is virtually the only tenant still in business.  While he is working and at least has his necessities, he feels very sorry for himself as a result of his missing eye.  What I find interesting is the chance that Steinbeck might be speaking of the prisons within the world.  There are, of course, the penitentaries where convicts are locked away, but perhaps the worst prisons of all are not those forged of iron and sandstone, but those errected by the walls of loneliness and/or ignorance.

The worker has every chance to merely do something for himself, but he has chosen to lock himself away within the prison of solitude and self-pity.  His prison walls are those of being alone: he is with piles of scrap cars and the structure of a shanty for quarters.  Steinbeck could be trying to tell us that people in general, especially those who are depressed, or of the Depression, can be their own prison-wardens.  Take for instance the gas station manager from earlier in the novel: he chooses to sit around and let the bigger stations run him out of business instead of packing up what he still has and going to attempt and get a better start elsewhere.  Steinbeck is displaying a breed within the novel.

People can be their own worst enemies.  The fact of the matter is that Steinbeck sets up certain characters as either feeling self-pity and/stubborn ignorance.  It is a time in which people cannot afford to do such things.  Hence, I think that may be part of the reason why Steinbeck shows these people, basically as, I'm sorry to say it, failures.  They have locked their minds and bodies away in their own personal prison and will never feel the relief of parole as they deny themselves the chance.


I agree. If they already know that their business isn't doing well and that they aren't going to make it much longer then why are they staying?

Alicia Campbell said:

Thanks for your interpretation! Yours is an interesting take on those characters. When I met the one-eyed man, I knew his character was significant, but I could not come up with a reason as to why. But your ideas make sense. I suppose you can take your suggestion one step further and say that sometimes change is inevitable to be happy, or even just content, and successful. The fact that the one-eyed man is so lonely and depressed demonstrates the alternative. The sad thing is that many people to this day, in whatever unfortunate situation, choose to remain when they are fully capable of moving on. And that, perhaps, is the greater tragedy portrayed in this work.

He sure seemed pathetic when he asked to go along... maybe because he had a job, no matter how pathetic it was, Steinbeck doesn't feel that the refugee solidarity should kick in.

Do you see any sense in which the gas station owner might be heroic for sticking around and trying to survive? Or is Steinbeck blaming him as much as the one-eyed man? (Note that he's one-eyed... his eyes are open enough to see the suffering, but he doesn't see the solution?)

Alyssa Sanow said:

I understand and appreciate this interpretation. I didn't see the impotance of the scene with the one-eyed man before. Though Steinbck obviously doesn't feel that Tom and Al should help this man, possibly because he has a job, I was shocked by Tom's rudeness. He was rude and acted very aloof. Could Tom's frustration and adamant attempt to convince the one-eyed man to see reality be a reflection of his impatience with his own family not seeing reality? No matter how many times they hear tht there is no work in CA, they continue to place their trust (and lives) in the orange handbill. The one-eyed man also refuses to deal with reality - hiding out in his garage...does anyone else see that similarity?

Christopher Dufalla said:

The one-eyed man doesn't seem to care a whole lot about his job. He labels his boss as a swindler and a tease. There is a definite mental desire to leave the current surroundings, but the one-eyed man lacks any real physical vigor when it comes to making the change come true. He wimply asks Tom and Al if he can tag along.

I think that perhaps the gas station owner is in a state of shock. He continuously asks the same thing and annoys the customers with his repetition. It's possible that he's being heroic, but it almost seems as though there's a fine line between heroism and stupidity. Self sacrifice appears more later on in the novel.

Rosalind Blair said:

Chris, very insightful entry! It definitely made me take another look at the one-eyed man with your idea of a personal prison warden in mind (because I, like others, did not really see the significance that the man had). Purhaps Steinbeck is trying to show that things had gotten so bad, that even the people that had something left to their name (even if it was not much), were still in despair. I felt that Tom had gotten so frustrated with the one-eyed man because, while he did not have a wonderful life, he was still in buisness, and was still able to survive.

Christopher Dufalla said:

It could follow that old idea that you don't know exactly what you have until it's gone from your life. Tom could very well be upset by the one-eyed man's moping around and whining. When times get rough like that, one has to remember that there's always someone who has it worse.

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