Check Your Understanding

As you reread the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath, highlight descriptions and dialogue that make the characters and setting seem realistic. Who are the people who visit the diner, and how are they similar to and different from the workers there? Use textual evidence to support your ideas.

Here are some descriptions from the excerpt that make the characters and setting seem realistic: “The man took off his dark, stained hat”; Al “looked sullenly down at the potato salad he was mixing”; “Mae shrugged her plump shoulders”; the man brought “a smell of sweat with him”; the boys “went immediately to the candy case and stared in”; “One scratched his dusty ankle with the toe nails of his other foot”; the boys “straightened their arms so that their clenched fists in the overall pockets showed through the thin blue cloth”; “The little boys raised their eyes to her face and they stopped breathing; their mouths were partly opened, their half naked bodies were rigid”. In addition to these descriptions, the colloquial speech that makes up the entire dialogue makes the characters seem realistic. The people who visit the diner are a man and his two young sons who are traveling to California to escape the Dust Bowl and find work. They have very little money for the trip, as the man demonstrates when he insists he can spend only ten cents on the bread and when he says, “We got a thousan’ miles to go, an’ we don’ know if we’ll make it.” The family’s poverty is also apparent in the description of the “thin blue cloth” of the boys’ clothing and their “half naked bodies.” The man is humble and polite, as is apparent when he asks, “Won’t you—can’t you see your way to cut off ten cents’ worth?” Al and Mae are the workers in the dinner. Mae has “plump shoulders,” which reveals that she, unlike the man and his boys, is getting enough to eat despite the hard times. Unlike the man, Al and Mae speak gruffly and sometimes rudely, such as when Mae says, “You can’t get no loaf of bread for a dime,” and when Al says, “Goddam it Mae. Give ’em the loaf.”

Think about the other texts you have read in the unit, such as Steinbeck’s magazine account of life during the Dust Bowl, Harvest Gypsies, and Starr’s Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, which includes information about one of Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the time. What does Steinbeck’s novel accomplish that is different from what an article or a photograph can do? Cite textual evidence to help explain your views.

Steinbeck’s novel provides a deeper and more personal understanding of the characters than an article or a photograph typically could. For example, the novel displays the entire dialogue that takes place in the diner. A photograph, obviously, cannot do that, and an article would likely include just part of the dialogue. In addition, a novel like this one allows the reader to know what the characters are thinking and feeling, such as when the boys are looking at the candy “not with craving or with hope or even with desire, but just with a kind of wonder that such things could be.”

What does the dialogue spoken by Al and Mae reveal about their characters? Do you think Mae changes as a result of this encounter with the man and his children? Highlight details and cite textual evidence to support your inference.

Al seems to have a bigger heart and stronger conscience than Mae, but soon after the man first asks for bread, Mae starts to soften. When she says, “”F we sell bread we gonna run out,'” her tone is described as “faltering.” From the beginning, Al seems more sympathetic: “From behind her Al growled, ‘God Almighty, Mae, give ’em bread.'” When the man asks how much the candy is, Mae hesitates, as indicated by the dashes, as she answers: “Oh—them. Well, no—them’s two for a penny.” We can infer from these pauses that the candies probably cost more than that but that Mae has decided to do the man and the boys a favor and sell them the candy at a lower price. It is possible that this represents a change in Mae. But it’s more likely that it reveals her true character. After all, there were many poor migrants traveling the route the diner was on, and Mae likely had a lot of experience with them. It’s unlikely that she would suddenly change her character after this one incident.

What theme is Steinbeck developing in this excerpt? Summarize the excerpt and explain, using textual evidence, what this small scene reveals about the behavior of some people during difficult times.

To summarize the excerpt: A man traveling with his sons stops at a diner and asks to buy a loaf of bread. Mae, who works at the store, first refuses to sell the man any bread and then says she’ll sell a loaf for 15 cents. After the man’s humble pleas and the urging of another worker at the diner, Mae agrees to sell the man the bread for 10 cents, which is all the man can afford on his tight budget. But as the man’s young sons stare longingly at some candy in a case, the man decides to find out what he can get for a penny. Mae, in an apparent change of heart, tells the man the candies are two for a penny, although her hesitation indicates that the normal price is higher. The central idea of the excerpt is that humble and respectable people can retain their dignity even while being reduced to begging, while seemingly heartless people can be compassionate. This passage shows how the man retains his dignity: “‘We’d sure admire to do that, ma’am. But we can’t. We got to make a dime do all of us.’ And he said embarrassedly, ‘We ain’t got but a little.'”

Think about the empathy you feel for the characters in this excerpt. How is this different from the empathy you feel for the people in some of the photographs you’ve seen of the Dust Bowl years? Describe the feeling you get when you see the photograph of the person sitting next to a car on a dirt road (at the 00:09 mark in the Intro video to this lesson).

Questions and answers will vary, but they should focus on the strengths and limitations inherent in each type of media. Acceptable answers and annotations include but are not limited to: Novels allow readers to learn so much about characters, including their hopes, desires, likes, dislikes, habits, hobbies, mannerisms, experiences, strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, feelings, and life experiences. A photograph has no chance of conveying much of this information, at least not in detail. For example, the dialogue in the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath shows us that the man asking for bread is capable of great humility and dignity. This is apparent when Mae offers to sell him the whole loaf of bread for ten cents and he says, “That’d be robbin’ you, ma’am.” But a novel also has certain limitations in the empathy it can elicit. Because the characters in novels aren’t real, some readers may not be able to relate to them as much as they would a real person. The human subject in a photograph, meanwhile, is very obviously real and may therefore be much easier for viewers to empathize with or may elicit a heightened sense of empathy. Viewers cannot escape the fact that the people in Dorothea Lange’s photos, for example, actually experienced many of the things that Steinbeck wrote about. Steinbeck can create a character that will sell two pieces of candy to a poor man for a penny. But the subjects in Lange’s photographs may have actually lived this experience.