Death was a friend, and sleep was death’s brother (The Grapes of Wrath, Ch 21-23)

Death was a friend, and sleep was death’s brother.

This line from chapter twenty three really struck me.  In this chapter, the narrator is describing the various pastimes of people stuck with nothing to do in these camps.  Some people go to movies, others dance, others pray for the sinners who go to movies and dance.

In a nutshell, the camps were miserable.  The migrant people are described in the first lines:

The migrant people, scuttling for work, scrabbling to live, looked always for pleasure, dug for pleasure, manufactured pleasure, and they were hungry for amusement.

Steinbeck uses asyndeton here to describe the seeming melancholy of the migrant workers, and conveys the idea well.  The commas pausing between words show a repetition and dullness that may be there to reflect their lives.

Going back to the initial quotation, which was:

Death was a friend, and sleep was death’s brother.

Here, Steinbeck personifies both death and sleep.  He calls death a friend, because for many old and tired migrant workers,  it seemed to be the only way out.  Sleep is death’s brother, because sleep provides an alternative form of escape from the dreariness of day to day life, other than death.  This was the gravity of the life of migrants, there hunt for pleasure led them to only sleep and death.

Once again, one reason Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, was to illustrate the sheer horror of life as a migrant farmer.  This chapter specifically serves as a major step towards achieving his goal.  Even if someone in Oklahoma reading this at that time was still considering  move to California, he would rethink his position after reading that, for “okies” in California, the two escapes from the suffering of day to day life was death, and death’s brother, sleep.

The chapter goes on to describe the situation a little further:

sadness and pleasure so close together, really the same thing.

Things do not look so good for the Joads.



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