“Maybe then they’ll know”

In the final desperate pages of The Grapes of Wrath, Uncle John, sent to bury the body of his niece’s still-born baby, takes the tiny corpse, puts it in an empty apple box and sends it floating down the stream of floodwater which passes their makeshift camp. “Go on down” he says, “and lay in the street. Maybe then they’ll know”.the_grapes_of_wrath_poster_by_ficklestix-d4kocwb (1)

Perhaps he hopes that the baby’s corpse will serve to tell people of the despair of the landless migrants from Oklahoma who have travelled west seeking a better life. Perhaps he hopes it will tell of their destitution, of the crushing system of exploitation they face, of their hopelessness.

Today, harrowing pictures of a boy’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach have raced around our world-wide information superhighway. His father says: “I just want to sit next to the grave of my children and my wife and rest”. One of my friends commented that she would likely do the same; I think I would too.

The grim pictures capture our attention, but he is one among hundreds of thousands who are on the move. The small boy, and his grieving father, they are like messengers to us. They are like a flare, burning brightly as a signal of distress, but then fading from our view.

How many corpses does it take for us to have a change of heart, how many does it take before we’ll ‘know’?

Earlier in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote:

In the west there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves and they reassured themselves that they were good, and the invaders were bad, as a man must do before he fights.

This was published in 1939, but the story has repeated over and over. Can we ever go beyond being terrified?

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2 Comments on ““Maybe then they’ll know””

  1. musedemuzz Says:

    Maybe Steinbeck identified a major part of our lack of compassion; the fear that we might become hungry and poor ourselves.

    Though for my fear that I might become like that makes me want to do more for others

  2. Cam Says:

    Yep, I think you are spot on Muzz, in both ways

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