J. Michael Davis
Though considered literary geniuses of their respective cultures, John Steinbeck
and Gabriel García Márquez have never been considered literary
contemporaries in regard to their analogous backgrounds, themes, and literary
techniques. In many respects, the connections between Steinbeck and Márquez
have, as of yet, been unexplored. Both authors emerged from a journalistic background,
which the literary critic Robert L. Sims believes creates a new genre, journalistic
fiction, which "forces authors to consider the demands of the reader"
(9-10). John Steinbeck was a correspondent for the New York Post during the
Second World War and García Márquez wrote as a political commentarist
for El Espectador. Secondly, both authors, in the wake of Faulkner, create
fictionalized concoctions of their native towns; Steinbeck uses Salinas Valley
whereas Márquez uses Macondo, which become the setting for most of their
fictional pieces. In addition, both authors focus their attention into exposing
the exploitative qualities of capitalism and presenting a jaundiced view toward
the plight of migrant workers - Steinbeck with the treatment of workers after
the Dust Bowl and Márquez with the conditions of workers following the
arrival of the United Fruit Company in Latin America.
This paper will seek to elucidate some thematic commonalities between Steinbeck's
The Grapes of Wrath and Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude,
namely the depiction of the farm workers as a faceless enemy, the dichotomy
between the living, struggling workers and the cold, foreign proprietors, and
the use of a Biblical flood followed by the death of a child representing the
future of the bloodline.
Both authors provide a realistic view of the actual migrant situation that
arose in their respective novels. Steinbeck spent over eighteen months in research
- visiting government camps for displaced workers and reading back issues of
the local Salinas Valley paper - in an attempt to recapture conditions of the
exodus to California during the Dust Bowl. In the 1930s the Dust Bowl, created
largely as a result of poor agricultural practices, left the existing land in
the Midwest non-arable. Banks foreclosed on hundreds of thousands of sharecroppers
forcing them to seek work in California. Once in California, the workers found
themselves in an over saturated market controlled largely by the Associated
Farmers of California, leaving many workers destitute and unable to provide
for their own families. The government camps presented in The Grapes of Wrath,
coined Hoovervilles, were largely inadequate in handling the massive influx
of homeless workers.
Márquez likewise attempted to capture a realistic portrayal of American
imperialism in Latin America. The United Fruit Company, created from a merger
in 1899, soon dominated and monopolized the banana market in Latin America.
United Fruit brought tremendous growth to the banana zone but at the price of
shifting the economy to the production of one-crop. By contracting work to plantation
managers, the United Fruit Company was able to evade national laws requiring
basic sanitary work conditions and medical services for workers. Workers culminated
in two main strikes as described in One Hundred Years of Solitude: the
first strike in 1918, which rose to the supreme court of Columbia who decided
that the workers were not entitled to benefits because their employment status
made them non-existent and the second strike in 1928 ended when the army fired
on a crowd of people resulting in more than a thousand deaths according to a
report submitted by the American ambassador to the region. When describing the
decision of the high court, Márquez writes "the court
down in solemn decrees that the workers did not exist" (324) dually portraying
accurately on one level the description given to the workers' employment status,
but concurrently criticizing more generally the court's view of the workers.
Márquez, who was one year old during the 1928 strike, had previously
written about the effects of the United Fruit Company on Latin America in his
editorial column, El Jirafe. George McMurray wrote that "because
of the depiction of Yankee imperialism, the episode of the strikes is most like
social protest literature" (97). Readers unfamiliar with Columbian history
may mistake the details of the worker conditions and strikes as another depiction
of magical realism, but the story corresponds on many levels to actual events.
An important parallel existing between the portrayals of migrant workers is
the depiction of the owners as an amorphous, indefinable, faceless enemy. Steinbeck
creates the chasm between the migrant worker and the owner through the novel
by sculpting the owner into an institution without any accountability to the
actual worker. Thus, the institution, whether that be "the Bank,"
"the Company," or "the Association," is unapproachable to
the common person. At the beginning of the novel, the farmers comically try
to determine who should be shot because of their displacement. They soon come
to the realization that neither the men who evicted them from the land, nor
the man who drives the tractor which destroys their houses, nor even the regional
bank who must account to some distant banks made the decision to displace them.
The men accept that, "The bank is something else than men. It happens that
every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The
bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it,
but they can't control it" (Steinbeck, 43). By painting the institution
as inhuman and unaffected by the lives or emotions of others but driven unrelentingly
by profits, Steinbeck is able to provide understanding to the hopelessness of
the situation of the migrants, who have no other recourse than to blindly accept
In fact, the only tangible extension of the owner, who can be reached, is the
police officer. However, the police officer, whose original intent is to serve
and protect, blindly sides with the interest of the owners and sides against
fellow citizens as exemplified by the police's attempted orchestration of a
riot in the government camp due to fear that worker stability would lead to
the organization of labor.
Márquez, as well, creates an unapproachable, faceless enemy in One
Hundred Years of Solitude. The owner of the banana plantations is encapsulated
in the persona of Mr. Brown, who is confronted by workers to grant the workers
more rights in the most unlikely of places, including a brothel. Unlike Regina
Janes's analysis, which in her essay Revolutions in Wonderland, said that Mr.
Brown of the banana company was a minor character because of his elusiveness
(64); to the contrary, Mr. Brown is a major villain by virtue of his elusiveness.
His ability to disguise his personality from a bumbling foreigner with poor
language skills to a native Columbian dealing with medicines imbues the representatives
of United Fruit Company as not so much men, who must deal with other men, but
detached objects, which can dematerialize when convenient.
Again, in the same technique as Steinbeck, Márquez enjoins the faceless
company with an authoritarian structure - Márquez links the company with
the army. Hence, this is why Mr. Brown's train is described as having a roof
of blue glass - blue being the symbolic color of conservatives who sided with
the United Fruit Company. During the second strike, the cooperation of the army
with the foreign banana farmer owners is not the relevant issue. As noted in
Gabriel García Márquez, what was disturbing was that the
army, the men behind the machine guns, instead of understanding their commonality
with the people and the inherent bond between themselves and humanity, turned
their guns - not on the oppressors, but on the people themselves (Bloom, 143-145).
In the crowd during the strike at the train station, the woman standing with
the children beside José Arcadio Segundo said, "Those bastards might
just shoot!" The idea that the soldiers would carry through with the order
and actually fire on their own people is the novel idea to her. It reemphasizes
the theme of a person disowning his fellow person.
A second comparative feature between the two works is the dichotomy between
the living, struggling workers and the cold, foreign proprietors. Steinbeck
juxtaposes the divide between the owners and migrant workers in many different
facets. By representing the owners as owls or cat' (a pun on Caterpillar, a
major producer of tractors) and the migrant workers as mice, Steinbeck places
the goals of the two groups in opposing positions. Secondly, much of the modernity
brought by the owners is described in terms of its coldness and metallic qualities,
from the newly constructed service stations for affluent clientele to the very
tractors "the harrows combing with iron teeth so that the little clods
twelve iron penes
raping methodically, raping without
passion" (Steinbeck, 46). In contrast to the proprietors, Steinbeck takes
particular care to elicit the human qualities of the characters. He focuses
extended attention on explaining the coarseness, texture, and build of their
hands. In his writing notes for the book he said, "I don't want to rush
through the characters" (DeMott, 29). His ultimate goal with his characters
was to "make the people live. Make them live" (DeMott, 38-39). The
separation between the owner and migrant, the living and the lifeless can be
seen in the following excerpt, "There ain't enough room for you an' me,
for your kind an' my kind, for rich and poor together in one country, like thieves
and honest men" (Steinbeck, 154).
Márquez's entire novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, may be
described in terms of the emergence of two competing, opposing entities: government
officials and revolutionaries, modernism and traditionalism, Arcadios and Aurelianos,
Rebeccas and Armantas, and banana plantation owners and workers. Márquez
emphasizes the use of metal by foreigners as well. The huts constructed by the
banana companies had tin roofs, Mr. Brown came in on a train that was all silver-plated,
steel gates and razor wire were strung separating the compound of Americans
from the general populace, and it was Mr. Brown who first arrived in the first
metal automobile. But unlike Steinbeck, Márquez chooses to concentrate
on the division between the American banana farm owners and the workers. Márquez
creates the existence of a compound with an entirely new environment, described
as "the electrical chicken coup, so they could enjoy the dignity of their
and not suffer
from the countless privations and discomforts
of the town" (256).
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the division between the owner and
worker is extended in both directions whereas Steinbeck's division extends mainly
in one direction. José Arcadio Segundo, who was employed by the banana
company, is described with "the clicking of his foreman's boots and was
surprised at the unbridgeable distance that separated him from the family"
(Márquez, 280). Fernanda del Caprio refused to admit workers associated
with the banana plantations into the house and described the arrival of foreigners
as the banana fever and the plantations as a rash (Márquez, 271). Further,
it was Mauricio Babilonia's association with the Company and not as much his
station (he was a mechanic for the banana company garage) that repulsed Fernanda.
Indeed, the barrage of yellow butterflies that always followed Mauricio Babilonia
were a representation of the banana company; Mr. Herbert coyly said he was trying
to catch butterflies when in fact he was searching for lands to plant bananas.
The relationship between the flood and the birth of the stillborn child are
highly interrelated in The Grapes of Wrath whereas the events can be viewed
separately in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The images of the rains in Steinbeck's
work mirror the growing ferment and anger of the migrant workers. The clouds
in the sky build progressively from scattered clouds in an impenetrable blanket
of covering, "over the sky a plump black cloud moved, erasing the stars"
(Steinbeck, 532) and later "the high gray clouds mov[ed] over the sky toward
the rising sun" (Steinbeck, 549). The storm clouds reach a crescendo where
the sky cannot hold back any longer and the rain saturates everything unceasingly.
The flood parallels the Biblical flood in that the purpose of the rains does
not represent renewal or rebirth but instead destruction, "And I, even
I, do bring a flood of waters, upon the Earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein
is the breath of life, from under heaven; and everything that is in the Earth
shall die" (Gen. 6.11). The flood soon swallows the land causing people
to scramble to higher ground abandoning their few, simple possessions.
Rose of Sharon's child is representative of the future as demonstrated by the
following insight in conversation, "We can't start again. Only a baby can
start" (Steinbeck, 113). Rose of Sharon's unabated focus on the health
and vitality of the child isolates her attention to her own personal interest
rather than that of the family, "The world had drawn close around them
Rose of Sharon was in the center of it with Connie making a small orbit
around her" (Steinbeck, 165). Through the stillbirth, Rose of Sharon discovers
that her misconceived dependence on the future child is as illusory as the Joad
family's belief that California will be the Edenic paradise. Steinbeck emphasizes
that the existence of any paradise was conditional upon the necessity of people
depending on one another - not just because of past favors, money, or familial
ties. Dependence should be due to the fact that all people share the common
bond of their humanity. The culmination of this theme occurs with Rose of Sharon's
altruistic act to the dying stranger in need. Steinbeck's use of the name Rose
of Sharon was no coincidence. Rose of Sharon, commonly shortened to Sharin',
was designed from the beginning to resemble sharing. The death of the child
focuses her attention outwardly towards the needs of the family and the needs
of the community at large instead of purely inwardly.
Although the cause of death of the child in One Hundred Years of Solitude
is a punishment for inbreeding specified by a preordained prophecy, the death
of Rose of Sharon's child was a result of a lack of the basic needs for a pregnant
woman being unfulfilled. Throughout the second half of the novel, Rose of Sharon
is constantly concerned over the lack of milk she receives and the ramifications
of this on the health of her child. The pregnancy is further damaged by the
fever that Rose of Sharon contracts, "Rose of Sharon was down with a heavy
cold, her face flushed and her eyes shining with fever" (Steinbeck, 558).
Thus, it is the denial of Rose of Sharon's needs, and not a punishment for sin,
which dooms the pregnancy.
After the death of the child, Uncle John is given the responsibility to dispose of the remains. Instead of burying the child, he sets the child to float down the river. This is a symbolic allusion to the floating of Moses down the Nile. The dead child is laid in the swift river with the banks lined with brush and willows as Moses was laid in the river in the river with the banks lined with reeds. Uncle John's final words to the dead child in the apple box are, "Go down in the street and rot on' and tell them that way. That's the way you can talk Maybe they'll know then" (Steinbeck, 572). In the same manner that Moses was to be a representative, or a messenger, from God to his people, the child is to be a messenger to humanity and is to proclaim the universal theme that all people are human regardless of their condition of wealth, their origin, or other factors.
Márquez's major premise behind the flood and also the death of the last
Buendía is tied to a punishment for sin. The Biblical flood was the result
of the Earth being, "corrupt before God, and the Earth was filled with
violence" (Gen. 6.11). The flood in One Hundred Years of Solitude
is a punishment for the massacre of people following the second banana strike
that left 3,000 people dead and thrown into the sea. Mr. Brown mentioned that
he would pay for three days worth of festivities after the rains ceased (Márquez,
322). "When Mr. Brown announced his decision a torrential downpour spread
over the whole banana region" (Márquez, 322).
Much like the flood in The Grapes of Wrath, the flood in One Hundred
Years of Solitude is one of dampness, rot, decrepitude, and decay, but not
renewal. The narrator writes, "The air was so damp that fish could have
come through the doors" (Márquez, 340). Even the people appear to
waste away from the flood's effects, "all inhabitants were waiting to die"
(Márquez, 346). The penetration of the flood into the lives of the inhabitants
is further shown by the removal of leeches that paved the back of Úrsula
(Márquez, 340). The appearance of the flood is precipitated by the banana
company. The banana company upon arriving, "changed the pattern of the
rains, accelerated the cycle of harvests, and moved the river" (Márquez,
245). This sudden change of the landscape shows simultaneously the company's
control of the power of nature but also the lack of concern about tradition
or the repercussions that this control would have over the lands in the future.
The length and devastation of the flood was undoubtedly augmented by the invasive,
unnatural changes forced by the banana farmers. The fleeing of the banana company
after the rains leaves the original inhabitants in a worse position than before
the intrusion of the banana company. After capitalizing off the lands, the banana
company left the lands in a state of utter devastation and decay.
Márquez's flood mirrors the Biblical flood as well because it was one
of destruction. Petra Cotes had to clear her courtyard of dead animals (Márquez,
346), which is analogous to the Biblical passage about the flood in which "every
living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man,
and cattle" (Gen. 7.22). Another parallel to the scriptures is the exactness
of dates - Márquez's flood lasted for four years, eleven months, and
two days; the Biblical flood lasted for exactly one hundred and fifty days.
Moreover, the sun suddenly burst through in Márquez's flood, which was
much like the clear sky which appeared when Noah opened the window of the ark
to release the ravens.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the child is the fulfillment of the
texts that Melquíades wrote many years before. Aureliano sits in stupefaction
watching his child being carried away by ants and realizing that it had all
been previously foretold. The child with the pigtail is the manifestation of
incest, which hangs over the family's conscious throughout its duration. Armanta
Úrsula and Aurelanio, without knowing that they are related, commit this
sin. The death of the child warrants attention in that the new birth cannot
break free of the old tradition despite the hope given by the narrator, "he
was on of those great Buendías
predisposed to begin the race again
from the beginning and cleanse it from its vices
he was the only one
engendered with love" (Márquez, 442). Unfortunately, the child was
bounded by the sins and the repetition of the history that preceded him.
Márquez previously foreshadows the use of a baby in a basket to represent
Moses when Fernanda says about Meme's child, "We'll tell them that we found
him floating in a basket
if they believe it in the Bible, I don't see
why they shouldn't believe it from me" (322). The description of dead child
at the conclusion of the novel shares key features to the story of Moses. Like
Moses, the child is placed in a basket and abandoned by his family. Both children
were sentenced to death by virtue of their birth. Moreover, in the same manner
as Moses, the child bears a message - not to the Buendías or Macondo
destroyed in the end by the apocalyptical winds - but to the reader himself
or herself who in the end is incorporated into the fabric of the storytelling.
Márquez uses the child as a premonition on the necessity of love whose
absence leads to a self-destructive solitude.
In a larger context, The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of
Solitude both can be considered novels in the humanistic tradition. Both
try to expound on values that are universal to the human condition. In addition,
Steinbeck and Márquez are able to take a local environment, which on
the surface appears regional in scope, and expand it to incorporate humanity
as a whole. The major distinction between Márquez and Steinbeck is stylistic.
Steinbeck as a narrator tries to live vicariously through his characters embodying
them with will and spirit and making them come to life in description and speech.
Márquez is more detached in manner with a Kafkaesque ability to describe
the inconceivable as expected and spends more time from a removed perspective
instead of delving in dialogue.
The similarities between John Steinbeck and García Márquez are
largely unexplored. But the parallel treatment of aspects related to migrant
and owner relations and the use of similar themes, including unapproachable
owners who cannot be addressed person to person, a two tiered system between
the animated human workers and the lifeless, sharp owners, and a Biblical flood
succeeded by the death of the child representing the future, in their seminal
novels, The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude,
permits one to believe that more comparisons are yet to be unfurled.
Overview | Scope
Carrillo | Davis | Haaga | Hart | Montague | Pugh
Special Collections | Heard Library | Vanderbilt University
Copyright © Special Collections, Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt
Last modified: April 10, 2008
For more information, contact us at: < >