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The first half of the twentieth century was a complicated period in the history of the United States, which found its reflection in literature. Robert Warren’s All the Kings Men and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath were written in the 1930-1940s, which were the years of Great Depression and World War II. Although devoted to different themes, they share the same pessimism about the situation in the country and the helplessness of an ordinary human impacted by the machine of the state. Both writers are quite skillful in their books’ composition, which is reflected in the opening sections. In the beginning of the two texts the authors attempt to tell a pre-history of the situation and place individual human stories into a larger context. Besides, the opening sections’ language and description foreshadow future events that are going to take place later.
All the King’s Men by John Steinbeck is a novel of politics and power, and their destructive impact on a personality who is involved in them. It tells the story of Willie Stark’s raise from being a provincial weird fighter against injustice to a governor of the state. Because the major focus of the author is on the degradation that is inevitable in the course of this raise, the opening section is important for him to disclose the roots of the situation and picture Stark as he used to be. The novel opens up with a description of a way to Mason city, which is a home place for Stark and the turning point of his political career. However, the narration is not chronological, so the opening of the novel pictures a moment when Jack Burden and Willie Stark, already a governor, pay a visit to Willie’s native place in order to make political benefits and resolve a complicated situation. There is a threat of impeachment for Stark, so he wants to convince Judge Irwin to take sides with him.
The beginning of the novel pictures the landscape and the lifestyle of the local people, who are mostly poor and have to struggle to make their living. The landscape is picturesque but has a touch of hardships that people have to face.In a way, the author attempts to explain why Willie Stark, who is a controversial personality, suddenly became a leader of the whole state. In fact, the description of the American South suggests that there is still much about the burden of slavery and that the black population is still deprived of the major rights and benefits. This gap between the wealthy and the poor, the free and the enslaved, determines how all spheres of social life function. At the beginning of the novel, it is made clear that people have no choice, although they are convinced into an illusion of choice. This is why Willie Stark is so enraged when he discovers that he is just a toy in the hands of politicians who use him to reach their own goals. So, the major problem about ordinary people is that they are helpless and inert; they are just crowd that is manipulated with no hope to change the status. Being one of them, Willie Stark has a chance to change the situation, so his visit to Mason Town is an example of his methods of influencing people. The author demonstrates that at the beginning it is Willie’s bizarre openness and his passionate roughness that help him make his way up. He succeeds because he is one of his people indeed but later discovers that the simple instruments of provincial politics are not enough.
Another purpose of the opening section in All the King’s Men is the author’s plan to introduce Willie Stark as a personality and reveal his special appeal that attracted people, including Jack Burden. His common touch as well as an extraordinary manner to inspire others and believe in his own special mission was among his secrets. The beginning of the novel demonstrates how Stark identifies himself with the people, whom he represents. In fact, he seriously wants to give them what they are eager to have: food, job and justice. He impacts them by his emotional power rather than appealing to logic. However, while being honest about his mission, Stark stops being choosy about the tools that help him achieve what he wants. Throughout the novel, he becomes more and more involved in compromise with himself by using methods like bribery and blackmail. In the opening section, the author pictures the first steps of Stark becoming such kind of a person, as his aim is pushing Judge Irwin. By depicting the controversy of the character and his evolution, Warren poses a question about whether noble goals are worth such sacrifice.
Speaking about the setting that is presented in the opening section, it should be noted that the author’s word choice is very suggestive. On the one hand, his tone is quite light and does not bear pessimism and gloom, yet there is an implication that negative events are on the way. Thus, the author uses the word “ black” five times just in the first paragraphs, as well as mentions deathly accidents that happen on the road. This content is not accidental, as the following events demonstrate, since the reader with face deaths and the philosophical contemplation about the role of fate and incident: “ Then a few days later the boys from the Highway department will mark the spot with a little metal square painted white and on it in black a skull-and-cross-bones” ( Warren 2).
Likewise, Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath sets a background for the whole novel in the opening section. It introduces Tom Joad who is back home from imprisonment at hard labor to find his native place completely devastated. In fact, the author demonstrates how situation in farming has changed drastically for four years of Great Depression. John’s meetings with the former Reverend Jim Casy and Muley Graves are quite illustrative and striking with the feeling of hopelessness. Thus, the opening section of the novel suggests the desolation that was typical for many areas of the United States of the time. The figures that appear in the opening of the novel are very important for setting the right tone for the whole work. The former priest is a symbolic character because of his lost faith in people and in himself. His monologues sound a little insane, but he is insane in the Hamlet kind of madness. In the same way, the exhausted land pictured in the introduction of the novel is a metaphor that symbolizes people’s suffering and loss of faith. The description of the land is not accidental: traditionally land is believed to be associated with a person’s roots, it supports people by being their home. Separation from the land is a tragedy because it is equal to separation from one’s family and one’s values. At the beginning of the novel the author describes the disastrous state in which the land of Oklahoma appears to be, though this state is more than a natural disaster. The land stopped to be fertile because of winds’ work, and the authorities asked them to move out. In fact, the situation with the farmers is an allegory that gives vision of the whole situation that people had to face during the Great Depression.
Speaking about The Grapes of Wrath, it is worth paying attention to the author’s choice of words in the opening of the novel, as the language has a function of foreshadowing. Thus, he gives the following description of the wind turning dangerous: “The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky…The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn”( Steinbeck). So, the words and expressions like “dust”, “red sun”, “gray sky”, “darkness”, “the wind cried and whimpered” etc. suggest forthcoming negative events.
Thus, the opening sections of the two novels fulfill several functions. First of all, they are necessary to picture the setting which creates a certain tone. Secondly, even though the authors start with describing the landscapes, the choice of words is quite important because the ominous overtones suggest future tragedies to take place. Thirdly, the beginning parts of the novels introduce the main characters at a certain stage of their lives, so that their evolution can be traced later on in the text. Finally, the stories told in the two novels are individual ones only at first glance, because the authors attempt to place them in more global historical, social and moral contexts.
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