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The Births in All the King’s Men and The Grapes of Wrath

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John Steinbeck and Robert Penn Warren managed to write epochal novels, which mirrored major social trends and challenges. Sadly enough, the pictures that the authors drew were quite pessimistic, which created an impression of hopelessness. This is why Steinbeck and Warren realized that they needed to balance the feeling of devastation by suggesting a glimpse of hope in the end. The symbolism of birth has served to fulfill this mission not once throughout history of art. Thus, the usage of this symbol at the end of the two novels shifts the focus from the historical and political ones to the all-human. In All the King’s Men it implies that despite destruction and mutual aggression life goes on for humanity and there is always a chance to start it from scratch, at least for a new generation. In The Grapes of Wrath, though, the context is more tragic, which is revealed through the symbol of a stillborn baby. Nevertheless, the motherhood is revealed to have a power that can accept and save any person.

Speaking about the symbolism of a birth in All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, it is worth saying that it is placed in the context of death. There have been too many deaths throughout the novel, both literal and emotional ones. Willie Stark is assassinated, Tom Stark dies of pneumonia, Judge Irwin commits suicide. Other characters, including Jack Burden,  his mother, Anne  Stanton and Adam Stanton, remain alive but they are spiritually devastated. All of them confirm Stark’s favorite philosophy about everyone being born in mud, so the rest of their lives are equally dirty. So, in the course of unfortunate events every one of them realizes their guilt and their responsibility for tragedies that happen to people around them. None of them wishes these tragedies to happen but their passions and their beliefs make their negative personality come out of control. As a result, they realize the fragility of the world and human relationships and the vanity of their past values. They do not become better people with a burden of their sins but they become wiser and more honest about who they are. So, the author believes that despite the gloom of the situation they do not deserve total failure. Instead, he gives them a chance to start a new life, even though with the past that will never been mended. So, making birth part of the story the author puts it clear that life has cycles,  that it repeats over and over again despite any of situations that might seem to be the end of the world.

The last chapter of the novel is an epilogue to some extent, which means that the author attempts to demonstrate how life recovers and goes on after its climax. Thus, he reveals an idea that people are highly adjustable and that they are able to transform in order to feel comfortable when rules of the game change. Emotional recovery is one of the key aspects associated with birth. Speaking about the plot, this refers to the situation of Lucy’s adopting Tom’s baby. The woman believes that her life ended after Willie’s death, as she still loves him. However, an opportunity to adopt his son’s newborn baby is a real gift to her, as it gives relief and hope. It is remarkable that she is going to name it Willie Stark as it symbolizes that life continues and that memories about people keep them alive.

Jack’s last talk with Lucy is really important for understanding the essence of the novel. It deals with human connection, which happens when people who are almost strangers go through some challenges and emotional torture. So, there is no feeling of alienation between Jack and Lucy, although at a certain point he decided that he was going to stop being involved in tragedies. This is why he ignored Tom’s death and sending his condolences to Lucy. However, their meeting in a peaceful country place is about reconciliation and bringing back to life.  Lucy has had several tragedies in a row but she realizes that a person has enough strength to cope with them. Her salvation is humility and readiness to take her fate as it is. This is the background tone, at which she presents information about Tom’s baby to Jack. She is full of hope and peace, when she shows the baby. In fact, the boy, her grandson, is a symbol of hope for her, for a new life. It gives her a sense of living when she lost everything she had, including her trust in people. However, with the baby, these feelings are revived, though Jack secretly thinks that she might be in delusion. At the same time he understands why this is so important to her and why she names the child Willie. Like Lucy, Jack is desperate to believe that Willie Stark was a great man despite his mistakes because this belief gives him an opportunity to reconcile with his past and turn the page. Speaking about the circumstances that surround the birth and adoption of the baby, it is worth saying that the same idea of mixing the high and the low, the good and the evil, is revealed again. Sibyl, the young mother of the baby, who is not sure about who the father is, agrees to give him to Lucy, takes the money from her and elopes to California. Yet, Lucy does not condemn her and is even sympathetic, and persuades herself that Tom is definitely the father. So, the new Willie Stark’s life begins in a complex and controversial way.

Likewise, The Grapes of Wrath, a novel by John Steinbeck, contains a motif of a birth as a symbol of nature’s cycles. However, the context is quite different and more tragic. If in Warren’s novel it symbolizes hope, in Steinbeck’s one it reveals hopelessness, which is embodied by a stillborn baby. Rose of Sharon, who begins her travel pregnant, is quite optimistic about her future at first. She is romantic by nature, an immature in a sense, and believes in the bright future. However, when her husband leaves her, she loses control and hope, so the fact that her baby is born dead is quite symbolic. In a way, Rose is not a self-standing character, but embodies the fate of a lot of people who lost everything, to which they ascribed value. So, the birth of a dead baby means having no future, failed expectations and losing the vital energy. These aspects resonate with the main themes of the novel and its message, which is devastation.

It is interesting to explore the author’s approach, his style, tone and word choice, when describing the act of birth and the environment, in which this happens. First of all, it is remarkable how the symbolism of rain and water is used in order to express an idea of uncontrollable change that life poses. Water is closely related to emotions, which overwhelm people and make them helpless against the mighty force of nature. Yet, people are themselves are part of nature, so they have the same power to find a resource that will feed them and make life continue. Water is also allusive of the Biblical flood, which marked the end of the old life.

The description of the birth is quite powerful, expressed in a conventional and tragic manner:

“The air was fetid and close with the smell of the birth. Uncle John clambered in and

held himself upright against the side of the car. Mrs. Wainwright left her work and

came to Pa. She pulled him by the elbow toward the corner of the car. She picked up a

lantern and held it over an apple box in the corner. On a newspaper lay a blue shriveled

little mummy. "Never breathed," said Mrs. Wainwright softly. "Never was alive."” ( Steinbeck, Chapter 30). The family members are accustomed to tragedies, so they look almost indifferent, since they are tired of losing themselves in grief. So, they talk in a conventional manner, though they are shattered deep inside. The situation of losing the touch with the ground is literal in the novel because of the flood that took away steadiness and stability. It is even impossible to bury a baby into the soil because of flood, so they make it float carried away by the current.

At first sight, this situation is total collapse for the family, which has already endured numerous miseries but it unexpectedly gives a new home to the family. It unites the people, and transforms Rose as well. When the family discovers a man who is dying of hunger, the woman feels an impulse to feed him with her milk. The ending of the novel demonstrates that despite all challenges, humanity is strong because of the bond people have and because of love that  becomes a transformative power: “For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn…Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook  his head slowly from side  to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast…"There!" she said. "There." Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.” (Steinbeck, Chapter 30). So, the author includes a symbol of maternity as a force that is able to save people. Rose of Sharon becomes a universal mother who embraces a stranger like her own son. For the woman, it is a new stage of her motherhood, a more mature level that is filled with love, compassion and understanding of her mission in this world. The novel demonstrates that family is a far broader concept than just genetic relation. It gives a universal pattern how people can revive by sacrifice and find new meanings by giving away rather than by taking.

To conclude, it is worth saying that both novels use the symbolism of birth in order to reveal an idea of nature’s cycles and potential to revive. Birth is traditionally associated with a new beginning, so it is significant that it comes in last chapters of the books. The two novels deal with human suffering and are quite tragic, so it was important for the authors to give an hope to their characters and to the readers. In All the King’s Men, a newborn baby is a symbol of reconciliation with the past and forgiving oneself and others. In The Grapes of Wrath, the author demonstrates how people can revive from ashes of their lives driven by love and maternal compassion. The woman loses her own baby but finds a son in a stranger, which is deeply symbolic and full of hope.

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