What are we to think of Steinbeck's controversial ending to The Grapes of Wrath? The novel concludes or simply stops with Rose of Sharon breastfeeding a starving stranger. The last sentence reads: "She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously."
It is a Mona Lisa smile. Or rather, the smile of the Madonna and Child--the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Barbara Heavilin notes:
This very postmodern ending does not resolve the plight of the Joads or of the two strangers whom they encounter in the barn. Rather, this conclusion places the remainder or the story squarely in the hands and on the heart of the reader. It also leaves a powerful closing image of human compassion--giving what little one has to save another.
But some early reviewers of the book did not necessarily appreciate this scene. Clifton Fadiman wrote in The New Yorker, "the ending...is the tawdriest kind of fake symbolism." George Stevens added in the Saturday Review that:
The fact is the story has no ending. We are left without knowing what happens to the characters....But the final episode in the book seems to me a trick to jar the reader out of the realization that the story really does not end. It takes away a little of the effectiveness, and there will be many readers to wish Steinbeck hadn't done it.
Symbol or trick. What do you think? And what would happen in the next chapter of the Joad family's story if there was one?
[Image from Seen and Heard International Opera Review. Review of the Minnesota Opera premier of The Grapes of Wrath on February 17, 2007.]