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J A M E S C. W O R K Colorado State University Coordinate Forces in “The Leader of the People” The principal interpretations of Steinbeck’s “The Leader of the People” seem shallow because they fail to consider the story’s proper relationship with two significant contexts. If the real meaning of Jody and his grandfather seems deeper than the story itself indicates, it is because of an underlying theme that the story has in common with eight others in The Long Valley collection; even more important, however, is the participation of that theme in the broader social theory which states that the uniqueness of the western American character stems from the fusion of the primitive and the civilized as coordinate forces. “The Leader of the People” is Steinbeck’s sequel to “The Red Pony” story series, and the concluding story in his collection, The Long Valley. Eight of the stories in the collection, including “The Leader of the People,” share a significant theme. Each story has a closed-in, isolative setting: each setting encloses a character whose life has nearly become stagnant — or unmoving and unchanging, at least. And intruding upon each situation is an outside force, symbolic of life and vitality. Finally, this force does not alter the situation or setting, but changes the principal characters’ perceptions of it. 280 Western American Literature “The Chrysanthemums” is set in a valley described as a closed pot with fog for a lid. Eliza’s life there is dull, repetitive, and vaguely frus­ trating ; while she has a gift for making things grow, and is surrounded by orchards and fields needing her gift, her efforts are restricted to a little fenced-in plot of chrysanthemums that “seemed too small and easy for her energy.” The itinerant tinker who pulls up to her fence one afternoon is a virile life-force who comes into her closed valley, arouses and confuses her emotions, and leaves. In “The White Quail” the setting is a garden that has a “hedge” of fuschias symbolically excluding the wild and natural world from the comfortably ordered and unchanging lawn and garden. The life-force intruder in this case is the white quail. Seeing it calls up in Mary “a shiver of pleasure, bursting of pleasure” she had not known since her youth. Afraid of its effect on her, or not understanding the effect, her husband shoots the quail. In “Flight” the ranch of the Torres family is trapped between the mountains and the sea-cliff, to be invaded by men searching for the boy who has taken up his father’s symbols of maturity — the gun and knife — too early. Dr. Phillips in “The Snake” works in his “tight little building” alone until the appearance of the woman who wants to see the snake eat its rat. The encounter leaves Phillips shaken, thinking of “psychological sex symbols,” wondering whether to kill the snake, thinking he is “too much alone.” But she has left, and he will never see her again. “The Harness” again features a prosperous but unchanging ranch, run by a man in harness who is allowed to leave it once a year to have a few days of emotional life. Finally, the story Steinbeck titles “The Murder” repeats elements of each of the former stories: the vaguely bored Jelka, living in the isolation and boredom of the old house, takes a lover. He is the intruding vital force; after killing him, the husband decides to abandon the old family home and build “a new house farther down the canyon.” With the exception of “Flight,” “The Red Pony,” and “The Leader of the People,” the“intruder” stories deal in sexual imagery. “The Snake” is the most direct example, with the specimen-collector obviously stimu­ lated by the mysterious woman who pays to watch the snake eat the rat. The suggestion of sexual arousal is almost as clear in “The Chrysanthe­ mums” when, stirred by the attention paid her by the itinerant tinker, Eliza first considers going with her husband to see the prizefight, where James C. Work 281 men smash each other bloody, and then decides simply that the promise of red wine at dinner “will...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 279-289
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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