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  • The Emotional and Narrative Significance of Rose of Sharon’s Mysterious Smile
  • Edward John Royston (bio)

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath concludes in a grotesque yet powerful scene in which Rose of Sharon, having just lost her own child, breastfeeds a dying stranger in a rain-soaked barn surrounded by flooded cotton fields. This scene has garnered a great deal of criticism and analysis, both negative and positive. Classic studies by Clifton Fadiman and Leslie Fielder have criticized it as a purely symbolic scene that does little to resolve the otherwise realistic novel.1 Concerned with how the final scene’s imagery and apparent symbolism detract from its realism, Scott Pugh has noted that Rose’s action is “palpably inadequate to deal with the hunger of others” (78). Exploring the work’s biblical connections with Genesis and Exodus and with The Pilgrim’s Progress, other critics have interpreted the ending more positively.2 But these approaches examine the broad iconic quality of the scene without regard to the significance of the novel’s concluding detail: Rose of Sharon’s “lips came together and smiled mysteriously” (Grapes 455). In disregarding this detail to focus on the act’s allusive imagery, these critics focus on what the act means to the reader, while neglecting to examine what the act may mean to the one who performs it, Rose of Sharon. Her mysterious smile is no incidental detail. Its significance is indicated not only by its emphatic position within the narrative, but also by being the culmination of a sequence of smiles. Examining this sequence and the reasons why Rose of Sharon smiles, this paper will revisit the final scene on a personal level, attending to a single character in order to show that this physical act of smiling has a significance of its own outside the realm of imagery or symbolism.

In Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Martha Nussbaum asserts that emotions “are about something: they have an object.… the object is an intentional object … These emotions embody not simply ways of seeing an object, but beliefs—often very complex—about the object” (27–28). In other words, we experience emotions in reaction to events and occasions in our [End Page 152] lives; and the emotions we experience reveal our beliefs about those events. Nussbaum uses her grief at her mother’s death as an example. In short, her grief reflects her judgment: my mother is gone and she is not coming back. Nussbaum displayed her grief through various means: grieving, weeping, acting morose. Different emotions, however, warrant different displays, and a smile is often a display of pleasure. Rose of Sharon’s smiles thus raise the question: what is the object of her smile?

Before answering this question, it is fruitful to establish a sketch of Rose of Sharon’s character. J. Paul Hunter asserts that Rose of Sharon is “the most selfish of the remaining Joads; her concern … never [extends] beyond herself and her immediate family [Connie and the expected child]” (46). While this characterization seems a bit unfair—Rose demonstrates the greatest concern for the family dog, and it is her responsibility to keep track of Ruthie and Winfred—it is true that she is obsessed with a vision of her future, one that centers on her unborn child. She speaks often about the things she and Connie will have after reaching California:

Ma, we wanna live in a town.… Connie gonna get a job in a store or maybe a fact’ry. An’ he’s gonna study at home, maybe radio, so he can git to be an expert an’ maybe later have his own store. An’ we’ll go to pitchers whenever. An’ Connie says I’m gonna have a doctor when the baby’s born; an’ he says we’ll see how times is, an’ maybe I’ll go to a hospiddle. An’ we’ll have a car, little car.… Well, I’m gonna have a ‘lectric iron, an’ the baby’ll have all new stuff.… You seen in the catalogue all the stuff they got for a baby.… We don’t want nothin’ fancy, but we want it nice for the baby...


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pp. 152-159
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