That Mysterious Smile
The conclusion on the Grapes of Wrath, is to me the most intriguing scene of the novel. Not only does it leave the remaining Joad family members possessionless and stranded in a flood, it also leaves a Rose of Sharon suckling a starving man and smiling "mysteriously" (455). One reaction I had to this ending was disappointment, for the fates of the Joads remain unknown. The other was surprise at Rose of Sharon's actions - not only that the young girl, who throughout the novel has been portrayed as rather self-centered, is offering her swollen breast to a stranger to keep him alive, but also that she smile mysteriously. Her smile, reminiscent of the all-knowing smile of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, directed at whom or what, we know not, was particularly compelling. The ending of the novel has been criticized and praised by many literary critics, and these criticisms and more postulations are explored in Martha Heasley Cox's article "The Conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath: Steinbeck's Conception and Execution".
According to Heasley Cox, the ending of Steinbeck's novel has been criticized as some of his worst writing. However, she also reveals that many critics were unaware of the fact that throughout the process of writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck kept a journal, from which it is clear that Steinbeck had imagined and prepared the end of his novel from early in it's inception. His characterization of Rose of Sharon throughout the novel was a purposeful lead up to the final scene, in which she has been compared to the Madonna, the Great Mother and many other mythical, religious and historical figures.
Knowing that Steinbeck had this purpose as he wrote the novel, I have, in retrospect, considered the characterization of Rose of Sharon, and why her final act in the novel contradicted her character for most of the rest of the book. Heasley Cox also explores this question, stating that many literary critics found, ""Thematic significance in Rose of Sharon's act, saying that it "symbolically transmutes her maternal love to a love of all people"; that it symbolizes "the main theme of the novel: the prime function of life is to nourish life"". One cannot forget that Rose of Sharon, who has prepared for the birth of a child and a life as a mother, has now found herself without a child at all, and all the nurturing and maternal energy she has stored within herself needs an outlet.
But why does Steinbeck end the novel here and not follow the Joads until they die or find work and a home? Would the novel go on forever? According to some literary critics quoted by Heasley Cox, ""It is fitting that the novel ends with the Joads wiser and more experienced, but still with no sense of belonging, no permanence in the country, no home of their own"; "Steinbeck ends his book on a quiet note: that life can go on, and that people can and must succor one another"". These analyses of the final scene of The Grapes of Wrath are right on the mark, in my opinion. The Joads' journey is one of a lifetime, and Steinbeck had to leave them somewhere, so why not at this point, in which several of the themes of the novel are embodied in the actions of Rose of Sharon? In addition, Rose of Sharon's mysterious smile across the barn could be directed at us, the readers, symbolizing the mystery of life, and the mystery that even at that moment of crisis, enshrouds the futures of the Joads.