“An often ignored collection of stories that appeared, unceremoniously, in 1932,” The Pastures of Heaven can be considered the cornerstone of much of John Steinbeck’s later, great fiction (Nagel xxix). Upon publication, although it was ignored for the most part by the reading public, critics generally praised the book, labeling it “magnificent” and referring to “the author’s simple, indelible power” (Jackson 12). After reading the work, one critic prophetically remarked that Steinbeck’s “future work should lead to his recognition as an excellent psychological analyst” (Nagel xiii). No matter what any critic has to say about the book, however, it is clear that in The Pastures of Heaven, Steinbeck for the first time presents many of the themes and ideas that he explores in depth in several of his later works.
The work is a short story cycle that contains many individual short stories linked by specific themes. This is the first of Steinbeck’s California books in which the characters, people who dwell in a beautiful California valley named the Pastures of Heaven, are tied intimately to the land, as is the case with Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. The individual stories show the effect the Munroe’s family, who move onto the “cursed” Battle farm, have on the people of the valley. A prologue and epilogue provide a “thematic envelope” for the 10 stories that comprise the work (Nagel xix). The prologue sets the stage for the rest of the work by introducing the supposed “curse” on the valley. A Spanish corporal discovers the valley while searching for his runaway Indian slaves. The corporal is awestruck by the heavenly beauty of the valley and decides that he will return someday. An Indian woman, however, whom he probably raped, “presented him with the pox,” and he never had a chance to return (4). Thus, the first person whose dream lay in the Pastures was denied.
As in many of Steinbeck’s works, especially Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, the dream motif of an Edenic garden is a very powerful and prevalent theme in The Pastures of Heaven. Nearly all characters are tormented by some unfulfilled dream and disillusionment, or by the realization that their existence is illusory and easily shattered by intrusive reality. In the story of Pat Humbert and the Whitesides, for example, Mae Munroe inadvertently inspires Pat Humbert with the idea of remodeling the parlor he detests. Pat becomes obsessed and pictures inviting Mae to see the parlor, where she will fall madly in love with him. When he finally summons the nerve to invite her over, Pat learns that Mae has just become engaged to Bill Whiteside. After Pat’s dream of a happy life with Mae is vanquished, he never again wants to face “the dark and unutterable dreary” parlor, which he recently found so delightful and promising (168).
As had Pat, John Whiteside had a dream: He longed to create a Whiteside dynasty in his beautiful house in the Pastures. When Bill, his only son, decides to marry Mae Munroe and move to the city, John Whiteside’s dream of a dynasty goes up in smoke—as does his house, of which he was so proud, when it is accidentally burned to the ground.
Other characters, such as Edward “Shark” Wicks, Helen Van Deventer, Molly Morgan, and Raymond Banks, also live an illusory and deluded existence. Both Shark Wicks and Molly Morgan decide to leave the Pastures rather than face reality once their illusions have been exposed and unmasked. The widowed Helen Van Deventer, devoted to “her masochistic hungering for tragedy” (Winn 95), murders her insane daughter so that she can brood over her deed for the rest of her life. Raymond Banks derives his life’s pleasure from witnessing executions at the San Quentin Penitentiary. Whatever satisfaction Raymond derives from this, however, is ruined when Bert Munroe lets him know how twisted it really is. All of these characters’ illusions have been shattered; each must face reality or run away from the Pastures.
The third group of characters in The Pastures of Heaven—Tularecito, Junius Maltby, and Rosa and Maria Lopez—reflect Steinbeck’s characteristic distaste for middle-class morality. Both Tularecito and Robbie Maltby, Junius’s son, are ruined by the public school system that conventional society forces them to attend. The Lopez sisters, who encourage the sale of their enchiladas with sex, are driven out of the Pastures by the moral middle class. Society’s “demands for conformity” destroy these characters’ sense of self and happiness (xxiii).
The epilogue is loaded with Steinbeck’s stinging irony. A group of tourists gaze upon the Pastures just as the Spanish corporal did hundreds of years before. Ignorant of the personal tragedy that has occurred in the heavenly valley, they fantasize about the quiet and peaceful lives the inhabitants must lead in what appears to be a paradise on earth.
The Pastures of Heaven serves as apt introduction to the themes of Steinbeck’s major works: disillusionment, displacement, loss of a sense of self, and a distaste for bourgeois morality.
Jackson, Joseph. “John Steinbeck: A Portrait.” The Saturday Review 16, no. 22 (September 25, 1937): 11–12, 18.
Meyer, Michael. “Finding a New Jerusalem: The Edenic Myth of John Steinbeck.” In Literature and the Bible. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993.
Nagel, James. “Introduction.” In The Pastures of Heaven. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Owens, Louis. “John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven: Illusions of Eden.” Arizona Quarterly (Autumn 1985): 197–214.
Pugh, Scott. “Ideals and Inversion in The Pastures of Heaven.” Kyushu-American Literature 28 (October 1987): 70–720.
Steinbeck, John. The Pastures of Heaven. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Winn, Harbour. “The Unity of Steinbeck’s Pasture’s Community.” Steinbeck Quarterly 22, nos. 3–4 (Summer–Fall 1989): 91–103.
Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story
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