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  • joannayeldham

'...the children listening with their souls...'


by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck's epic novel, 'The Grapes of Wrath', follows one family's experience of the migration from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression of 1930s America. Many families were driven to join the migration due to drought, economic hardship and the lure of a better life in the west. The journey is long and fraught with many challenges. This short passage captures the moment, one evening, when a weary family, beset by hunger and the spectre of death, prepares a meagre meal by the roadside. Much of the journey still lies ahead and the men have been discussing their scant options:

'The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the sidemeat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand.'

What I love about this passage is how Steinbeck captures the way children absorb the adult world in which they find themselves. The words of the adults are, essentially, meaningless to the children. For them, listening is not an active tracking of words with a view to making meaning, but rather a visceral, felt sense of the non-verbal communications that accompany the spoken word. In this way they intuit, through their sense, the nature of their universe.


I wonder how many of us can recall that felt sense of our own infant universes. That young, pre-verbal awareness of our surroundings. What did we come to 'know' through these felt senses? Was our world safe? Chaotic? Frightening? Were we loved and therefore loveable? Or did we feel we were somehow a burden?

We often carry such early, unconscious 'knowings' about ourselves into our relationships and everyday transactions as adults.


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