John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven does illustrate the theme of disillusionment typical of the Modern Literature period through its character’s actions and Steinbeck’s use of irony. Molly Morgan of The Pastures of Heaven is the disillusioned character who resolutely clings to the past. While explaining her past to John Whiteside in an interview for a job as a teacher, she explains the role of her father in her life. She remembered her father as an adventurer who brought both toys and stories for everybody from every corner of the earth. “Throughout the world George Morgan tramped, collecting glorious adventures” (Steinbeck 608). He also brought back wonderful stories that enchanted the children and miraculously transformed the children’s mother. “Their father was a glad argonaut, a silver knight. Virtue and Courage and Beauty - he wore a coat of them” (Steinbeck 609). This image of a disillusioned person could also be seen Thomas Wolfe’s The Far and the Near. In this story, the engineer had a set image of two women who had waved to him everyday for twenty years.
The sight of the little house and of these two women gave him the most extraordinary happiness he had ever known...He felt for them and for the little house in which they lived such tenderness as a man might feel for his own children, and at length the picture of their lives was carved so sharply in his heart that he felt that he knew their lives completely. (Wolfe 602)
Both the father and the two women represented the ideals of Molly and the engineer.
In reality, neither Molly’s father nor the two women in Wolfe’s story were what Molly or the engineer expected and this reversal shows the disillusionment of the time. The father abandoned the family when Molly was 12 and never returned or wrote to the family. “One time their father went away, and he never came back. He had never sent any money, nor had he ever written to them, but this time he just disappeared for good” (Steinbeck 610). Even after she was a grown woman at 19, she insisted that her father was an honorable man who truly loved them despite the fact that he never returned to the family. “Her father was dead. No, she didn’t really believe he was dead. Somewhere in the world he lived beautifully, and sometime he would come back” (Steinbeck 610). When this illusion of his honor was threatened by Bert Munroe’s story of an indolent, drunk servant, she quickly left both her happy life and her ideal career. At the end of the story, Molly says, “I [Molly] told you [John Whiteside] my father was dead. I don’t know whether he’s dead or not. I’m afraid...If I should see that drunken man of Mr. Munroe’s...I don’t want to go, I love it here - But I’m afraid...Once I’m away I’ll be able not to believe it [idea that her father is worthless]” (Steinbeck 614). While Molly ran away from the car that may have contained her drunken father, the engineer confronted it by visiting the two women. The confrontation disillusioned him because they weren’t what he expected and he did regret visiting them. “Now that he had found it [the house], why did his hand falter on the gate; why had the town, the road, the earth, the very entrance to his place he loved turned unfamiliar as the landscape of some ugly dream...With a sense of bitter loss and grief, he was sorry he had come (Wolfe 602). Thus, Molly and the engineer both realized that their ideals were unfounded which showed the loss of integrity during the time period.
Steinbeck, like the author William Faulkner, also used irony to present his theme. For example, the name of Pastures of Heaven represents Heaven in a sense, and it was ironic how Molly left ‘Heaven’ based on a threat to her ideals. The attitude of the children, Molly included, towards their mother was also very ironic. The children worshipped their father for being a drunkard, irresponsible man, while they were ashamed of their hardworking mother. “Both she and her brothers knew they should love their mother. She did everything for them. They were ashamed that they hated to be near her, but they couldn’t help it. When she called to them and they were not in sight, they pretended not to hear, and crept away, talking in whispers” (Steinbeck 607). The way that the children reacted to their mother’s death was also ironic compared to the mourning of their father’s death. “When her mother died, she felt little besides shame. Her mother had wanted so much to be loved, and she hadn’t known how to draw love [like their father]” (Steinbeck 610). In William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily, there was also irony. For example, the town’s attitude towards Miss Emily was very similar to the children’s attitude towards their mother. The town envied Miss Emily despite the fact that she was lonely and slightly insane. When she died, the town didn’t really think of her death as the death of a person, but the death of “a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town” (Faulkner 592). Everybody had gone to the funeral, but nobody went for the right reason. The men went “through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant...had seen in at least ten years” (Faulkner 592). The Pastures of Heaven also had irony in the character of Bill Whiteside. Bill was viewed by the town as a senseless man who was a fool. Yet, he was the only person who suggested to Molly that her father wasn’t a knight in shining armor. When he first learned of Molly’s father, he said, “‘From what you say, he was a kind of an irresponsible cuss, though’” (Steinbeck 611). He was also one of the few people in town who didn’t recognize the thief Vasquez as young hero. Molly had viewed him as a young adventurer of sorts with many different adventures in her daydreams at the cabin that was supposedly built by him to escape the posses. After she returned from daydreaming at the cabin, Bill said, “‘Everybody thinks Vasquez was a kind of hero, when really he was just a thief. He started in stealing sheep and horses and ended up robbing stages. He had to kill a few people to do it...we ought to teach people to hate robbers, not worship them’” (Steinbeck 613). Molly acknowledge the comment, but then she asked him to be quiet because she was tired and nervous. And, she was supposed to be the educated schoolteacher. Consequently, Steinbeck used his character’s actions and the technique of irony to elucidate the modern literature theme of disillusionment.