Parataxis in John Steinbeck's 'Paradox and Dream'

John Steinbeck (1902-1968)
(Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Though best known as a novelist (The Grapes of Wrath, 1939), John Steinbeck was also a prolific journalist and social critic. Much of his writing dealt with the plight of the poor in the United States. His stories allow the reader to question what it means to be American especially during hard times like the Great Depression or times of great social upheaval during the Civil Rights Movement. In the essay "Paradox and Dream" (from his final nonfiction book, America and the Americans), Steinbeck examined the paradoxical values of his fellow citizens. His familiar paratactic style (heavy on coordination, light on dependent clauses) is clearly illustrated here in the opening paragraphs of the essay.

From "Paradox and Dream"* (1966)

by John Steinbeck

1 One of the generalities most often noted about Americans is that we are a restless, a dissatisfied, a searching people. We bridle and buck under failure, and we go mad with dissatisfaction in the face of success. We spend our time searching for security, and hate it when we get it. For the most part we are an intemperate people: we eat too much when we can, drink too much, indulge our senses too much. Even in our so-called virtues we are intemperate: a teetotaler is not content not to drink--he must stop all the drinking in the world; a vegetarian among us would outlaw the eating of meat. We work too hard, and many die under the strain; and then to make up for that we play with a violence as suicidal.

2 The result is that we seem to be in a state of turmoil all the time, both physically and mentally. We are able to believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and at the same time we are deeply convinced that it is the best government in the world, and we would like to impose it upon everyone else.

We speak of the American Way of Life as though it involved the ground rules for the governance of heaven. A man hungry and unemployed through his own stupidity and that of others, a man beaten by a brutal policeman, a woman forced into prostitution by her own laziness, high prices, availability, and despair--all bow with reverence toward the American Way of Life, although each one would look puzzled and angry if he were asked to define it.

We scramble and scrabble up the stony path toward the pot of gold we have taken to mean security. We trample friends, relatives, and strangers who get in the way of our achieving it, and once we get it we shower it on psychoanalysts to try to find out why we are unhappy, and finally--if we have enough of the gold--we contribute it back to the nation in the form of foundations and charities.

3 We fight our way in, and try to buy our way out. We are alert, curious, hopeful, and we take more drugs designed to make us unaware than any other people. We are self-reliant and at the same time completely dependent. We are aggressive, and defenseless. Americans overindulge their children; the children in turn are overly dependent on their parents. We are complacent in our possessions, in our houses, in our education; but it is hard to find a man or woman who does not want something better for the next generation. Americans are remarkably kind and hospitable and open with both guests and strangers; and yet they will make a wide circle around the man dying on the pavement. Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence.

* "Paradox and Dream" first appeared in John Steinbeck's America and Americans, published by Viking in 1966.

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Nordquist, Richard. "Parataxis in John Steinbeck's 'Paradox and Dream'." ThoughtCo, Sep. 12, 2017, thoughtco.com/parataxis-in-paradox-and-dream-1692328. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, September 12). Parataxis in John Steinbeck's 'Paradox and Dream'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/parataxis-in-paradox-and-dream-1692328 Nordquist, Richard. "Parataxis in John Steinbeck's 'Paradox and Dream'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/parataxis-in-paradox-and-dream-1692328 (accessed December 13, 2017).