Grapes of Wrath as a Compassionate Social Narrative
“Like William Faulkner and Willa Cather, John Steinbeck wrote his best fiction about the region in which he grew up and the people he knew from boyhood…” Paul McCarthy
Steinbeck’s novels of the common people and the troubles that beset them have earned him the reputation as one of America’s greatest writers. He has employed various forms, from short story to allegory to morality plays, yet his approach is consistently realistic. Critics often feel that the realism is marred by his sentimentality, but Steinbeck’s clear, forceful writing and his sensitive treatment of his characters are considered his strengths. Granville Hicks’s 1939 review in The New Masses declared The Grapes of Wrath an exemplary proletarian novel, noting that Steinbeck’s “insight into capitalism illuminates every chapter of the book.” Yet another critic, Joseph Fontenrose is of the view that “The Grapes of Wrath is a product of Steinbeck’s own experience and direct observation; its realism is genuine.”
It is a great task to tell a story, but to tell it with the essence of the environment in which it takes place surely requires great efforts on the part of the writer. The Grapes of Wrath, one of the period’s most brilliant and innovative novels, can be read not only as fiction but as a social document of the time, a record of drought conditions, economic problems and the sharecropping life. Not separate from the fictional, this level of record is a vital aspect of it. The novel is an accurate and moving account of the mass migration during the American Depression. Steinbeck highlights the social injustice, the traditional religious beliefs, the implications of the transcendentalist belief that each person is a part of the over-soul and that individual actions can not be interpreted as right or wrong. The family as a source of strength to its members and community as a whole is another important theme of the book. The document clarifies the nature of family and small farm life and also of underlying concepts. One of the most important themes is the traditional agrarian idea of the simple rural life based on principles of natural rights. Those who live and work on the land, who pay for it with their blood, sweat and toil, own the land. Muley Graves believes this, and up to a point so do the Joads. The Joad family is a universal symbol for the need of group effort and support to accomplish the greater good for the greater number of people.
The world presented to us in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath has an inexorable quality, in which, at every turn, large and invisible forces seem to operate upon vulnerable human beings. The tractors that level the farms of Oklahoma, the bankers who evict the farmers from the land, the movement of the Joad family across the country to California, the deaths that mark the family’s journey, and the rising flood that surrounds the characters in the last chapters of the novel, all make us feel the powerlessness of the individual in relation to the effects nature and the economy. To the story of Tom Joad and his family, their long- unstable and troublesome journey westward, their exhausted efforts to make a living in California, and the bitter resistance they encounter among the rich, gluttonous and selfish land owners- Steinbeck has added a large sky-blue vision of things as they actually were at the time when the novel was written. It is his notion of the over-soul, the world soul of which each individual has his modest and particular share. Jim Casy, the former preacher and future martyr, pronounces this idea: “Maybe all men got one big soul and everybody’s part of it.” That doctrine also is the philosophical basis for the famous speech that Tom Joad makes to his mother after Casy has been killed. Tom Joad is about to leave, to continue the whole struggle in hiding. His mother asks: “How’m I gonna know about you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’t know.” Tom laughes uneasily and says, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one-an’ then …then it don’t matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be everywhere-wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat. I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’-I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build-why, I’ll be there. See?” (Steinbeck 385)
The Joads reject to be broken by their circumstances. They preserve their poise, nobility and self esteem, despite the trials and tribulations that befall them. Hunger, tragic death, and maltreatment by the authorities do not break their spirit. Their dignity in the face of tragedy stands in contrast to the vileness of the rich landowners and the cops that treated the migrant workers like criminals. No matter how much misfortune and degradation are heaped upon the Joads, their sense of justice, family, and honor never waver. Steinbeck believed that as long as people maintained a sense of injustice, a sense of anger against those who sought to undercut their pride in themselves , they would never lose their dignity. Tom Joad is the symbol of all the mistreated working poor who refuse to be beaten down. In order to appreciate The Grapes of Wrath as a narrative of its era, it is worthwhile to take a glimpse on the burning issues of the time in which it was written. The book is set during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Hard times were made even harder in Oklahoma and four other states when drought and poor farming methods led to the wind erosion of the topsoil. The Great Plains thus became known as “the Dust Bowl”. Almost two million tenant farmers were pushed off their land, as they were unable to pay rent to the banks that owned their farms. A third of a million agricultural workers left the Dust Bowl for California, where they believed they could live off the rich and fertile land. However, there were many more migrant farmers than jobs, allowing landowners to treat the workers very poorly. Apart from this, the thirties was a decade of staggering unemployment in America – as high as 25% in 1933, and still hovering around 19% in 1938, the year in which Steinbeck set The Grapes of Wrath. He was not reserved about assigning part of the blame for the catastrophic conditions on the “Bank,” the “Company,” and the “State”; that is, to faceless, bloodless corporate, institutional, and bureaucratic organizations, so that his novel has an extremely hard, angry edge, though it offers no practical answers for a populace displaced by the shift from agricultural to industrial economies. The migration of hundreds of thousands of people westward was a major cultural phenomenon of the 1930s. Steinbeck’s sentimental portrayal of that phenomenon is another example of The Grapes of Wrath as a form of social document.
From the very beginning of the novel we get gloomy vibes from the description of the Dust Bowl, the event which causes all that happens in the rest of the novel. We see the “earth” crusting and the “sky” getting “pale”, “pink in the red country and white in the grey country.” (Steinbeck 5) The description is like that of a wasteland, where “Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes (Steinbeck 6)” Later we see that the people’s almost futile struggle against the dust is exemplified in his narration of how “houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes (Steinbeck 6).”
The novel also attacks the very assumptions about private property and class difference on which the social order rests ideologically. Far from being merely racist, it presents one of the most radical critiques of the social order in all of popular — and canonical — literature. Thus, its political intervention was, is and would probably remain contradictory. We see in the novel that Joads, like many thousand other families, are forced to sell their belongings for ridiculously low prices before leaving for California. Whatever is not sold must be burned, even items of sentimental value that simply cannot be taken on the journey for the lack of space. Steinbeck is explicit about the demeaning process of the sale of the outdated possessions. As we see in chapter 9, “You’re not buying only junk, you’re buying junked lives. And more-you’ll see- you’re buying bitterness (Steinbeck 80).” The farmers have attached their sentiments to their belongings (which is quite natural), they have associated life and death with their lands and letting go of their possessions brings nothing more than sheer disappointment and utter sorrow to them. Steinbeck throws light on the helplessness of these poor farmers who are compelled to act against their will. The narrative voice expressing the farmers’ internal feelings makes the readers experience fully what they must have had gone through during migration, “you’re buying years of work, toil in the sun; you’re buying a sorrow that cant talk. But watch it mister. There’s a premium goes with this pile of junk and the bay horses-so beautiful-a packet of bitterness to grow in your house and to flower, some day. We could have saved you, but you cut us down, and soon you will be cut down and there’ll be none of us to save you (Steinbeck 81).” The sentiments of these farmers, their defenselessness against the forced pressure from the capitalist society and their ultimate plight is so vividly expressed that the reader can’t help appreciating the minute observation of the writer. We find depth of sorrow in the helpless queries of these farmers, “how can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? No. Leave it. Burn it (Steinbeck 82).” Another example of the natural association with the land and belongings can be seen in Grandpa’s death. He couldn’t dissociate and separate himself from the place he thought he owned. Casy is very right when he says after Grandpa’s death that, “he was foolin’, all the time. I think he knowed it. An Grandpa didn’ die to-night. He died the minute you took ‘im off the place (Steinbeck 134).” And further he says, “He’s jus’ stayin’ with the lan’. He couldn’ leave it.” (Steinbeck 134). In fact, The Grapes of Wrath arguably became a site of confrontation between the thirties anti-capitalist consciousness and the American racist tradition – between manifest destiny and manifest exploitation and dispossession. Seen from a Marxist perspective, a very vivid understanding of the bitter capitalist issues of the novel can be gained. The Marxist theory of criticism examines the economic and governmental system that Steinbeck uses throughout the novel and reveals that he does indeed believe that capitalism is naturally flawed. According to Mary Klages, “marxists want to analyze social relations in order to change them, in order to alter what they see are the gross injustices and inequalities created by capitalist economic relations (Klages 126).” In The Grapes of Wrath, we see that Steinbeck confronts this ideal and reveals what he believes regarding this subject. He starts his grand confrontation with capitalism, by creating the feeling that there are two classes with a third one stuck somewhere between. In the beginning, Tom Joad wants to hitch a ride with a driver who has a “No Riders” sticker on the truck. Tom make the driver become tied and twisted in his emotions and moral feelings when saying, “sometimes a guy’ll be a good guy even if some rich bastard makes him carry a sticker…the driver considered the parts of this answer. If he refused now, not only was he not a good guy, but he was forced to carry a sticker, was not allowed to have company.” The driver is forced to believe that in order to be a “good guy,” he must put aside pride and help out a fellow man. Tom tries to make the driver realize that a man does not need to work for “some rich bastard” to be a decent person. Then again in chapter 5, more than the coming of the dust, the arrival of the bankers is as ominous event. For Steinbeck, the banks have no redeeming value. They are completely devoid of human characteristics. They are monstrosities that “breathe profits” and can never be satiated. Steinbeck explicitly states that bank is inhuman, and the bank owner with fifty thousand acres is a “monster.” “The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it (Steinbeck 32).” A bank is made by men but is something more than and separate from people, a destructive force that pursues short term profits at the expense of the land, destroying it through cotton production that drains the land of its resources. The poor farmers know not whom to blame, whom to curse and whom to “shoot” for their sufferings. The conversation between the tenant farmer and the tractor driver illustrates how diffused the controlling corporate system is. If a farmer wanted to stop the bank, he could not target one individual or even a small group; even if a farmer murdered the bank president, it would not stop the process of evictions. The people are helpless.”But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me (Steinbeck 37).”
We find this same futile struggle of the farmers to locate the core point of their miseries throughout the novel. Where should they go? Whom should they blame and what course of actions should be adopted in such circumstances? Steinbeck highlights all these bitter and yet so realistic questions of those times, ultimately ending up just focusing more on the extreme endurance on the part of the sufferers. The narration turns stunningly appealing in the chapters where it highlights the voice of the farmers complaining against the capitalist system, “is a tractor bad? Is the power that turns the long furrows wrong? If this tractor were ours it would be good –not mine, but ours. If our tractor turned the long furrows of our land, it would be good. Not my land, but ours. We would love that tractor then as we have loved this land when it was ours. But this tractor does two things- it turns the land and turns us off the land. There is little difference between this tractor and a tank. The people are drive, intimidated, hurt by both. We must think about this (Steinbeck 138).” The conditions for agricultural laborers during the Depression period were as bad or worse as those for southern tenant farmers and sharecroppers. While there were small permanent workforces on California farms, the vast majority of the labor was needed at harvest time, and was performed by migrant laborers who followed the crops as they matured over a six-month harvest season. By the 1930s, the pay and working conditions had both been terrible for at least sixty years. Migrant workers had few possessions, lived in substandard company housing or in makeshift camps, and had to provide their own transportation — usually ancient “jalopies.” Their children had limited or no access to schools, and they had little healthcare, making malnutrition and preventable diseases common. Steinbeck complemented the description of this hard time by illustrating the hopes of the people to earn decent wages and eventually purchase their own land. And he included historical content to illustrate the interactions between the different people who endured through life in the depression, whether they were rich or poor, landowner or tenant, or corporation or struggling small business. The consistent struggle of these workers can be summed up in Ma Joad’s words while they are bewildered at one time of their journey. She says to Tom, “you got to have patience. Why, Tom- us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people- we go on (Steinbeck 258).”
One of Steinbeck’s major messages in the novel is that socialistic revolt is the way to solve economic problems. He is of the view that people must join together for the survival of the whole humanity as he says, “This is the beginning-from ‘I’ to ‘We.’” He is of the view that, “If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.” We observe that the central artistic problem is to present the universal and epical in terms of the individual and particular. Steinbeck chooses to deal with this by creating an individual, particular image of the epical experience of the dispossessed Okies by focusing a sustained attention on the experience of the Joads. The result is an organic combination of structures. The characterization of these Joads is very interesting. The structure of the novel demanded that these characters must be individualized to be credible and universalized to carry out their representative functions. Steinbeck meets these problems by making each of the Joads a specific individual and by specifying that what happens to the Joads is typical of the times The means Steinbeck uses to maintain the identities of these characters is fascinating to note. The least important Joads are given highly specific tags, i.e. Grandma’s religion, Grandpa’s vigor, Uncle John’s melancholy, and Al’s love of cars and girls. The tags are involved in events; they are not lifeless labels. Grandma’s burial violates her religion; Grandpa’s vigor ends when he leaves the land; Uncle John’s melancholy balances the family’s experience; Al helps to drive the family to California and, by marrying, continues the family. Ma, Pa, Rose of Sharon, and Tom carry the narrative, so their individuality is defined by events. Ma is the psychological and moral center of the family; Pa carries its burdens; Rose of Sharon means to ensure its physical continuity; and Tom becomes its moral conscience. On the larger scale, there is much evidence that what happens to the family is typical of the times. We get to know that ‘the whole country is moving” or about to move. The Joads meet many of their counterparts or outsiders who are in sympathy with their ordeal; these meetings reinforce the common bond of “the people’ through which the artistic purpose of the novel, namely the survival of the whole human race, is highlighted. Despite the bleakness and tragedy of the circumstances, Steinbeck shows us the essential goodness of the people involved and their willingness to help strangers, and, when given the opportunity, to work together for the common good.
There are many examples of this in the story: Muley unquestioningly shares the rabbits he has caught with Tom and Casy; the men work together to build a wall to keep back the flood waters; and strangers invite Tom to share their breakfast. The final moments of the story when Rosasharn suckles the dying stranger symbolize this most clearly. This ending of the novel is also very symbolic although some of the critics have objected to the closing scene. This episode not only has folkloristic and literary background but for Steinbeck it is an oracular image, forecasting in a moment of defeat and despair the final triumph of the people- a conditional forecast, for only if the people nourish and sustain one another will they achieve their ends. More than that the episode represents the novel’s most comprehensive thesis, that all life is one and holy, and that every man, in Casy’s words, “Jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul.” The Joads’ intense feelings of family loyalty have been transcended; they have expanded to embrace all men. Another image could have symbolized this universality to the readers of that era, but for Steinbeck, perhaps no other could have done it so effectively.
To become a classic, it is often thought that a book needs to transcend its contemporary origins and remain untouched by subsequent history. But it is more accurate to think that a book becomes a classic precisely because it keeps being informed by the most recent historical developments. A literary classic speaks directly to readers’ concerns in successive historical and cultural eras. In this sense then, The Grapes of Wrath is a prophetic novel, rooted in the economic and environmental tragedies of the Great Depression, but speaking just as directly to the harsh realities of all times. At one time Steinbeck said that all his work was meant to help people understand one another. He has wanted to enlist our sympathies for men of all degrees, for the wise and feeble minded, for beggars and kings alike. His most persistent theme has been the superiority of simple human virtues and pleasures to the accumulation of riches and property, of kindness and justice to meanness and greed, of life asserting action to life denying. In several ways he has asserted that all life is holy, every creature valuable. Herein lies his sentimentality and emotions, but also his strength. Initially he thought his novel was too raw for wide general appeal: “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags,” he told his editor in early 1939. But despite its unflinching detail, gritty language, and controversial reception, The Grapes of Wrath will endure for its narrative power and strength of vision for times immemorial.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath, Penguine Modern Classics, 1939
Sharon K. Hall. Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 34, 1984, print.
Sharon R.Gunton, Gerard J.Senick. Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 21, 1982, print.
Bryfonski, Dedria. Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 9, 1978, print. Riley, Carolyn. Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 1, 1973, print.
Cunningham, Charles. “Rethinking the Politics of The Grapes of Wrath”, 2002. Web.12th February,2012.
DeMott, Robert. “The Grapes of Wrath, A Classic today?”, Tuesday, 14 April 2009,Web, 12th February,2012.
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