The Grapes of Wrath as “A Piece of Documentary Propaganda in Functional Form”
Throughout The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck follows the journey of the Joads during the Great Recession, they were a fictional family who had fallen into poverty after losing their farm and had no choice but to become migrant workers. I believe Steinbeck takes a Marxist approach to writing this novel, creating a reaction against capitalism by using real life circumstances to depict this fictional account and stand up for how the ‘Okie’ people were treated. Steinbeck himself worked as a ranch worker and fruit picker before becoming a writer and he travelled through California to collect information by talking to migrants, gaining a real sense of what they faced when leaving their homes in the 1930s, therefore his life experiences help to make this novel as accurate and realistic as possible.
Steinbeck adds an element of foreshadowing to his novel through his use of interweaving chapters. In chapter three he focuses on the story of a turtle who is struggling to cross the highway, barely surviving after a truck hits it and sends it back off the road, but it survives and tries again. In the following chapter Tom Joad finds this turtle and brings it home, hoping to surprise his brother and keep it as pet and when he meets Jim Casy the turtle tries to escape multiple times, but never fully manages it. Eventually when Tom returns to his family home to find it empty, he gives up and sets the turtle free, only for it to be attacked by one of the cats but again it survives by hiding in its shell until the cat leaves, before starting off on its journey once again. Lisca believes, ‘the indomitable life force that drives the turtle, drives the Joads’; the turtle is symbolic throughout as it faces much opposition yet shows determination to overcome it’s struggles, refusing to give up, much like the Joads family and in the end they both survive. Through the use of this symbol we as readers articulate sympathy for this poor turtle along its difficult and testing journey therefore Steinbeck foreshadows this sympathy that he wants us to have towards the Joads in their journey to battle against capitalism.
Steinbeck opens a scene in the novel by depicting a farmer who is standing next to a broken down home describing how ‘the Bank… or the Company… needs… wants… insists… must have… as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensared them’ in order to portray the Bank and big companies as evil and out to get land tenants and farmers. This is significant as many big land owners and corporations at the time evicted their tenants simply because they were of no use to them anymore and were non profitable, and Steinbeck wanted to emphasise how wrong this is and of what cost it comes to these tenants. The government created a new policy with the intention of increasing the price of cotton and it began to offer grants to land owners who would decrease the amount land on which they were farming on, this money was supposed to go towards helping tenants, but instead many land owners were using it for their own personal use, for example buying new tractors. This was the making of poverty for small farm owners and tenant farmers, leaving them with no choice but to leave their home land and migrate into California. Therefore, from the outset, Steinbeck makes readers aware that the problem stems from capitalism in big companies and banks whom the Okies fall victim to.
The Joads were one of the families who fell victim to the new government policy as they were forced to leave their home and begin their trip to California to start a new life after the drought left them unable to keep their land. Steinbeck highlights the effects that this had on them. The Joads had no choice in leaving as we learn from this dialogue:
‘You got to get off. It ain’t my fault’
‘Whose fault is it? I’ll go an’ I’ll nut the fellow.’
‘It’s the Shawnee Lan’ an’ Cattle Company. I jus’ got orders.’
‘Who’s the Shawnee Lan’ an’ Cattle Company?’
‘It ain’t nobody. It’s a company.’
Steinbeck is emphasising how unfair it is that the Joads had no choice and alike many others, they lived at the mercy of large companies such as the ‘Shawnee Lan’ an’ Cattle Company’and could do nothing about it, they had no one to defend them and had to simply do as they were told, even at the cost of uprooting their whole family home and livelihood. He is highlighting that these capitalist companies don’t care about the repercussions for small farmers, they only care about making more money and so their treatment of families like the Joads is wrong and inhumane.
In many situations, there is no one for people like the Joads to discuss matters with in order to possibly come to some sort of arrangement, they are simply told what to do and left with no other option. In chapter five when the tractor comes to clear the land the tenant threatens the worker driving the tractor with a gun, to which he responds, ‘I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it… suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor’, the tenant questions, ‘Who gave you the orders? I’ll go after him’, and the worker tells him ‘He got his orders from the Bank.’ Steinbeck is portraying the Bank as the monster and the one to blame for this man’s misfortune as the worker is simply following their orders, the bank does not care about neither the tenant or the worker as long as the land is cleared and made profitable. The tenant says, ‘it’s not like lightening or earthquakes’, he knows it’s caused by humans who should have rationale and the ability to stop this, but he is unable to find anyone to actually talk to. Steinbeck alludes to the capitalists here, who even go as far to dehumanise not only the Okies, but their workers in order to get their dirty work done, and the novel as a whole is based around exposing these Banks and large companies.
Steinbeck showcases how the mentality of farmers and businesses of every man for himself caused a lot of issues in the lives of the migrants. For example, a small farmer only needed to have three workers and he had been paying them thirty cents an hour, but at the Farmer’s Association meeting he was confronted and threatened, ‘You’re paying thirty cents an hour. You’d better cut it down to twenty-five… If you pay thirty, it’ll only cause unrest. And by the way, you going to need the usual amount of crop loan next year.’ Steinbeck was emphasising that even when the migrant workers could get a job with someone who wanted to pay them fairly, that person was then threatened and manipulated by those more powerful than him. The farmer realises the injustice of what is happening to these people but cannot do anything about it without making a negative impact on his own life. After the three men, including Tom, agree to work for less pay he tells them, ‘I don’t know how you men can feed a family on what you get now.’ Steinbeck discusses how the treatment of Okies was even worse than the treatment of foreign immigrants years prior, ‘Okies did accept lower wages – wages that Mexicans, in fact, had refused.’ Steinbeck tackles the ongoing theme throughout of emphasising how wrong it is that capitalist corporations such as the Farmers Association leave people with no choice but to do what they want, or they themselves will be threatened, and in doing what they want they are often forced to give up their humanity.
In another bid to portray how unfairly the Okies are treated, Steinbeck describes how the Joad family take a job picking peaches, where they are given a dollar in credit for the company’s grocery store. When Ma goes to the shop, she realises that a dollar does not buy much at all and all together they only make a dollar fifty a day. They are unable to afford the food here and are not earning their own cash so they cannot go to another store to buy what they need. The shop clerk has no sympathy towards Ma, telling her ‘Hooper Ranches Incorporated’ own it and make the prices, not him. She asks him ‘Doin’ a dirty thing like this. Shames ya, don’t it?’ but he simply responds with, ‘a fella got to eat.’ Steinbeck is highlighting how unacceptable it is that capitalists are abusing the system by treating the Okies this way, and feeling no remorse towards any of their actions because they are only concerned with thriving themselves. He emphasises how capitalists dehumanise others after obtaining power and wealth.
If the small farmer or the shop clerk had refused to do as they were ordered which was to rob the Okies, they would have been subject to a counterblast. But Steinbeck wanted readers to realise that if all of these small farmers and shop clerks stood unanimously, and refused to do what was morally wrong, then change could be possible. Casy states in the first chapter, ‘It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folk do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say’, highlighting that in the country’s current situation, only the rich and powerful such as Banks and large corporations can voice their opinions, and anyone else is threatened. Juxtaposing this, near the end of the novel Tom exclaims, ‘I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together an’ yelled.’ Shindo states that upon ending the novel, ‘the reader is left with very little resolution of the conflict’ but I believe Steinbeck’s aim was to encourage his readers to come together to force a change in attitudes towards the migrants and take a stand against capitalists. McElderry supports this view, stating that whilst writing the novel Steinbeck had ‘subconscious motivation- to express his basic faith in mankind, in the courage, the endurance and the kindliness of people like the Joads, and to show their passionate yearning for opportunity and for justice.’
Many Californian communities were furious at Steinbeck’s opinions in the book and it was banned in some counties for example Kern, I believe this was due to the embarrassment American’s felt after reading how accurately he portrayed their treatment of immigrants. Green states that the novel, ‘was a social document that outraged management groups such as the Associated Farmers of California’[footnoteRef:19] and Shockley reports that, ‘The Associated Farmers Group of Kern County described the book as ‘propaganda in its vilest form.’ Some argue that his portrayal was historically inaccurate and he exaggerated circumstances, but I do not support this view due to the extensive research Steinbeck carried out before writing the novel. Professor O.B Duncan, Head of Department of Sociology agrees, ‘I have been asked quite often if I could not dig up some statistics capable of refusing the story, it cannot be done, for all the available data prove beyond doubt that the general impression of Steinbeck’s book is substantially reliable.’ Therefore I believe that even though this novel is in fictional form, it captures life events for what they really were, and Steinbeck wanted his readers to tackle these events and go against capitalist corporations such as the Farmers Association, which is why it angered them so greatly.
In conclusion, I believe Steinbeck was revealing the true atrocity of the situation in which the immigrants were subject to due to capitalists within the country. His key concern was to expose how these capitalist companies exploited the Okies due to the new oversupply of labour workers, in order to make more profit in their businesses. Much of Steinbeck’s anger rooted from the treatment of Okies and how business owners, banks and land owners refused to acknowledge them as human, he states ‘these are American people’. But in his community they were only seen as a way to make more money, diseased or at fault for the tax increase, therefore a huge stigma surrounded the Okie people. I agree with Whicher’s statement, as I believe that propaganda is evident in the novel as Steinbeck wants to showcase how terrible things were, and to evoke his reader’s sympathy towards Okies, and their anger towards capitalist banks and companies. Through this novel he was driving for change, and attempting to drive his readers towards making this change.
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