The Injustices of the Dust Bowl Migration in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The novel The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is about the social injustices that took place during the Dust Bowl migration in the western United States. It is composed of a third person view of a family, the Joads, who are kicked off their homestead and forced to travel to California in search of jobs, and inner chapters which are a general third person view of the hardship of homestead farmers during the time period. Steinbeck uses the inner chapters of the book to develop his political stance on the plight of the migrants. The story of the Joads is alone not enough to make the reader fully understand the extent of the misfortune and sorrow experienced by these migrants. The inner chapters help the reader understand the time period, and understand what is happening to the Joads, and what happened to thousands of other migrants during this time. Without these chapters, the book would not have as strong of a statement on the wrongdoings by Americans to other Americans during this time.
The story begins with the start of the dust bowl. Thick clouds of dust fill the skies, and the farmers tie handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths. At night, the dust blocks out the stars and creeps into the farmhouses. During the day the farmers have nothing to do but stare at their dying crops, wondering how their families will survive. The injustices to the farmers begins with the banks. Crops were withering and the farmers weren’t making the money they needed to pay the bank or company they took loans from. Men representing the banks come and explain to the farmers that they are being kicked out. The men blame the bank, saying it is “as though the bank or the company were a monster, with thought and feeling.” (page 31). The farmers are forced to leave and their labor is replaced with men who drive a tractor over the fields for three dollars a day. The families have no other choice than to travel west to California in search of jobs.
The next injustice Steinbeck reveals is from car salesmen. They exploit their desperation and sell the families whatever broken down vehicles they can find. The salesmen fill engines with sawdust to hide noisy transmissions and replace good batteries with cracked ones before they deliver the cars. Once the family has their car, they begin to sell their belongings. They have to get rid of everything before they make their journey. ” How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? No. Leave it. Burn it.” (page 112). Their lives are sold away with their belongings as they began their new life.
Long lines of cars slowly crept down Highway 66, full of tenant farmers making their way to California. They find their next injustices along their journey. When the farmers stop to buy parts for their cars, salesmen try to cheat them. The farmers struggle to make it from service station to service station. At each stop they are met with hostility and suspicion. People claim that the country is not large enough to support everybody’s needs and suggesting that they go back to where they came from. People who live in the West do not understand what has happened in Oklahoma and the Midwest. So many migrant farmers were coming into the west. The citizens of the western states fear that the farmers will come together and stage a revolt.
The hostility directed toward the migrants changes them and brings them together. Little communities aries out of the masses of cars along the highway. The communities attempt to govern themselves with their own rules and means to enforce them. The lives of the farmers change drastically. “Thus they changed their social life – changed as in the whole universe only man can change. They were not farm men any more, but migrant men.” (page 250). The lifestyle of these people was flipped upside down and their world was totally different. As the migrant men were coming together, so were the locals of California. They formed armed bands to terrorize the migrants and keep them in their place.
During their search for work, the migrants were often paid low wages or cheated out of their wages through scams by the farm owners. Steinbeck describes the injustice done to the migrants by the cotton farm owners. The owners paid decent wages, but workers without cotton-picking sacks were forced to buy them on credit. There were so many workers that some were unable to do enough work even to pay for their sacks. Crooked owners rig the scale used to weigh the cotton sacks. Migrants who were only trying to feed their families are cheated out of the money they worked hard for by the wealthy landowners who have no aspirations in life other than to become more wealthy.
Steinbeck’s novel is a political statement on the treatment of migrants. His novel exposes the hardship faced by the migrants and the exploitation they face at every turn. From beginning to end, they are met with selfishness and greed. Steinbeck reveals the changes that had begun in America. Money was the new driving force for the lifestyle of every American. Getting it was what you spent your life achieving, and once you had it, you did whatever selfish thing needed to keep it, no matter who was hurt in the process. Although the story of the Joads sheds light on the topic, the inner chapters of the novel make the reader truly understand how unjust the world was for these families whose lives were uprooted and continually put through agony all in the name of becoming and staying wealthy.
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