“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. . . .”
The opening of The Grapes of Wrath invokes the strange beauty of a dying world, leading to a powerful story about a family’s struggle to survive the haphazard events of history, bad luck, and capitalism. The Grapes of Wrath, which deserves mention as a candidate for the coveted title of “The Great American Novel” according to my assessment, portrays capitalism’s and greed’s capacity of warping the human soul to a state of callousness towards one’s fellow man. It’s an intensely political and historical work, yet it never degenerates into the unbearably polemical. Granted it starts off a bit slow, but ultimately I found myself hooked by the end of the novel, and deeply caring about the characters and the story’s outcome to the point where certain scenes lingered with me long after I had finished the book.
Set during the Great Depression, the novel follows the desperate Joad family who plan to leave their home and travel to California in order to find work. Like so many other families, they have lost their farm to the bank as a consequence of dust storms during the dust bowl. After their long odyssey across the American west, California fails to be the utopia the Joads dreamed, proving more hell than heaven as the local landowners exploit the desperate situation of the migrant workers who are slowly starving to death with few prospects of work to relieve their suffering. Due to their desperation, these migrant workers are willing to work for unfair wages to feed their families. The Joad family joins these other migrants, only to arrive to unsanitary living conditions, confront belligerent police sent to keep the migrants in their place, face class prejudice from the local population, and suffer death, sickness, and starvation.
This book would fit comfortably not only in a literature course, but in a history class. It provides a wonderful literary portrait of the times: life in the Hoovervilles, the dust bowl (an often ignored and forgotten part of our history, which I had never even heard about until college), and even anachronistic pejoratives like “okies” (a derogatory name for the migrants coming from other states to California, which I hadn’t known about until reading this novel.) Nevertheless, despite its usefulness as a fictionalized historical narrative, it still possesses all the hallmark characteristics of good literature in its own right, with wonderfully written prose, powerful symbols strewn across the story, allusions to the Bible, and well-developed characters that take us through an enthralling plot.
The novel is an attack on the greed of big business and capitalism, especially the greedy selfishness it produces within individuals. While not being portrayed as actual characters and only mentioned in the exposition narrative that interlude between the story of the Joads, the landowners are shown to love money for money’s sake, depicted as out-of-touch with the land (in opposition to “real” farmers), and not knowing what lands they even own. They know only the profits they make from it. The selfishness of the landowners trickles down into the middle-class managers of the individual farms who enforce the oppression of the out-of-luck starving migrant workers in order to save a few bucks. It is not a matter of big dollars; as Steinbeck shows the managers literally nickel-and-dime the workers, cutting five cents here, two cents there, which would really make no difference to the ultra-rich landowners, but a huge difference to the workers’ ability to provide food for their families. They pay astronomically low wages simply because they can; there is very little work to be had and tons of out of work migrants to choose from to fill the scanty positions available. The landowners rig the system further, owning all the food stores on the premises of their farms and the canning companies for the produce that is picked, so that the money they do pay out to the workers returns right back to them since the workers have to spend the money they make to feed themselves.
Such economic conditions leads to the dehumanization of the migrants. The migrants don’t just head to California on a whim, but the exploitation of the landowners is calculated. They purposely send out the flyers to all the poor people in the dust bowl states to convince them to head to California, giving the big landowners an infinite supply of starving workers that allows them to cut down prices for labor. Meanwhile, the local populace turns a blind eye to the plight of these migrants–these “okies” as they derogatorily name them in an attempt to dehumanize them. They dehumanize the population not just so they feel comfortable exploiting them, but also so they need not empathize with their plight. Every time the locals come close to empathizing with them, their empathy turns to anger and fear. They constantly remark that they would never live in such conditions under any circumstance, and therefore the okies should be treated like animals because they must be like animals to accept such conditions, despite these critics never having been placed into such hardships.
Through the characters of Jim Casy and Tom Joad, Steinbeck suggests the solution to such exploitation is unionism. Only through the collective can people stop the evils of the world. In fact, Casy suggests the evils of the world (all the crimes) stem from need; people will steal and murder not out of evil, but because they are unable to fulfill their basic needs any other way. Jim Casy is a prophetic Christ figure, even sharing Jesus Christ’s initials. He is the radical Christ of the Bible primarily interested in the plight of the poor and downtrodden, believing that heaven is to be found on earth and adopting socialist principles of cooperation as the greatest good in order to solve humanity’s problems.
When an author develops an allusion like this it is not some superficial attempt to add depth. Rather through allusions and typologies, the author creates a dialogue between his work and the ancient work, emphasizing what he thinks is important about the ancient work’s ideas. In this sense, the presence of Jim Casy as our Jesus figure is meant to challenge the traditional ideas of faith as being truly important and puts new focus not only on the social message, but on the idea that all people are brothers and sisters under God, challenging the dehumanization process we see that takes place in the novel. This typology is extended further when like Jesus, Casy is sacrificed for the principles he preaches when he gets his head busted in during a strike he is leading against a farm paying unfair wages. After Casy dies, in continuing with the biblical typology, Tom becomes a disciple to spread Jim Casy’s ideas of collectivism and the true sources of evil in the world (human selfishness, the inability to fulfill basic needs, and greed). It is important to recognize that Jim Casy’s message of collectivism is not just an argument against capitalist exploitation, but his radical philosophy is meant to suggest that human collectivity is the best way to solve any problem, and in the context of the larger American literary tradition this places the work in opposition to that strain of American Literature that places a high premium on individuality.
The desperate situation of the times transforms the social roles within the family. Ma Joad, the matriarch, takes over the reins from Pa Joad who is emasculated by the whole experience, no longer able to support his family and too lost in his own thoughts to make decisions. The social situation leads to the erosion of traditional gender and family roles. This leads to the powerful image at the end of Rose of Sharon breast feeding a starving stranger in a barn, symbolizing both the state of the male family heads in California who can no longer support their family and have literally become like helpless babies and also symbolizing a kind of rebirth and hope in which people will come together to help each other in trying times in order to survive. This is further emphasized by Rose’s transformation from earlier in the novel where she is depicted as selfish; we end seeing this selfish person performing a selfless act for a stranger. Steinbeck borrowed this final image from Valerius Maximus who recorded in The Nine Books of Memorable Acts and Sayings of the Ancient Romans the act of Pero, a dutiful daughter who secretly breast feeds her own father to prevent a death sentence from starvation.
In between the chapters that follow the Joads, there are narrative interludes that rotate every other chapter (with a few exceptions) that feature the broader social landscape of the times. My introduction describes this fictional technique as “a contrapuntal structure, which alternates short lyrical chapters of exposition and background pertinent to the migrants as a group . . . with the long narrative chapters of the Joad family’s dramatic exodus to California.” The introduction goes on to point out it is a novel structured around juxtaposition much like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Although the contrapuntal structure slogs at times because it is always easier to read a character-oriented story, I found these interludes grew on me as the novel progressed, culminating in the powerful scene where the landowners decide to incinerate and destroy a chunk of their crops in order to keep up prices, while the starving migrants watch in utter despair as all that food goes to waste. These interludes serve to foreshadow the misery of the Joads next location, while also underscoring the theme of the collective that is so important to the novel. The chapters reflect the larger theme in that they switch between the collective experience and the Joads, an individual family, who gives us an emotional connection to the abstract historical events. While we might follow the Joads in the main story, it is not just their story, but a story about an entire generation who watched their American dream disappear into the dust (quite literally).