The Grapes of Wrath
In Chapter Twenty-two of The Grapes of Wrath the Joads move into the government camp Weedpatch. At first the camp seems like an ideal place to live. The camp is clean, the people are friendly and the Joads feel safe from the threats they have experienced throughout the book. Tom tells his mother that the camp is a nice place and that she’ll like it there. She is amazed first that they have running water and later that there is hot water that doesn’t have to be heated over a fire (Steinbeck 513-517).
Weedpatch is self-governing. There is a central committee, composed of men living in the camp who are in charge. Smaller units of power are also made up of members of the camp and are formed according to the Sanitary Units of common toilets, showers, and wash tubs. The members of the camp elect their own police and prevent outside police and deputies from entering the camp. Each camp costs one dollar per week that can be paid in cash money, or by performing camp chores such as “carrying garbage, keeping the camp clean—stuff like that” (Steinbeck 515). Those who are unable to find work help take care of the camp and provide care for the children of those who are working. Weedpatch appears to be the classic socialist society where everyone works for the common good and their self-governing works well (Steinbeck 513-516).
At first the Joads are awed by the technical advances of the camp. Ruthie, the little girl is afraid to enter the sanitary unit. She dares to put her foot in the building and touch the concrete floor, but that is as far as her courage will take her. She returns to the Joad camp and enlists the help of her brother. Together they enter the Sanitary Unit where Ruthie recognize the porcelain toilets from a picture of them she saw in a mail-order catalog. While she is making use of the facilities Winfield accidentally flushes it and scares Ruthie who leaps into the air out of fear. As the water roads and the toilet flushes they are afraid they have broken it. When they tell Ma Joad what they have done she laughs and unintentionally embarrasses them about their ignorance. She however is not much more experience and is embarrassed when she finds she is standing in the Men’s room (Steinbeck 527-531).
From the point of view of being self-governing Weedpatch works well, however it lacks the ability to provide economic opportunity for its residents. Of the four Joad adult males, only Tom finds work for a Mr. Thomas. Even this work is threatened however. On the day Tom starts work the Farmers Association forces Mr. Thomas to lower wages from thirty cents per hour to twenty-five cents per hour. The men have no choice but to work. Mr. Thomas warns the men that there is a plan to start a fight at the camp on the following Saturday night, giving the deputy sheriffs cause to raid the camp. He tells Tom that the deputies are going to do this because “those folks in the camp are getting used to being treated like humans. When they go back to the squatters’ camps they’ll be hard to handle” (Steinbeck 523-525).
The Joads are forced to leave the camp after a month because Winfield is suffering from poor nutrition. Tom has been able to find only five days of work. With the Weedpatch episode Steinbeck appears to give the Joads a look at the heaven they had expected to find in California when the read the handbills back in Oklahoma. For a time they have security and happiness. Ultimately however they are forced to leave this idealized camp for the squatter camps that are full of violence, death, and threats. Although the time at Weedpatch provided a respite from some of their troubles, it also has the negative effect of providing contrast to what appears to be the life the Joads will live in California.
Throughout The Grapes of Wrath Ma Joad is the matriarch of the family and the person who really holds the family together. She views her role in life to keep her family together and cook them good healthy meals. When she first appears in The Grapes of Wrath she has just been told that two strangers had come down the road and were looking for a food. Even though her family is poor, has been moved off their land, and is facing a cross-country journey she welcomes them with a “We got a-plenty” although she, like mothers everywhere, insists they wash their hands first (Steinbeck 287). While the others are excited to be going to California she is worried that what they have heard may not be true. “Seems too nice, kinda. . . . I’m scared somepin ain’t so nice about it.” Yet when Tom acknowledges that he knew a fellow from California who said there were too many people there already and wages were low, she won’t let herself believe it. “Oh, that ain’t so,” she said. She was unable to turn her back on her last hope; the hope that she would keep her family together and have a good live in California (Steinbeck 305-306).
She desperately wants to keep the family together, but is disappointed when both Grandpa and Grandma Joads die on the way to California (Steinbeck 355-363, 453). When Rose of Sharon plans to live in a city where Connie can work during the day and study radio at night Ma Joad is worried that the family will split up. “We don’t want you to go ‘way from us. . . . It ain’t good for folks to break up” (Steinbeck 384-385). At the California border Noah decides to leave the family and walks downriver. Connie abandons Rose of Sharon and his unborn child. With each of these losses some of Ma Joad’s hopes weaken, but she carries on, providing for her family as best she can. When the book ends much of her family is gone. Yet when faced with the likely death of the starving man, Ma Joad finds a way to make things do and do the best she can. Due to her efforts hope and the possibility or survival if not prosperity still remains.
When Jim Casy was a practicing preacher he was a Burning Busher. He preached and baptized the people in the small Oklahoma community for years. His was preaching was a loud, self-taught style that featured him preaching while squatting on a fence and spoke in tongues. He is passionate about his religion and devoted to it. Unfortunately he was unable to live up to his standards of behavior because he would find himself want to sleep with the women who attended his rural services. It is clear that he struggled with this and tried to life up to the moral standards he set for himself. Rather than hypocritically continue to preach one life while engaging in another Casy suffered a crisis of face that left him without the spirit to preach or pray.
Casy is still a seeker however. He tries to make sense of the world. When the Joads leaves for California he joins in, but works to pull his own weight so he won’t be a burden on the family. When the Joads arrive in California and find there is little work Casy starts to regain his spiritual vision. When there is an altercation between workers and deputies, Casy assumes the blame for attacking a deputy and sends Tom, who has violated his parole away. Suddenly he has found himself. “Casy sat proudly, his head up and the stringy muscles of his neck prominent. On his lips there was a faint smile and on his face a curious look of conquest” (Steinbeck 454). Casy subsequently becomes active in the labor movement. His work in the labor movement is loud, direct, and full of physical action. Casy leads a labor strike against some farmers. Deputies are sent to break up the strike. During the altercation Tom, who is visiting Casy, fights along with the preacher. When Casy is killed. At the time of his death Casy has regain his faith, not a faith in the God he had tried to server earlier, but a faith in truth, fairness, and duty to one’s fellowman.
In chapter three of The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck writes about a land turtle trying to cross the hot, paved highway. The turtle struggles slowly along. He moves all four feet trying to get by even though at times some of his feet are unable to touch the ground. The turtle is nearly hit by a car, but the driver manages to avoid hitting the turtle. A truck comes by and deliberately swerves to hit the turtle. The impact sends the turtle into a spin and rolls it off the highway. The turtle remains hidden in his shell for a time but ultimately has no choice to come out of its shell and continue on with its journey.
This incident is intended to be a metaphor of the life the Joad’s have been living. They have struggled to make a living as farmers in the Oklahoma heat, always getting by, seldom getting ahead. When the bankers foreclose on their mortgage and large companies tractor off the farmers, the Joads are sent for a spin but are left no choice beyond getting on with their lives. The strength of the Joads lies in their family as kept together by Ma Joad. In some ways this is their weakness as well. The Joads naively believe that if they journey on to California and work hard, they will survive. Ironically they fail to see that their hard work thus far has led them to the crisis they now face.
Tom Joad, Preacher Casy, and Muley Graves each confront their worlds in different ways. Tom Joad returns from prison looking for his former life only to suddenly discover that it isn’t there any longer and his family has left the farm. He chooses to find and rejoin the family, the only life he has known outside of prison with hopes. Preacher Casy has found himself without his faith because he could no longer proclaim himself to be a man of God while at the same time being able to life up to the behavior he preaches. He finds his lust for the young women he preaches to is stronger than his faith and he is unable to reconcile his physical and religious desires. Although he has abandoned his practice of religion Casy still is interested in life; Casy still wants to do what is right, but he know longer knows whether he is capable of either discovering what is right, or doing right should he discover what it is. Muley Graves has given up. Everything he has done in his life has failed. He has devoted his life to his land and would rather live like a wild animal on the land where he has spent his life that join the forced exodus away from his home.
Like the individuals who change throughout The Grapes of Wrath the family structure changes as well. The older generation passes away. Tom first, and later Al assume the male head of the family and ultimately it appears that Rose of Sharon who has been the whiney, pregnant girl throughout the book will become the strong woman her mother is. By the book’s end Tom Joad becomes the conscience and hope of the working class, no longer content work hard in the midst of unfairness, Tom assumes the role of the deceased Casy, intent on improving the life of working men and willing to sacrifice his only life to accomplish this.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings 1936-1941. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1996, 208-692.