To look at the novel as a whole, it is a very well-written piece, which draws out the theme quite simply to the reader. The theme being the shift from individual thinking to wide-spread thinking. This shift is most directly seen in the actions of Tom Joad. In the opening of the novel, he is mainly concerned for his own welfare. He wants to make up for all the things he missed when in prison. Later on in the novel, he is more concerned with the welfare of the family. At the end of the novel, he has shifted to trying to do what is best for all the migrant people by trying to organize them even though he knows this involves him in great personal danger.
That shift in thinking is also accompanied with the replacement of the individual family by the world family. The thing that started the breakup of the individual family was the loss of their land. The family had lived there for many generations and had strong ties to the land. Getting thrown off the land was like losing their family history. The same concern for humanity at large is seen in Ma Joad. At first, she is concerned with keeping the family together. But, as the novel progresses, she begins to become a part of a larger human family. As she says at the end of the novel, at first, it was the family and now it is just anyone who needs help. Next, Grampa Joad died because he could not take leaving his home. He is the first family member to leave. However, it would seem that, as Peter Lisca points out, Grampa is “symbolically present through the anonymous old man in the barn (stable), who is saved from starvation by Rose of Sharon’s breasts…” At the same time though, the family’s joining with the Wilsons shows that the larger world family of the migrant society is replacing the individual family. Chapter Seventeen is one of the general chapters that shows the growth of the new migrant society that has its own laws and leaders. At the border of California, the Joads lose Noah when he refuses to leave the river, and the Wilsons because of Sairy’s illness. Then, Granma dies on the way across the desert. The Joads have to leave her for a pauper’s burial. This exposes the reluctance of the older generation to leave the land and their inability to start a completely new life, whereas only the strong and young people accepted the challenge.
Thus, with the Joads, the journey West is also a journey from personal concern to a larger concern for all of humanity. This change is accompanied by a change also in the Joad’s economic situation. Even though the Joads’ economic situation deteriorates, they manage to enlarge their view of humanity. At the first camp in California, they don’t have enough to feed their own family, but Ma leaves a little something in the bottom of the pot for some strange children, who have been standing around. Therefore, in the largest view, the decline of the family and the decline of the economic situation are accompanied by an increase in and acceptance of a larger view of humanity. All migrants met these problems at one time or another. In an essay, Martin Staples Shockley concluded that “…properly speaking, The Grapes of Wrath is not a regional novel; but it has regional significance; it raises regional problems. Economic collapse, farm tenantry, migratory labor are not regional problems; they are national or international in scope, and can never be solved through state or regional action.” Hence, these problems were encountered by all of the migrants. However, most of the migrants managed to surpass these difficulties and reach their goal of arriving in California.
The ending of the novel, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck depicts an ongoing theme throughout the novel: the transformation from the “I” form of thinking into the “we” form of thinking that results in the formation of a culture rather than a family. As the Twentieth-Century American Literature book declares, “The more one reads The Grapes of Wrath, the more thoroughly one knows the many ramifications of its informing theme, the more perfect and moving seems the novel’s ending. Here in this one real and symbolic act everything is brought together. Rose of Sharon gives her milk out of biological necessity to do so; she feeds not her own baby but an old man, a stranger…Biology, sociology, history, and religion become one expression of the community of mankind.” Rose of Sharon’s act of giving milk from her breast to a strange man is not only a psychological transformation but angelic. Very few are the people who think of others before doing something but in this novel, Rose of Sharon changes into thinking about humanity as a whole rather than herself.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Twentieth-Century American Literature. New York: Chelsea House
Draper, James P., ed. World Literature Criticism. Detroit: Pope-Stevenson, 1992.
Magill, Frank N., ed. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper and Row,
Magill, Frank N., ed. Magill’s Survey of American Literature. New York: Marshall
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. United States: Viking Penguin Inc., 1939.