John Steinbeck’s book titled The Grapes of Wrath is a story about the journey of an Oklahoma family on their way to California during the hardships of the Great Depression. The family had lost their crops due to a dust bowl, and set out to California after learning of potential work opportunities. The book is centered mostly around Tom Joad, who has recently been released from prison on parole after serving four years for a homicide crime.
Tom is unaware of the dust bowl, and comes home to find his family gone and neighboring farmers evicted by banks and landowners. Tom discovers that his family has moved in with his uncle John to pick cotton to save money in order to begin the journey to California. Once Tom arrives, he finds his family packing their car to begin driving to California. Throughout their journey, they meet others who are also on their way to newfound opportunities, family members are lost due to death and abandonment, and once they arrive in California, their hardships continue as they soon discover potential opportunities have faded.
This is a story of true hardship and a harsh reality of what it was like to be a farming family during the Great Depression. Steinbeck uses many themes throughout this novel to show how the Joad family, and others alike, were dehumanized and starved of opportunities, but they never lost hope and remained faithful throughout all of their challenges. As the question arises to whether or not this story will be read in 25, 50, and 100 years, the answer to all three is yes. The Wrath of Grapes helps to display the hardships farmers faced when they were treated unfairly and the choices they had to make in order to survive, and it shows the importance of why farmers should never be treated this way again.
John Steinbeck was born and raised in Salinas, California, an area rich in agriculture. Steinbeck grew up during the Great Depression and saw the hardships that farmers faced first hand. He attended Stanford University, but never graduated. The Nobel Prize classifies all of Steinbeck’s work as “social novels dealing with the economic problems of rural labour, but there is also a streak of worship of the soil in his books.” Steinbeck wrote to expose the issues he saw first hand in agriculture. He truly had a passion for agriculture and depicts that very well in this novel.
One incident that occurred in the novel that depicted the treatment that the farmers were receiving happened in chapter 3. Tom observes a turtle crossing the road and watches as one person swerves to miss the turtle and another go out of their way to run the turtle over. Tom then turns the turtle over and it continues on its way. This incident was used to show that farmers, just like the turtle, receive good and bad treatment from those around them.
When the turtle was on it’s back after being run over, it struggled to turn itself over and was helpless without Tom. In chapter 7, the story is told from the perspective of a used car salesman who uses psychological tactics to take advantage of farmers who need a car to travel west. This is another example of helplessness and kicking a farmer while he’s down. Everyone saw the disadvantages that the farmers were facing and used them to their own advantage. Farmers were beyond desperate, and would give anything they had in order to make it to California.
Almost every farmer had to leave behind their land and everything on it that they couldn’t sell. On page 88, an excerpt reads “to California or any place – every one a drum major leading a parade of hurts, marching with our bitterness.” It was difficult for farmers to remain optimistic and not let the feeling of hopelessness swallow them, but they knew they didn’t have a fighting chance. All throughout the novel, Steinbeck carries the same theme of hopelessness, but also preservereance. Despite all the challenges the Joads face, they remain confident that things will get better, and even with few things to give, they still give. Jim Casy, who is a former preacher that baptized Tom when he was a boy, reconnected with Tom after he arrived home from prison and had been by Tom’s side since. After Tom reconnected with his family and prepared to head west, Jim asked if he could come along and the family began to debate.
Ma Joad, Tom’s mother, made the final decision stating “It ain’t kin we? It’s will we? …As far as ‘kin,’ we can’t do nothin’, not go to California or nothin’; but as far as will, why, we’ll do what we will” (102). The Joads not only felt like they had an obligation to take Jim along, but also saw no reason why they should leave him behind. During their journey to California, they stop at a rundown gas station where their dog is struck and killed on the road by a vehicle that doesn’t even stop. This again adds to the theme of helplessness, but even after losing their dog and Grandpa Joad to a stroke, they still keep going.
As they arrive in California, they lose Grandma Joad to the elements, and quickly realize that it is not a land of opportunities that they had expected. What happened to their home land is also happening in California, and they struggle to find work. The Joads eventually find their way to migrant camp where new friends help the men find work. They aren’t paid fair wages, but at least they’ve found work. The following spring there is a fantastic harvest and an abundance of food, but to avoid a drop in prices, corporate farms decide to leave excess produce to spoil to maintain a need from consumers.
Despite the abundance, they do everything they can to keep the food out of the hands of the Joads and others alike. An excerpt from page 349 states “ The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by.” They helplessly watched as an abundance of food went to waste. In many situations, migrants like the Joads harvested the produce that was going to waste. They couldn’t eat the food they had already touched.
The Joads take shelter in a box car with the Wainwrights, a family they met along their journey to California, shortly before a torrential rain starts to flood the lands. They fear that the flooding will become dangerous, so they make plans to leave only to be halted by Tom’s sister, Rosasharn, who’s gone into labor. The baby is stillborn which they believe is due to the conditions they’ve been living in.
Tom’s uncle, John, wants to make a statement with the stillborn child and urges that the baby should be displayed in the nearby town. John states “Go down an’ tell ’em. Go down in the street an’ rot an’ tell ’em that way. That’s the way you can talk”(448). John sends the baby down the river in a crate, hoping that it will bring attention to the hardships that they’re facing. The family decided that they must move to avoid the floods, so they set out and eventually come across a barn. Inside the barn they find a dying father and his son. The dying father is unable to eat and as the novel ends, Rosasharn agrees to breastfeed the man to save his life. Just like before, even when the Joads have very little to give, they still give. Even though she had just lost her baby, she was able to give life to a dying father.
The Grapes of Wrath is a novel written to truly depict what farmers faced during the Great Depression through the Joad family. This is a novel that can still be applicable in 25, 50, and 100 years. America’s farmers are strong and faithful, and this novel does a fantastic job portraying that. Although today’s farmers will most likely never face these kinds of hardships, the future is unpredictable and this novel should act as a reminder of how poorly America’s farmers were once treated.
Today’s farmers face hardships in different forms like trade wars, public perception, and low commodity prices, but still persevere and do everything in their power to continue to farm their land. Most of today’s farmers receive government aid due to low commodity prices and shrinking profit margins, but it’s still not enough. Farmers were treated unfairly during the great depression, and in many ways are still treated unfairly today. This novel will continue to be read for centuries to educate about the hardships farmers faced then, and help shed light on the hardships they face now.
- John Steinbeck – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. Sun. 5 Jan 2020.
- Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Books, 2002.