Steinback’s Social Commentary in The Grapes of Wrath
Introduction: The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was a critically acclaimed novel published in 1939 which chronicled the life and times of the Joad family who struggled through poverty-stricken America during the Depression era. While the novel’s focal point was the story of the family, it could also be said that the novel is a commentary on the general situation of the United States during that period of time. Aside from the story of the Joad family, it also chronicled the mass migration of people from the Dust Bowl to the West Coast to find greener pastures and opportunity to make ends meet and provide a decent living for the family (Mink and O’Connor 352). The novel is considered to be the most popular and the most artistically enduring piece of the chronicles of the Great Depression. More than anything else, it describes the hardships and struggles of the migrant laborers from different parts of Oklahoma and California who will do anything to provide for the family even just for a day. Moreover, it is also a commentary on the society and the role of the citizens to a political protest for a better tomorrow (Mink and O’Connor 354).
At the onset, Tom Joad arrived in their home at the Oklahoma State after he has been in prison for four years. When he arrived at their house, he found that his parents and the rest of the family is gone. The place was abandoned by all its inhabitants. A neighbor named Muley Graves informed Tom that his family has transferred to his Uncle John’s place. He went there and found them packing their things and loading them into a dilapidated truck. They envisioned to go to California because of the rumored fruit-picking job opportunities. As they journey to California, they encountered more struggles and bitterness. One of which is the death of Grandpa Joad. Even with this, the family along with other migrants who were also suffering from poverty and hunger drove their way to California which they consider as a promise land. When they arrived in California, there was already a recession in the job opportunities. Even when there is a chance of having a job, the wage would be so minimal that it wouldn’t be enough to sustain a family for a day. Shortly after they arrived, Grandma Joe also died. The remaining members of the family once again struggled to find shelter, food, and job. Moreover, they have also struggled to maintain family ties which were waning because people started to fall apart from each other (Steinbeck).
They lead a life just like anybody else. They lived in camps that are overcrowded and untidy. Even the locals of the place are already uncomfortable and angry with the intrusion of the migrants. A fellow Oklahoman Jim Casy have been organizing a labor union when he was killed in front of Tom. Because Tom somehow supports the cause of Jim Casy, he retaliated and in the process killed a policeman. This forced him to go hiding and leave his family all for themselves. The family then moved once more to a cotton farm where they face the danger of being hungry again and being jobless. Until the end, family members have struggled to survive and helped other people survived the Great depression years. In the final scene, they helped a dying man survive by nursing him by means of a mother’s milk (Steinbeck).
The Experiences of Steinbeck in the Great Depression
Likewise, the novel is considered to be a reflection of Steinbeck’s experiences of the Great Depression in the 1930’s. The primary themes of poverty, desperation, and social injustice have been reflected very vividly so that it’s almost like a mirror of the real situation during the era. Raised in a California farmland, he was able to immortalize the lives of the migrant farmworkers in the area. In writing the novel, he is mainly concerned on the farmworkers plight for unemployment, displacement, poverty, violence, and intimidation. Moreover, he has also done his own research on the subject and the situation for him to be able such a poignant portrayal of the era (Johnson 121).
Steinbeck has lived in the 1930’s era when the greatest economic disaster in the United States happened. There were widespread economic and financial collapse. There were several widespread and unethical investments in the stock market and banking irregularities. Moreover, there were a number of bank deposits and savings that vanished. There were around 100, 000 business that folded resulting to a quarter decrease in the labor force. There were a total of 15 million people that lost their jobs. Because of this, there were a number of people just like the Joad’s family who lived in the streets and abandoned their farms. Moreover, a lot of people evacuated and suited themselves in the so-called Hoovervilles, name after President Herbert Hoover. (Johnson 121).
Those people who are still employed are reduced to part-time work. Their wages are cut partially under difficult working conditions. There were rampant unfair labor practices which persisted for as long as the laborers struggled to retain their jobs and sustain their livelihood. Laborers cannot demand benefits, protection, and any other privileges because the job that they have is more than the companies could give and more than they should be asking for (Johnson 122).
The same is true in the urban areas where there was a drastic change from a carefree abundance life to an economic tragedy. One of the reasons would be the drying up of their market from Europe and different part of the United States. For instance, the price of far produce had decreased drastically. With the crash of the stock market, the prices of farm produce decreased once more so that farmers could no longer sustain their capital for equipment and farmlands. Moreover, farmers have also suffered from hot and arid weather. There were heat and drought and massive dust storms. For instance, in 1931, there was a Dust storm that farmers could not even work during the day. These dust storms have also resulted into deaths of farmers and children due to dust pneumonia (Johnson 123).
In the states like Oklahoma where the Joads came from, Western Kansas, and Eastern Colorado, Northern Texas, and Eastern New Mexico, there was a phenomenon of severe drought and wind erosion that happened which was commonly and popularly termed as the Dust Bowl. During this period, most of the regions received fewer than twenty inches of rain in normal years. For instance, years 1934 and 1936 were the direst period where rainfall in many parts of the region was less than half the normal. Moreover, there were also high temperatures and low temperature which were disastrous to the natural vegetation and the crops (Danbom 223).
The Dust Bowl phenomenon has been considered as the darkest moment in the twentieth-century life of the Southern plains. As a matter of fact, it has been ranked as the three worst ecological blunders in history. It happened in the 1930’s when a fulvous dirt began to blow from the plains to the east Coast and beyond. Incidentally, it was also the age of the Great Depression. Worster argues that even when some people seldom see the connection between the two phenomenon, the two traumas have an association to each other. The Dust Bowl was believed to be part of the same crisis. Taken together, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression both revealed to weaknesses of the traditional American culture. Capitalism has been considered as an obvious factor behind this. Because of the expansionary energy of the United States had finally encountered a volatile, marginal land which destroyed the ecological balance. This is because capitalism has a decisive factor in how a nation uses its ecological and natural resources. In capitalism, nature is seen as a capital where wildlife, trees, and minerals are source of profits. These are eventually “desanctified and demystefied”. Capitalism always seeks more out of the natural resources of the world as it did yesterday or the other day. The Dust Bowl is nature’s way of restraining the control of men and of capitalism to it. The Dust Bowl is simply the consequence of capitalism’s abuse of nature. In other words, both capitalism caused the major tragedies in the 1930’s namely the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression which are the main theme of the novel (6-7).
In the novel, when the Oklahomans such as the Joads and Casy were denied of their farm lands because of the Dust Bowl tragedy, they have to flee to seek for greener pastures in the cities such as California which was proven to have the same state as in the countryside. Because there was a flock of people from the countryside who needed work because the Dust Blow phenomenon that destroyed their livelihood, there was an increase in the unemployment rate among the Americans. Moreover, since there was an influx of migrants, the there was also a shift if population from the countryside to the cities which created overcrowding and displacement. All of these piled up to create the Great Depression which affected every single American in the 1930’s (Johnson 123).
Because of this vivid portrayal accompanied with social commentary and concern, the novel has been one of the most critically acclaimed pieces of literature in the history of American literature. Moreover, this aspect of the history of the United States has proven that change could happen for the better.
Danbom, David. Born in the Country. USA: JHU, 2006.
Johnson, Claudia. Labor and Workplace Issues in Literature. Michigan:
Mink, Gwendolyn and O’Connor, Alice. Poverty in the United States: an Encyclopedia of History, Politics, and Policy. USA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. USA: Penguin, 2002.
Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.