Author: John Steinbeck
Born: February 27, 1902; Salinas, California
Died: December 20, 1968; New York, New York
Type of Work: Novel
Type of Plot: Social realism
Time of Work: 1930’s
Locale: Midwestern United States and California
Tom Joad, Jr., a former convict
Pa Joad, an Okie
Ma Joad, his wife
Rose of Sharon (Rosasharn), Tom’s sister
Jim Casy, a labor agitator
Tom Joad, Jr. was released from the Oklahoma state penitentiary where he had served a sentence for killing a man in self-defense. He traveled homeward through a region made barren by drought and dust storms. On the way, he met Jim Casy, a former preacher; the pair went together to the home of Tom’s family. They found the Joad place deserted. While Tom and Casy were wondering what had happened, Muley Graves, a die-hard tenant farmer, came by and disclosed that all the families in the neighborhood had gone to California or were going. Tom’s folks, Muley said, had gone to a relative’s place to prepare for going west. Muley was the only sharecropper to stay behind. All over the southern Midwest states, farmers, no longer able to make a living because of land banks, weather, and machine farming, had sold or were forced out of the farms they had tenanted. Junk dealers and used-car salesmen profiteered on them. Thousands of families took to the roads leading to the promised land: California.
Tom and Casy found the Joads at Uncle John’s place, all busy with preparations for their trip to California. Assembled for the trip were Pa and Ma Joad; Noah, their mentally retarded son; Al, the adolescent younger brother of Tom and Noah; Rose of Sharon, Tom’s sister, and her husband, Connie; the Joad children, Ruthie and Winfield; and Granma and Grampa Joad. Al had bought an ancient truck to take them West. The family asked Jim Casy to go with them. The night before they started, they killed the pigs they had left and salted down the meat so that they would have food on the way.
Spurred by handbills which stated that agricultural workers were badly needed in California, the Joads, along with thousands of others, made their tortuous way, in a worn-out vehicle, across the plains toward the mountains. Grampa died of a stroke during their first overnight stop. Later, there was a long delay when the truck broke down. Small business people along the way treated the migrants as enemies, and, to add to their misery, returning migrants told the Joads that there was no work to be had in California, that conditions were even worse than they were in Oklahoma. The dream of a bountiful West Coast, however, urged the Joads onward.
Close to the California line, where the group stopped to bathe in a river, Noah, feeling he was a hindrance to the others, wandered away. It was there that the Joads first heard themselves addressed as Okies, another word for tramps. Granma died during the night trip across the desert. After burying her, the group went into a Hooverville, as the migrants’ camps were called. There they learned that work was all but impossible to find. A contractor came to the camp to sign up men to pick fruit in another county. When the Okies asked to see his license, the contractor turned the leaders over to a police deputy who had accompanied him to camp. Tom was involved in the fight that followed. He escaped, and Casy surrendered himself in Tom’s place. Connie, husband of the pregnant Rose of Sharon, suddenly disappeared from the group. The family was breaking up in the face of its hardships. Ma Joad did everything in her power to keep the group together.
Fearing recrimination after the fight, the Joads left the Hooverville and went to a government camp maintained for transient agricultural workers. The camp had sanitary facilities, a local government made up of the transients themselves, and simple organized entertainment. During the Joads’ stay at the camp, the Okies successfully defeated an attempt of the local citizens to give the camp a bad name and thus to have it closed to the migrants. For the first time since they had arrived in California, the Joads found themselves treated as human beings.
Circumstances eventually forced them to leave the camp, however, for there was no work in the district. They drove to a large farm where work was being offered. There they found agitators attempting to keep the migrants from taking the work because of the unfair wages offered. The Joads, however, thinking only of food, were escorted by motorcycle police to the farm. The entire family picked peaches for five cents a box and earned in a day just enough money to buy food for one meal. Tom, remembering the pickets outside the camp, went out at night to investigate. He found Casy, who was the leader of the agitators. While Tom and Casy were talking, deputies, who had been searching for Casy, closed in on them. The pair fled but were caught. Casy was killed. Tom received a cut on his head, but not before he had felled a deputy with an ax handle. The family concealed Tom in their shack. The rate for a box of peaches dropped, meanwhile, to two-and-a-half cents. Tom’s danger and the futility of picking peaches drove the Joads on their way. They hid the injured Tom under the mattresses in the back of the truck, and then they told the suspicious guard at the entrance to the farm that the extra man they had had with them when they came was a hitchhiker who had stayed behind to pick.
The family found at last a migrant crowd encamped in abandoned boxcars along a stream. They joined the camp and soon found temporary jobs picking cotton. Tom, meanwhile, hid in a culvert near the camp. Ruthie innocently disclosed Tom’s presence to another little girl. Ma, realizing that Tom was no longer safe, sent him away. Tom promised to carry on Casy’s work in trying to improve the lot of the downtrodden everywhere.
The autumn rains began. Soon the stream that ran beside the camp overflowed and water entered the boxcars. Under these all but impossible conditions, Rose of Sharon gave birth to a dead baby. When the rising water made their position no longer bearable, the family moved from the camp on foot. The rains had made their old truck useless. They came to a barn, which they shared with a boy and his starving father. Rose of Sharon, bereft of her baby, nourished the famished man with the milk from her breasts. So the poor kept each other alive in the years of the Great Depression.
The publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath caused a nationwide stir in 1939. This account of the predicament of migrant workers was taken more as a social document than as fiction. Some saw it as an exposé of capitalist excesses; others, as a distorted call to revolution. Frequently compared to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1940.
Recent literary critics, taking a second look at the novel, have often lumped it with a number of other dated books of the 1930’s as “proletarian fiction.” A careful reader, however, recognizes that beneath this outraged account of an outrageous social situation lies a dynamic, carefully structured story that applies not only to one era or society but also to the universal human predicament.
As a social document, the novel presents such a vivid picture of oppression and misery that one tends to doubt its authenticity. Steinbeck, however, had done more than academic research. He had journeyed from Oklahoma to California, lived in a migrant camp, and worked alongside the migrants. (According to one report, after the novel appeared, the workers sent Steinbeck a patchwork dog sewn from scraps of their clothing and wearing a tag labeled “Migrant John.”) Before making the motion picture, which still stands as one of the great films of the era, Darryl F. Zanuck hired private detectives to verify Steinbeck’s story; they reported that conditions were even worse than those depicted in the book. The political situation was a powder keg.
Social injustice was depicted so sharply that Steinbeck himself was accused of being a revolutionary. Certainly, he painted the oppressive economic system in bleak colors. Many critics note, however, that Steinbeck was basically a reformer, not a revolutionary. He wanted to change the attitudes and behavior of people—both migrants and economic barons—not overturn the private enterprise system. Indeed, Steinbeck observes that ownership of land is morally edifying to humankind.
Steinbeck once declared that the writer must “set down his time as nearly as he can understand it” and that he should “serve as the watchdog of society . . . to satirize its silliness, to attack its injustices, to stigmatize its faults.” In The Grapes of Wrath, he does all these things, then goes further to interpret events from a distinctly American point of view. Like Walt Whitman, he expresses love for all men and respect for manual labor. Like Thomas Jefferson, he asserts a preference for agrarian society in which people retain a close, nourishing tie to the soil. His farmers dwindle psychologically as they are separated from their land, and the California owners become oppressors as they substitute ledgers for direct contact with the soil. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Steinbeck demonstrates faith in the common people and in the ideal of self-reliance. He also develops the Emersonian religious concept of an oversoul. The preacher Jim Casy muses “. . . maybe that’s the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of it.” Later, Tom Joad reassures Ma that even if he isn’t physically with her, “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . . I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. . . .”
This theme, that all people essentially belong together and are a part of one another and of a greater whole that transcends momentary reality, is what removes The Grapes of Wrath from the genre of timely proletarian fiction and makes it an allegory for all people in all circumstances. Warren French notes that the real story of this novel is not the Joads’ search for economic security but their education, which transforms them from self-concern to a recognition of their bond with the whole human race. At first, Tom Joad is intensely individualistic, interested mainly in making his own way; Pa’s primary concern is keeping bread on his table; Rose of Sharon dreams only of traditional middle-class success; and Ma, an earth mother with a spine of steel, concentrates fiercely upon keeping the “fambly” together. At the end, Tom follows Casy’s example in fighting for human rights; Pa, in building the dike, sees the necessity for all people to work together; Rose of Sharon forgets her grief over her stillborn child and unhesitatingly lifts a starving man to her milk-filled breast; and Ma can say “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do.” Thus the Joads have overcome that separation that one may equate with sin, the alienation from others that existentialists are so fond of describing as the inescapable human condition.
It is interesting to note how much The Grapes of Wrath, which sometimes satirizes, sometimes attacks organized Christian religion, reflects the Bible. In structure, as critics have been quick to notice, it parallels the story of the Exodus to a “promised land.” Symbolically, as has been noted by critics, the initials of Jim Casy are those of Jesus Christ, another itinerant preacher who rebelled against traditional religion, went into the wilderness, discovered his own gospel, and eventually gave his life in service to others. Language, too, is frequently biblical, especially in those chapters which, like a Greek chorus, restate, reinforce, and generalize from the specific happenings of the narrative. The cadences, repetitions, and parallel lines all echo the patterns of the Psalms—Ma Joad’s favorite book. Even the title of the novel is biblical; the exact phrase is from the American reformer Julia Ward Howe, but the reference is to Jeremiah and Revelation. The grapes have been a central symbol throughout the book—first of promise, representing the fertile California valleys, but finally of bitter rage as the Midwesterners realize that they have been lured West with false bait and that they will not partake of this fertility. The wrath grows, a fearsome, terrible wrath, but, as several chapters make clear, better wrath than despair, because wrath moves to action. Steinbeck would have his people act, in concert and in concern for one another, and finally prevail over all forms of injustice.