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“The Grapes of Wrath” the Novel by John Steinbeck Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 12th, 2021

Introduction

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck continues to be one of the most commonly banned books in U.S. public schools and libraries. During the 1940s, Eric Johnston, a president of both the Motion Picture Producers Association and the United States Chamber of Commerce, denounced the novel and its film adaptation before screenwriters: “We’ll have no more “Grapes of Wrath”,’ we’ll have no more ‘Tobacco Roads,’ we’ll have no more films that deal with the seamy side of American life. We’ll have no more films that treat the banker as a villain”.

The major conflict of the story is the disastrous drought of the 1930s which forced farmers to move to California. This is also setting the migrants against locals and landowners against the destitute. Furthermore, Tom Joad’s story performs a conflict between the impulse to respond to hardship and calamity by focusing on one’s own needs and the impulse to risk one’s protection by working for a common good.

Main body

John Steinbeck faithfully describes a time of unreasonable poverty, unity, and the human spirit in the classic, The Grapes of Wrath. The novel narrates of real, dissimilar characters, who experience turmoil and hardship.

The novel “The grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck is claimed to describe the lives of ordinary farm workers all over the United States of America who moved to California during the period of the Great Depression in the seek of a happy life. The main character Tom Joad, after having been released from Oklahoma state prison comes back to his home and finds that the family farm and all the surrounding farmhouses deserted. He also finds out, that everyone has been “Tractored” off the land. All he could do in these circumstances was to move to California, like the other Oklahoma farmers. Jim Casy, the former preacher, plays a crucial role in Tom’s life throughout the novel. At the very beginning of the story, he declaims one of the main thoughts of the plot. It sounds that that all life is holy – even the parts that are typically thought to be sinful—and that sacredness consists simply in endeavoring to be an equal among the people. Thus, anything they did throughout the development of the plot, they considered holy and leading to the common good. In some way, they were right, as everything done by them caused positive changes in the lives of farmworkers and “Okies” in particular, and in the attitude of farm holders to the workers and “Okies”. But let us not overlap, and analyze everything gradually.

The political situation in the country at that moment is presented as the comparison of two presidents. The first one – Hoover is presented as the embodiment of evil, as a president who led the US into the depression. Roosevelt is introduced like the opposition to Hoover. As the head of the White House, he is associated with the talented leader, who was the only one able to solve America’s complex problems, caused by the Stock Exchange fall.

One of the ironic aims of the novel is to show Joad’s animal-like struggle for survival. Right through the novel, the poverty of the migrants is regarded as a pointer of their inhumanity, and the following moment when the gas station attendant at Needles cries ‘That goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable’ proves that. (Steinberg, 301). But it does not make any barriers for the Joads to gain clarity of spiritual insight, and discover a transcending sense of unification with all men.

As the author argues, all the challenges and troubles that plague the Joad family take root in the people’s selfishness. This negative feature motivates the landlords and businessmen to maintain a system that sinks thousands of families into poverty. The situation is worsened by the attitude of migrants towards each other. Having realized that the common good and success of their survival depends on the devotion to the collective good, the farmers unite – sharing their dreams as well as their burdens – in order to survive. All through the novel, Steinbeck constantly highlights selfishness and altruism as equal and opposite authorities, evenly matched in their conflict with each other. Various circumstances (i.e. historical, social, and economic) divide people into rich and poor, owner and renter, and the people in the dominant roles struggle brutally to protect their positions. Describing the brief history of California, Steinbeck shows the state as the product of land-hungry squatters who invaded the Mexican land and, by working it and making it produce, rendered it their own. The next generation of California landowners regards this historical example as a threat since they believe that the invasion of migrant farmers might lead to the repetition of history. In order to defend themselves from such risk, the squatters create a structure in which the migrant-workers are treated like animals, shuffled from one roadside camp to the next, denied exalted wages, and made simply to survive. The novel draws a simple line through the population—one that divides the privileged from the poor—and identifies that division as the primary source of evil and suffering in the world.

Steinbeck makes a distinct link in his tale between dignity and rage. As long as people keep a sense of unfairness—a sense of irritation against those who seek to weaken their pride in themselves—they will never lose their dignity

Some researchers compare the plot itself with the development of fascist totalitarian regimes in Europe, the main feature of which was the politics of the Holocaust. Thus the deputies and vigilantes are regarded as proto-fascists and the migrants as hounded Jews. To this 1930s mix, Steinbeck himself gives one of the variants of the plot interpretation from the Marxist point of view. The interpretation of history and of economic processes is viewed as a struggle of classes. The migrants were exploited because of the abundance of labor, the “lesson of history” is that the increasing gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” will result in revolution, and organization of the masses – from camp sanitation committees to labor unions – is the solution to all social problems.

The first two parts of the narration of The Grapes of Wrath — the Joads in Oklahoma and on their way to California make us realize that the more we come to know and admire the humanity of the family of the Joads the more inhumanely they are treated. Steinbeck’s success in involving us in this irony derives in part from his ability to place the Joads within two interrelated mythic sources of value: they are primitives and they are folk. Their “natural” ways and feelings touch upon a core belief which in various forms runs through American life from the Enlightenment to the primitivistic faith of such moderns as Faulkner and Hemingway. The Joads have their own natural processes and rhythms of life. They are farmers who dedicated whole their lives to farming and hunting. They have little education they have never lived in a city, so they have absolutely no imagination about city life. Their world is included in the family with its “natural” crests of birth, juvenility, and marriage at one end of life and aging with death at the other. Indeed, from the point of view of some researchers, the Joads seem to live in a pre-tribal period of social evolution, since their contacts are mainly with other families but not with social and state institutions like school, church, or municipality. Joads communicate within the family largely by action and by an instinctive sensitivity to unspoken feelings. The readers first get to know about them not in person but by the means of the long series of anecdotes about them which Tom and Casy share at the opening of the novel, anecdotes which establish their shrewdness, openness, and understanding in a context of crudity and occasional bestiality. But even this texture of animality in their lives helps establish their naturalness.

The plot of the present narration is full of symbols. Readers can face them throughout the whole story, and the one in the formers seems to define one of the main thoughts of the American People tragedy. The moment, when Joads’ dog dies, may be considered as such. When the Joads stop for gas not long after they begin their trip west, they are met by a hostile station attendant, who accuses them of being beggars and vagrants. While there, a fancy roadster runs down their dog and leaves it for dead in the middle of the road. This death symbolizes the forthcoming difficulties in the lives of the Joads in particular, and the workers in general

The primitivity and the folk-like character of the Joads, which make them more realistic on the background of the other personalities included in the plot. The life-denying forces of mechanics, institutions, and intellect, which the Joads face in California, are allegorized by the banks and corporations which have the law and wealth on the one hand but lack the human abilities of understanding and sympathy. The forces are denoted by the mechanical tractor which destroys the homes of all the farmers and by the car with an unknown driver, who attempts to drive over the turtle as it goes about its own “business”. Yet, the mechanics are not always presented as something evil. The little jerry-built truck soon starts to symbolize the family unity as a means of fulfilling their striving for a better life. Steinbeck gives an assumption, that if the Joads owned their own tractor, it would become the beneficial force in their hands. But the real evil of the farmers’ lives are not mechanics, which ruins their houses, or complicated state institutions, but the feelings and deeds by the people, their fail to anger, envy, and selfishness. Steinbeck’s illustration of this essentially human conflict lets us understand that his attempt in The Grapes of Wrath was not to exaggerate a labored primitivistic ethic. It was rather to keep the readers, within the context of primitivistic and folk values, in one of the constant centers of human experience, that of the difficulty of recognizing the personality and needs of others.

Tom is regarded as a “natural man”. He is tall and scrawny, he feels uncomfortable in store-bought clothes, as he is able to skin a rabbit professionally himself or roll a cigarette. He has a sense of humor, sympathy. He feels to be independent and proud of it. He judges everybody surrounding him from the position of spirit, but this faith has been tempered after his imprisonment for killing a man in the drunken bowl. But this murder happened in the conditions of self-defense. He is not able to understand the justness of his accusation and decides to live from moment to moment and not to seek some understanding, and he refuses from planning his future life. The description of Ma Joad is viewed as the continuation of the description of the “natural humans”. The mother of the Joad family – Ma is imagined as a woman who gladly plays her role as “the citadel of the family.” She heals the family deceases, arbitrates argues, and her positive impact grows throughout the novel. A short description of her appearance and features of character could give the full picture of this heroine:

Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken… And from her great and humble position in the family, she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty… She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function be gone. (Steinberg, 110)

Since Tom and Ma are absolutely regarded as symbols, Casy acts principally as a symbol. As he is disappointed in the conventional Bible truth, he tries to find God in his own spirit instead of seeking it in Testimony or church. He often appears in the novel as a moral voice, articulates many of the novel’s most important themes. The holiness of people and the unity of mankind are among them. The readers can see him as a fundamental philosopher, a motivator and unifier of mankind (farmers of Oklahoma, then California), and a sufferer. In some measure, he may be compared with Jesus Christ, as even he has the same initials. From the very beginning of the novel, the readers get to know that Casy is the former preacher. Because of that, he is seeking how to apply his talent as the soul healer and speaker, as he is not a leader of any religious congregation. During the development of the plot, he learns how to apply his talents in the sphere of organizing and motivating the migrant workers. And like his real-life prototype he strongly believes in his mission of saving the workers, and willingly gives his life for the sake of their liberation from suffering.

The moment in the concluding part of the novel, when Rose of Sharon, the oldest of Ma and Pa Joad’s daughters, gives her breast to a starving man in the barn, symbolizes the family unification, and readiness to succor. Throughout the novel, Rose’s pregnancy is described as one of the major occasions in the life of the Joad family. This pregnancy is in some measure sacred as it is a donation to family continuity, and unity. With the birth of her still-born child, she starts saying, in effect, that all those starving children are her children, just as Tom has sacrificed himself for the sake of anonymous migrants and Ma for “anybody” who needs. The statement of all-over unification can be explained by the idea of the book to show the saving power of fellowship and family. In general, there are two main characters in the story, the Joads family, and the “family” of migrants. Since the Joads are united “by blood”, there is a version, that their family is united not by genes, but by commitment, loyalty, and tolerance. In the book, the biological basis of the family undermines, as all the workers do not have their own homes, which defines the borders of the families, and life on the road, which the characters live in the first half of the story, demands the establishment of new relations, contacts, and kinships. In a significantly short time, the two families of Joads and Wilsons merge in one. This amalgamation takes place among the migrant society in general as well: “twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream” (Steinberg, 336).

At the beginning of the novel, and the journey made by the Joads, they rely on radical family structure and strongly believe that men should take decisions, and women should obediently do what they tell. So, they continue honoring Granpa as the head of the family, even when he lost his ability to be the head, and sound like a leader. As the journey to California goes on the dynamics of the changes within the family are rapid. Discouraged and defeated by his growing collapses, Pa withdraws from the role of a leader and starts spending his time in thoughts. So, Ma decides to be responsible for taking decisions. At first, this shocks Pa, who, at one point, lamely threatens to beat her into her so-called proper place. The threat is empty, however, and the family knows it. By the end of the novel, the family structure has undergone a revolution, in which the woman figure, traditionally powerless, has taken control, while the male figure, traditionally in the leadership role, has retreated. This revolution parallels a similar upheaval in the larger economic hierarchies in the outside world. Thus, the workers at the Weedpatch camp govern themselves according to their own rules and share tasks in accordance with notions of fairness and equality rather than power-hungry ambition or love of authority.

Conclusion

In the pages of the narration, Steinberg provides numerous symbols, a great deal of which refer to the biblical episodes. The moment, in which Uncle John disposes of the corps of the still-born child, recalls the episode of Moses being sent down the Nile. This analogy presents a thesis that the people, like the Hebrews in Egypt, will be released from the slavery of the present circumstances, and better times will come soon. Rose of Sharon’s pregnancy symbolizes expect of a new beginning. But the expectation seems not fulfilled when she bears the stillborn child. Instead of slipping into despair, the family attains a feeling of growing brevity and grace, and the novel ends on a surprising (albeit unsettling) note of hope.

References

  1. Steinberg, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin; Steinbeck Centennial edition, 2002
  2. Cassuto, David. “Turning Wine into Water: Water as Privileged Signifier in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’.” Papers on Language & Literature 29.1 (1993): 67
  3. Goodwin, James. “The Depression Era in Black and White: Four American Photo-Texts.” Criticism 40.2 (1998): 273
  4. Heavilin, Barbara A., ed. The Critical Response to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.
  5. Johnson, Claudia Durst. Understanding the Grapes of Wrath: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999
  6. Lobao, Linda, and Katherine Meyer. “THE GREAT AGRICULTURAL TRANSITION: Crisis, Change, and Social Consequences of Twentieth Century US Farming.” Annual Review of Sociology (2001): 103.
  7. Mcgovern, James R. And a Time for Hope: Americans in the Great Depression. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000.
  8. Palmer, Rosemary. “Understanding the Grapes of Wrath: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 44.5 (2001): 479
  9. Pizer, Donald. Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.
  10. Stein, Walter J. California and the Dust Bowl Migration. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.
  11. Theobald, Paul, and Ruben Donato. “Children of the Harvest: the Schooling of Dust Bowl and Mexican Migrants During the Depression Era.” PJE. Peabody Journal of Education 67.4 (1990): 29-45.
  12. Zirakzadeh, Cyrus Ernesto. “John Steinbeck on the Political Capacities of Everyday Folk: Moms, Reds, and Ma Joad’s Revolt.” Polity 36.4 (2004): 595
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""The Grapes of Wrath" the Novel by John Steinbeck." IvyPanda, 12 Sept. 2021, ivypanda.com/essays/the-grapes-of-wrath-the-novel-by-john-steinbeck/.

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IvyPanda. ""The Grapes of Wrath" the Novel by John Steinbeck." September 12, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-grapes-of-wrath-the-novel-by-john-steinbeck/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. ""The Grapes of Wrath" the Novel by John Steinbeck." September 12, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-grapes-of-wrath-the-novel-by-john-steinbeck/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) '"The Grapes of Wrath" the Novel by John Steinbeck'. 12 September.

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