The Grapes of Wrath and its Parallel to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle
The first thing that came to mind when I read Steinbeck's classic The Grapes of Wrath was its parallel to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle - the downward spiral of a migrant family who find themselves in a struggle to subsist in abject poverty. (Fortunately, where Sinclair rams Socialism down our throats in The Jungle, Steinbeck merely offers us a spoonful here.)
Steinbeck provides wonderful development for each character in this story; though none of them could be called bright, each figure possesses a unique depth and personality. Tom Joad is the angst-ridden main character who has just been released from serving a long prison sentence. Ma is the family matriarch who provides strength and optimism even in the worst times. Jim Clancy is the fallen preacher who joins the Joad's on their sojourn. (Clancy is certainly the novel's most over-analyzed character - he has been likened to a metaphor for Jesus Christ, but I just didn't see it.)
This now classic tale takes place during 1930's, and is about a family of Oklahoma Dustbowl farmers who, like countless others, migrate to California after losing their farm. But they don't give up without a fight, leaving only when the bulldozers come to raze their home. Packing up all of their possessions in the family jalopy, they make their way across a Depression Era America that has little pity on "ignorant Okies". Along the way they meet other Okies fleeing back home from California after finding only starvation in the so-called promised land. (One of the most heart wrenching figures in the novel is the Okie who is returning after helplessly watching his child die of starvation). But, just like the Rudkis family in The Jungle, the Joad's are sure that, with some hard work, things will be different for them. Though the family does find work picking fruit, it is not the Garden of Eden they'd hoped it would be.
Even the children must endure twelve hour days of backbreaking work in the hot sun under the cruel eye of their supervisors at their slave-labor-like work camps. They are forced to live in infested wooden shacks called "company housing", and to buy their food at the "company store" whose prices are exorbitant and which comes out of their already paltry pay. The most horrifically ironic part is that while their meals usually consist of gruel "with bacon grease for strength", they dare not eat the fruit they pick for fear of swift and severe punishment. Forced to flee the camp after Tom assaults a would-be rapist, the family is all but lost. The final scene is heart wrenching and unforgettable - and proves Ma's claim that the poor are the ones who can be counted when somebody is in need.
The Grapes of Wrath is considered one of this century's greatest literary masterpieces, and with good reason. Its many layers are deeply thought-provoking - and provides insightful social commentary which could address many issues we deal with even today.