The Oppressed in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" is a fictionalized account of the plight of migrant farm workers in California during the Great Depression. Dust storms and poor irrigation have turned large areas of farmland in the prairie states into a Dust Bowl. Tenant farmers, unable to grow crops and pay rent to their landlords, have been forced off their land by the banks. The starving farmers are lured to California by the promise of plentiful fruit-picking jobs, only to find it an unattainable paradise.
The novel follows the pilgrimage of an Oklahoma family named the Joads and their friend, a former preacher named Jim Casy. When the novel begins, Tom Joad has just gotten out of prison and returns home to find that his family is one of the many that have been dispossessed by the land-owning company. They are preparing to drive to California to seek better farming opportunities. The road to California is a wasteland of unfriendly cops, opportunistic salesmen, unemployed drifters, and lonely souls, all seen from the vista of the Joads' rickety truck. The chapters alternate between the Joads' specific experiences and interludes that give a sort of large-scale third-party perspective to the general plight of the land and the people.
Once in the fertile valleys of central California, the Joads learn the reality of the job situation: The farm owners have lured many more people than necessary to fill the available jobs, so they get to hire those who are willing to work for the least money. The surplus of migrant farm workers group together in encampments called Hoovervilles and wait desperately for news about new jobs, while they are forced to face the hostility of the locals who call them "Okies" and consider them wage-deflating scabs. The living conditions are deplorable and the Joads can barely afford the most meager of food.
The Joads eventually find work picking peaches at a large farm that operates almost like a labor camp, with armed guards stationed around to ensure there are no worker uprisings. It is here that Casy, who has been rallying for worker unionization, is martyred when he is killed by a goon trying to break up a worker strike. Towards the end of the book, in Tom's "farewell" speech to his mother, Steinbeck conveys his message of the importance of worker organization and unionization to prevent exploitation by employers.
"The Grapes of Wrath" is thoroughly depressing to the very end. It has been accused of being too didactic and heavy-handed, but it's a book that needed to be written and one that took a lot of guts to do so. Who else but Steinbeck could have treated the downtrodden with so much dignity and sympathy without being condescending? Who else could have invested so much detail in even the seemingly least important characters, such as the one-eyed man in the junkyard, the storekeeper at the peach farm, and the fervently religious Lisbeth Sandry, making them unforgettable symbols of humanity? This book is an education. After reading it, everything else seems shallow.