Social Issues in The Grapes of Wrath
This novel begins with a drought and ends with a flood--natural disasters that serve as bookends to a parade of human-inflicted hardships and trials. For the `Okies' the Great Depression was merely the prelude to the Dust Bowl that wiped out the homes and everything these farm people had ever worked their lives to provide for themselves. The pot of gold at the end of their rainbow is merely a mirage, enticing them further west like the proverbial carrot for the mule. The drama keeps replaying itself; only the props have changed. There is a compelling quality and an irresistible urge to keep reading novels of characters pushed to extreme limits of endurance and survival. Just as much as Robinson Crusoe, the migrants of `The Grapes of Wrath' are shipwrecked in an untenable situation where creative ingenuity and persistence are essential to their survival.
John Steinbeck's novel has been justifiably praised and it is understandable that it has been seen as almost the definitive saga of the hardships of the Depression. I first read it over thirty years ago and the characters have become idealized in my memory. I misremembered them, probably because the power of the heroic and relentless drive to persevere in spite of overwhelming odds overshadowed the fact that these characters are filled with flaws, insecurity, selfishness and vanity and yet the instinct for survival is so strong within them that it pulls them beyond their endurance and the tolerance of anything they ever thought they would consider doing.
Steinbeck's Joad family is not naturally heroic or particularly altruistic. They want what most people want--security, an intact family, their own home, a way to support themselves. Despite their best intentions, their notions of what the family is and where they are determined to go are completely tossed aside by the intervention of unexpected circumstance.
The unlikely hero of the family is ex-con Tom, just out of prison and on parole, which he breaks when he leaves the state with his family to head west. Tom's righteous indignation and bad temper has already resulted in him killing one man. It requires immense self-control to refrain from retaliation at the taunts and injustice the family suffer all the way to California from western `natives' who fear that the `Okies' (substitute any kind of racial or ethnic epithet for an equivalent insult) will take away their jobs and the authorities who jump in to quell any glimmers of burgeoning unionizing. Younger brother Al, who idolizes Tom and emulates his brother in many ways with an added dose of sexual bravado and general cockiness, is impetuous and just wants to get married and work in a garage somewhere. The pregnant Rose of Sharon is deserted by her husband, an emotional child despite impending motherhood, pines for Connie and tries to console herself with the thought that he will come back for her after he gets settled and finds them a home. Pa and his brother John are weak patriarchs. John is consumed with guilt over a `sin' that he has blown into a badge of honor as well as an avoidance mechanism. Pa grumbles and is occasionally assertive and decisive but is ultimately humbled by Ma's authority. Ma is the rock of the family. She is the foundation upon which all of them rest, the real spiritual leader of the family. The ex-preacher Jim Casy is an enlightened spiritual guide. His initials underscore his Christ figure status. He has been to the wilderness and come to a realization that is reminiscent of Emerson's `oversoul', that he is part of a collective soul, one with all other life on the planet. He sacrifices himself once by turning himself in to the authorities in place of another man who killed a policeman, serves his jail time and returns as an active unionizer in a camp where the Joads coincidentally find themselves. Steinbeck sees unionizing as true Christianity and Casy is its sacrificial prophet. After killing the man who killed Casy, Tom is a fugitive. He tells Ma before he leaves that he is now part of that soul that Casy spoke of and he is essentially continuing Casy's crusade for justice.
Men in the novel are characterized as reactors to the fits and starts of circumstances whereas women literally `go with the flow' of the ongoing river of life. The feminine nurturing aspect ushers the continuation of life and the recycling of energy and nourishment--literally in the eerily beautiful final scene of the novel, a conclusion that could never have been filmed in the world of 1940 when the acclaimed film version was released. Steinbeck's novel was a controversial powder keg when it was ignited and released to the public of 1939 and it retains all of its power over seventy years later. The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the Okies were all elements of a particular point in history. Injustice, inequality between rich and poor and the plight of the homeless and the unemployed are still with us in a world where `The Grapes of Wrath' has lost none of its relevance.