John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath harshly criticizes American culture during the years of the dustbowls. He suggests the hardships of the people were driven not by the environmental factors as much as it was by the capitalistic fixation on economic profit regardless of the cost to the common man. Steinbeck was born in 1902 California and was poor for much of his life. He came into his writing power just as the nation was suffering the depth of the Great Depression. While it is frequently believed that the problems faced by the individual farmers of the 1930s were caused primarily by the droughts and subsequent dust storms, Steinbeck showed how this was only a small portion of the problem. “The drought of the mid-thirties – the worst in a century – only worsened conditions for the working people of the region, an area where unemployment was higher than the already soaring national average” (Gregory, 1989: 14). Instead, the driving force of this collapse, Steinbeck’s story, and the problems faced by the Joad family in the story is the capitalistic system itself – the banks, the landowners and the incessant need for profit to be gained by all, what Steinbeck refers to as the ‘monster’. This ‘monster’ is alive and well today, driven by the same forces for the same reasons and very close to achieving the same result. Steinbeck’s novel connects to today’s world in its depiction of capitalism as the monster behind the problem, the way it is seen to absorb all the resources while leaving the common people hungry, and in the emphasis, it places on material possessions.
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The capitalistic system is first described as the monster behind the problems in chapter five as Steinbeck presents a hypothetical exchange taking place between a tenant about to lose his land and the landowners who are evicting them. In this exchange, Steinbeck highlights the changing values of the country as it plunges full steam into pure capitalism. The tenant farmers tell the owners, “it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours – being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not paper with numbers on it” (Steinbeck, 1961: 33). But the owner’s answer (truthfully) that it isn’t up to them whether or not to evict but instead it’s up to the banks, which are not run by men but are themselves controlled by bigger companies off in the east that “has to have profits all the time … When the monster stops growing, it dies” (35). Without men at its head, there is no one to strike against and therefore no means of controlling its power. Like so many other tenants, the Joads found themselves without a home, without hope, and without a livelihood thanks to its incessant demands. Like the Joads, many Americans today are helpless victims to the powers of capitalism, being made homeless with nowhere to go and no one to point to but the faceless ‘banks’ that are too big to fail but offers no comfort in return.
Despite his best efforts to reform himself, Tom finds himself thwarted again and again by the corporate monsters that continue to suck the land dry. His family having been evicted off of their land with no new jobs or opportunities available to them in their own state, Tom first finds it necessary to violate parole in order to survive by leaving the state. Yet even in their new homeland of California, the Joad family continues to find themselves in opposition to the powers that be. According to Cletus Daniel (1981), California agriculture had been run for decades by corporate cooperatives much like those just starting to take over the land in Oklahoma by the time real-life families similar to the fictional Joads arrived. As is factually noted in Steinbeck’s novel, these corporate giants, in an effort to squeeze out the smaller farms, deliberately drove up the prices of fruit, forcing many to destroy it when the market prices weren’t high enough to justify the cost of harvesting (Rothbard, 1995: 85). This concept is presented in heartbreaking detail as the characters of the novel are forced to stand by, starving, as they watch the fruit being destroyed. “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange” (Steinbeck, 1961: 348-9). Seeing this injustice, Tom is not only incapable of finding stability and joy for his own family but is unable to exist under the present system of exploitation and wanton destruction, not only of the fruit of the land but of the children of the people as well. Again, these factors are seen to be at work as children are forced to raise themselves while parents struggle to provide the food and shelter they need, education falls under suspicion and basic healthcare, although amply available, is not available for the poor.
For the argument that the drought was the driving force behind the novel to stand, it has to be proven that it was the land itself that controlled the characters. This seems to be somewhat corroborated by the fact that the people are driven off the land when they abuse it by growing too much cotton, denuding it, and leaving it open to the winds. However, it is refuted when one of the characters tells a truck driver, “The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big – and he’s the servant of his property”. Ironically, the more one holds in Steinbeck’s story, the more one has to lose and the more of a slave one is made to possessions. In the description of the fat man with mean eyes who owns millions of acres in California, the migrant workers come to the realization that while he has material comfort, he nevertheless lives in persistent fear of others and of death, alienating himself from the rest of the world and destroying his own peace of mind. In a similar fashion, the middle class, the shopkeepers, and vigilante troops are seen in a similar battle with themselves, on one hand recognizing that their own property is at risk to the migrant workers, who might be willing to perform a service at a lower cost than themselves, yet also unable to side with the migrants against the forces that can bring ruin upon the middle class as easily (DeMott, 1997). These are again ideas that have direct correlations to today’s society as people have learned to define themselves by their possessions, become slaves to their possessions, and become fearful rather than exploratory.
In his argument that the disasters of the 1930s were the result of manmade problems rather than environmental issues, Steinbeck begins to suggest ways in which the ‘monster’ of capitalism might be tamed. “We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God, that’s something we can change”. If these conditions were allowed to continue, Steinbeck indicates that revolution must come as a result of the neglect and exploitation that can occur. As the starving people watch the fruit being destroyed rather than distributed, Steinbeck explains, “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage”. As the novel progresses through the adventures and misadventures of the Joad family and friends, Steinbeck continues to encourage at the very least a passive resistance to the poor treatment of the poor – do not contribute to the starving of children, do not take part in the oppression of an entire class – yet also encourages the middle class to rise up in cooperation with the oppressed to change the system before it can be used to work against them.
Although many things have changed since the 1930s that work to help the poor and keep them from being so oppressed – free lunch programs for children in school and welfare assistance for those who do not earn a decent wage on their own – I think Steinbeck was right to encourage his readers to look more deeply into the social systems they were supporting. Welfare is not able to overcome many of the issues that are still causing problems today, people continue to be underemployed and unable to attain higher wages or better employment because they do not fit in with a predefined, ‘acceptable’ definition and the ‘monster’ is still loose, still able to wreak havoc on any class it chooses to target. People have become more disconnected than ever in recent years, making it even more likely that those with power and money can force others to do what they find objectionable simply by threatening them with their own comfort while what is considered objectionable becomes ever more distant and removed.
- Daniel, Cletus E. Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers, 1870-1941. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
- DeMott, Robert. “’Working Days and Hours’: Steinbeck’s Writing of The Grapes of Wrath.” The Grapes of Wrath: Text and Criticism. Eds. Peter Lisca with Kevin Hearle. New York: Viking, 1997: 526-539.
- Gregory, James N. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
- Rothbard, Murray Newton. Making Economic Sense. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1995.
- Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 1961 (1939).