Struggle for Survival in the Grapes of Wrath

1 January 2017

The 1930s were a time of hardship for many across the United States. Not only was the Great Depression making it difficult for families to eat every day, but the Dust Bowl swept through the plains states making it nearly impossible to farm the land in which they relied. John Steinbeck saw how the Dust Bowl affected farmers, primarily the tenant farmers, and journeyed to California after droves of families. These families were dispossessed from the farms they had worked for years, if not generations (Mills 388).

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Steinbeck was guided by Tom Collins, the real-life model for the Weedpatch camp’s manager Jim Rawley, through one of the federal migrant worker camps. He was able to see for himself, from the migrants’ perspective, the living conditions to which they were subjected and later used the information to detail the lives of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath (Mills 389). Rebecca Hinton points out in her essay on the novel that “formerly tenant farmers with relative security and independence, they soon become migrant laborers at the mercy of the rich, struggling to maintain their pride” (101).

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck uses realism, allegory, and a change in values to show the intense struggle the common person went through to survive during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression after the rise of corporate and industrial capitalism. Although The Grapes of Wrath is a work of fiction, Steinbeck writes to inform the public about information gathered from fact. His use of realism and authentic voice give shape to the characters and their common struggle.

Steinbeck points out that one of the primary causes of the dispossession of tenant farmers is the fault of “the bank—the monster” and tractors taking “the place of twelve or fourteen families” (32-33). Likewise, Trent Keough writes in “The Dystopia Factor” that “The Grapes [of Wrath] investigate[s] the social phenomena of a transitional period in which an agrarian… industry economy is decimated by automation” and the novel also “records the role of mechanization (e. g. he tractor and car) in the Westward migration which occurred in America during the depression years” (38).

This decimation by automation is one of the primary factors that force the Joads from their farm. In Chapter 19, Steinbeck writes: “The tractors which throw men out of work, the belt lines which carry loads, the machines which produce, all were increased; and more and more families scampered the highways, looking for crumbs from the great holdings, lusting after the land beside the roads” (238).

The bank’s need for profits forces the owners of the farm to take action and hire one man on a tractor to do the work of dozens. Steinbeck also uses his experience in California camps to give a realistic depiction of the squatter camps that were scattered during the migration (Keough 44). The squatter camps, all referred to as Hooverville, are described as having no order with cars, shacks, and tents randomly scattered, usually near a source of water, such as a river or stream (Steinbeck 241, 243).

Migrant workers also have to deal with constant discrimination and abuse from the local population and law enforcement. Beginning in Chapter 18, the Joads are introduced to the term “Okie,” which is used to as a derogatory term to describe all migrants coming into California (Steinbeck 214). This is just the beginning of the discrimination the Joads face. Steinbeck describes how he perceives the discrimination in the following excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath: They were hungry, and they were fierce.

And they had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred. Okies—the owners hated them because the owners knew they were soft and the Okies strong, that they were fed and the Okies hungry; and perhaps the owners had heard from their grandfathers how easy it is to steal land from a soft man if you are fierce and hungry and armed. The owners hated them. And in the towns, the storekeepers hated them because they had no money to spend… The town men, little bankers, hated Okies because there was nothing to gain from them. They had nothing.

And the laboring people hated Okies because a hungry man must work, and if he must work, if he has to work, the wage payer automatically gives him less for his work; and then no one can get more. (233) The hatred felt by the Californians toward the Okies is exemplified by the law enforcement’s eagerness to “take in” anyone they feel shows the tiniest signs of trouble. For instance, a deputy makes up a reason to take in Floyd Knowles, from the Joad’s first Hooverville, because he questions a man offering work on how many men he needs and how much the pay is (Steinbeck 263).

Shortly after the Joads leave the first Hooverville, they encounter a group of armed men along the road who insist that they “ain’t gonna have no goddamn Okies in this town [sic]” and make them turn their truck around (Steinbeck 279). Before the Joads are introduced, the plight of another being is highlighted. In Chapter 3, Steinbeck introduces the turtle on the side of the road struggling through obstacles. The turtle itself is a symbol of the Joad family and other migrant workers, while its journey is an allegory of the struggles and obstacles they will face along the way.

The turtle comes upon an embankment along the highway and stops to size up the wall in front of it (Steinbeck 14). At several points in the novel, the men face decisions and hunker down together on their hams to discuss their situation and decide to press on. When the turtle finally starts again, it keeps pushing itself along and “as the embankment grew steeper and steeper, the more frantic were the efforts of the land turtle” (Steinbeck 15). The Joads face the same situation when they are on their way to California.

They survive the dust of the plains and then climb the steep embankment of the mountains in an overloaded car that was not made for the type of journey they encounter. When the Joad family finally arrives in California, they find that their big dream of farming and living in peace may not happen and they struggle to merely survive. Similarly, the turtle struggles when the red ant runs inside of its shell. The turtle crushes the ant by quickly pulling in its head and legs, and in the process, it picks up a head of wild oats (Steinbeck 15).

The red ant is like a negative thought to be crushed before it can do harm, while the wild oat seeds are like ideas to be planted and nurtured. Once the turtle begins crossing the road and all seems easy, a woman in a car approaches, sees the turtle and swerves to avoid hitting it; minutes later, a man in a truck sees the turtle, attempts to run it over, and the turtle spins onto its back (Steinbeck 15). The woman is fully aware that the turtle is in the road and nearly wrecks her car to stay away from it, much like people in areas unaffected by the Dust Bowl making a conscious effort not to think about what the Okies are going through.

The man, on the other hand, attempts to purposely crush the turtle, which is much like the groups of men that try everything in their power to close the government camps and crash the Hoovervilles. Even though the turtle is turned on its back after being nearly crushed, it manages to get itself turned right side up and the wild oat seeds it has been toting are dropped and unknowingly planted when “its shell dragged dirt over the seeds” (Steinbeck 16). The turtle is unaware when he picks up the seeds and is similarly unaware when he plants them.

This is not unlike later in the novel when Tom Joad picks up a new political ideology from Jim Casy. Tom, however, makes a conscious effort to plant his own seeds and spread the word to make things right for the migrant workers. The troubles the Joads face also affect the overall structure of the family as a whole. As the Joad family struggle progresses, there is a change in the values of the family. At the beginning, the Joad family, like most at the time, is highly patriarchal. Grampa Joad is the “titular head” of the family, but it is Pa Joad who is the acting head of family (Steinbeck 101).

During a conversation around the truck about their upcoming voyage to California, the men do all the talking unless a question is asked of Ma Joad. According to Warren Motley of Rutgers University, “the patriarchal structure of the Joad family, although shaken, remains intact through the early chapters of The Grapes of Wrath” (402). Women may voice their opinion when deciding what the family unit will do, but the ultimate decision is with the older men who are considered the “nucleus” of the family (Motley 402). Ma Joad takes over as the family authority when the threat of the family breaking up is presented to her.

She is adamant that the family stay together, no matter what, and “aggressively challenges” Pa’s decision to split the family up after the Wilson’s car breaks down (Motley 404). Motley states in his analysis, “From Patriarchy to Matriarchy: Ma Joad’s Role,” that “Ma Joad’s emergence signals an essential adaptation: under economic conditions of the migration, survival depends on the collective security of matriarchal society rather than on patriarchal self-reliance” (405). When the family must leave their farm, Pa and the older men are left without their established agrarian roles, so they harbor a feeling of failure.

Ma’s role, however, remains intact throughout the novel and she remains strong because of it (Motley 407). Rebecca Hinton, of the University of Cincinnati—Clermont College, states, “Steinbeck implies that in times of social upheaval, the family cannot remain a self-contained conjugal unit; it must expand to include members related by plight as well as by blood and focus on the needs of the many rather than those of the few” (101). Not only does the leadership role change, but the definition of family changes for the Joads and other travelers as well.

The struggle of the Joad family rouses Ma to offer assistance and compassion beyond her own family, as with Jim Casy (Keough 46). The Joads meet the Wilsons at the beginning of their journey and both families are inclined to help one another in a mutually beneficial relationship. There are several examples of an extended family amongst the migrants in The Grapes of Wrath, including the sharing of food, the discussing of a larger council of men on their situations, and the giving of money to families with an ill or deceased loved one.

The Joads go as far as to help pay for the Wilsons continued journey because they have no money left (Steinbeck 148). Steinbeck devotes an entire chapter to the formation of these extended families in the roadside camps. In Chapter 17 he says, “In the evening a strange thing happened: the 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” (Steinbeck 193).

It is easy for the many families to stick together, if only at night, because they are all living the same life. Each day the families go through the same kind of hell hoping that they have enough food and money to make it to California. Keough points out that “through these women… Steinbeck suggest[s] that the individualism commonly associated with capitalism is nothing but a Protestant ethic gone awry” (46). The story of the Joad family reveals a hard truth about people in society.

Steinbeck wants to demonstrate the predatory nature of capitalism and the destruction of family values it brings (Keough 49). John Steinbeck used a realistic point of view, allegory, and a dramatic change in family values to present the plight of the common migrant worker after tractors took the work of thousands of families. Nicolaus Mills states in his “Book Notes” that “Steinbeck understood that for the men and women he was describing, the struggle for dignity was never-ending, and he caught that struggle in the most intimate terms”. Steinbeck is also presented as a “prophet” who tells “timeless truths about greed and callousness, and… articulate[s] the conscience of the people” in “Editorial.

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