The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is a classical novel that gives a descriptive account of a family that decides to leave their Oklahoma home due to their constant and unpredictable changes in employment and their eventual failure to find success in California. This novel was influenced by the background and friends of the writer. The novel is noted for its descriptive quality and fascinating writing techniques that are used to tell the story. The author, John Steinbeck, is known for his novels, usually classified as social novels, which deal with the economic problems of rural labor and immigrant workers.
The Grapes of Wrath earned Steinbeck a number of awards, including the National Book Award in 1939, Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and Nobel peace Prize in 1962. The underlying theme of the novel was that extraordinary love, family bonds, unity of purpose, and a better appreciation of the role of women in family units can be by-products of extreme human suffering. This novel can be rightly considered as a proletarian novel, which advocates for social change through the display of conditions of migrant workers revealed through the poor working and living conditions. In the novel, the men, who own land, hold the power and, therefore, dictate and control the means of supply and demand.
The History of America during the Early 20th Century
The novel highlights a number of themes that characterized the history of America during the early 20th century. Firstly, the author reveals the difficulty of achieving the American dream through the story of the Joad family. The family leaves their established lives with the hope of achieving a better and economically stable life in California. Secondly, the issue of prejudice and discrimination is discussed, highlighting the plight of migrant workers, who worked with little pay, had no homes and had very limited opportunities compared to the land owners in California. The author also discusses the impact of the second Industrial Revolution in the early 20th century. This was the highlight of modernization and industrialization, brought with a number of social evils and concerns. Similarly, the author focuses on the theme of family unity and the patriarchal structure of the family. These themes take the center-stage in the novel and are at the heart of American history. The central point of all these themes is hinged in the pursuit of the American dream, which is not a simple concept as it is shown in the novel.
Every immigrant is driven by a dream, vision and hope that where he is headed is better than where he is coming from. It is this hope that drives him or her and gives the strength to push on and work harder. The American dream was so firmly entrenched in the hearts of every American in the early 20th century, such that many American families were willing to sacrifice the little they had in the hope of getting more elsewhere. In Oklahoma, the Joad family was assured of a roof over their head, a meal at the table and a land to till. However, they decided to throw all these behind in pursuit of the American dream, a dream that required them to move from their home to California, where there was a promise of plenty. The author stresses the difficulty of achieving the American dream and the complexity involved in the dream (Steinbeck 32).
According to the author, the American dream was not a simple concept that involved going to the West, getting a job and becoming rich. However, to the Joad family, this was the simplest it could get as they decided to go to California. Although the family was forced to leave, they had never stopped to think even at once about where they would sleep or what they could eat. They had never doubted if they could get a job as they were spurred on by the rumors of a promised land, where there was plenty to eat and available work for all. The reality was that immigrants lived like pigs and fought amongst them like cats. They no longer had their home, job and land to till in California; thus, they had to start from zero (Steinback 34).
The fear of the unknown is the greatest source of motivation of all evil in man. When a man is about to encounter something that he or she has never dealt with before, he or she is capable of anything to safeguard his or her interests and maintain the status quo. It is this fear of the unknown that made the capitalists in California to be so apprehensive of migrants, who had started coming to California and, thus, treating them with prejudice and discriminating against them. The Grapes of Wrath focuses on the economic situation of the migrant people as compared to that of the land owners. The author explains the fear that the landowners of California felt over the continued influx of migrant workers. This fear was further enhanced by the American desire for land, which the American people held dear as it gave them an identity, a past and a future (Steinbeck 231).
The emergence of prejudice and discrimination was facilitated, when small farmers began to lose their land to larger land owners, leading to fewer land owners; thus, workers were being imported, abused and then forced to work without pay. This cycle was made worse, when people began moving to the West looking for work. This movement greatly petrified the capitalists, who owned land and, hence, were guarding them with weapons (Steinbeck 233). This fear of the migrants graduated with racial undertones, leading to the increased prejudice and discrimination (Steinbeck 236).
One consistent fact in terms of the human existence that has been revealed all through the history is that change is inevitable. However, the change brings with it both the good and the bad; so that when it is a positive change, there will most certainly be negative consequences. The emergence of the industrial revolution in the late 19th and early 20th century marked a fundamental shift in the future of the American economy. It shook the existence of the American life as it lead to the increased migration of a large number of people from farms to major cities in search of jobs created by the new industrial economy. When the Joads moved to California, they realized that the city did not experience similar weather problems that were common in Oklahoma; however, the industrial economy in the city completely altered the meaning of land, where those, who owned land, had no emotional attachment to it.
The industrial economy in California only meant that machines and highly skilled labor were valued; thus, the migrants could only fight for very little. The industrial revolution basically marked the shift from the reliance over unskilled labor to more efficient labor practices, which relied on the use of machinery. These machineries were used in every sector of the economy, including the agricultural sector, thus resulting in the displacement of many farmers, who owned the land that was considered unprofitable. In The Grapes of Wrath, the need to adopt the industrial revolution was enhanced with the emergence of drought, which made farming very difficult.
Therefore, many farmers adopted the industrial economy with the consequence that many workers were displaced and many farms, which were regarded by banks as unprofitable, were rendered useless. Steinbeck uses the analogy of the sexual force in reference to industrialization, referring to it as a sexual force that displaced the loving hands of a farmer with the roughness of a beast (Steinbeck 36). Consequently, farmers viewed industrialization and modernization as a force that altered their way of life and completely destroyed their romantic attachment to the land (Steinbeck 40).
The identity of every human being has everything to do with the identity of his family so that those, who are not so endowed as to have families, might struggle to have an identity. Indeed, Steinbeck captures the central importance of the family in his novel as he displays the sense of unity and the bond of love that made the Joad family go through so much together. The beginning of the novel identifies the Joad family, which has a leader that is the head of the family. While in Oklahoma, the head of the family is the man, Pa, who took over the leadership from Grampa. It is him, together with an entire council of men, who are the leaders of the group. The role of the women is simply to assist the men and ensure that they do not break down due to the stress. However, when the Joads begin their journey to California, things begin to change as Pa begins to lose grip of the leadership over the group.
Ma, who is the wife to Pa, senses this and takes over the responsibility of leading the family and, thus, ensuring that there is no vacuum in leadership in order to retain the identity of the family. This is further highlighted, when Ma strongly opposes Pa’s idea to split the family, when the car breaks down. Her opposition in the interest of keeping the family intact and, thus, retaining its identity (Steinbeck 196). The novel, therefore, reveals the shifting roles in family structures, which coincide with the changes in the society. It provides an examination of the traditional structure of the family and its effectiveness, while celebrating Ma’s role as an embodiment of change in the family structure from the patriarchal system to the matriarchal one. However, the author is keen to stress on the importance of the family unity and the need to preserve the identity of the family as it is critical in terms of the character formation of other family members.
The Grapes of Wrath and Issues that Were Dominant in the American History
Another important theme discussed in the novel is the role of Christianity in fostering peace and unity in the family and social set-up. Steinbeck uses Jim Casey as a symbolism of a Christ like figure charged with the responsibility of leading the Joads and other workers to unity and togetherness. Jim Casey, therefore, uses the socialist approach of stressing the significance of the greater societal good and, thus, calls everyone into considering the higher purposes of the community over their own individual interests. Steinbeck uses the unity of people as a depiction of holiness and consequently, where an individual breaks away from the society, he/she becomes unholy and, therefore, not united with the rest of the community. In this sense, Christianity plays the role of the uniting force, which is critical to the survival of the Joad family and other migrant workers. This role is used to inspire people not to despair in the midst of hardship and trying times, to be strong and remain together (Steinbeck 176).
In conclusion, the author has employed a variety of techniques and stylistic concepts of the literature in order to tell his story. One such technique is the use of short stories and narratives as interludes interspersed in the main storyline, which the writer uses to explain a past event or even foreshadow a future event in the novel. This technique is employed all through the novel and helps in breaking the monotony of a continuous story, which may tend to be boring. In general, Steinbeck provides a compelling account of the American socio-economic status of the 1930s as told through the Joad family and other migrants. He focuses on the plight of farmers, who are confronted with a rapidly encroaching agribusiness, and his sympathy for union organizers. He documents the suffering of the Dust Bowl and the predicament, with which they find themselves. Like everyone else, the Joads loaded their meager belongings onto a truck and headed to the West, quite oblivious of the human tragedy that waited them.
The situation in California is that it was overcrowded with starving immigrants looking for work. However, while the story is about extreme human suffering away from home, including discrimination, insults and brutal security operations by the scared Californians, it is also a story about great acts of love and kindness. This story, therefore, underlines a significant episode in the American history as it takes place during the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Many of the issues discussed in the novel, such as discrimination, were at the fore in America. The impact of modernization and industrialization was taking toll on the American economy with wide ranging implications. The situation of migrant workers continued to get worse as more workers adopted the industrial economy, thereby rendering the unskilled workers jobless. The Grapes of Wrath is an account on the pursuit of the American dream, as well as the struggle and human suffering involved in this chase.
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