John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most influential books in American History, and is considered to be his best work by many. It tells the story of one family’s hardship during the Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. The Joads were a hard-working family with a strong sense of togetherness and morals; they farmed their land and went about their business without bothering anyone. When the big drought came it forced them to sell the land they had lived on since before anyone can remember. Their oldest son, Tom, has been in jail the past four years and returns to find his childhood home abandoned.
He learns his family has moved in with his uncle John and decides to travel a short distance to see them. He arrives only to learn they are packing up their belongings and moving to California, someplace where there is a promise of work and food. This sets the Joad family off on a long and arduous journey with one goal: to survive. In this novel Steinbeck set forth with the intention of raising awareness to the general public of the difficulties and injustices these migrants faced during this period in time. It exposed the methods of the California farmer to use the migrants in order to lower their costs and make their profit margin higher.
How they starved and cheated the poor, working man, in order to keep him desperate for food and too weak to protest. Above all, it showed everyone that these “damn Okies” were all simply men, women and children, no different from anyone else, just poorer. They were human beings with feelings and not the uncivilized beasts they were portrayed as at the time. Steinbeck portrays the “Okies” in a way no one before him had, and also managed to keep their story true to life. He did this by mainly using dialect, and wrote the “Okie” dialect just as it was spoken, breaking the lines of proper grammar and spelling.
If he was concerned with such things it would have ruined the personality of the characters. His unique writing style to capture the atmosphere of these people and the era is evident in this excerpt from his book: “Duck,” said Muley. The bar of cold white light swung over their heads and crisscrossed the field. The hiding men could not see any movement, but they heard a car door slam and they heard voices. “Scairt to get in the light,” Muley whispered. “Once-twice I’ve took a shot at the headlights.
That keeps Willy careful. He got somebody with ‘im tonight. They heard footsteps on wood, and then from inside the house they saw the glow of a flashlight. “Shall I shoot through the house? ” Muley whispered. “They couldn’t see where it come from. Give ‘em sompin to think about. ” (80) The Grapes of Wrath is two intertwined stories. One of the Joad family and their personal struggles, and the other of the greater effect of the Dust Bowl and depression on the massive amounts of people like the Joads. He trades off each chapter, one chapter telling the story of the Joads and the next talking about the migrants.
He uses the Joads to bring the story home to the reader, defeating the myth about the Okies. That myth being, as put by a service station attendant, “They ain’t human. ” (301) Throughout the novel Steinbeck goes to prove that the Joads are perhaps the most humane people out there. As the story progresses the Joads progress as well, from only being concerned with their own personal welfare and living to being aware of injustice towards everyone like them. This is accompanied by the disintegration of the smaller family unit, which is replaced by the larger world family of the migrant people.
The character that shows this change most dramatically is Tom Joad. When he first is released from prison his only concern is going home, returning to his old lifestyle, catching up on lost time and having some fun. As he learns about the journey west his first priority becomes his family, and he puts them and their welfare before everything else. Finally at the end of the book he decides to take it upon himself to be a voice for all of the “Okies” and fight against the unfairness they all faced on a daily basis.
This change is best put by Ma at the end of the book when she says to Mrs. Wainwright, “Use’ ta be the fambly that was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do. ” (606) Throughout the novel, the acts of kindness by poor people are contrasted to the greed and meanness of the rich. One of the ironies of the book was that, as Ma Joad said, “If your in trouble or hurt or need — go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help — the only ones. ” (335) The irony is that if you need something you have to go to the people who have nothing.
The first example of this is at the truck station in Chapter 15 when the restaurant owner and waitress give the family bread at a discounted rate, and candy two for a penny when it is actually nickel candy. The truck drivers then leave large tips to the waitress. Neither the truck driver nor the restaurant owner and waitress are very rich but they are generous anyway. In Chapter seventeen Tom and Al receive car parts from a worker at a run down auto shop at a great discount. Ma Joad is also an example of this. The Joads are poor and yet they give what little they have to the children who need it.
In contrast the business class people are shown as ruthless bloodthirsty demons. All they care about is their own personal wealth and to them the poor are simply walking signs reading “take what little money I have, I am poor and desperate”. Chapter seven shows how the car dealers rip the people off by selling them pieces of junk for high prices. They use cheep tricks such as pouring sawdust into the gears or transmission to cut down the noise of the car and hide problems. They take advantage of the tenant farmers ignorance of cars and interest rates to make a profit.
This pattern is repeated many times throughout the book. Chapter nine shows junk dealers taking advantage of the fact that they knew the farmers had to sell all of their possessions and could pay them dirt-cheap prices for them. They watch the pain and despair in the farmer’s faces as they try to argue for a higher price with a grin, knowing they will take whatever is offered. They simply can’t afford not to, they must sell their things, and they can’t take them west and desperately need the money. “Well, take it-all junk-and give me five dollars. You’re not buying only junk, you’re buying junked lives.
And more- you’ll see- you’re buying bitterness. Buying a plow to plow your own children under, buying the arms and spirits that might have saved you. Five dollars, not four. I can’t haul ‘em back- Well, take ‘em for four. But I warn you, you’re buying what will plow your own children under. And you won’t see. You can’t see. Take ‘em for four. Now, what’ll you give for the team and wagon? Those fine bays, matched they are, matched in color, matched the way they walk, stride to stride. In the stiff pull – straining hams and buttocks, split-second timed together. And in the morning the light on them, bay light.
They look over the fence sniffing for us, and the stiff ears swivel to hear us, and the black forelocks! I’ve got a girl. She likes to braid the manes and forelocks, puts little red bows on them. Likes to do it. Not any more. I could tell you a funny story about that girl and that off bay. Would make you laugh. Off horse is eight, near is ten, but might of been twin colts the way they work together. See? The teeth. Sound all over. Deep lungs. Feet fair and clean. How much? Ten dollars? For both? And the wagon- Oh, Jesus Christ! I’d shoot ‘em for dog feed first. Oh, take ‘em!
Take ‘em quick, mister. You’re buying a little girl plaiting the forelocks, taking off her hair ribbon to make bows, standing back, head cocked, rubbing the soft noses with her cheek. You’re buying years of work, toil in the sun; you’re buying a sorrow that can’t talk. But watch it, mister. There’s a premium goes with this pile of junk and the bay horses – so beautiful – a packet of bitterness to grow in your house and to flower, some day. We could have saved you, but you cut us down, and soon you will be cut down and there’ll be none of us to save you. ” (118)
There is a lot of symbolism throughout The Grapes of Wrath, in the form of events or even in the characters themselves. The first noticeable use of this is in chapter three, with a turtle who is simply trying to get to the end of a road. He slowly plods along in the heat, never stopping in his journey, although he is faced with many obstacles. A car whizzes by, barely nicking him and sending him skidding across the road with his shell overturned. Once the danger is past he emerges from his shell and continues on, only to be picked up by Tom Joad, who carries him for a distance with the intention of giving him to Winfield as a present.
Naturally this is not in the turtle’s plans, but he tolerates it and once set down by Tom, works his way free of the jacket that restrained him and slowly makes his way back towards his goal. This is symbolic of the Joad’s journey to California, with all the hardships they faced. Yet they never faltered on their path, each and every member of the family knew where they wanted to go and didn’t allow minor setbacks to stop them. It has been questioned by some as to whether Jim Casy is meant to symbolize Jesus Christ in this story. I believe that he is, there are many small hints pointing to it, such as his initials (J.
C. ), along with many broader indications. His lifestyle of preaching and leading people in revolt, as well as sacrificing himself for Tom and the Joad family supports this belief well. He also had a follower, or disciple in Tom, who after Casy’s death decides to leave the family to carry on his message. “Tom laughed uneasily, “well maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one- an’ then—“ “Then what, Tom? ” “Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.
Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’- I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they knows supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build- why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes. ” (572) The last major point of symbolism in the book is shown in Rosasharn’s baby. The baby comes to symbolize death, but at the same time, life.
It is a stillborn, never once took a breath to live, which was the hardest death for the family to deal with, the one that never lived. At the same time, it is a blessing in disguise. Shortly after this occurs there is a great and steady rain, which the Joads seek shelter from in an abandoned barn. Upon entering they discover a young boy and his father in the corner, the boy informs them that his father is starving to death and cannot keep food down. He is desperate for milk and wonders if they had any money to spare in which to buy some. Upon hearing this Ma and Rosasharn exchange a knowing look.
Ma takes the rest of the family out to a tool shed and leaves Rosasharn with the old man. Rosasharn proceeds to give the man the life-giving milk that he so desperately needs and her baby did not live to put use to. In doing this her baby unknowingly gave its life in return for saving that of another. Steinbeck uses this novel as a warning to large landowners as well as the government during the depression. There was a great injustice being done to these people and it wouldn’t be long before they did something about it. You cannot suppress a large group of society for an extended amount of time without there being an uprising against it.
He states this in chapter nineteen, and for once doesn’t use any sort of symbolism to mask the meanings behind his words. He comes right out and states the events that have led up to this point and says there will be a revolt eventually, the question is simply when. 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 they 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. There is no shorter path to a storekeeper’s contempt, and all his admirations are exactly opposite. The town men, little bankers, hated the Okies because there was nothing to gain from them. They had nothing. And the laboring people hated the Okies because a hungry man must work, if he has to work, the wage payer automatically gives him less for his work; and then no one can get more. (318)