What kind of reaction does Steinbeck hope to elicit toward the Dust Bowl farmers he portrays? Does he succeed in his goals?
Steinbeck writes about the Dust Bowl farmers with great empathy. The Grapes of Wrath exists, in large part, to bring to life the farmers’ plight and to depict them as ground-down but noble people. Steinbeck makes the Joads, his protagonists, stand in for all of the Dust Bowl farmers. While each Joad family member has his own quirks, speech patterns, and characteristics, the Joads are less a group of three-dimensional characters than they are a collection of archetypes. This narrative choice has two opposite, and often simultaneous, effects: It both elevates and universalizes the Joads and makes them difficult to care about as individuals.
While the Joads are by no means flat or allegorical characters, Steinbeck intentionally lets their deep inner psychologies go unexplored, preferring to focus on the ways in which they represent every other Dust Bowl farmer and the ways in which the changes they undergo during their move to California resemble the changes every farmer endures. Tom Joad is the young everyman, a good person forced to develop a social conscience. Ma Joad is the universal mother, the nurturer who rallies to support her family and sacrifices her own comfort for their sake. Pa Joad is the broken-down father, the man who longs to lead his family but whose spirit is broken by the constant stream of disasters the Great Depression brings. And after she gets pregnant, Rose of Sharon is the spirit of motherhood made flesh, a 1930s-era Virgin Mary figure.
Because the Joads are meant to be universal figures rather than specific people, reading about their grim problems and determined struggle to survive is often a particularly moving experience. Tom’s move from self-interested independence to social awareness is a familiar and stirring young man’s journey. Ma’s determination to hide the death of Granma during the desert crossing is a miracle of motherly strength and selflessness. Pa’s attempt to construct the dam sums up the touching determination of fathers to protect their families. And Rose of Sharon’s willingness to feed the starving man at the end of the novel becomes a symbol of hope and an assertion that people can be kind to one another even under the most desperate circumstances. As Steinbeck intends, the Joads’ plight seems to represent the plight of all farmers—or, indeed, all people living through trying times—and so following the narrative can feel like following some mythological or Biblical story about the woes of humanity.
Steinbeck’s grand scale not only evokes strong reactions, but it also paradoxically suppresses them. Many novelists try to erase evidence of their own presence from their fiction, thereby allowing the reader to forget she is encountering a story that has been constructed by a writer and enjoy the illusion that she is reading about real people. In contrast, Steinbeck looms as an ever-present authorial presence. He lards the narrative with deserts, floods, and dramatic births, setting his characters against a biblical backdrop. He transparently maneuvers his characters so that their actions are symbolic, rather than convincingly human. Because we know so little about the mentalities of the characters, we have a hard time believing that they are acting as real people might. Rather, they seem to be the author’s pawns. We may long to know whether Tom would have embraced Christianity if Jim Casy weren’t around, and what reservoirs of strength Ma draws on, and what exactly Pa’s befuddled thoughts consist of, and whether Rose of Sharon is ever faking her saintly smile. But Steinbeck intentionally denies us access to his characters’ minds. We can only observe them in the situations their creator has constructed.
In the end, the reaction The Grapes of Wrath evokes will depend on the mood and mentality of the individual reader. Some may find the epic sweep of the Joads’ life inspiring and devastating precisely because the Joads can represent all of humanity; others may find that the Joads’ everyman status makes them opaque or even boring. And some readers may experience both reactions in turn—or even simultanously. But the fact that we recognize the Joads as archetypes in the first place means that Steinbeck at least partially achieves his goal.