Some readers find fault with Steinbeck’s method of characterization, which they criticize as unsophisticated and sentimental, but this criticism may be unfair. It is true that the Joads are not shown as having the kind of complex psychological lives that mark many great literary characters. Their desires are simple and clearly stated, and the obstacles to their desires are plainly identified by both the novel and themselves. However, it is in the nature of an epic to portray heroic, boldly drawn figures—figures who embody national ideals or universal struggles. Steinbeck succeeds in crafting the Joads into heroes worthy of an epic. Their goodness, conviction, and moral certainty stand in sharp contrast to their material circumstances.
The short chapters that bookend the introduction of the Joad family develop one of the book’s major themes. The narrative’s indictment of the crooked car salesmen and pawnbrokers illustrates man’s inhumanity to man, a force against which the Joads struggle. Time and again, those in positions of power seek to take advantage of those below them. Even when giving up a portion of land might save a family, the privileged refuse to imperil their wealth. Later in the novel, there is nothing that the California landowners fear as much as relinquishing their precious land to the needy farmers. This behavior contradicts Jim Casy’s belief that men must act for the good of all men. In The Grapes of Wrath, moral order depends upon this kind of selflessness and charity. Without these virtues, the text suggests, there is no hope for a livable world. As one farmer warns the corrupt pawnbroker who robs him of his possessions: “[Y]ou cut us down, and soon you will be cut down and there’ll be none of us to save you.”