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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
Steinbeck consistently and woefully points to the fact
that the migrants’ great suffering is caused not by bad weather
or mere misfortune but by their fellow human beings. Historical,
social, and economic circumstances separate people into rich and
poor, landowner and tenant, and the people in the dominant roles
struggle viciously to preserve their positions. In his brief history
of California in Chapter 19, Steinbeck portrays the state
as the product of land-hungry squatters who took the land from Mexicans
and, by working it and making it produce, rendered it their own.
Now, generations later, the California landowners see this historical
example as a threat, since they believe that the influx of migrant
farmers might cause history to repeat itself. In order to protect
themselves from such danger, the landowners create a system in which
the migrants are treated like animals, shuffled from one filthy
roadside camp to the next, denied livable wages, and forced to turn
against their brethren simply to survive. The novel draws a simple
line through the population—one that divides the privileged from
the poor—and identifies that division as the primary source of evil
and suffering in the world.
The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the story
of two “families”: the Joads and the collective body of migrant
workers. Although the Joads are joined by blood, the text argues
that it is not their genetics but their loyalty and commitment to
one another that establishes their true kinship. In the migrant
lifestyle portrayed in the book, the biological family unit, lacking
a home to define its boundaries, quickly becomes a thing of the
past, as life on the road demands that new connections and new kinships
be formed. The reader witnesses this phenomenon at work when the
Joads meet the Wilsons. In a remarkably short time, the two groups
merge into one, sharing one another’s hardships and committing to
one another’s survival. This merging takes place among the migrant
community in general as well: “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.” In the face
of adversity, the livelihood of the migrants depends upon their
union. As Tom eventually realizes, “his” people are all people.
The Joads stand as exemplary figures in their refusal
to be broken by the circumstances that conspire against them. At
every turn, Steinbeck seems intent on showing their dignity and
honor; he emphasizes the importance of maintaining self-respect
in order to survive spiritually. Nowhere is this more evident than
at the end of the novel. The Joads have suffered incomparable losses:
Noah, Connie, and Tom have left the family; Rose of Sharon gives
birth to a stillborn baby; the family possesses neither food nor
promise of work. Yet it is at this moment (Chapter 30) that
the family manages to rise above hardship to perform an act of unsurpassed
kindness and generosity for the starving man, showing that the Joads
have not lost their sense of the value of human life.
Steinbeck makes a clear connection in his novel between
dignity and rage. As long as people maintain a sense of injustice—a
sense of anger against those who seek to undercut their pride in
themselves—they will never lose their dignity. This notion receives
particular reinforcement in Steinbeck’s images of the festering
grapes of wrath (Chapter 25), and in the last of the short,
expository chapters (Chapter 29), in which the worker women, watching
their husbands and brothers and sons, know that these men will remain
strong “as long as fear [can] turn to wrath.” The women’s certainty
is based on their understanding that the men’s wrath bespeaks their
healthy sense of self-respect.
According to Steinbeck, many of the evils that plague
the Joad family and the migrants stem from selfishness. Simple self-interest
motivates the landowners and businessmen to sustain a system that
sinks thousands of families into poverty. In contrast to and in
conflict with this policy of selfishness stands the migrants’ behavior
toward one another. Aware that their livelihood and survival depend
upon their devotion to the collective good, the migrants unite—sharing their
dreams as well as their burdens—in order to survive. Throughout
the novel, Steinbeck constantly emphasizes self-interest and altruism
as equal and opposite powers, evenly matched in their conflict with
each other. In Chapters 13 and 15, for example, Steinbeck
presents both greed and generosity as self-perpetuating, following
cyclical dynamics. In Chapter 13, we learn that corporate
gas companies have preyed upon the gas station attendant that the
Joads meet. The attendant, in turn, insults the Joads and hesitates
to help them. Then, after a brief expository chapter, the Joads
immediately happen upon an instance of kindness as similarly self-propagating:
Mae, a waitress, sells bread and sweets to a man and his sons for
drastically reduced prices. Some truckers at the coffee shop see
this interchange and leave Mae an extra-large tip.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Grapes of Wrath!