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.