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John Steinbeck s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is a moving account of the social plight of Dustbowl farmers and is widely considered an American classic. The novel takes place during the depression of the 1930s in Oklahoma and all points west to California. Steinbeck uses the Joad family as a specific example of the general plight of the poor farmers. The Joads are forced off of their farm in Oklahoma by the banks and drought, and they, like many other families of the time, head out for the promised land of California. They endure much hardship along the way, and they finally make it to California only to find that work is scarce and human labor and life are cheap. Tom Joad, the eldest son in the family, starts the book freshly out of jail and slowly evolves from selfish goals to a sense of an ideal worldly purpose in uniting people against injustice. Jim Casy, an errant preacher who is accepted into the Joad family early into the story, changes his beliefs to include all people in a sort of oversoul, as he helps to organize the workers to battle the extreme injustice done onto them by the farm owners and discriminating locals. Whereas the Joads start out as one family, by the end of the story their family becomes one with other families who are weathering the same plight of starvation and senseless violence. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck emphasizes the power of groups over the individual s power to survive poverty and violence through character evolution, plot and the use of figurative and philosophical language.
Tom Joad begins the novel with self-seeking aims, but with the ex-preacher Jim Casy as a mentor, he evolves into an idealistic group leader. Tom first meets Jim on his way home from jail. There begins a lasting friendship with the verbose preacher, who is going through a belief makeover and steadily moving toward the Emersonian oversoul including all people in a general spirit of human love and kinship. Tom is steadily angered more and more with his family s plight, but even into the beginning of the family s journey, he still has individualistic thoughts that consume his ideas. When Jim is trying to get Tom to think of the big picture, to get a worldly view of the effects of the hundreds of thousands of people moving west, Tom says, I m still laying my dogs down one at a time, and I climb fences when I got fences to climb (Steinbeck 237). Tom does not start to think of other people until Jim Casy is murdered right in front of his eyes for leading a strike against some peach orchard owners. Tom retaliates in rage, killing a deputy, and forcing him into hiding. Alone all day long for weeks, he begins to think about the plight of the migrant workers and about what Jim was constantly babbling about. One thing that Jim Casy said close to his death, which Tom broads upon, has to do with a revelation that came to the preacher while he was in jail. He tells a group of followers one day they give us some beans that was sour. One fella started yellin , an nothin happened then we all got to yellin By God! Then something happened! They come a-runnin , and they give us other stuff to eat (522). This was a telling example to Tom about the power of the group over one man. Tom reveals his thought evolution in the final meeting with his mother, before he leaves to continue the work of Jim Casy. He says, But I know now a fella ain t no good alone, and Two are better than one, because if they fall, the one will lif his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up (570). Peter Lisca, an extensive critic of Steinbeck s work, explains in is last meeting with his mother, in which he asserts his spiritual unity with all men, it is evident that he has moved from material and personal resentment to ethical indignation, from particulars to principles (Lisca 98). Tom clearly changes his feelings and life goals from selfish to self-less.
The power of unity is emphasized through the main events of the novel when the Joads leave the government camp and in the strike at the peach fields. The best part of their arduous and depressing stay in California, is when the Joads get a space in the government camp at Weedpatch. The government camp governs and polices itself, has clean camp spaces and large bathrooms with modern conveniences. Here the migrants are free from the malicious deputies, who continually beat up the migrants and burn down their paper shacks at the edges of different towns. When the migrants band together to run the camp at Weedpatch, a camp that is clean, decent, orderly and without deputy sheriffs from outside, the people are beginning to move toward a social ideal (Bowden 199). When the Joads are forced to leave the camp for lack of work and food, they realize the power of the camp as a group of people as compared to the dangers outside of the camp that they continually face. When Tom is saying goodbye to his camp friends, one of them speculates about the advantages of a collective group. It s cause we re all a-workin together. Depity can t pick on one fella in this camp. He s pickin on the whole darn camp we could do this anyplace. Jus stick together. They ain t raising hell with no two hundred men (Steinbeck 488). The first demonstration of the developing unity of the migrants as a labor force comes as a strike against working in peach orchards because the wages aren t enough to live on. The Joads unwittingly break the strike, but Steinbeck demonstrates the developing power through dialogue between two deputies of the peach orchard. One deputy laments to the other, Got to keep em in line, or Christ only knows what they ll do! Why Jesus, they re as dangerous as niggers in the South! If they ever get together there ain t nothin that ll stop em (322). The strike helps the Joads begin to see that it is just as noble to fight for the migrants as a whole, than to scratch up enough food for one s own family. They also begin to see that only organized resistance of many can demand a fair wage (Bowden 199). The strike, although unsuccessful, helps bring about the idea that all the migrants are part of one family and a larger cause and out of this nonconformity comes a sense of shared purpose and group action (Carlson 98). The main events of Steinbeck s masterpiece clearly outline the power of a united people.
The theme of the group s power to fight poverty is developed through many chapters of figurative and philosophical language. Many critics have criticized Steinbeck for making political and philosophical commentary, but although this is debatable, Steinbeck still develops his theme during his general chapters about the plight of the people. Steinbeck is clearly upset by the fact that the farms and land of California or controlled by too few people. He comments, And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, know this one fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away (Steinbeck 324). He also speculates that when a majority of people are hungry and cold they will take what they need by force (324). As the Joads experience more poverty and hunger as the story progresses they begin to understand a common goal. One critic analyzes In the midst of a blighting depression the concern for the individual begins to give way for the concern of the people (Bowden 196). And most critics agree that the sense of communal unit grows steadily through [Steinbeck s] narrative (Lisca 97). In the chapters that explain the general situation of life in California, Steinbeck figuratively and philosophically explains the evolution of unity and equality.
The Grapes of Wrath clearly demonstrates the theme that when overcoming hardship the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. At the end of the story Ma Joad has come to understand that her family is just part of another larger family of the migrant poor. Tom Joad comes full circle from individualistic aims to embracing the group and organization of the masses. The main events in the Joads life at the government camp and the strike at the peach orchards also emphasize unity. At times in his narrative Steinbeck even blatantly explains his philosophies of group power and shared burden. As one critic puts it The family of man is even more than a necessity for the Joads: it is an ideal of the novel (Bowden 199). Steinbeck truly succeeds in giving the reader the message that when united people stand, but divided they fall.
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