The Grapes of Wrath is an eye-opening novel which deals with the struggle for survival of a migrant family of farmers in the western United States. The book opens with a narrative chapter describing Oklahoma, and the overall setting. It sets the mood of an area which has been ravished by harsh weather. “The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country, and white in the gray country.” (Steinbeck pg.3) Steinbeck, in a detailed fashion described the area in great detail. Not only was the area stricken by a drought and extreme temperatures, but to add to the difficulties, the families of the area were bombarded by high winds and dust storms which barraged their houses, crops, and moral. The idea was made clear, quite early, that the farming plains of Oklahoma were a cruel and difficult place for a family to make a successful living.
The reader is first introduced to a character by the name of Tom Joad, a man who has been released early from the penitentiary on parole after serving four years of his seven year sentence. Tom, once released, begins the trip back home to his family on their forty acre farming estate. Tom, through the aid of a helpful truck driver, is given a ride to the general area of his house. It is interesting to see how Tom manages to hitch a ride with the truck driver, who under normal circumstances, would not have given any rides to hitch hikers, simply due to a sticker on his cab which reads “No Riders.” Tom however, through cunning reasoning skills, is able to get what he needs. “Can you give me a lift mister,” said Tom. “Didn’t you see the No Riders sticker on the wind shield?,”the driver proclaimed. “Sure, I seen it. But sometimes a guy will be a good guy even if some rich b&%#@rd makes him carry a sticker.”(Steinbeck 11) Technically, if the driver refused, he would not be a “good” guy , and if he took the hitch-hiker, he would be a “good” guy, and would prove that he was not one whom a rich boss could kick around. Through his actions in the opening scenes, we learn a little bit about Tom Joad, and what he is like as a person.
Once Tom is dropped off, he meets up with an old minister named Jim Casey. The reader momentarily learns of Jim’s inner struggle before he joins Tom in accompanying him back to his house. Meanwhile, the Joad’s (tenant farmers) were being evicted from their house by the owner of the land, and were making plans for a trip to move in with Uncle Tom.
Upon the arrival of Tom and Jim, they are quick to discover, through the knowledge of Muley, an old friend of Tom, that his family has already left, but were unable to reach him to let him know what was happening to them.
Tom and Jim eventually catch up to the family at Uncle Tom’s cabin and are greeted with open arms. Soon after their arrival, the family is once again forced to leave. After purchasing a truck, the family heads for California in the search of a home and work, but not without a struggle with Grandpa who does not wish to leave. The family is forced to drug him to bring him along, only for him to later die along the way of a massive stroke.
Casey decides to come along with the family while still struggling with his internal conflict. As the trip lengthens, the family meets up with the Mr. and Mrs. Wilson one night along the side of the road. The two families befriend each other and continue the trip west together. Both families continue to travel west together until they are separated when Mrs. Wilson becomes fatally ill, which forces the Wilsons to stay behind. The struggle of the Joad’s is becoming more and more apparent now as they experience the realities of life. Cruel police officers, cunning salesmen, and ignorant people all add to the total picture and struggle the family is enduring, and bring the reality of the entire situation to a front. Grandma dies, as well as Rose of Sharon’s baby which only adds to the trouble. Connie eventually walks out on Rose, and Noah Joad gives up on the thought of going west, and abandons the family to remain by a river in which the family had stopped. By this time, Ma Joad, who has struggled so hard to keep the family together, has become frightfully aware that the family is falling apart. The reader gets the impression that all has turned for the worst as Jim Casey is murdered, and Tom, due to avenging Jim’s death is forced into hiding all of while the lack of jobs and appropriate wadges still overshadows the family.
Once the family reaches California, their hopes and dreams are basically shattered. Although briefly employed for descent pay, wadges are slashed, and the hard times become even worse. With lack of money, possessions, and an adequate food supply, the family finally hits rock bottom when torrential rains flood their makeshift boxcar home, destroying their truck, and once again sending them on the run.
There are many characters who played a vital role in the development of the Grapes of Wrath. Each and every character has something to add to the book as a whole.
Tom Joad is an assertive person who does not like to be pushed around. He served four years in prison for killing a man, who he insists was killed in self defense. Tom is quite influential as demonstrated in his actions of hitching a ride with the trucker, as well as the fact that Al Joad tries to impersonate him. Al had gained much notoriety for the fact that he was the brother of a man who had killed another man. This influence makes Al walk with a swagger as if to show off. The fact that Tom had murdered someone only proved a hindrance to the family as they often had to make appropriate accommodations for him throughout the trip.
Ma Joad was an emotionally strong woman who kept the family united (her primary concern), through the difficulties they faced. Ma Joad never showed pain, nor fear, and greatly suppressed her emotions for the sake of the family. Ma Joad was a giving person who would do anything for someone in need as demonstrated in her giving up the soup to some of the starving children of the camp they were residing in, even though her family was in great need of the food.
Grandpa Joad did not necessarily play an important role to the novel, but played a role in symbolizing an ideal that Steinbeck was trying to portray. Grandpa Joad was a man of his land as proved in his refusal to leave that which was his. Upon the families removal of the land, the house in which they lived, once filled with life, would succumb to the elements of nature and neglect. Just as the house dies when the Joad’s are removed from the land, Grandpa dies as the house is removed from his life. The house and the land was all that he had to live for, it was all that he understood, and when it was taken from his life, he had nothing left to live for.
Jim Casey is an interesting character from the novel who is struggling with himself with an internal conflict. Jim, a former minister, is troubled by the guilty conscious he receives when he would lay in the grass with a particular female pupil of his after Sunday class. He questions how the act could be such a sin if only the holiest females seem to partake in such an activity. Throughout the novel, Jim is met by certain situations which aid is his continuous enlightenment. Jim abandons his holy ways to realize that it is not the abstract aspects of life that matter as much as the actions of living humans. He rejects the idea of surrounding himself in God’s soul, but the souls of human beings, each whom combined create a much holier soul. Jim is so intent on realizing this, that even when standing next to the dying Mrs. Wilson, resists her wish for his prayers. He simply is trying to separate himself from the idea of God as much as possible, which was further expressed when he was forced by the Joad’s to say something upon Grandpa’s death. Jim, in sticking to his new philosophy of recognizing the importance of life over death represents these feelings in his words for Grandpa. “All that lives is holy, Grandpa is dead, he doesn’t need much said.” (Steinbeck 184) Jim Casey pursued these ideals right to his death as he was in the process of attempting to organize the migrant workers to unite in numbers to gain power.
There are many aspects of this book which, combined, make it the great novel it proved to be. Steinbeck’s use of the intermittent narrative chapters give the reader a greater idea of what is going on, all of while pulling the entire picture of the novel together. Each little chapter, in its own sense, teaches, or makes the reader further aware of an aspect that might not normally be interpreted, or realized through the regular chapters alone which Steinbeck uses as a tool to further develop and express his ideas. For example, chapter 3 expresses the struggle of a turtle trying to get across the highway. An ignorant reader might take the chapter literally, missing the underlying message that Steinbeck is trying to reveal. As the turtle attempts to cross the road, he is twice nearly crushed by passing motorists, and is flung off the road by a motorist who tried unsuccessfully to purposefully squash the turtle in it’s tracks. The turtle, in actuality, completes a micro/macrocosm constructed by Steinbeck. The turtle struggles to cross the street while looking failure in the eyes from both the ignorant driver, and the driver who tried to squash him. So what is Steinbeck trying to tell us? The ignorant driver symbolizes those who, not knowingly, are killing the lives of the migrants workers, including those of the Joad’s. These unsuspecting people include the plantation owners who jack up prices and cut wadges ignorant of the havoc they cause to their workers, as well as the land owners who evict the families not aware of what they will have to go through to survive. Those who intentionally are out to hurt the migrant workers are represented by the police officers who try to shut down their tent cities keeping them on the move and out of their area. They are also represented by those who intentionally try to swindle the migrant workers by charging ridiculously high prices for goods and services. The officers are fully aware of what their actions will do, but do not care, as the downfall of the migrant workers is their only concern.
Steinbeck wrote this book for one reason; to make the plight and difficulties of the migrant workers known to all of America. He accomplished this by telling the story from the viewpoint of a particular family, rather then the migrant workers as a whole. Steinbeck showed what these people went through from their eviction from their home, to their eventually self-destruction and failure as a family. Once the appropriate focus on the Joad’s had been reached, it was then possible for Steinbeck to tie it all together by bringing the entire situation into view. This was possible through the demonstration of the workers establishing a common ground with each other. Once the strength of the inner family had been established, a family of families could be constructed. The story went from “I lost my land” to “We lost our land.” It showed just what the life of a migrant worker was all about; for example the establishing of a common ground within one another. The migrant workers were a group of people who were looking out for each other and willing to work together, as survival during these periods proved tough and could not be accomplished without teamwork. This is simply why the migrant workers found ways to successfully govern themselves throughout their tent cities which is why they looked to establish a common ground. Times were tough, and that constant harassment of police organizations only worsened the situation.
It was clearly evident that the Joad’s like any of the migrant workers were looking out for one other and would do anything if one was in need. Nothing exemplifies this ideal more then the closing scene of the novel. Rose, surrounded by a family overshadowed by personal loss, lack of income and food, in a period of dying (metaphorically speaking), gives life to a dying stranger regardless of who he was, or where he came from. This is what true life to the migrant workers was all about, and this is what they had demonstrated time and time again.