The Grapes of Wrath

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The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath Literary Analysis

The novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is written in a clear style, which allows the readers to look at the story, as something more than just a novel. It is a work that embodies the social concern of its author, John Steinbeck, during the exodus of ruined farmers from the Midwest to California. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to explore the relationship of the writer’s identity, the main characters in the novel, and the way the location of the story affects the characters and its plot.

John Steinbeck comes from Salinas, California ( The novel was written in 1939 to express social, economic and political processes in the USA of middle 1930s. There was a severe drought during the beginning of the 1930s. It killed all the crops and transformed topsoil into the dust. The dust storms started blowing, covering the sun and the sky. That was the reason why the Southern Plains, and, especially, Oklahoma and Texas, got their name the “Dust Bowl.” In addition, lawyers and landowners persuaded them that the tractors and machines would soon replace them, so local farmers were forced to leave their farms and move to California. Thousands of families went to California, looking for a better life and jobs in orchards and on the fields.

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Soon, California was overcrowded with unemployed starving farmers, some of whom died because of hunger; others came back to the dusty plains. Californians did not accept the crowds of “immigrants”, calling them “Okie”. The latter ones were forced to live in ghettos, earning much less money for their work, than they could have earned if they were locals. They suffered from civil injustice, but could not set strikes, because the police were allowed to shoot people if they did.

The above-mentioned events became the historical context of Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. Although the readers of his novel consider it along 600 pages book with numerous events and characters, it, actually, is the biggest Steinbeck’s work, a closer reading shows that it is written in one breath. Steinbeck was highly skillful in writing short stories, and those skills spread onto his novel. While reading, it seems that he wrote it in one sitting, as well. All the characters are typical and appear to be more like symbols, which embody specific virtues or withdraws of human morality, rather than personalities with the psychological background.

The plot of the novel reveals the Joads’ family. Tom Joad comes back home after being imprisoned for homicide. Despite this fact, his character embodies the symbol of leadership and hope for a better future of the family. On his way of hitchhiking, he meets Casy, the preacher, who baptized Tom Joad when he was young. When Tom meets him on the road, Casy says he no longer preaches, because he understood that holy spirit is in a human but not in God. Since he meets his family, all of them decide to move to California, searching for a better life. They seem very optimistic, despite the fact that they meet their mates, coming back from California only to die in their native places.

Against the background of dramatic migrations of farmers, forced from their lands by the landowners and lawyers, Joads seem to be an unreal family, which does not fit the circumstances with their exaggerated morality and typical family values. Their family is more likely to be an American dream. Despite the natural disaster, political and economic crisis, and deaths in the family, they do not lose their identity and high morality standards.

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In recent discussions of Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, there was an issue of concern, whether it is an example of sentimental prose or naturalist novel. Some argue that unsophisticated characters of the novel embody too idealistic qualities, as for their material circumstances. Others, however, argue that such an epic canvas demands characters-ideas or characters-symbols of the national idea within Joads family, rather than deep family psychology. One of the proponents of this stance says, “It may be an exaggeration, but it is the exaggeration of an honest and splendid writer” (Monro Jack).

According to this view, one may easily note that The Grapes of Wrath is considered to be an example of sentimental prose, which tends to the romantic and idealistic world view. Thus, the issue is to figure out whether it is sentimentalism or naturalism. My view is that different elements combine in Steinbeck’s novel because the truth is that different, even contradictory worldviews of the author, are functioning through the characters of the novel. Very often, they express diverse ideas based on different philosophical issues, such as socialism and capitalism.

In his characters, Steinbeck inserts diverse social and moral points of view to create a conflict of ideas. Jim Casy, for instance, expresses the idea of “little people”, who have no possessions and power in their country. This idea takes its origin from socialism. Casy persuades Joads to move to California, unite and struggle for the people’s power and fighting against the capitalist idea in the face of landowners. Such a social philosophy reflects the influence of socialist worldview on Steinbeck.

At the same time, some clearly American philosophies, such as Emersonian concept of the Oversoul, (Azefi) reflect on the simplicity of Casy’s language and his manners. The symbolic point here is that he used to be a preacher, which predicts an opposite worldview; however, all the main social ideas are combined in this character. In my opinion, Steinbeck made an attempt to show the metamorphosis of the idea, its transformation and adaptability in the society within Casy. One may note the line starting from preaching – the traditional worldview, – and proceeding with the idea of one soul, where each person has its part. This idea lacks traditional for preachers spiritualism, so Casy transforms into the leverage of spreading a new point of view.

Another American-directed theory is Jeffersonian agrarianism. In the novel, this theory is represented through the chapters which provide vast descriptions of the landscapes and alive nature to contrast with the dead inanimate machines (Azefi). Jefferson was certain that the machines, no matter how perfect, cannot replace the union of mankind with nature.

Other characters, such as Ma and Pa Joad, as well as Tom at the beginning of his way, represent the Henry James’s pragmatic thought, which predicts the active life position of a person in harsh living conditions. Finally, all the characters embody the idea of humanism, which was major in the novel and among the authors’ ideas. The idea of humanism is the one, which led to struggling for democracy and believing in the American dream.

Though I admit that many diverse ideas of the author conflict, I maintain that they create a natural complex within the structure of the novel. For example, the sentimental and, sometimes, biblical descriptions of the landscapes create a contrasting background of the socialist ideas of the novel “In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet” (Steinbeck).

Although some object that the idea of socialism is impossible to combine with the humanism, I reply that Steinbeck made an attempt to do so; however, he could not know whether it may work as a final one. Such a combination is more likely to be a permanent draft of the social model. Joads were on their way to their better future, and many people struggled for it.

Understanding this issue is important because the way Joads managed to overcome it, led them not to a logical happy end, but to the proceeding struggling. Steinbeck gives the context of the historical stage, which was not supposed to end with some clear conclusions, but to be overcome and grow into another period with all the transformations in people’s worldviews and newly appeared social issues.

Most researchers now believe that The Grapes of Wrath is a classic novel, according to its structure, length, and system of characters; as a result of my research, I have found that the source of Steinbeck’s writing is enclosed in his skills of short story writing. For instance, some chapters (Chapter 2) describe the epic pictures, which do not go directly with the story, because of their depictive sentimental style.

Other chapters reveal specific ideas within separate characters. All together, they create an epic, with numerous turn-outs of the plot, symbols, motifs and ideas, the leitmotif of which is to show the transformation and birth of new worldview through the changes of locations; the general motif is to show the way the whole country goes through the crisis on the background of one family with all its values and future opportunities.

Before I began my coursework, studying John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, I, like most other people whom I know, assumed that this was a story, which comes to no conclusion and lacks basic literary psychology. Having now studied author’s philosophy, literary devices used in the novel, literary, political, economic and historical circumstances, I find that the point of the novel is more complicated, than I thought because it encloses in expressing the American dream, reflected in the long way from the “Dust Bowl” to sunny California, which serves as symbols of worldview transformation for the whole nation.

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