The Great Depression: A Study of Humanity
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the American and Canadian prairies experienced severe drought. These droughts, plus the failure to shift to the more sustainable dryland farming methods, resulted into severe dust storms which caused extensive damages in the ecosystem and agricultural produce of the region. This phenomenon was called the Dust Bowl and severely affected vast tracts of agricultural lands in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. The ensuing financial ruin resulted to one of the largest migrations in American history – the Dust Bowl migration. Roughly 2.5 million people from the Dust Bowl states left their land in order to look for better opportunities in other states.
In his novel, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck captures the searing journey through the story of one family. The Joads are Oklahomans who lived on the produce of the land. However, the Joads were badly affected by the Dust Bowl phenomenon. With their crops destroyed, they had no money to repay their bank loans. They have defaulted on their loans and were left with no other recourse but to abandon the last remaining piece of their homestead and give it up to the “land companies”. Despite the bleak times, the family remained hopeful. However, in order for the denizens of the southwestern states to survive, the most viable option is to move out of their own homes.
Over to the west, California was severely impacted by the Great Depression. However, to those who severely struck by the Dust Bowl phenomenon, California looked like a land of promise, the ticket to a better future. Believing that their only salvation lies on the west, the Joads embarked on the long journey. They packed every valuable that they have and that would come in handy during the journey. As the family travelled through Route 66, they discovered that the road was crowded with fellow migrants. They were all in an Exodus, moving west to California to escape the desolate conditions of their previous homes.
“And all their love was thinned with money, and all their fierceness dribbled away in interest until they were no longer farmers at all, but little shopkeepers of crops, little manufacturers who must sell before they can make. Then those farmers who were not good shopkeepers lost their land to good shopkeepers. No matter how clever, how loving a man might be with earth and growing things, he could not survive if he were not also a good shopkeeper. And as time went on, the business men had the farms, and the farms grew larger, but there were fewer of them.”~ John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
The winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Grapes of Wrath extensively explores the impact of the Great Depression, with particular emphasis on the Dust Bowl migration. During the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, Oklahoma was one of the biggest population losers. Badly stricken by poverty like the Joads, nearly half a million Oklahomans migrated to various parts of the country to look for work. A quarter of a million chose to move to California. Originating from an agriculturally rich state, most migrants chose to find work and settle down in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley.
Steinbeck vividly captured the landscape of the journey from Oklahoma to California. As the Joads learned along the way, the journey through the desert and mountains was filled with obstacles that tested their mettle. They also met several travelers who shared their stories to them; some were returning from California. The family’s number also declined during the journey as they lost some of their members. The long and precarious journey, certainly, was not for the faint of heart or for the weak.
Hearing the stories of those returning from California, the family worried that the journey might not be as rewarding as they initially thought. They their biggest fear materialized once they reached their final destination. What they find is contrary to what the handbills promised and advertised – plenty of high paying jobs. In reality, here was an oversupply of labor which resulted into low wages. Everyone was looking for a job and was fighting for every opportunity to earn a living. Unfortunately, there was not that much of an option for the Joads or any of the Dust Bowl migrants. The choices were slim: to work and be exploited or to move again and prolong the journey.
With the droves of Dust Bowl migrants, a refugee crisis was inevitable. California state officials and authorities were on their collective toes, scrambling to control the ingress of migrants. But it wasn’t just the battle for survival that the Joads had to contend with. Finding themselves in uncharted territories, the Joads found themselves dealing with the offshoots of discrimination. “Okie” is a general term to describe natives or residents of the state of Oklahoma. However, Californians used it as a pejorative term for all Dust Bowl migrants regardless of their state of origin. They were ridiculed with even more degrading names and were looked down upon. Everyone assumed that the reason they were poor is because they were lazy. The truth, however, is stranger than fiction.
“But you can’t start. Only a baby can start. You and me – why, we’re all that’s been. The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures, that’s us. This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start over again. The bitterness we sold to the junk man- he got it all right, but we have it still. And when the owner man told us to go, that’s us; and when the tractor hit the house, that’s us until we’re dead.”~ John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath also highlighted the greed and corruption that helped exacerbate the plight of the migrants. The novel depicted how the Joads experienced first hand the vicious cycle of capitalism. Opportunistic corporations fed off the smaller farmers. They controlled the prices of agricultural produce, keeping prices high through the deliberate destruction of food products. This also prompted small time farmers to go out of business. In the novel’s 25th chapter, Steinbeck referred to it whilst incorporating the novel’s title. “And in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
The opportunistic corporations also took advantage of the migrants. With the abundance in labor force, they offered difficult and tedious tasks in exchange for pitiable wages. Hired hands were forced to work beyond normal hours but were not paid the amount they were initially promised. Labor exploitation was ubiquitous and rampant. With the oversupply of labor, everyone is replaceable and can be replaced anytime. In response to the rampant exploitation of workers, labor unions were formed. However, labor union movements were tempered by the authorities who were coerced by the big corporations.
The narrative endeavored to paint a harrowing picture of the impact of the Great Depression. Juxtaposed into the Great Depression narrative is the vivid depiction of the human condition. Through the actions of the Joads, Steinbeck placed emphasis on the indomitable pride and unbreakable spirit people possess. Despite the difficulties they had to deal with, the Joads and their fellows opted to preserve their dignity. Rather than demanding support or handouts from the government, they requested for opportunities to work in jobs that will pay them a decent sum corresponding to their effort. The grim reality is that money revolves on the hands of the few.
The story was delivered through the perspective of a third person and was accented by an omniscient voice. These voices strongly underline Steinbeck’s ability to weave a magnificent narrative. His sturdy and lush prose was a glue that held all the novel’s various elements together. He has that savvy knack of evoking deeper emotions, of rousing the reader’s interest, by capturing powerful and evocative scenes. Woven into the tapestry are the tangible projections of poverty, suffering, love, and despair. Steinbeck tickles the readers’ mind with his descriptive writing. It was this element that made the narrative resonate deeper into the subconscious of the reader.
“Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, and it’s like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some way he’s bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn’t successful he’s big with his property. That is so.”~ John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath is an American story that vividly captured the American spirit. However, the themes it has underlined, such as the refugee crisis and poverty, reverberate on a universal scale. People are still forced to flee their homelands for a variety of reasons – war, drought, poverty. The refugee crisis still looms large as people continue to look for greener pastures elsewhere. The Joads’ yearning for a paradise in California is an allegory for the American Dream many aim for. Despite their perseverance, migrants still elicit judging and prying eyes, even ridicule. However, it doesn’t always have to be this way. Yes, cruelty is rampant but we can still make the choice to be kind. Amidst the bleakness of the Joads’ plight, kindness still flourished in the unlikeliest of places.
The Grapes of Wrath is a timeless classic that still reverberate in the present. It further underlines Steinbeck’s legacy. It was a realistic depiction of the Great Depression but also an in-depth study of the human condition, of how small acts of compassion and kindness goes a long way. Published in 1939, it is a seminal work that transcends time, still relevant in the contemporary. Parts family saga, parts historical narrative, parts social commentary, The Grapes of Wrath is an impressionable literary piece. It is lush and moving narrative that emphasizes the human endeavor above all.
Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 28%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
I have been an admirer of John Steinbeck and his works. My journey with him started with The Pearl succeeded by Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Men. He has the uncanny ability of capturing the atmosphere of the American Depression, a subject, I learned, he extensively wrote about in his works. One of the things that set apart The Grapes of Wrath from his other works I have read is the length. Despite their brevity, his first three novels I’ve read were powerful and rich. The Grapes of Wrath was an equally powerful and moving piece of literature that gave me more insight into his body of art. He captured humanity in its most crude and most realistic form through his imaginative writing. The Nobel Foundation captured the heart of Steinbeck’s prose in their citation: “realistic and imaginative writing, combining as it does sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” I am looking forward to reading more of his works. I am quite keen on East of Eden although I don’t have a copy of it yet.
Author: John Steinbeck
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 1999
Number of Pages: 455
Genre: Novel, Fiction
First published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath is a landmark of American literature. This Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads – driven from their homestead by the “land companies” and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. A portrait of conflict between the powerful and the powerless the novel captures the horrors of the Depression and probes the very nature of equality in America.
About the Author
To learn more about Nobel Prize in Literature winning writer John Steinbeck, click here.