The Grapes of Wrath, which earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize and later paved the way for the Nobel literature Prize, is a sympathetic story of human survival amid human exploitation set during the Great Depression. Having well-researched and becoming conversant with the subject, John Steinbeck has written a novel on humanity. It’s no wonder he was labeled as a socialist. His sympathy for the working class and their struggle to live is unmistakable. Even if you haven’t read any other Steinbeck work, The Grapes of Wrath is enough for one to know where his sympathies lay. Having read a considerable number of his works, I can assure you that he always sided with the underprivileged.
The story focuses on a family of tenant farmers from Oklahoma. The economic hardships the tenant farmers faced due to the damage in agriculture resulting from the dust bowl and the bank foreclosures force them out of their livelihood. And the Joad family, like many other tenant farmers, are obliged to leave their homes and seek work elsewhere. With renewed hope and great courage, they all file towards California, the promised land, the paradise. But what would they see there? Oversupplied with labor, it is no longer the promised land of hope, happiness, and dignity. It is no longer a paradise but a slowly brooding hell. There is no hope, no future. And worst, no dignity. Like the Joad family, a multitude of workers has poured into California in hope of a better living. And like the Joad family, they are in for nothing but disappointment. Oversupplied with labour, many find it hard to get work with a decent pay. Wages are so low that some can’t even earn enough to feed their families decently. The living conditions are more suited to animals than humans. In truth, the workers are exploited to the point of starvation while the big corporates called the shots. And the government shamelessly backed them. But amid all this injustice and inhumanity, the workers show better faith and humanity.
I believe John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath for two reasons. One is to expose the nakedness of the big corporates, who in collusion, paralyzed the small farmers, so they could maintain low costs by paying low wages. The other is to show the resilience and humanity of the workers. Joad family faces death, desertion, and other minor grievances during their migration. Even when they arrived at their destination, life was hard and uncertain. Yet, they don’t despair when every hand points towards it. When papa Joad’s courage falls, mama Joad takes the rein and steers what is left of her family with faith and hope. The beauty of The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck’s portrayal of the fierce resilience of these migrant workers and the preserved humanity in the face of growing wrath. He gives such a strong colour to the nobility of the characters of the working class that the big corporations pale in comparison. He makes the material wealth of the big corporates small in the face of the spiritual wealth of the workers.
The strength of the novel lies in its historical importance and the compassionate tone adopted by its author. The power it wields over the readers demanding sympathy and arousing wrath at the unjust exploitation of humans is very strong. Steinbeck has been meticulous in capturing the emotional and physical struggles of the Joad family at various points to the minutest detail. He has also captured with stunning precision the atmosphere surrounding their ups and downs. However, I couldn’t feel the same Steinbeck fire and flare that I’ve come to love so much in his later novels. The voice and tone, though sympathetic all the time, were dull and monotonous at times. And the use of “inner chapters” while allowing Steinbeck to be informative, preachy, and judgmental, felt out of the place and disconnected from the storyline. This disturbed the narrative, and in some measure, my enjoyment of the story.
The Grapes of Wrath is an important novel. One that marked a turning point for its author. But I wouldn’t say that it is Steinbeck’s best. It was a transient period of his writing which became fully flourished later on. But one thing is certain. The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck’s most humane work.