“The Grapes of Wrath” was greatly influenced by the background and associates of its writer, John Steinbeck. When Steinbeck left Stanford College in 1925 to become a writer, he came into association with Leftist and Socialistic advocates. For example, one of his friends during the process of producing “The Grapes of Wrath” was Francis Whitaker, a member of the Communist Party’s John Reed club for writers. He also spent time with the radical writer Lincoln Steffens and his wife Ella Winter. It was through Steffens that Steinbeck was introduced to George West, a San Francisco News editor who commissioned Steinbeck to write a series of newspaper articles about the living conditions of California migrant workers. This writing experience inspired Steinbeck to write a full length novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
“The Grapes of Wrath” starts with a depiction of the Dust Bowl, the event which causes all that happens in the rest of the book. In then introduces Tom Joad, the main character. In the story, Tom has recently been paroled from prison, where he had been serving a term for murder. Now he returns to his family’s home. On the return trip he is joined by retired preacher Jim Casy. When the two get to the Joad family home, however, they find that the house is abandoned and in a state of collapse. They eventually find the family at Tom’s uncle’s home, where the Joad family is preparing to leave for California. It turns out that the drought caused the family’s crops to fail. When the bank foreclosed on the Joad family’s farm they were forced to move in with Tom’s uncle. Tom, Jim Casy, and the rest of the Joad family migrate to California, where they hope to find employment and advance their lives. On arriving in “the Promised Land”, though, they find their dreams to be disappointingly unattainable. The advertisements about ample work for all are really just ploys by the land owners to get cheap labor by attracting more workers than there are jobs. Gradually the family’s condition goes downhill as different members of the traveling group leave. Despite the fact that Tom’s younger sister Rosasharn is now pregnant, her husband abandons her. Even Jim Casy is arrested by the police and so separated from the family. The remaining members of the Joad family stay for a while at a government camp, but there is no work available in the area, so they are forced to leave the camp and move to another area. When they finally find work picking fruit, however, they discover that they are actually involved in breaking a strike that was organized by Jim Casy. When the strike turns violent, Jim Casy is killed and Tom again kills to avenge Jim Casy’s death. The family is forced to escape, hiding their fugitive son from the authorities. The lowest point is reached when Rosasharn’s baby is stillborn. Finally, the story ends with Rosasharn breastfeeding a starving man so emaciated that milk is all he can digest.
“The Grapes of Wrath” uses a variety of interesting techniques to share its message and create emotion within the story. The main storyline is continually interspersed with short sketches and narratives, or explanatory discussions that show what conditions of the era were like and what people were doing. Some of these interludes are used to create a general mood or to foreshadow events later in the story. One example of such a narrative sketch can be noted in chapter three, which is almost entirely devoted to the story of a land turtle crossing the highway. The turtle struggles up the embankments and barely avoids death when a truck hits its and sends it flying off the highway. Still alive, though, is struggles on. In the next chapter, Tom Joad sees the same turtle and picks it up, hoping to take it home to his little brother as a pet. When he meets Jim Casy and the two start talking, the turtle almost escapes several times, but Tom catches it each time. When Tom reaches his family’s home, though, and finds it abandoned he gives up and, in a gesture of despair, lets the turtle go. For a final trial for the poor turtle, it is attacked by one the abandoned cats. The turtle just goes inside its shell, though, and waits for the danger to pass before setting off on its way. The case of the turtle threads through chapters three through six, tying them together and making the reader sympathize with the plight of the persistent creature. The creature’s struggles, though, foreshadow those of the Joad family, to whom the readers sympathies will soon shift. Like the persistent turtle, the Joad family will not give up. In addition, neither the story of the turtle, nor the story of the Joad family may end happily, but both the turtle and the Joad family will survive despite attacks and difficulties. Another interesting technique that Steinbeck uses in “The Grapes of Wrath” is best seen in chapter seven, which depicts a used car salesman selling his old jalopies to the desperate migrants. In doing this he intersperses short, descriptive phrases without predicates into an ongoing monologue which is the car dealers private thoughts. Like a pencil sketch in which a few carefully drawn lines create a picture, the short, meaningful phrases that Steinbeck uses capture the urgency of the car dealer to sell his broken down jalopies and the migrants to buy a car that will take them to California. For example Steinbeck quickly introduces the used car lot with only a few short sentences:
“A lot and a house large enough for a desk and chair and a blue book. Sheaf of contracts, dog-eared, held with paper clips, and a neat pile of unused contracts. Pen-keep it full, keep it working… Owners with rolled up sleeves. Salesmen, neat, deadly, small intent eyes watching for weaknesses.”
These descriptive phrases reflect the quick, clipped talking of the car dealer himself:
“Lookin’ for a car? What did you have in mind? See anything attracts you? I‘m dry. How about a little snort of good stuff? Come on, while your wife’s looking’ at that La Salle. You don‘t want no La Salle. Bearings shot. Uses to much oil. Got a Lincoln ‘24. There‘s a car. Run forever. Make her into a truck.”
Both the quick descriptive phrases and the dealers endless monologue are short and to the point. However, while the descriptive phrases consist mainly of subjects without any predicates, the dealers pitch is made up of predicate phrases without any subjects, or with understood subjects that can be determined from the context. This difference is slight, but it causes these two narrative elements to subliminally strengthen each other so that the overall sketch is balanced and complete. Another effect that Steinbeck uses in this passage and others is the repetition of a key phrase. For example at the beginning of the narrative sketch Steinbeck describes the signs used to advertise used cars:
“In the towns, on the edges of the towns, in fields, in vacant lots, the used-car yards, the wreckers’ yards, the garages with blazoned signs-Used Cars, Good Used Cars, Cheap transportation, three trailers, ’27 Ford, clean. Checked cars, guaranteed cars. Free radio. Car with 100 gallons of gas free. Come in and look. Used cars.”
In this passage of the book the phrase, “Used Cars. Good Used Cars” is a key phrase that is repeated over and over. This continued repetition is important because it has two effects on the passage as a whole. First, it ties the entire passage together with a common theme. Also, though, the constant harping on “Good Used Cars” approaches the level of sarcastic irony which exposes the used car dealer’s devious ploy to take advantage of the desperate migrants. This is especially evident in the end of the passage:
“Goin’ to California? Here’s jus’ what you need. Looks shot, but they’s thousan’s of miles in her.
Lined up side by side. Good Used Cars. Bargains. Clean runs good.”
Steinbeck’s literary device of repeating a single phrase over and over again can be observed in yet another place in “The Grapes of Wrath.” In chapter twelve Steinbeck begins with a description of Route 66, the “main migrant road.” Then he switches to an ongoing conversational flow from the point of view of a group of desperate migrants. The migrants argue over what they will find in California, and constantly worry about the state of their car and whether it will be able to take them to California before it gives out. Meanwhile, their young boy in the back seat complains about how thirsty he is. Four times in two pages Steinbeck abruptly and deliberately interrupts his description of the trip and the adult’s conversations with the phrase, “Danny wants a cup of water.” Steinbeck repeats this phrase in order to create the effect of a child’s backseat complaints. Without using the child’s own voice he makes it seem as if the child is complaining directly to the reader, who is as unable to help him as the fictional book parents are. Steinbeck uses these and other literary tools to skillfully present his message, which is just as interesting as its delivery.
In “The Grapes of Wrath,” Steinbeck uses the experience of migrant workers to share an important message with his readers. In presenting such an event, he shows that life is a mixture of both cruel and beautiful things. This is a unifying theme of “The Grapes of Wrath” and it is especially evident at the end of chapter twelve:
“The people in flight from terror behind-strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever.”
Throughout the book, Steinbeck tries to show that good can still exist among evil. The deepest and most moving example of this is the final scene of the book, where Rosasharn breastfeeds a dying man, still willing to help another despite her own losses. In general, Steinbeck’s characters can be divided along two lines: those who just do everything they can to help themselves, and those who cooperate so as to help both themselves and others. In Steinbeck’s writings, for example, the greedy bank owners and crop growers who take advantage of the migrants are shown in a bad connotation. Steinbeck’s message though, is that people should cooperate to offset such evil. In displaying this message, Steinbeck uses chapter nineteen to share his Socialistic views with the reader:
“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”
Steinbeck openly advocates Marxist proletarian revolt in response to unjust economic conditions, which, he goes on to explain, are directly caused by capitalism:
“The tractors which throw men out of work, the belt lines which carry loads, the machines which produce, all were increased; and more and more families scampered on the highways, looking for crumbs from the great holdings, lusting after the land beside the roads. ”
As you can see, one of Steinbeck’s major messages is that socialistic revolt is the way to solve economic problems. He says that people must join together and as he says, “This is the beginning-from ‘I’ to ‘We.’” In this aspect, Steinbeck is only partially correct. To solve problems, it is true that people must work together and share, but Steinbeck’s fundamental theory is incorrect because it is based on Marxism, which is fundamentally incorrect. Because of human nature a Socialist system only works well during weak economic periods when a few people have an abundance, but the majority has nothing. Only then are people willing to share, because people as a whole are fundamentally greedy. Therefore, Steinbeck’s Socialistic message, stated as a truism, must understandably be considered with a grain of salt. Not only is Steinbeck’s message of proletariat revolt as the solution to economic problems unreasonable, but it is also ironic in light of the novel’s title. The title “The Grapes of Wrath” is based on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” refers to God bringing about justice on the Earth, as depicted at Revelation 14:19-20.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Ironically, Steinbeck’s novel does not point toward God bringing about justice. Instead, Steinbeck promotes the idea that a proletarian revolt will be the time when “the grapes of wrath” are trod and justice is brought about. In other words, in Steinbeck’s eyes the coming of the Lord is a proletariat revolt.
To summarize my analysis of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck has, in writing this classic novel, created a moving and quite well written piece of art. The story is very descriptive, and Steinbeck’s fascinating writing techniques give the book a distinct feel. However, a reader of “The Grapes of Wrath” must remember that Steinbeck had his own motives in writing this book, namely to share his socialist viewpoint.