I first read the Grapes of Wrath when I was 17. Re-reading it now I realise how little I understood it then but that, at some level, it must have helped to form a sense of anger at the injustice and inequality in the world.
Of the many causes of this injustice and inequality, I was struck this time by Steinbeck’s description of the anonymity of the banks and companies causing so much misery, and the way in which they are somehow more than the people who make them up:
The Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These [men] would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and monsters all at the same time.
Steinbeck skewers the supposed helplessness of individuals who work within these monsters (in a way that, to be frank, brings to mind what we often hear people who work in large public sector bureaucracies say):
‘It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster…’
‘… Yes, but the bank is only made of men.’
‘No, you’re wrong there – quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.’
What’s worse, the anonymity of the banks and companies is combined with a lack of understanding of the land, histories and culture their actions are displacing. This picks up a theme Steinbeck covers in a series of seven journalistic essays he wrote in 1936, The Harvest Gypsies, which provided much of the research and material for The Grapes of Wrath. There he notes:
Having been brought up in the prairies where industrialization never penetrated, the [migrant farmer families] have jumped with no transition from the old agrarian, self-containing farm where nearly everything used was raised or manufactured, to a system of agriculture so industrialized that the man who plants a crop does not often see, let alone harvest, the fruit of his planting, where the migrant has no contact with the growth cycle.
There is a sense of hope, though – represented most directly in the character of Tom Joad and more mystically through Rose of Sharon. The contrast between “I” and “we” –
This is the beginning – from ‘I’ to ‘we’… the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off from the ‘we’.
– provides through communal effort a basis on which Man will always, somehow, progress:
This you may say of man – when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.
There is solidarity amongst the grapes of wrath.
Tom Joad is often portrayed as the hero of The Grapes of Wrath, and is given this famous speech (in both the book and 1940 film adaptation):
I think the real hero, though, is Ma Joad. Steinbeck describes her like this:
She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practice denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended on. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seems to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.
She herself describes the role of women compared to men like this:
This seems to me right, and why, perhaps, people “is aimed right at goin’ on… Jus’ tryin to live the day, jus’ the day.”