John Steinbeck, himself, lived throughout the Great Depression and although he was not a farmer during this time, he still experienced the extreme hardships that this time period created for people. One of the most predominant hardships experienced was the overwhelming lack of the “golden rule.” People did not treat others as they would want to be treated which then created a strain on society. Steinbeck said, “my whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other.” One would only truly understand what people went through during this time if they lived through it, and Steinbeck did just that.This fictional book accounts for life during the great Depression through a true lens of what life was like during this period. It addresses the cultural, economic, political, and social struggles during this time using biblical references, allegories, and metaphors. Throughout the entirety of The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family experiences many hardships that reflect on the culture during the Great Depression. The Joad family lived in Oklahoma, which was termed the Dust Bowl during this time period. This region was deemed the “Dust Bowl” because during the early 1930’s, the topsoil that farmers had plowed up turned to dust and as the wind blew the dust covered the sky and smothered the livestock, so these farmers picked up their life and moved to California.
The Joad family was tenant farmers, meaning that they were “landless farmers” just renting the land from the landowners. When Tom Joad was released from jail, he returned to his family’s farm only to discover that they had been “tractored off the land” by the landowners because they said, “We can’t afford to keep no tenants.” After being kicked off the land, the Joad family moved in with Uncle John, which is where Tom will reunite with his family. Once reunited with his family, Tom discovers that everyone has been working picking cotton in order to save up enough money to travel to California.
The sad truth about the migration to California is that it ripped families apart. For example, Muley Graves, a neighbor of the Joad family, did not migrate to California with his wife kids, and brother in law. Instead he stayed back in Oklahoma saying that he could not leave because “Somepin jus’ wouldn’ let me.” Casey, the preacher, told him “You should of went too, You shouldn’t of broke up the fambly.” Another example is not so literal in the fact that it broke the family apart, but it was the fear of never seeing a family member again. Ma Joad was terrified at the thought of leaving little Tom in prison while the rest of the family travels west to search for opportunity.
Steinbeck portrayed this fear clearly by allowing Pa Joad to tell Tom, “Your ma got a bad feelin’ she ain’t never gonna see you no more…Almost she don’t want to go to California, fear she’ll never see you no more.” These families’ cultures were their land and their loved ones, and this time period seemed to strip one if not both from them. The tenant farmers, like the Joads, during this time were forced to leave the land that they had made their own. Where they had established a life and a way of living, and some people, such as Muley and Grandpa, could not bear the thought of leaving their behind. Grandpa Joad said, I ain’t a-goin’. This country ain’t no good, but it’s my country.” Based off of the first half of the book and the hardships that the Joad family encountered, one can assume that the families during the Great Depression were in complete culture shock after being forced to leave behind the life that they had known and built for themselves.
Steinbeck writes about the beauty and the ugliness of society in great detail throughout the entire book. For starters, one can infer from details in the book that society was split very vividly into two groups: people with money and people with no money. This caused a major strain on the relationships within the society, which is where the “golden rule” is broken in so many ways. There are many examples of how cruel society was to these migrants during the chapters involving the actual trip to California, but the very first one stands out the most. This example involves a tire salesman trying to rip Jim Casy off for a tire. Jim explains that they need a tire but do not have a whole lot of money, so they need a good deal on the tire. The salesman told him, “I’m here a-sellin’ tires. I ain’t givin’ ‘em away.”
The salesman says he is not a charity so eventually, Jim agrees to take the tire because they have no other choice, but not without looking at it first. The casing was almost completely ruined, but the salesman was still holding tight to the price and only offering to take 50 cents off the original price. Jim refuses the offer saying “I’ll go on the rim before I’d give that son-of-a-bitch a dime.” This shows the overwhelming hostility that developed between business owners and migrant workers during this time period. Another example proving hostility within the society was when a police officer, someone who they considered they could trust, came into their tent and tried to scare Ma Joad by pulling on the holster with his gun in it and also telling her to get out or they would be run out. This was also the first time that they had been deemed “Okies.”
Although there was a lot of hostility between upper and lower classes during this time period, the lower class watched out for each other. For example, Steinbeck uses Route 66 as a symbol of unity among the migrant workers. Many events that took place on the route were negative because of car failure and even death, but Steinbeck turned these events into positive ones by unifying the people. He tells of a story about a family of twelve that did not have a car or enough money to buy car, so they built a trailer and waited on the side of 66 for someone to give them a ride. A good Sarmatian pulled seven of them in the trailer and five of them rode in the car.
Similarly, after the death of Grandpa while traveling, the Joad family was unified with the Wilson family. They soon became a whole while traveling and “each’ll help each, an’ we’ll all git to California” as Ma stated. The last and probably the most beautiful example used to prove that there were still people with goodness in their heart was when Sharon of Rose gave her breastmilk to the starving, dying man. This signifies not only that some people in society care for one another, but it also symbolizes the sacrifice that she made in order for this man to live. She turned a very negative event, such as the birth of a stillborn baby, into a nourishing gesture that could save a life. Steinbeck says that even though extremely cruel events have to these people, some events are “so beautiful that the faith is refired forever.”
Considering that The Grapes of Wrath was written about the lowest economic period in American history, one can assume that some of Steinbeck’s writing would be revolved around these issues, and within these economic issues come political issues. When the Joad family was getting ready to begin their journey to California, they had to go into town and sell off almost all of their belongings for mainly two reasons. One being that they needed the money to start over in California and two being that there was very limited space in the vehicle, so they could only take the bare minimum with them. The problem was that they could not afford to turn down any offers when they were going to sell their items, so they accepted extremely low costs which barely them any profit. For example, a seeder before the Depression was around 38 dollars and during the Depression, migrant farmers were lucky to get 2 dollars for it.
All of the movable objects from the farm including “the horses, the wagon, the implements, and all the furniture” only earned the Joad family eighteen dollars.[footnoteRef:24] Also, once people were kicked off their land, they were considered breaking the law by trespassing because corporal law had already told them to get off. Muley describes this process as being hunted.[footnoteRef:26] He says, when you’re huntin’ somepin you’re a hunter, an’ you’re strong….but when you get hunted-that’s different. This quote explains how Muley used to be mean and strong, but after the cops and corporal businesses started looking for him he became like a “weasel”- maybe fierce, but not strong.
All of the social, cultural, economic, and political hardships that were addressed in the book were all used in way that they could relate to each other. The culture hardships contributed to the social hardships, which then contributed to the economic hardships, and so on. No matter which way one orders these concepts, they all come back to relate to one another in some way. Overall, Steinbeck uses all of these hardships to explain the life changing events that occurred during this time period.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.”The American Yawp.” The American Yawp Reader. Accessed September 27, 2018. http://www.americanyawp.com/.
Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Penguin: New York, 1939