„I sincerely believe that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies."
„I know that there are no limits to which the powers of privilege will not go to keep the workers in slavery.“
„We’re Joads. We don’t look up to nobody.“
„The Grapes of Wrath“ has surely had a deep impact not only on world‘s literature, but also on the consciousness of the working class in general. Millions of sold copies worldwide imply that Steinbeck’s thinking must have impressed and influenced a lot of people around the globe indeed. Thus, „The Grapes of Wrath“ has inspired activist songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen and Woodie Guthrie to write songs in order to put the spirit of the book into sound. While the latter of these two musicians had not yet read the book, but only seen the movie when he wrote a song that simply summarizes the storyline, Bruce Springsteen has managed to compose an exceedingly moving and popular piece of music. „The Ghost of Tom Joad“ carries on the hope which is contained in the novel (just to anticipate a bit the answer to the sub-question of this work’s title).
The struggling of the poor and unprivileged is today not less existent than at the time when „The Grapes of Wrath“ takes place. However, today’s face of the world has been changed by the effects of information technology. The globalization of markets and the ongoing merging of corporations, resulting in economic giants with fierce extent of power, the WTO and the World Bank are expressions of an economic system which still legitimizes the exploitation of have-nots by a shrinking wealthy upper-class. Nevertheless, there is a movement and a progress visible (though not on screens dominated by corporate media). Resistance against exploitation forms wherever people understand the need and possibility to organize. „The Grapes of Wrath“ contributes a lot to making people realize this. Last but not least, it conveys a spirit that strengthens people’s will to survive and show compassion for each other, which is why i would like to reflect on this book.
brief summary of the novel
It is Oklahoma in the 1930s when Tom Joad, after four years in jail for homicide, is released on parole. When he walks home, he meets the former preacher Jim Casy, who once baptized him, but who meanwhile rejects to preach, since he figured out that his belief has changed. Together they walk to the farm of the Joad family and find it deserted. Muley Graves, who refuses to leave his home land, tells them that the family is with Tom‘s „Uncle John“. Like so many other tenant farmers aswell, they have lost the crop on account of a drought and therewith lost their land to the bank. Thus, Tom and Casy go to Uncle John’s house to join the family on their journey to California, where they hope to find work. Not only the Joads, but all the other tenant farmers heading west alike, have no other choice but selling all their belongings. They only get very spare money for it, because everyone knows that they just have to sell it, no matter how low the price is. They buy a truck and start their long journey, on which both grandparents finally die. As they arrive in California Noah, the oldest son, leaves the family in order to live beside the river. After crossing the Mojave desert, they find a so-called „Hooverville“, where they learn that there is only very few work at very low wages. The crop owners just try to attract as many people as possible with handbills, so that they virtually do not have to pay any decent wages on account of the high demand. They also learn that they are not welcome and even the police literally try to expell them from California. Tom beats down a cop shooting at an innocent migrant. Casy takes the blame for him and goes to jail. Finally, they lose another family member. Connie, who is married to Rose of Sharon, the Joad’s pregnant daughter, turns out to be a coward and runs away when he discovers their life in California to be not so nice at all. As the police announce to burn down the camp, the Joads move on and find a self-organized government camp, where they even have a sanitary unit. The people there are kind and the hostile cops are only allowed to get into the camp, if there is a riot. They try to fake one, but it does not work. Tom is the only one who finds work for a short period and so they unfortunately have to leave the camp again some weeks later. They find hardly paid work at the „Hooper Ranch". When they get there, they note a furious crowd at the entrance to a fenced area, where they are forced to go in. Later on in the night, Tom discovers that those people were on strike. He meets Casy again who explains him that people can cause trouble for the land owners if they just stick together and organize. In the same night, Casy is pinpointed as a leader of the troublemakers and murdered by a cop. Tom kills the cop and hence has to hide.
After all, the Joads find work at a cotton field and can afford to live in a boxcar, which they share with another family. Al, the third son of the Joads, falls in love with the daughter of their neighbours. In the end, he also leaves the family because of this, so that only Ma, Pa, Uncle John, Rose of Sharon and Ruthie and Winfield, the two little children are left. Rose of Sharon’s baby is born dead. Just when they almost get along, a big flood forces them to leave their boxcar. They find a barn on a hill with a starving man inside. Rose of Sharon feeds him with the milk from her breast.
The structure of the novel
John Steinbeck has chosen two seperate sorts of chapters for the structure of „The Grapes of Wrath“. The first kind of them are shorter, more general and do not pivot on a certain plot, while the other kind directly refers to the story of the Joad family. Nevertheless, both sorts have in common that they mainly fulfill the goal to describe and approach the life of the tenant farmers. Both chapter forms are intervowen.
Steinbeck lets his novel start with one of the more general chapters. These are not confined to the main story line, but rather stand for themselves. They are partially written in a very poetic manner and are furthermore a very good example for the pictures that Steinbeck literally paints of landscapes. Thus, in the first chapter e.g., the reader is introduced to the natural environment and the resulting general situation in the „Dust Bowl“. Just A little example for the poetry Steinbeck uses in nearly all of his sentences in the first chapter might be the phrase: „ In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. “ (1)
The fierce burning of the sun and the resulting harsh drought cause the ruin of the crop, which might also mean the ruin of the farmers and their families. Steinbeck presents them to be resistant and not giving up. They do not believe in prosperity alone (which they virtually do not have at all), but seem to follow some higher, decent value:
„ (...) the corn could go, as long as something else remained. (...) After a while, the faces of the watching men (...) became hard and angry and resistant. (...) Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. “ (2)
Thus, the tenant farmers stand tall despite their grave misery. Likewise as the first chapter, all the other general chapters that do not belong to the main plot also indicate what will happen next to the Joad family. Therefore, those chapters mainly serve to draw a picture of the poor man’s general situation before it is illustrated by the example of the Joad family’s story. In addition, one should emphasize the fact that they also contribute a lot to the creation of atmosphere and mood in „The Grapes of Wrath“. The poetic language that prevails in them not only shapes the frame for the story, but also makes the book alive and gets the reader really close to the events. While in the first chapter you can almost smell the sticky dry air of the „Dust Bowl“ and suffer with the tenant farmers as they lose their crop, in the seventh chapter e.g., you are led a step closer to the cold calculation in materialistic thinking that seems to be unavoidable in liberal capitalism. You are introduced to the way of talking of clever and busy salesman, exploiting the situation of the dispossessed tenant farmers (esp. p. 67).
The story line chapters simply follow the fate of the Joad family.