The American Society During the Great Depression in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
The Great Depression was a period of low business activity and overall economic crisis that plagued America for roughly ten years, beginning in 1929 and finally coming to an end in 1939. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a fictional novel detailing the lives of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, who are driven by the hope for a better future, searching for it in the promised land of California.
The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, as the Great Depression was finally coming to an end. Due to the timing of the publishing, as well as the consistencies between the fictional text and actual recounts of the event, inductions about the environment surrounding the time period can easily be made. Most notably, Steinbeck draws attention to the economical, societal, cultural and political impact made by the depression, incorporating various themes throughout the novel to establish minute details about the trials that accompanied living through it.
Economically speaking, “”depression”” means a long and severe recession in an economy or market. That being said, a conclusion can be made that the “”Great Depression”” had a significant impact on the economy. Hours and wages were cut for hard workers, so much so that even a full family working every day would not earn enough money to feed everyone. Steinbeck expresses this issue with the economy repeatedly throughout the novel, first through explaining the impact of the dust bowl, then by criticizing the behavior of banks across America. The Grapes of Wrath sheds light on the fact that these violent dust storms destroyed their community as well as land, making their crops unusable.
Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes. When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down( ) Now the dust was evenly mixed with the air.
As a result of the storm, farmers could no longer sell the amount of crops needed to pay the banks, which is where the economics of it comes into play. When the banks took their land, the people of Oklahoma fled to California in search of a more forgiving job market. “”Okies””, as well as the rest of middle-lower class America, began to realize that “”[companies] breathe profits; they eat the interest of money””. In fact, they were not companies at all, they were monsters-creatures so heartless and cruel that they couldn’t possibly be the work of humans. “”The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it,”” one farmer tells the Joads before they begin their journey to California. This inequality of power paves the way for an important motif found in the book, where Steinbeck establishes the helplessness which belongs to the working class in this time period.
Steinbeck gives another glimpse into the Great Depression by indirectly describing the environment of American society as a whole. The class-gap in society is divided by a sharp line, most clearly demonstrated in conversations between landowners and workers, of upper and lower class. This break in unity is also exhibited by the Californians, who treat those migrants of Oklahoma with disdain merely because of where they are from. The first person Tom Joad stops to talk to in California is the one who introduced the family to the term “”Okie””, someone from Oklahoma, and makes clear to them that it is not a term of endearment. Seemingly every person the family encounters views them as immigrant scum. The attitude towards the Okie’s, or anyone of a lower class, is blown to such a proportion that would make them seem like criminal invaders. When referencing the Oklahoma immigrants, one even exclaims how they “”got to keep ’em in line or Christ only knows what they’ll do! Why, Jesus, they’re as dangerous as the [Negros] in the South! If they ever get together there ain’t nothin’ that’ll stop ’em.”” Racial harmony was nowhere in sight during this period of history, between the slave trade and Jim Crow laws, which means that being compared to black people solely because of one’s social status would be highly offensive.
The classist segregation, along with the economical aspect of the banks’ control, is what forced the peasants and farmers out of the land they were raised on. Steinbeck shows that this forced removal sparked the desire for a resistance through an early conversation between the Al, the youngest of the Joad boys, and a fellow Okie in the beginning of the novel. Upon hearing about the “”monster”” that is the bank, Al suggests the idea of “”killing”” the bank, because “”maybe [they] got to fight to keep [their] land like Pa and Grampa did.”” Steinbeck conveys to the reader the anger those in the working class held, showcased through the juvenile perspective of a sixteen-year-old boy.
The most notable difference in cultures found in this book is that of the “”Okies”” and that of the Californians. The poor farmers who migrated to foreign lands for the betterment of their family were called by this seemingly derogatory name-an action that indirectly and presumably forced the Oklahoma natives into a state of intense inequality and discrimination in the “”promised land”” of California. As previously mentioned, the term is used in such a way that is meant to degrade the individuals as much as the n-word. The way Steinbeck characterizes the Californians’ views towards these “”immigrants”” with harsh and pessimistic views on their personal intentions. For example, one Californian claims they “”got to keep [those] here people down or they’ll take the country. They’ll take the country. Outlanders, foreigners.”” This was upon first seeing the Joads as well, so it is obvious that they needed little time of knowing these “”outsiders”” before making their judgement on how they should be treated. Steinbeck portrays this period as being positive only got those who are rich and white. If someone living during the Great Depression and they were black, middle class, or even a peasant trying to feel their family, it would make no difference on the amount of respect they were treated with.
Politically speaking, the main conflict in the novel seems to be the rise of industrialization. Since the Second Industrial Revolution came to an end shortly before the Great Depression began, the improved farming techniques developed during the period became necessary after the dust bowl made the cultivation of crops so difficult. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck relates the concept of industrialization to the farmers by describing it with disturbing humanistic traits.
Behind the harrows, the long seeders-twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion. The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth.
In addition to altering their entire known way of living, the farmer’s growing attachment to their homeland is also greatly damaged.
Due to the novel’s continuous support of social change in favor of the working class, it can also be inferred that Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a strong novel in favor of a proletarian revolution. Highlighting the unfair working conditions and the fight of the workers, Steinbeck’s portrayal advocates for social change in the journey to the coveted American Dream. One example of this, and perhaps the most powerful of all, comes towards the end of the novel in its’ climax. After the rain came and ended the drought, the reactions of the adults proves them to be strongminded individuals who will not give up without a fight-an attitude the reader can also assume was prominent during the Depression itself.
The women watched the men, watched to see whether the break had come at last. The women stood silently and watched. And where a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right-the break had not come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.
After the rain falls, the Joads leave their boxcar abode, and Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn, the conditions of living in this period could not be worse. However, the working class-in this instance, the Joads specifically-is driven by motivation for change despite hardships that may accompany it.
In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck uses the fictional Joad family to portray the experiences of many American citizens during the Great Depression-using them to express the circumstances dealt with by the average middle-class citizen. Through reading the novel, one can gather much information about the Great Depression itself, namely that about its economics, society, culture, and politics. By writing about the strong-arm characteristics held by the bank, division of working classes, cultural differences between immigrants and natives, and the proletarian attitude held by many, Steinbeck successfully and accurately depicts the living environment present during the Great Depression.
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