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Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” has been the subject of much critical attention. Many of the novel’s detractors have concentrated their critiques not upon its literary failings, but rather its politics (Zirakzadeh). At the time of the novel’s publication and in the years since, such critics have condemned Steinbeck’s expression of the failings of capitalism. The story of the Joad family is largely an indictment of the inequitable socio-economic system that is vital to a capitalist economy. According to Karl Marx, the independent farmer represented the last remaining obstacle to fulfilling the capitalist owner’s dream of transforming the entire American labor class into a commodity (368). In detailing the plight of the farming class, Steinbeck foresaw the future of the American economic system in which the worker would become more disenfranchised and alienated and economic power would be placed into the hands of an increasingly shrinking minority. An overriding theme of the novel is that both responsibility and reward should be shared equitably; a view that is in direct contrast to the underlying owner/employee structure of capitalism. Steinbeck’s commitment to the belief that the natural state of humanity is helpful rather than exploitative is perfectly symbolized by the novel’s infamous closing scene in which Rose of Sharon literally gives of the milk of human kindness. The implication of Rose of Sharon’s act is that the hardship faced by the Joads and other families could have been avoided, or at least lessened, had the banks been willing to treat the farmers as human beings instead of commodities.
The historical background of the novel is fundamental to any critical understanding of the narrative. Steinbeck employs a narrative structure that alternates between the Joad family’s story and chapters that present the reader with a deeper understanding of the socio-economic conditions of impoverished America. These chapters serve a vital function by forcing the reader to become intellectually engaged with the historical events that led the Joads to their current state. The non-narrative chapters provide not only a valuable history lesson, but also drive home Steinbeck’s point that that the economic and political institutions of America are designed not to help the individual but to maintain profit, whatever the human cost (Johnson 9).
The socialism that so many politically conservative critics found intolerable in The Grapes of Wrath is a socio-economic ideological theory. Socialism is founded on the notion that co-operation enriches human lives, while competition improverishes them. Under a capitalist system, in which the unequal distribution of wealth and private ownerships are considered natural, even sacred phenomena, socialism is a dangerous philosophy. Steinbeck increased the consternation of his critics by also suggesting that socialism is a natural offshoot of Christianity. The Christian-Socialist movement in America had long viewed capitalism as a threat to the tenets taught by Jesus Chris (Dorn 2-7). This view was no more popular in Steinbeck’s time than it is now; American religious leaders have long maintained various claims that socialism presents a threat to Christianity. The Grapes of Wrath is a powerful indictment of that belief. The character Jim Casy, who is estrangement from organized religion, represents the corruption of the actual teachings of Christ by the institution of the church. Casy’s conversion to a less organized version of Christianity is important because it implicates religion in the economic institutions meant to dehumanize people. Casy acts as the catalyst that drives Tom Joad’s eventual radicalization. When he speaks to Tom about his own philosophic journey it take the form of a spiritual quest; his ideas are eventually realized in Tom as a socio-political quest. In this very subtle way, Steinbeck succeeds in drawing parallels between the corruption of the church and the corruption of the economic system in America. The novel’s detractors view Casy’s words as evidence that socialism cannot be equated with Christ because he says: “Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe, I figgered, maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit — the human sperit — the whole shebang” (31). On the surface the criticism that Steinbeck is attacking belief in God seems well-placed, but within the context of the rest of the novel, it becomes clear that Casy isn’t dissatisfied with God or Jesus, but rather with the way religion has co-opted the Bible for its own political purposes. A closer reading of the text reveals that what Casy is really proposing is something even more radical than socialism: that people would do better if they followed Christ’s instruction to love their neighbors.
Steinbeck uses the story of the Joads to illustrate the consequences of faith in the basic tenets of socialism and the compatibility of socialism with the teachings of Christ. Another implication of Casy’s words is that abstract theories and ideals are meaningless unless they are enacted. The state may preach the ideals of Christianity or democracy; however, when it doesn’t practice what they preach those ideals become null and void. Steinbeck engages the Joads to suggest that perhaps the reason these institutions don’t practice their theories is because then would be revealed as charlatans. Moreover, his representation of the Joads and the rest of the migrant workers as practicing acts of socialism demonstrates the superiority of socialism for the exploited and disenfranchised. For example, Ma continually reveals her capacity to help other people by giving them food even when she knows she doesn’t have enough to spare. The only time that Ma ever acts selfishly is when she is making stew and must reject the pleas of hungry children because she knows there is not even enough to satisfy the hunger of her own family. Similarly, Tom and Al put aside their own needs to assist the Wilsons in fixing their car. What lies beneath these seemingly small, perhaps even insignificant actions, is the far greater idea that everybody is connected and that helping others is ultimately beneficial to one’s self. The migrant farmers and the lower classes in the novel are forced to create a society that is dependent on internal harmony, a harmony that is dependent on co-operation and not competition. It is almost impossible to imagine replacing the migrants with a group of bankers or captains of industry in the scene Steinbeck describes here: “huddled together, they shared their lives, their food and the things they hoped for in the new country… In the evening a strange thing happened the twenty families became one family”(249). The workers’ dependence upon harmony and the understanding that everyone is part of a larger family becomes increasingly impossible the more insulated the individual becomes from others and the more independence one’s social status allows. Once a person loses that kind of human contact it is far too easy to also forget such things as empathy and charity. Concerned with profit and property aquisition, capitalists tend to lose sight of the importance of generosity and compassion. Warren French touches upon this loss when he states that Steinbeck symbolizes the evil of corporate intrusion into farming “in a description of the driver of a tractor that is plowing up the tenants’ farms for the remote and untouchable city corporation” (49). French is referring to Steinbeck’s description of the driver as alienated from the farmers both physically and spiritually. His equipment dehumanizes him to the point where he looks like a robot and he is spiritually detached from a job that requires him to destroy the lives of others in order to secure a paycheck of his own.
However, French doesn’t go far enough in identifying the farmer’s significance in Steinbeck’s socialist symbolism. The image of the robotic tractor driver who trades in his compassion for a paycheck signifies not just the evils of corporate farming but the entire capitalist mindset. That tractor driver is the mirror image of the Joads. Both have been systematically disenfranchised by big business. Both are forced into a position of relying on others to help them, a system of dependence that ensures the reproduction of capitalism. By creating a situation in which people must take care of themselves by abandoning basic principles, capitalism succeeds in strengthening its primary thesis that money is everything. The Joads refuse to be sucked so easily into the system; however, the tractor driver continues to move farther away from ever understanding the lesson that comes from being huddled together with twenty other families. The primary point is that the tractor driver will never actually become a captain of industry who doesn’t need to rely on others, but he has been successfully assimilated into believing upward mobility is possible. It is this element of capitalism that Steinbeck finds most destructive. In fact, Steinbeck compares the institution of industry to a prison.
As the novel opens, Tom Joad has just been released from the state prison and his personality is decidedly different from what it will become by the end of the book. Tom at first is presented as cynical and detached and, above all, interested only in self-preservation. The point of prison, of course, is not just to punish a perpetrator for a crime but to inculcate within the inmate the desire to never experience a loss of freedom again. Being locked away from all the things that make freedom worthwhile is an efficient method for making one appreciate the finer points of economic independence. Once released from prison, all Tom Joad wants is to enjoy life again. He is the individualistic type who will put himself first in all things; in other words, the perfect capitalist (Moore). Engendering that selfish and safe desire is the hallmark of capitalism; a happy and distracted worker is less likely to question the validity of the inequitable distribution of wealth. The same principle applies to both the tractor driver and Tom Joad at the novel’s outset as well as various other characters in the interposed chapters. The physical description of the tractor driver as a robot leaves undermines his own conviction that he will break out of his own prison. On the other hand, Tom Joad’s evolution is Steinbeck’s way of showing that the desired and necessary component of selfishness in the service of the capitalist ideology can be challenged and overcome.
When Tom first arrives home, he finds his house abandoned and learns from Jim Casy that his family’s land was repossessed by the banks and its inhabitants forced to leave. It is this sudden confrontation with the reality of life outside of prison that forces Tom to confront his own isolation and selfishness. Over the course of the novel, Tom Joad becomes the personification of Steinbeck’s belief that arriving at class consciousness is the key to change, in the absence of outright revolution. Jim Casy’s erratic appearances may represent the real difference between the tractor driver and Tom Joad. Perhaps, Steinbeck suggests, if the guy on the tractor could be exposed to the ideas of Casy as Joad was, his future might be different. Steinbeck’s implicit message is that his novel could be a substitute for Jim Casy. The arrival at class consciousness becomes complete for Tom in the sequence outside the work camp. Tom learns from Casy the political value of cooperation as he begins to understand that there will always be more laborers than owners and that the key to recreating a system that is more fair and equitable lies in uniting the migrant workers against the owners. This understanding is cemented by the pointless death of Casy at the hands of the police. Tom learns the valuable lesson that the only way the working class will ever get a fair shake is by organizing. Tom finally shrugs off any last remaining vestige of his misplaced belief in the individual and commits himself to extending his interest beyond his family and friends and any immediate strangers to include all those who are being exploited by the owners. Tom at last comes to understand that “[the] wilderness (contemplation and passivity) is not a true joining of one’s soul to that of all men; only in social unity and action can this be achieved” (Steinbeck 76). In other words, Tom Joad finally reaches that point where theories, abstractions and ideals no longer have any meaning. He appears to have accepted that it is only through actions that men and women can improve their social conditions.
In light of Steinbeck’s call for practical action among the working classes, the criticism that the novel is merely socialist propaganda is highly misplaced. Rahter, the novel suggests that the only ideology that is valid is the one that endorses the simple act of looking out for everybody. Proponents of capitalism and socialism both make that claim; Steinbeck’s book is a call for them both to move beyond theory and into practice. Technology may have advanced exponentially and the cultural landscape of America may have changed considerably since John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, but the socio-economic conditions in America remain inequitable and punitive for the lower-classes. Wealth is situated in the hands of an elite minority and the worker has even less power to control and shape his own destiny than he did during the Great Depression. In the opening decade of the 21st century, real wages are roughly at the same state they were during the early 1930s. Contributing to the problem is that most Americans think they have more buying power because they have more things and a better lifestyle now, an erroneous assumption as most purchases today are made on credit. In fact, the average American owes more debt today than the farmers of the Dust Bowl did at the onset of the Depression. The Joads’ story is the story of lower-class America in our time as much as in Steinbeck’s own; its call for class consciousness remains relevant.
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