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Historians have noted that works of literature often adopt the mood of the times in which they were written. It is thus not surprising that The Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck in the desperate nadir of the Great Depression, appears to be a novel of righteous anger and ably communicates the gloomy depths of human sorrow. However, Steinbeck has also interlaced the storyline with threads of cautious optimism and subtle hope. The Grapes of Wrath is not only an expression of the struggle of the dispossessed Okies and Arkies in California, but also a testament to the power and resilience of the human spirit everywhere. To accomplish this goal, Steinbeck imbues the most depressing objects with an aura of optimism, uplifts the utmost tragedies with the greatest results, and has the worst events reveal the greatest character traits.
Steinbeck’s hopeful symbolism is apparent early on in the novel before the reader has even been introduced to all the main characters. The author describes a concrete highway that was “edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat.” (19) This jungle by the highway represents the confusion that has enmeshed the nation. In this context, an otherwise pitiful turtle becomes an optimistic symbol, as it embodies the ability of humans to struggle on against adversity. It is able to deflect the barley beards and clover burrs just like people brush aside their fears. It crawls up the steep embankment even though for every two feet it covers it slips back one. When a red ant crawls onto its skin, it defends itself by retreating into its shell just as people seek protection in difficult times. Finally, when the turtle is almost crushed by the truck, it is unfazed and continues to crawl in the dust. Steinbeck’s message is that although the human spirit can be battered and threatened, it will keep striving toward a distant goal beyond the horizon. This concept is reiterated again toward the end of the novel when Uncle John is given the task of burying Rose of Sharon’s stillborn baby. As he sets the baby’s makeshift coffin afloat in the river, he says, “Go on down now, an’ lay in the street. Maybe they’ll know then.” (572) These words transform the dead fetus from a rotting piece of flesh into a powerful object that has the potential to provoke change. People, upon seeing such a ghastly sight, will be motivated to band together and fight against the evil forces that have indirectly nipped a young life in its bud. That Steinbeck chooses to allude to these results instead of simply making the dead baby into another example of premature death caused by the Depression is significant. It confirms his firm belief in the staunch stance of the great “we” against an often hostile, inimical world.
The disastrous events in The Grapes of Wrath serve not only to bring a tear to the reader’s eye, but also to demonstrate that in the darkest of times there will be a shaft of hope. For example, Granma dies shortly after the Joads settle down to camp with Ivy and Sairy Wilson. Though Granma’s death represents a great loss to the family, her death also brings the Joads and Wilsons into a close relationship that results from the common experience of tragedy. The alliance allows for mutual support–physically because the Wilsons help carry the load on the Joads’ truck and spiritually because the two families provide each other with needed support and comfort. Another gloomy circumstance with ultimately beneficial consequences is the burning of the Hooverville that the Joads enter when they first arrive in California. The depressing situation is alleviated when the Joads find their way into a government camp that gives them a degree of voice and respect they have never before been accorded. Ma opines, “An’ now I ain’t ashamed. These folks is our folks.” (395) When the Joads jump out of the figurative frying pan, they find not the fire that burned down the Hooverville but the cool relaxation of running water and flushable toilets. Later on in the story, the loss of another family member, Tom Joad, strikes the family. However, Tom’s parting words are not full of sadness but determination and hope: “I’ll be ever’where–wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.” (537) Tom affirms that although he will lose the company of his family, he will gain honor, self-respect and a sense of direction from joining a righteous fight. Likewise, Ma comes to accept that the loss of her son is necessary for the world to gain another fighter for the liberation of the Dust Bowl migrants from the business interests. The author again demonstrates the power of the human drive to fight injustice.
The optimism in The Grapes of Wrath is not restricted to symbols and positive consequences–the worst events also cause personal transformations for the better in people. For instance, Mae, the middle-aged hamburger stand manager, must deal with the dusty and sweaty Dust Bowl migrants who arrive in an overburdened car and offer a dime for fifteen-cent bread. Initially, Mae’s frugality makes her reluctant to sell the hungry travelers food at a loss. Then Mae realizes the plight of the man and his boys and her maternal instincts and kindness manifest themselves as she sells the fifteen-cent bread and two pieces of nickel candy for eleven cents. Because Steinbeck portrays Mae’s rising to help another human being in need, he emphasizes the power of human spirit to effect changes no matter how small they may be. This sentiment is confirmed by the silent approval of the truck drivers, who leave Mae fifty-cent tips. A main character to undergo transformation is Jim Casy, who decides to sacrifice his own liberty and go to jail to protect Tom from the consequences of his tripping the sheriff’s deputy. Casy explains: “Somebody got to take the blame. I got no kids. They’ll jus’ put me in jail, an’ I ain’t doin’ nothin’ but set aroun’.” (342) Casy’s selfless sacrifice again highlights the ability of people to rise to any challenge. Finally, Rose of Sharon sheds her persona of crankiness and worry over her pregnancy when she agrees to use her breast milk to feed a dying old man. This act of generosity transforms her into a truly mature woman whose capacity for giving is far beyond what one could expect of her at her age. That Steinbeck chooses to end the novel on a scene that delineates the hardiness of the human spirit is no coincidence.
By demonstrating through symbols, events, and characters that genuine good will prevail over evil and seeming hopelessness, Steinbeck uplifts the novel from simply being a tale of anguish to a story with a strident message of hope and confidence in the human spirit. Thus this tale is not only another perspective on the gloomy depths of the Great Depression but a timeless testament to the ability of people of overcome hardship and take on any challenge. It is often noted that respected and eminent people often have difficult childhoods, for greatness comes from tragedy. Likewise, America emerged from the Depression ready to assume its role as a world leader championing democracy and human rights. The more fermented the grapes of wrath are by the accumulation of anguish and despair, the finer the wine produced.
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