The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck
Reviewed date: 2020 Feb 21
Rating: 4
473 pages
cover art

The Grapes of Wrath is a great novel. It is an American novel. But it is not a great American novel.

It's a Communist book.

Capitalism destroys the family farm
The Joads are sharecroppers driven off their farm because the land company needs to turn a profit. With tractors, the company can hire one man to farm the whole countryside and doesn't need the sharecroppers anymore. It's not the land company's fault either: they get their orders from the bank, who demand that they show a profit. The bank manager gets his orders from the bank headquarters out east. The system demands profit. There's no person to blame--the whole system is rotten. And little folks, decent folks like the Joads, are turned out with nowhere to go.

Nowhere but California.

The Evils of Private Land Ownership
When the Joads arrive in California they are angry to see vast swaths of fertile land lying fallow. The land could support many family farms, but the land is owned by wealthy individuals who choose not to farm it. But taking that land would be trespassing, and so it lies fallow while the Okie families starve.

The Means of Production
The Joads try to earn a living as migrant workers, but the wages for picking crops are too low. The prices for agricultural produce--oranges, peaches, grapes, cotton--are too low, so even with rock-bottom wages, sometimes the produce is simply left to rot in the fields. It's not worth harvesting. The only people who make money are the big land-owners who own millions of acres and--crucially--also have their own factories. They know the secret: there's no money in harvesting peaches, but there is money in canning them. So the small farmers go broke because they cannot afford to harvest their crops, the Okies starve because they can't live on pickers' wages, and the factory owners get rich selling canned peaches for fifteen cents a can.

Big Government is Good
The Joads find that California is an unwelcoming place. The locals hate the Okies. The locals pass laws requiring the migrants to live outside of town in shanty towns. Sheriffs and local police harrass and even kill the migrants without repercussion. Burning the shantytowns is a regular occurrence. That is California and local California government.

By contrast, the only good place the Joads find to live is the government camp. That is, the federal government camp. It's a decent place where the Okies are treated like human beings. The local California cops aren't allowed in to harrass the Okies. As Steinbeck puts it, the government camp is America, where folks work together and pool their resources and treat each other decently, but outside the camp is California where the wealthy landowners bleed the folks dry and the cops throw you in jail if you ask for a decent wage.

So, big federal government good, state and local government bad. Got it.

Workers of the World, Unite
The Joads are weddings-and-funerals Christians, but when they leave Oklahoma they take along Jim Casy, the preacher. Well, former preacher. Casy's lost the spirit and given up preaching. In California he finds the spirit again. He's ready to preach a new gospel: workers' rights.

The Grapes of Wrath is a godless Communist book.

Casy is murdered by strike-busters.

Yankee ingenuity and hard work do not prevail
Times are hard and the Joads face many trials, but will good old hard work and Yankee ingenuity save the day? No.

The system destroys the Joad family.

The Joads start their journey with twelve people. Grampa dies the day they leave the family farm. Granma dies in the truck as they drive across the Mojave Desert. Noah deserts the family when they reach California. Connie abandons them when times get tough in the shanty town. Jim Casy is murdered by strike-breakers. Tom kills a policeman and has to go on the run. Al leaves the family when he finds a pretty girl. Rose of Sharon's baby is stillborn. Winfield is sickly and won't survive winter. The family spends their last dollar on some bread. A flood washes away their truck and all their belongings. The remaining--I won't say surviving, but remaining--family members end up huddled in an abandoned barn to escape the cold winter rain.

They're all going to die.

Other thoughts
The characters speak in dialect. Typically I don't like that. But here it bothers me much less than when other writers, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, have used dialect. Possibly some of that is because in this case, the dialect is being used by the main characters as a way to show their virtue, as opposed to the case of so many others, where dialect is used as a way to show how a supporting character is different, or an outsider, or (usually) bad.

Steinbeck portrays the Okies as noble. They are honest, unpretentious, proud, hardworking, authentic, friendly. They live and let live. They don't worry too much about sin, if that sin is simply giving in to natural human urges. Drunkenness and illicit sex are accepted as a normal part of the human experience. All the Okies want is some land or a job and an honest wage.

In contrast, the Californians are suspicious and cruel. They conspire to drive down wages. They arrest and imprison any man who asks for a fair wage. They force the Okies to move along so they can never settle down and make a new home.

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