Struggle for Survival in The Grapes of Wrath
The 1930s were a time of hardship for many across the United States. Not only was the Great Depression making it difficult for families to eat every day, but the Dust Bowl swept through the plains states making it nearly impossible to farm the land in which they relied. John Steinbeck saw how the Dust Bowl affected farmers, primarily the tenant farmers, and journeyed to California after droves of families. These families were dispossessed from the farms they had worked for years, if not generations (Mills 388). Steinbeck was guided by Tom Collins, the real-life model for the Weedpatch camp’s manager Jim Rawley, through one of the federal migrant worker camps. He was able to see for himself, from the migrants’ perspective, the living conditions to which they were subjected and later used the information to detail the lives of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath (Mills 389). Rebecca Hinton points out in her essay on the novel that “formerly tenant farmers with relative security and independence, they soon become migrant laborers at the mercy of the rich, struggling to maintain their pride” (101). In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck uses realism, allegory, and a change in values to show the intense struggle the common person went through to survive during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression after the rise of corporate and industrial capitalism. Although The Grapes of Wrath is a work of fiction, Steinbeck writes to inform the public about information gathered from fact. His use of realism and authentic voice give shape to the characters and their common struggle. Steinbeck points out that one of the primary causes of the dispossession of tenant farmers is the fault of “the bank—the monster” and tractors taking “the place of twelve or fourteen families” (32-33). Likewise, Trent Keough writes in “The Dystopia Factor” that “The Grapes [of Wrath] investigate[s] the social phenomena of a transitional period in which an agrarian… industry economy is decimated by automation” and the novel also “records the role of mechanization (e.g. the tractor and car) in the Westward migration which occurred in America during the depression years” (38). This decimation by automation is one of the primary factors that force the Joads from their farm. In Chapter 19, Steinbeck writes: “The tractors which throw men out of work, the belt lines which carry loads, the machines which produce, all were increased; and more and more families scampered the highways, looking for crumbs from the great holdings, lusting after the land beside the roads” (238). The bank’s need for profits forces the owners of the farm to take action and hire one man on a tractor to do the work of dozens. Steinbeck also uses his experience in California camps to give a realistic depiction of the squatter camps that were scattered during the migration (Keough 44). The squatter camps, all referred to as Hooverville, are described as having no order with cars, shacks, and tents randomly scattered, usually near a source of water, such as a river or stream (Steinbeck 241, 243). Migrant workers also have to deal with constant discrimination and abuse from the local population and law enforcement. Beginning in Chapter 18, the Joads are introduced to the term “Okie,” which is used to as a derogatory term to describe all migrants coming into California (Steinbeck 214). This is just the beginning of the discrimination the Joads face. Steinbeck describes how he perceives the discrimination in the following excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath: They were hungry, and they were fierce. And they had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred. Okies—the owners hated them because the owners knew they were soft and the Okies strong, that they were fed and the Okies hungry; and perhaps the owners had heard from their grandfathers how easy it is to steal land from a soft man if you are fierce and hungry and armed. The...
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