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Alienation in the Grapes of Wrath

By koolkid447 Sep 10, 2007 1037 Words
An effective way writers demonstrate the moral values of a society is by not telling the story from one in the society, but from the point of view of a person alienated from it. This method reveals small things that one in the society would not notice and provides different insights only one from outside the society can notice. Such is the case in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad's alienation from the rich Californian landowners shows that money is the top priority of those who own land, while the poor, assumed-worthless families are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Thousand of families flooded to California just so they could feed their families, but by showing the treatment the landowners show to these families, or lack thereof, Steinbeck points to the fact that they don't even plan on letting them eat, and that money is the only thing they're really worrying about. When explaining to his family that Jim Casy had gone on strike because of the poor wages, Tom says, "Yeah. What we was a-doin' was breakin' strike. They give them fellas two an' a half cents." Pa responds, "You can't eat on that." When their outlook gets so desperate, the first priority is to feed their families and hope for better times. By showing these small, seemingly insignificant, noble acts, Steinbeck shows the determination of these families to press on. The poor wages set by the landowners show that they, the landowners, care nothing for the families even in their destitution. With such low wages set, the landowners are alienating these poor families and giving reason for hostilities. This form of alienation demonstrates that these landowners plan on keeping every penny they possible can. With lower wages paid to more workers, things get done quicker while the rich can keep their pockets lined.

Another way the landowners invoke hostilities is the very way they refer to these poor families. When Tom asks, "Okie? What's that?" this character responds, "Well, Okie use' ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you're a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you're scum." By using such a foul name, the landowners further alienate themselves from these people. Not only does such a name invoke hatred in the minds of the poor folks, but it also further reiterates the revulsion the landowners feel towards theses folks for no reason other than being there. Every time they say it, they look at the "Okies" with more hatred than before. By having the landowners use such foul language, Steinbeck shows that the landowners assume the families from Oklahoma are dirty trash not to spend a minute on. To these rich folk, the poor and starving have no talent and no personality. Some of them could have had more talent than them themselves, and all of them have more personality. For example, Al Joad is very good at tinkering with cars and would like to work in a garage. He'll never be able to reach that goal or dream in California, because the Californians have assigned him the label of "Okie," a piece of trash with no skills and no life for all they care. The only skills the landowners think the poor folk have is picking peaches and hauling boxes. When harsh words are said, it says a lot more about the one speaking than the one being spoken to. By using such harsh language, the Californians block themselves off to the possibility that these poor folk have any talent at all. Much of the time words can do a lot more damage than violence, making it a great contributor to the alienation of Tom's family and other migrants.

The rude, rather cruel, behavior of the landowners towards these poor families went way beyond words and poor wages; the went all the way to violence, further showing there lack of respect for the fellow human beings. On preparing to leave Hooverville because of threats, some men confront their vehicle armed with pick handles and shot guns. One man tells them, "We ain't gonna have no goddamn Okies in this town." On driving away, "a flaring light arose from the direction of the Hooverville. The light grew and spread, and from the distance came a crackling sound." Words are one thing, but nothing can cause more vengeful feelings than murder and vandalism—alienation of the worst sort. By burning that town, the landowners also burned away any friendly ties those people could feel for them. By showing that these people could even use such violence, Steinbeck demonstrates that those landowners cared nothing for the welfare of anyone but themselves; for all they cared, those people were just some annoying bug that needed to be squashed. When they burned that town, they didn't even think that the things they burned were the only possessions those poor folk still had. They didn't bother to realize, or didn't care, that those migrants had left all of their lives back where they had come from to come here. By demonstrating that the Californians showed no restraint in burning that town, he shows that they cared nothing for the migrants' sacrifice and dream of a better life. No moral value or humanity could be seen in those acts. The landowner's alienation of Tom and his family demonstrate the landowners' heartless cupidity.

Landowners in The Grapes of Wrath show terrible cruelty to the poor migrants looking for work, alienating them further and further all the time. This alienation didn't affect a few people, but tens of thousands throughout the whole state of California. In the novel, one family's troubles echo the troubles of thousands of other families. Through violence, cruelty, and wages too low to even support one day to day, the landowners separated themselves further and further from the migrants and demonstrated their cold inhumanity and false assumptions about people who were better than they were. By telling the story from those who have character, Steinbeck showed that the landowners had no character.

Steinbeck, J. (1967). New York, NY: Penguin Group(USA), Inc.

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