Using scenes of great power and feeling, Steinbeck suggests that a healthy society must nourish and respect a person's sense of dignity and self-reliance. For the Joads and the other tenants and migrants, this meant ownership of land and the right to dignified work at decent pay. As an immigrant from Jamaica, a poor country with less than one-tenth the GDP per capita of the U.S., I have always been conscious of large contrasts in income and wealth--between groups and communities in America, as well as between nations. I was astonished to learn, not so long ago, that conditions for migrant farm workers in the U.S. today are not very much better than during the Great Depression.
The book (and John Ford's beautiful movie version) offers a heartbreaking portrayal of the psychological and physical consequences of uprooting people from their land and their lives. Grampa and Granma Joad die on the road. Pregnant Rosasharn is deserted by her husband, and later loses her child. I cannot, today, read a news story about refugees, such as those in the Darfur region of Sudan (who in addition to starvation and dis-placement, are enduring genocidal violence), without visualizing their suffering in terms laid out so intelligently and touchingly by Steinbeck.
But it is not just a vivid sense of social justice that I absorbed from Grapes of Wrath. The odyssey of Tom Joad (so beautifully portrayed by Henry Fonda) and the others taught me that no one, however personally honorable, can find meaning in life if they are only for themselves or their immediate loved ones. At the start, Tom, a paroled convict, is very individual-istic. His father is worried most about feeding his family. His mother worries most about keeping the family together. Rosasharn dreams of a nice middle class future. But the Joads, especially Tom and Ma, come to realize that they are in one boat with so many others like them, indeed that all American society was in one boat, and that they had to row together.
Most people in America are prosperous today, but so many are not. Most around the world are not, and in many places poverty is not the worst misfortune--there is also disease and violence. While Grapes of Wrath is set in a time and place that is long gone, it expresses something deeply universal about a person's proper attitude of concern and involvement toward their fellow man. It has, I would like to believe, permanently forged such an attitude in me. As an additional gift, it showed me that art had the power to do this.