The overriding theme of The Grapes of Wrath is the story of man's inhumanity to man. The sympathetic Joad family are repeatedly beaten down by others who have more than they, or who are in positions of authority and power and hence can take advantage of them. Not only the Joads, but all the other migrants fall victim at one time or another to unscrupulous storekeepers, unconcerned employers or their hired hands, and others who already have secure means of livelihood. The growing tendency of the Joads to recognize that they must rely not only on their own family members but on all others in the same plight underscores Steinbeck's message that all men are brothers, and all deserve to be treated with dignity.
Steinbeck is able to add significant force to his exploration of this theme by presenting the journey of the Joads and their fellow migrants as similar to the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt into the Promised Land. California is imagined as a paradise by those who abandon their homes in the Midwest. Indeed, the valley in which the Joads and their fellow migrants seek work looks like paradise; but instead of living on milk and honey, and eating the grapes that they imagined would be there for the picking, these unfortunate families find only hardship and bitterness. While trees laden with fruit stand all around them, they are forbidden from eating any of it. They cannot partake in this land which God has created — not because God has forbidden...
The Joads experience many hardships, deprivations, and deaths, and at the end of the novel are barely surviving. Nevertheless, the mood of the novel is optimistic. This positive feeling is derived from the growth of the Joad family as they begin to realize a larger group consciousness at the end of the novel. The development of this theme can be seen particularly in Ma Joad, from her focus on keeping the family together to her recognition of the necessity of identifying with the group. “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do,” Ma says in the final chapter.
Hope comes from the journey that educates and enlightens some of the Joads, including Ma, Tom, Pa, John, Rose of Sharon, and also Jim Casy. On the surface, the family’s long journey is an attempt at the “good life,” the American dream. Yet this is not the only motive. In fact, the members of the family who cannot see beyond this materialistic goal leave the family along the way: Noah, Connie, and Al. The Joads travel from their traditional life that offered security, through chaos on the road and on into California. There, they look for a new way of life, and a larger understanding of the world. And whether or not the remaining Joads live or die in California, their journey has been successful. Hope survives, as the people survive, because they want to understand and master their lives in the face of continual discouragement.
The conflict in the novel between the impoverished migrants and the established, secure business people and Californians serves as a strong criticism of economic injustice. In fact, The Grapes of Wrath can be read as a social comment on the economic disasters of the time. The migrants’ agrarian way of life has all but disappeared, threatened not only by nature’s drought and dust storms, but also by big farms and financial establishments, called “the Bank.” At the beginning of the novel, the owners and the banks push the tenants off of their land. Later the arrival of hundreds of thousands of poor people causes conflict in California.
The migrants represent trouble for businessmen in the form of higher taxes, labor unions, and possible government interference. The potential for future conflict is understood by all the business owners: if the migrants ever organize, they will seriously threaten the financial establishment. The Joads’ travails dramatize such economic and social conflicts. In California, the conflict between the two sides grows violent as the migrants’ desperation increases. The government camps are harassed or even burned down by angry state residents with financial interests.
There are also conflicts within the family that reflect the materialistic concerns of this class conflict. Rose of Sharon is preoccupied with her pregnancy and daydreams of the future. Her husband, Connie, wanted to stay in Oklahoma, and he does little to help the family on the road. Finally he disappears. Uncle John is consumed with worry and frustration. The children, Ruthie and Winfield, are selfish and restless. The hardships of dispossessed families are made personal and individual in the account of the Joads.
Fanaticism—both as a religious fundamentalism and as a social phenomenon—is condemned in the novel. During Tom’s first meeting with Jim Casy, the former preacher talks about his discovery that organized religion denies life, particularly sexuality. He in fact had found a connection between the “Holy...