Illustration of the back a man in a hat and overalls looking towards the farmland

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

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In chapter 9, what does the handbill promise? What is the meaning of the handbill?

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In Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, the handbills are essentially flyers that encouraged poor folks looking for a better quality of life to travel to California to pick produce. In the novel, the handbills are supposedly an extremely common manner of attracting workers, and many supposedly cause too many workers to travel to California, allowing for growers to pay insultingly meager wagers for the picking labor. The handbills signify the false promises and hopes of California, as people traveled there with a more utopian image in their heads but were met with scarcity and adversity. The handbills were just another means of exploiting the dreams of poor folks in search of better lives. As already noted, there is controversy as to the actual historical existence of these handbills. However, the general concept of worker exploitation and false promises certainly remains true.

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The handbill promised jobs for fruit pickers in California. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck charged that California fruit and vegetable growers were plastering the Dust Bowl with such handbills to attract more workers than they actually needed, thereby driving wages down to starvation levels. In Kevin Starr's comprehensive study, Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, the prominent historian counters with the accusation that no one has ever been able to produce a single copy of one of these handbills, although they ought to be valuable collectors' items by now. Starr argues that it would have been most short-sighted to attract hordes of indigent and desperate people to California for a short-term profit, when the state would be stuck with the costs of paying for welfare, education, public health and policing indefinitely. In his novel Steinbeck dramatizes the fact that California authorities were actually trying to drive these families of migrant workers back where they came from. See the reference link to Endangered Dreams below.

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