In The Grapes of Wrath, how does Steinbeck show the ways an individual confronts social injustice?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Through different characters in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck shows how individuals can take action in order to confront social injustice.

Steinbeck portrays a world in The Grapes of Wrath that is filled with social injustice. The vast majority of people in it lack economic power. This majority is subject to the wealthy few. Despite this imbalance, Steinbeck shows people can challenge injustice. Ma Joad is one such example. Steinbeck creates the family's matriarch as someone who actively challenges social injustice in small ways. An instance of this is when she shares the small amount of food the family has with other people. Ma Joad builds community by refusing to turn anyone away who is in need, saying,

As far as ‘will,’ why, we’ll do what we will. An’ as far as ‘will’—it’s a long time our folks been here and east before, an' I never heerd tell of no Joads or no Hazletts, neither, ever refusin’ food an’ shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that asked. They’s been mean Joads, but never that mean.

Ma Joad challenges social injustice through her embrace of community. She does not allow economic poverty to impoverish her character. Even though she is destitute, Ma Joad still cares for others because it is the right thing to do. As a result, Steinbeck suggests even the poorest individuals can confront social injustice.

Jim Casy is another character who actively shows how social injustice can be challenged. Casy realizes the church as an institution might not be the best way he can help people. Rather, he embraces a spiritual identity that views all people as part of a larger entity.

But now I been thinkin' what he said, an' I can remember—all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an' he foun' he didn' have no soul that was his'n. Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain't no good, 'cause his little piece of a soul wasn't no good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn' think I was even listenin'. But I know now a fella ain't no good alone.

Casy actively preaches about this "whole" and how individuals "ain't no good alone." His preaching challenges those who perpetrate economic injustice. As a result, Casy shows individuals can confront social injustice armed with a philosophy that embraces collectivity over isolation.

Tom Joad is another character who shows social injustice can be challenged. Initially, Tom sees himself and his survival as the only elements that matter. He comes to understand this is not a viable philosophy because it does not challenge those responsible for social injustice. Tom recognizes unfairness has to be directly confronted. As a result, when Casy dies, Tom understands he must take up and build upon Casy's work. Tom Joad shows individuals have an ethical obligation to fight social injustice. Tom does not possess massive armies or mountains of wealth. When he leaves at the end of the novel, however, it is clear he is armed with the truth that individuals must not let injustice stand. Through Tom, Steinbeck insists people can and must have a clear commitment to fighting social injustice.

Read the study guide:
The Grapes of Wrath

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