How does Steinbeck reconcile the viewpoints of individuality and collectivity?
Socio-economic views in The Grapes of Wrath seem to be based on ideas of Marx and Lenin and other Socialist thinkers. Yet, the novel also seems to advocate “the American Dream,” the principle of democracy, the pioneer spirit of endurance, and the will to forge ahead and succeed.
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I think that part of what makes Steinbeck such a great writer is that he recognized that two of the basic elements that defined America are at fundamental odds with one another. Participatory democracy was one of the most basic ideas in American History. It led to the foundation of the nation and argues a sense of the collective good. However, this comes into direct opposition with the tenets of capitalism, which is more of a "winner take all" economic condition of the world. The overall sense of fairness that is evident in democratic advocacy is not present in capitalism. This might not have been the original intent of capitalist endeavors, but Steinbeck understands that this is how capitalism was perceived and manipulated throughout the 1920s. The results from this Jazz Age style of economics were that the political vision of the nation and its economic machine were in conflict with one another. Lack of regulation become synonymous with greed and self interest and discarding any notion of social solidarity. This came to a massive fountainhead in the 1930s and the Great Depression. Democratic advocacy was weakened in the face of capitalist struggle where individuals are divided for the smallest of pittance.
For Steinbeck, the resolution of works such as The Grapes of Wrath is how he seeks to reconcile capitalism and democratic tendencies. Through the characters of Tom Joad and Jim Casy, Steinbeck argues that the only way for capitalism and democracy to coexist is when individuals adopt a perspective that sees beyond individual and embraces a collective element. Steinbeck is quick to see disaster and problems result if individuals remain in their own isolated and fragmented states. Tom's evolution from someone who wants nothing to do with people to a figure who sees himself linked with the struggles of another is where Steinbeck believes reconciliation is possible for America. The embrace of capitalism and the embodiment of democratic participation can only happen when individuals see past their own conditions. Consider the image of Rose of Sharon. She has something that is valued as wealth. There is a man in the barn who is impoverished, meaning he needs milk. Her sacrifice is what enables life to continue, and Steinbeck must have seen this as the secret that will harmonize the dissonant sounds of capitalism and democracy. It is in this light that Steinbeck is able to see a unity between both collectivity and individuality. Steinbeck sees this as the only answer to the collision of incommensurate notions of the good.
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