How does The Grapes of Wrath reconcile American values of rugged individualism with collective strength?

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This is a good question. One way to look at and reconcile rugged individualism and collective strength is by looking at a few characters who embody both.

Ma drives the story and the journey. She is an enormously powerful character. An example of this point comes when she knows that...

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This is a good question. One way to look at and reconcile rugged individualism and collective strength is by looking at a few characters who embody both.

Ma drives the story and the journey. She is an enormously powerful character. An example of this point comes when she knows that her husband is dead, but she still carries on to California. She sits next to his corpse to keep the family going. Her sacrifice knows no bounds. From this perspective, she demonstrates rugged individualism. That said, we need to ask why she did all of these things. She did them for her family. She is the one who keeps the family together. By doing so, she shows the power and need for a collective group. In her we see rugged individualism for the sake of collective strength.

Another character that shows both qualities is Jim Casey. Initially, he is only one man who met God in a “burning bush.” Of course, he gives up his preaching vocation, but he begins to galvanize people to do something great. His rugged individualism leads him to be killed, as a martyr. Yet through his sacrifice, he is able to organize people to fight back. Tom Joad sees this inspiration and follows in his footsteps. Others do the same. Here is a quote that support Jim’s point of view:

I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankin’ was holy when it was one thing. An’ it on’y got unholy when one mis’able little fella got the bit in his teeth an’ run off his own way, kickin’ an’ draggin’ an’ fightin’. Fella like that bust the holi-ness. But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang—that’s right, that’s holy.

These two examples show how both individualism and collectivism come together.

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The story focuses on the character of Tom Joad as an individual and the Joad family as a collective unit. Both are important to the story.

It is Tom who we see initially, as he makes it back home after getting out of jail. It is through Tom that the story expresses its theme of individual struggle. Most of the other characters are important as part of the group that is making its way from Oklahoma to California.

Tom is always a little bit separated from the group. His attitude is a little angrier, a little more sensitive to the unfairness of their current predicament, and a little less willing to accept what has happened to them. It is Tom who goes off and finds out that Casey and the others are trying to change things by organizing, and it is Tom who kills one of the strikebreakers. This puts him in a unique situation. When the group leaves the government camp at the end of the story, Tom has to go his own way to avoid capture. He will have to make his way however he can, without the help of the others, who can lean on each other for help and guidance.

Steinbeck makes it clear that it is through group effort, sticking together to strike and bargain, that the workers will achieve a better life. However, people like Tom will still have to struggle to find their own way in the world.

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