How does John Steinbeck use social realism in The Grapes of Wrath?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Social realism becomes the lens through which Steinbeck's work views consciousness in the world.  A definition of the movement can help identify how The Grapes of Wrath meets this standard:

Social Realism... is an artistic movement expressed in the visual and other realist arts, which depicts social and racial injustice, economic hardship, through unvarnished pictures of life's struggles; often depicting working class activities as heroic.

Steinbeck's work represents this standard.  The depiction of the Joads' struggles and the other families who were displaced by the Dust Bowl and government policy that failed to take care of farmers is of vital importance to the work.  At the same time, Steinbeck does not hesitate to point out the injustices done to the farmers, who operate as workers, and the need for social solidarity in times of socio- economic challenge.  Both Casy's and Tom's actions in the name of the collective elements are vaulted in the work as heroic, and representative of how individual need to act in transforming of what is into what should be.  In this light, the work is highly representative of social realism.

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The novel is social realism at its finest and most powerful, full of detail and full of truth--so effective that it was banned in two states, Oklahoma and California. No surprise there, considering the rocks Steinbeck turned over to the light of public scrutiny. Many of the details are so exact as to create an accurate historical document. For some reason, I recall the passage in which the Joads' old truck is repaired on the trip west and the scene in the diner along Route 66. I'm from the Midwest; Steinbeck's descriptions of the land and the way of life as it was lived here during the 1930s ring with truth and accuracy. I know the land, and I grew up with stories of the Depression. Route 66 ran through our town. Looking at the heartbreaking black-and-white photos from the Dust Bowl years is to look at Steinbeck's people. The stories he tells in his novel, and the social conditions that produced them, are written in their tired faces.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We meet all the players in every social realm of this period in American history. Some take advantage of those who have few or no choices (car salesmen); some think they are better than those who have nothing but a dream (the worker at the junkyard); some take advantage of desperation (California landowners and farmers); some have nothing but offer what they can to help others (too many to count); some sacrifice themselves in order to improve conditions for everyone (the Reverend); some live on nothing but hope; some have lost all hope; some do what they must to survive; some give up when it gets too difficult. The novel is a documentary of this time and place, documenting the entire spectrum of human nature.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Grapes of Wrath has the perfect title, for the narrative is much like a biblical tale in which spirituality is woven with realistic detail.  For, there is a realism with the intercalary chapters that evokes emotional responses from the reader.  Steinbeck does, indeed, have a reporter's sensibility as noted in #3 as the reader is reminded greatly of the U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos and his camera's eye and newsreel techniques. Clearly, Steinbeck's great novel has both pathos and ethos in its narrative and with its larger-than-life characters such as Ma Joad.

mitchrich4199 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with akannan. The Grapes of Wrath is in my mind, the epitome of this "genre" if you want to call it that. The illustrations of all the different things that happen in the story are fascinating and bring a true picture of what it was like at that time. I say that to make a point. I don't know what it was like at that time. I can't say that I was there. BUT, he makes it seem so real that I feel like the book could and should be used as an historical text to the time period. Whenever I hear Dustbowl, Organizing or even Oklahoma, I think of Steinbeck's masterpiece.

catd1115 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Grapes of Wrath is the perfect example of social realism. The characters are the people of the Dust Bowl and the plot is their plight. He describes there suffering and circumstances in graphic detail, realism is obvious and inescapable in the book. In addition the intercalary chapters set the stage for the details of this reality. We are plunged into what the dust bowl is in form and life and one can't help but see how it is to be there.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Steinbeck had a reporter's sensibility.  In telling his stories, he wanted to let his audience know how things really were.  Like Dickens, he aimed to tell society's hidden ugly truths.  The Grapes of Wrath depicted a reality that no one wanted to face, in stunning detail.  Steinbeck also carefully weaves biblical allusions throughout the book.  Between that and the sympathetic characters, it was hard for readers not to be affected.

lmetcalf eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I love this novel, but it is interesting that when I think about it, my mind first goes to the intercalary chapters where we are out of the story of the Joads and are reading about the situation on the whole.  Some of these chapters do an excellent job of drawing that social realism element in the novel.  I am thinking the car salesman chapter as a prime example.  Steinbeck puts the reader "right there" in that situation.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I am with #4 in focusing on the intercalary chapters that do an amazing job of painting the harsh reality of life during the Depression and do not focus exclusively on the Joad family. In many ways, I think of Cry, Beloved Country as being very similar in this respect. Both novels are utterly uncompromising in presenting the harsh reality of life under very difficult historical situations.

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The Grapes of Wrath

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