John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath deals with social issues in the United States during the Great Depression. Like American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, Steinbeck argues the philosophy of transcendentalism through the development of his characters. The main idea is that people can only find the true meaning of life and achieve success and happiness when they bond with one another. Unless there is a unity of “souls,” the suffering tenant farmers cannot overcome their difficulties. They must cluster together in a group like grapes on a single vine in an effort to survive.
The author advances social themes centering on the idea that the family unit includes other members of society beyond one’s bloodline. He believes no individual is greater than the family group, and no family group is more significant than the community. Absent the courage to adhere to this principle, members of the community will be unable to overcome isolation, as well as other threats to survival.
For example, protagonist Tom Joad begins his journey as a self-centered ex-convict who served time in state prison for killing a man in a fight. He has been isolated in prison where “they give him hell” and continues to be a loner throughout the action in the novel after he is released on parole. Joad gets picked up by a trucker when he hitchhikes to his family farm, and the driver asks him questions as they ride:
“Been doing a job?”
“Sure have,” said the hitch-hiker.
“Thought so. I seen your hands. Been swingin’ a pick or an ax or a sledge. That shines up your hands. I notice all stuff like that. Take a pride in it.”
The hitch-hiker stared at him. The truck tires sang on the road. “Like to know anything else? I’ll tell you. You ain’t got to guess” ... “I’ll tell you anything. Name’s Joad, Tom Joad. Old man is ol’ Tom Joad.” His eyes rested broodingly on the driver.
“Don’t get sore. I didn’t mean nothin’.”
“I don’t mean nothin’ neither,” said Joad. “I’m just tryin’ to get along without shovin' nobody around."
Another character, Jim Casy, is a former preacher who has rejected his traditional religious beliefs because he feels they kept him from discovering the true meaning of life. He embarks on a personal quest to bond with other people in the community. He sincerely believes all human souls are part of a larger soul. His attempts to start a labor union are motivated by his feelings of isolation:
“I was a preacher,” said the man seriously. “Reverend Jim Casy—was a Burning Busher. Used to howl out the name of Jesus to glory. And used to get an irrigation ditch so squirm-in’ full of repented sinners half of ’em like to drownded. But not no more,” he sighed. “Just Jim Casy now. Ain’t got the call no more. Got a lot of sinful idears—but they seem kinda sensible.”
While Joad is looking for his Uncle John with whom his family is living, he meets Muley Graves. Muley is a fugitive pursued by the local sheriff. He is isolated from the world since his family members have moved to California. He does not want this lifestyle but finds himself just meandering around “Like a damn ol’ graveyard ghos’.”
When Joad finally catches up with Uncle John, he describes him as the “loneliest ... man in the world.” This is yet another example of how Steinbeck explores his isolation theme. All of these examples are framed within the larger sense of isolation the migrants experience as a result of the Great Depression and the damage caused by the dust bowl.