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

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gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Social realism is defined as a medium that artists, authors, filmmakers, and photographers portray and depict the everyday lives of poor, working-class individuals. John Steinbeck's use of social realism illustrates the difficulties that migrant workers endured during the Depression as they traveled from Oklahoma to California in hopes of finding work and living comfortable lives. Steinbeck chronicles the difficulties that farming families such as the Joads experienced during the Dust Bowl, as big banks foreclosed on their once prosperous land, leaving families displaced and homeless. While characters such as Muley Graves refuse to leave their land, the Joads pack their belongings and make the arduous journey to California. Along the way, Steinbeck illustrates the various struggles the Joad family endures, which include death, poverty, harassment, angst, and imminent danger.

Throughout the Joad family's journey, Steinbeck also depicts how other poverty-stricken individuals selflessly help each other as Tom begins to develop an understanding of community, solidarity, and unity. Each aspect of the Joad's journey is realistic, including the brief respite at the Weedpatch camp, which portrays the positives of communal living that are threatened by the police and big farming industry. Steinbeck's use of social realism captivates the spirit and struggles of migrant families by realistically depicting their difficulties and triumphs throughout the novel. From struggling to find work and feed the members of their family, to losing loved ones and relying on others for survival, Steinbeck poignantly captures the feelings and experiences of migrant workers during the Depression.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The depiction of "common people" in the face of institutional unfairness is one way that Social Realism is used in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

Social Realism focused on accurately depicting the realities of daily life.  In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck focuses on economic hardship and social fragmentation.  His willingness to explore the way poor people suffer, die, and endure reflects how Social Realism is an integral part of the novel. It is seen in the depiction of how farmers fight against "the monster" of economic wealth and in how institutions fail to provide support to marginalized people. When Steinbeck writes about how the tractors are like "insects," his Social Realist tendencies critique the economic institutions that take land away from tenant farmers.  

Social Realism can also be seen in how Steinbeck uses Jim Casy.  Casy rejects a traditional notion of religion and embraces something more universally spiritual.  The fact that Casy is killed off at the end of the novel reflects how Steinbeck believes that agents of change threaten those in the position of power.  Steinbeck's admiration of Casy and in the way that Tom resumes Casy's fight reflect a commitment to Social Realism.

Steinbeck's critique of capitalism and his embrace of community display Social Realism.  The call to change is a significant aspect of Social Realism. Steinbeck honestly depicts the Status Quo in the hopes of raising awareness for change.  Steinbeck wants people to challenge social structures, making them more like the way they should be.  Steinbeck uses this transformative capacity of Social Realism as a significant part of The Grapes of Wrath.

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The Grapes of Wrath

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