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

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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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