The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is a novel which follows the Joad family as they, along with so many others suffering the effects of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, are forced to leave their homes and travel west, hoping to begin new and more prosperous lives.
Chapter one describes, in general terms, what happened to the sharecroppers and farmers in Oklahoma as their corn crops were destroyed by a tremendous drought followed by a horrific dust storm.
[A]s the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs.
As the summer progressed, the corn browned and shriveled before it eventually died, blowing away in the final dust storm. This crop was the livelihood of these farmers, and they were helpless to do anything but watch their hard work and their families' futures wither and die.
Near the end of the chapter, Steinbeck explains that as the men watched their corn, the women watched their men.
Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men--to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men's faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained.
The women were concerned, and for good reason, that such devastating losses might be enough to break the spirits of their men. These farmers have never been prosperous, despite their hard work, and each year as their crops began to grow the men were hopeful; and each year the women are afraid that their husbands might be too discouraged to continue fighting the land to make a living. Now this dust storm, they fear, may have done what years of discouragement had not done--they fear their men will just give up.
The women understood that, "as long as something else remained," all was not lost. That something else was hope, the belief that, though this was bad, there would be another crop. If they had hope, the men would not just give up and break; the men would stay and their families would stay together. Steinbeck adds that the children also watched both their parents, waiting to see if they would break. All of them live in fear of this breaking.
Living so near to poverty and despair increases the women's fear of being able to keep their families intact; when something disastrous happens, the women's fiercest instinct is to preserve their families. If the men do not break, they know they at least have a chance to succeed. Steinbeck introduces this idea in the first chapter of the novel, and it is a consistent theme throughout The Grapes of Wrath.