John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is a social or protest novel following the journey of protagonist Tom Joad and his family on a trek to California after being forced to abandon their farm in Oklahoma as a result of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. The tenant farmers struggle to fight the “monster” banks and seek out a bright future for their families. Overall, the story is one of cooperation rather than self-centeredness during a difficult time in American history: the Great Depression and Dust Bowl.
As the novel unfolds, the Joad family is evicted from their farm since it is no longer profitable. Like thousands of others, they are tenant farmers no longer necessary to the banks:
If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank— or the Company— needs— wants— insists— must have-as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time . . . They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so . . . The bank— the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.
Steinbeck argues through his character development the philosophy of transcendentalism as expressed by American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. The idea is that people can only find the true meaning of life and achieve success when they connect with one another. Unless there is a unity of “souls,” the tenant farmers cannot fight the finance companies. They must band together in a group effort to survive. Symbolically, the migrants must bunch together in their anger like grapes on a single vine.
The land itself has a special meaning to the tenant farmers. Steinbeck elevates the Jeffersonian principle that God’s people “labor in the earth.” This leads him to emphatically argue the need for unity and sharing among human beings. The migrant workers portrayed in the novel share the belief that land belongs to those who work it. Their connection to the land is especially powerful because they feed their families from farming the land.
The author protests industrialized farming as a business and finds the bankers who promote such business ventures corrupt. The true owners of the land, he postulates, are those who care for it:
The tenant pondered. Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, and it’s like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some way he’s bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn’t successful he’s big with his property. That is so.
The social themes in The Grapes of Wrath all center on the idea that the family unit includes members of society beyond one’s bloodline. Just as no individual is greater than the family group, no family group is more important than the community. That principle is the method provided in the novel to overcome isolation, persecution, hardships, and exploitation. Only through the strength of family and community connections can people defeat the “monsters” in society.