What is the message in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath?
Throughout The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck illustrates the importance of solidarity among citizens in contrast to competition, which is represented by the interests of big banks and wealthy landowners. The Joad family, who represent the poor migrant farmers heading west in search of jobs, come into conflict with police and powerful landowners, who attempt to take advantage of the Okies by offering them work with little pay and no job security.
The Joad family, particularly Tom, learn the importance of community and unity by working with other families in similar situations. When the Joads arrive at the Weedpatch government camp in California, Steinbeck illustrates the effectiveness of self-sufficiency and unity through the democratic nature and efficiency of the camp. In the Weedpatch camp, members elect their own representatives to a Central Committee, which governs the camp. The independent nature of the camp is threatened by the Farmer’s Association, which attempts to start a riot during one of the camp's dances in order to disband and destroy the camp. Fortunately, selfless citizens like Mr. Thomas inform the migrant workers of the authority's plans.
Later on in the novel, the Joads leave the government camp and find jobs at a peach farm, where the current workers are on strike because of low wages. Outside of the peach farm, Tom runs into Jim Casy, who is advocating for the workers striking against the farm's owners. Unfortunately, Jim Casy is killed, and Tom retaliates by killing his murderer. Tom is then forced to flee the camp and spends time in the wilderness contemplating Casy's philosophy of unity, community, and a universal human spirit. In chapter 28, Tom elaborates on Casy's philosophy, which reflects Steinbeck's overall message of solidarity, by telling his mother,
"Says one time he [Jim Casy] went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an' he foun' he didn' have no soul that was his'n. Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain't no good, 'cause his little piece of a soul wasn't no good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole." (Steinbeck, 288)
Tom goes on to share part of Casy's sermon with his mother by saying,
"Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lif' up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up." (288)
Casy's concept that two is better than one illustrates the overall theme of unity, community, and comradery throughout the novel, which is reflected in Rose of Sharon's benevolent action of breastfeeding a starving man during a torrential downpour.
Steinbeck's novel offers a message about the importance of community. People need to stick together and help each other if they want to survive and prosper. The Great Depression is the backdrop to this novel, a time when the conomy had collapsed due to the 1929 stock market crash, and millions of people were unemployed. During the 1930s, debates raged about how to solve this crisis. Steinbeck saw the answer in ordinary people coming together to organize and work on behalf of one other.
The rich, he believed, would do their best to keep ordinary people divided. The rich benefited when they kept average workers at each other's throats and competing for lower and lower wages.
An example of two ideologies, cooperation and competition, coming into conflict emerges early in the novel, in chapter two. A trucker is forbidden by his company to pick up hitchhikers. The trucker, however, reluctantly stops for a hitchhiker, though he fears he will get in trouble for it, because to help another person is to be a "good guy." That, in a nutshell, illustrates the novel's message: good guys stick together and help each other out. Steinbeck hoped people would unite in bigger way, but stresses in his novel that every act in which people lend each other a hand, no matter how small, is valuable.
Certainly, the idea of people pulling together to survive tough times is an important theme of Steinbeck's book. You could extrapolate that out that people will always have a better quality of life if they focus on the community around them, rather than on the individual.
Related to that is the theme of hope. Even though the book paints a really horrible picture of the migrant workers' lives, they are ever hopeful that it will get better. That is another way that people are able to survive the tough times. As Studs Terkel said, "hope dies last."
Last, you could make a case for the idea that Steinbeck is criticizing the class system - the powerlessness of the poor vs. the strength of the rich/dominating.