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As an American classic in its depiction of the common man's struggle against oppression The Grapes of Wrath is, without doubt, John Steinbeck's masterpiece. While the narrative chronicles the individual struggles of the itinerant Joad family, the intercalary chapters of Steinbeck's work present social tableaux of the plight of the disenfranchised and other situations during the Great Depression.
Chapter Nine, for instance, presents the traumatic moments in the lives of those whose very essence is in the fields they have tilled as sharecroppers, and whose ancestors before them have tilled.
In the plank houses, the poor tenants sift through their belongings, selecting what they will take with them and what they will leave behind. They must sell their mule team and wagon, their plows, and all their other tools as there is no use for them where they are headed:
Maybe we can start again, in the new rich land....We'll start over.
But you can't start. Only a baby can start. You and me--why, we're all that's been. The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures, that's us. This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can't start again. The bitterness we sold to the junk man--he got it all right, but we have it still. And when the owner men told us to go, that's us; and when the tractor hit the house, that's us until we're dead. To California or any place--every one a drum major leading a parade of hurts....And some day--the armies of bitterness will all be going the same way. And they'll all walk together, and there'll be a dead terror from it.
This metaphoric passage evokes the desolation of the dispossessed of the 1930s as well as the callousness of big business and insensitivity to the humanity of the disenfranchised. For these tenant farmers to be evicted from the land was not simply an order to move and live somewhere else because when a farmer works the land on which he lives, there is an emotional and existential tie to this earth that produces the food which he and his family eat, the grain which sustains his being. The earth is the repository of their energy, their sweat, their anguish and their elation when crops are ruined or they are bountiful. Truly, there is a life in the earth that weds itself to the farmer.
When the tenants are dispossessed, they cannot, indeed, "start over"; part of them has been turned over in the fields with each furrow made by the plow. This part is inextricably tied to the land. When the tenants are forced to tear themselves from the earth, part of them is left behind, and with others like them, they form "the armies of bitterness."
Clearly, this passage presages the future action of the plot as the migrant camps form a microcosm of a society with rules and police and a feeling of community. The tenants--strangers to each other--begin to recognize in others the same desires and needs. Casy sacrifices himself for this community of man, declaring that his soul is simply a part of a larger soul. Tom, too, expresses this idea to Ma before he flees the law. There is a fraternity of men in the workers which will gain power, Steinbeck suggests in his theme of "Social Commitment."
[for other passages, see the link below on essential passages]
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