What is the social context of The Grapes of Wrath?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Set in the 1930s, an era of massive economic collapse that affected all Americans that followed the hedonistic Roaring Twenties in which materialism and irresponsibility was de rigeur, The Grapes of Wrath depicts the people with whom John Steinbeck was acquainted: the displaced and lower socio-economic class that sought work in the fields or canneries in California. In particular, Steinbeck's novel focuses upon the newly-created Dust-Bowl migrant white workers, devastated by the Great Depression who had to leave farms rented for generations. Robert DeMott describes The Grapes of Wrath,

Out of their trials and repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots, Steinbeck created a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision,...tragic but ultimately stirring in its insistence on human dignity.

With the machinery of big business bulldozing their plank houses and having to sell their meager farm equipment in order to purchase overpriced trucks, the sharecroppers of the Dust Bowl became marginalized to the point that they had only one hope: finding seasonal work in California. Disparagingly called "Okies," the migrants meet with prejudice and bellicose hatred, not to mention starvation. 

Clearly, there is an emphasis upon the individual's place in humanity in Steinbeck's narrative, and Ma Joad expresses this place of the Okies with their endurance:  

"us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone . . . We're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why we're the people--we go on." 

Here Ma displays a "Whitmanian faith" in the survival of people. Further, she says that if people need help, they should go to the poor, because they will give help. 

The Grapes of Wrath depicts a clear divide between two social classes; the poor and the rich.

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The Grapes of Wrath

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