Which did Steinback value most in this book--the power of the individual or the collective power of the community? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As a writer of Social Realism, a movement that

depicts social and racial injustice, economic hardship, through unvarnished pictures of life's struggles; often depicting working class activities as heroic,

it becomes clear that John Steinbeck concerns his narrative with issues on a larger scale that those involving individuals. There are different ways in which Steinbeck accomplishes his purpose.

  • Intercalary Chapters

Much like the U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos and his camera's eye and newsreel techniques, Steinbeck's novel uses rhetorical chapters to enlarge the scope of his narrative and to persuade readers that people are all interconnected. For instance, Chapter 15 presents such an overview of the social situation of the Great Depression, tracing the path of the migrating people and their hope of a new beginning in California. Here is one description of the migrants "[G]oing to California really to go home again":

Lines of weariness around the eyes, lines of discontent down from the mouth...the mouths panting, the eyes sullen,...hungry for security and yet sensing its disappearance from the earth.

In addition, Steinbeck uses his intercalary chapter to demonstrate how the migrants restore their faith from random acts of charity.

Further, Chapter 21 becomes a refrain of Steinbeck's social criticism as it describes the battle between the rich and the poor:

And the migrants streamed in on the highways and their hunger was in their eyes, and their need was in their eyes. They had no argument, no system, nothing but their numbers and their needs.

And now the great owner and the companies invented a new method....And the little farmers who owned no canneries lost their farms, and they were taken by the great owners, the banks, and the companies who also owned the canneries.

  • Themes

The theme of Class Conflict enlarges the plight of the individual to that of the many. For instance, Steinbeck's Chapter 22 about the government camp points to the conflicts between the individual farmers and collective groups. One farmer speaks of the Farmer's Association and how it controls wages,

"Aint' you got it yet? Mr. Bank hires two thousand men an' I hire three. I've got paper to meet. Now is you can figure some way out...I'll take it! They got me." 

Another theme is that propounded by Jim Casy that people are not individual souls, but a part of one big soul. In Chapter 4, he reflects, "Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of." Later, Tom Joad adopts this philosophy so like that of Ralph Waldo Emerson's concept of the Oversoul of which all men are a collective part.

Still another theme that underscores the collectivity of man is that of the Continuation of Life which Ma Joad expresses in her reflection that the people like her will persevere:

...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."

Indeed, Steinbeck's  opus magnum exceeds mere narration of the plight of the Joad family and others like them.  For, there is an "exalted and highly stylized tone" of the expository, intercalary chapers that lends The Grapes of Wrath a Biblical tenor and makes it a parable of the community of man.

Read the study guide:
The Grapes of Wrath

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