The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is set in one of the most tumultuous times and places in American history. The country was in the midst of an economic crisis, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and a natural disaster, the Dust Bowl in the mid-southern states. It was a time of great loss in many areas of life, but for the Joads and so many other families in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas in particular, the crisis begins and ends with the land.
The drought begins, and the farmers are afraid they will lose their crops; the loss of the crops will mean hardship, for the tenant farmers do not own the land they have improved and toiled over for years. When the crops die, the banks swoop in and take the land.
When the banks come for the land, the tenant farmers protest, saying,
[I]t’s our land…. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours….That’s what makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.
The thing is, the land is all they have--and it is only theirs as long as they can grow things on it and make a living. When they lose the land they lose everything, including their identities.
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.
When they lose their land, the Joads and others not only lose their livelihood, they also lose their homes and are forced to figure out some other way to feed their families. It does not take long for a family to become desperate.
California was supposed to be a land flowing with milk and honey, a place of opportunity. For a farmer, land is opportunity. In California, the small farms have been usurped by the giant landowners, and much of the land is uncultivated and unused. Chapter nineteen is a poignant testament to the plight of the tenant farmers in this new world of corporate farms.
[A] homeless hungry man, driving the roads with his wife beside him and his thin children in the back seat, could look at the fallow fields which might produce food but not profit and that man could know how a fallow field is a sin and the unused land a crime against the thin children.
Sometimes one of the farmers finds a tiny patch of unused land and plants something there; he may get to tend it for a time, but soon the authorities discover it and destroy what he has grown. The authorities know that they must not let anything take root or there will be trouble.
A crop raised--why, that makes ownership. Land hoed and the carrots eaten--a man might fight for land he’s taken food from. Get him off quick! He’ll think he owns it. He might even die fighting for the little plot.
Of course, this desire for land on which to work and grow things and raise a family is exactly what eventually unites the mistreated and disgruntled workers. Having land of one's own means having an identity and a way to provide for one's family, so land becomes for them the symbol of freedom. Without land, they are prisoners, enslaved by the whims and caprices of others.
The Joads and others are not greedy to acquire land just for the sake of owning land; they value the land for what they can produce and provide because of it. The banks and greedy landowners will never understand.