Illustration of the back a man in a hat and overalls looking towards the farmland

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

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Malcolm Cowley (review date 3 May 1939)

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SOURCE: Cowley, Malcolm. “American Tragedy.” New Republic 98, no. 1274 (3 May 1939): 382-83.

[In the following review, Cowley disagrees with the assessment that The Grapes of Wrath is “the greatest novel of the last ten years” but rather finds it to be among the best of the “great angry books” that have the power to spur readers on to protest and action.]

While keeping our eyes on the cataclysms in Europe and Asia, we have lost sight of a tragedy nearer home. A hundred thousand rural households have been uprooted from the soil, robbed of their possessions—though by strictly legal methods—and turned out on the highways. Friendless, homeless and therefore voteless, with fewer rights than medieval serfs, they have wandered in search of a few days' work at miserable wages—not in Spain or the Yangtze Valley, but among the vineyards and orchards of California, in a setting too commonplace for a color story in the Sunday papers. Their migrations have been described only in a long poem and a novel. The poem is “Land of the Free,” by Archibald MacLeish, published last year with terrifying photographs by the Resettlement Administration. The novel, which has just appeared, is John Steinbeck's longest and angriest and most impressive work.

The Grapes of Wrath begins with Tom Joad's homecoming. After being released from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, where he has served four years of a seven-year sentence for homicide, he sets out for his father's little farm in the bottom lands near Sallisaw. He reaches the house to find that it is empty, the windows broken, the well filled in and even the dooryard planted with cotton. Muley Graves, a neighbor, comes past in the dusk and tells him what has happened. It is a scene that I can't forget: the men sitting back on their haunches, drawing figures with a stick in the dust; a half-starved cat watching from the doorstep; and around them the silence of a mile-long cottonfield. Muley says that all the tenant farmers have been evicted from their land—“tractored off” is the term he uses. Groups of twenty and thirty farms are being thrown together and the whole area cultivated by one man with a caterpillar tractor. Most of the families are moving to California, on the rumor that work can be found there. Tom's people are staying temporarily with his Uncle John, eight miles away, but they will soon be leaving. Of this whole farming community, no one is left but stubborn Muley Graves, hiding from the sheriff's men, haunting empty houses and “jus' wanderin' aroun',” he says, “like an ol' graveyard ghos'.”

Next morning Tom rejoins his family—just in time, for the uncle too has been ordered to leave his farm. The whole family of twelve is starting for California. Their last day at home is another fine scene in which you realize, little by little, that not only a family but a whole culture is being uprooted—a primitive culture, it is true, but complete in its fashion, with its history, its legends of Indian fighting, its songs and jokes, its religious practices, its habits of work and courtship; even the killing of two hogs is a ritual.

With the hogs salted down and packed in the broken-down truck among the bedclothes, the Joads start westward on U.S. Highway 66. They are part of an endless caravan—trucks, trailers, battered sedans, touring cars rescued from the junkyard, all of them overloaded with children and household plunder, all wheezing, pounding and screeching toward California. There are deaths on the road—Grampa is the first to go—but there is not much time for mourning. A greater tragedy than death is a burned-out bearing, repaired after efforts that Steinbeck describes as if he were singing the exploits of heroes at the siege of Troy. Then, after a last wild ride through the desert—Tom driving, Rose of Sharon and her husband making love and Gramma dying under the same tarpaulin—the Joads cross the pass at Tehachapi and see before them the promised land, the grainfields golden in the morning.

The second half of the novel, dealing with their adventures in the Valley of California, is still good but somewhat less impressive. Until that moment the Joads have been moving steadily toward their goal. Now they discover that it is not their goal after all; they must still move on, but no longer in one direction—they are harried by vigilantes, recruited as peach pickers, driven out again by a strike; they don't know where to go. Instead of being just people, as they were at home, they hear themselves called Okies—“and that means you're scum,” they tell each other bewilderedly. “Don't mean nothing itself, it's the way they say it.” The story begins to suffer a little from their bewilderment and lack of direction.

At this point one begins to notice other faults. Interspersed among the chapters that tell what happened to the Joads, there have been other chapters dealing with the general plight of the migrants. The first half-dozen of these interludes have not only broadened the scope of the novel but have been effective in themselves, sorrowful, bitter, intensely moving. But after the Joads reach California, the interludes are spoken in a shriller voice. The author now has a thesis—that the migrants will unite and overthrow their oppressors—and he wants to argue, as if he weren't quite sure of it himself. His thesis is also embodied in one of the characters: Jim Casy, a preacher who loses his faith but unfortunately for the reader can't stop preaching. In the second half of the novel, Casy becomes a Christ-like labor leader and is killed by vigilantes. The book ends with an episode that is a mixture of allegory and melodrama. Rose of Sharon, after her baby is born dead, saves a man from starvation by suckling him at her breast—as if to symbolize the fruitfulness of these people and the bond that unites them in misfortune.

Yet one soon forgets the faults of the story. What one remembers most of all is Steinbeck's sympathy for the migrants—not pity, for that would mean he was putting himself above them; not love, for that would blind him to their faults, but rather a deep fellow feeling. It makes him notice everything that sets them apart from the rest of the world and sets one migrant apart from all the others. In the Joad family, everyone from Grampa—“Full a' piss an' vinegar,” as he says of himself—down to the two brats, Ruthie and Winfield, is a distinct and living person. And the story is living too—it has the force of the headlong anger that drives ahead from the first chapter to the last, as if the whole six hundred pages were written without stopping. The author and the reader are swept along together. I can't agree with those critics who say that The Grapes of Wrath is the greatest novel of the last ten years; for example, it doesn't rank with the best of Hemingway or Dos Passos. But it belongs very high in the category of the great angry books like Uncle Tom's Cabin that have roused a people to fight against intolerable wrongs.


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The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck

(Full name John Ernst Steinbeck Jr; also wrote under the pseudonym Amnesia Glasscock) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, journalist, playwright, and screenwriter. See also The Chrysanthemums Criticism, John Steinbeck Short Story Criticisim, John Steinbeck Literary Criticisim (Volume 1), and Volumes 5, 9, 13, 21, 124.

The following entry presents criticism on Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is distinguished by its lucid prose, engaging naturalistic descriptions, forceful symbolism, and examination of the myth of America as Edenic paradise. Written after Steinbeck produced a series of articles for the San Francisco News about the mass exodus to California of thousands of Oklahoma and Arkansas farmers facing poverty and starvation due to the Great Depression and severe drought of the 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath caused an uproar of controversy and was one of the most commonly banned books of its time because of Steinbeck's obvious socialist sympathies. Nonetheless, the novel remains one of the most admired and studied works of social protest fiction of the twentieth century.

Plot and Major Characters

The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the migration of the Joad family, led by the matriarch Ma Joad, from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and Arkansas to the supposed Eden of California after drought and economic depression cause their small family farm to collapse. They are joined by Jim Casy, a former preacher, now disillusioned with religion, who sparks their evolution from a self-contained, self-involved family unit to a part of the migrant community that must work together for the greater good, and who inspires the Joads's son Tom to support the cause of the working poor. Interspersed among the chapters dealing specifically with the Joads are chapters in which Steinbeck took a broader, more universal approach to illustrate the full force of the tragedy of the migrant farmers—commonly and disparagingly referred to as “Okies” and “Arkies”—of the 1930s. Simultaneously symbolic and journalistic, these chapters provide a historical overview of the events of the time not only for the displaced farmers but also for American society as a whole, which, according to Steinbeck, must bear the responsibility and the consequences for its callous treatment of the working poor. During the course of their travels, the family's dog is hit by a car, and both of the grandparents die. Then Rose of Sharon, the Joads's pregnant daughter, is deserted by her husband. When the Joads—and all those like them—finally make their way to California, they expect to find themselves in a kind of paradise with plenty of well-paid work available. Instead they find an oversaturated work market where they are forced by hunger and desperation to work as scabs in migrant camps. Casy tries to organize the workers and is murdered by a thug who works for the farm owners, and Tom Joad, who has already violated his parole by leaving Oklahoma, must go into hiding after killing Casy's murderer. Finally, the migrants face a disastrous flood, during which Rose of Sharon's baby is stillborn. In the ultimate affirmation of the Joads's recognition of their membership in the human family, Rose of Sharon gives her breast milk to a starving migrant man in order to save his life.

Major Themes

The Grapes of Wrath is in one sense a documentary account of American socioeconomic events of the 1930s. Photojournalists recorded the suffering of the people of the Dust Bowl region, and Steinbeck was strongly influenced by the widely published photographs, including those in the book You Have Seen Their Faces, by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White. Steinbeck's interest in the plight of farmers in the face of rapidly encroaching agribusiness and his sympathy for union organizers became important themes in the novel, along with the struggles of the average person against big business. But beyond the depiction of historical events is Steinbeck's symbolism. Jim Casy, although he is a reluctant preacher, serves as a Christlike figure, leading the Joads and the workers to consider the higher purposes of the community over their own individual interests. Ma Joad, with her considerable inner strength, and Rose of Sharon, particularly in the final scene of the novel, are earth-mother symbols who instinctively understand their roles as nurturers. This religious symbolism—both Christian and non-Christian—pervades the novel. Images of exodus, plague, and the search for paradise, as well as of the sanctity of the land, dominate the farmers' travels to the West.

Critical Reception

While The Grapes of Wrath is praised by most critics for the universality of its themes, it is sometimes faulted by others for excessive sentimentalism and melodrama. Initial reception of The Grapes of Wrath was distorted because the book caused a maelstrom of political controversy due to its castigation of agribusiness and the governmental system that contributed to the Dust Bowl predicament. The press and politicians attempted to discredit Steinbeck's book, accusing him of socialist sympathies. With its political implications now defused, critical study of The Grapes of Wrath has more recently focused on Steinbeck's religious and nature symbolism and the role of his female characters, which earlier critics had considered stereotypical and one-dimensional. But regardless of critical opinion, The Grapes of Wrath remains one of the most respected modern American novels.

Christopher Isherwood (review date autumn 1939)

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SOURCE: Isherwood, Christopher. “The Tragedy of Eldorado.” Kenyon Review 1, no. 4 (autumn 1939): 450-53.

[In the following review, Isherwood praises Steinbeck's efforts in The Grapes of Wrath but finds the novel overly didactic and propagandistic.]

Out in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, the earth is dying of sheer exhaustion. Three generations back, white men took this land from the Indians. Their children grew poor on it, lost it, and became sharecroppers. Now, when the sharecroppers' landlords can no longer pay the interest on their debts, the banks step in to claim what is legally theirs. They will plough up the small holdings with their tractors, and farm them for cotton, until that crop, too, is exhausted. The land will pass to other owners. The cycle of futile, uneconomic possession will continue.

Meanwhile, the sharecroppers have to leave the Dust Bowl. They enter another great American historical cycle—the cycle of migration towards the West. They become actors in the classic tragedy of California. For Eldorado is tragic, like Palestine, like every other Promised Land. After the Land Rush, the Gold Rush, the Movie Rush, comes the Fruit Rush. The poor farmers are only too ready to believe the handbills which assure them that there will be work for everybody in the orchards and orange-groves of the Pacific Coast. They swarm over the mountains and across the deserts in their broken-down automobiles, they suffer epic and incredible hardships—only to find that they have exchanged a bad life for a worse. The fruit-picking is overcrowded, the season is short, wages have been forced down to starvation-level. The “Okies” themselves are naturally unwelcome to a resident population which sees with dismay and resentment this fresh influx of competition into the labor-market. The native Californians arm themselves to protect their own hard-won economic security. Camping miserably like nomads, on the fringes of the towns, the starving strangers are persecuted by the police. Most of them are dazed into submission. Some wander away elsewhere, or return to their ruined homesteads. A few grow angry. These form the nucleus of a future revolt. Violence will give birth to violence, as always. The Grapes of Wrath are ready for the vintage.

Such, very briefly, is the background of Mr. Steinbeck's latest novel. We follow the wanderings of the Joads, a typical sharecropper family, from the moment of their eviction from an Oklahoma farm. We accompany them on their tragic and exciting journey, across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, dogged by accident and disaster. We are present at the final scene of their disintegration, less than a year later, in the heavy rains of a Californian winter.

There are thirteen of them in the truck, when the great trek begins—Grampa, the “heller,” a foul-mouthed, impish, violent old man, “full a piss an vinegar,” who has to be watched like a naughty child; Granma, his wife, who is fully a match for him; Pa and Ma and Uncle John; Noah, the taciturn eldest son; Tom, who has been in prison for manslaughter; Al, the smart aleck, who lives for engines and girls; Rose of Sharon, pregnant with her first child, and Connie, her husband; Ruthie and Winfield, the youngest; and the ex-preacher Casy, a neo-Tolstoyan figure, agnostic and perplexed, whose provisional creed is: “You gotta do what you gotta do.” The family decides to take him along—partly because their code forbids them to refuse hospitality; partly out of primitive reverence for the witchdoctor, the inspired mouthpiece of the little community. Casy is a kind of unwilling saint.

Grampa dies first, and is buried by the roadside: his epitaph a note stuck inside a fruit jar: “This here is William James Joad, dyed of a stroke, old old man. His fokes bured him becaws they got no money to pay for funerls. Nobody kilt him. Jus a stroke an he dyed. ‘Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.’” Gramma does not survive him long; she dies while the truck is crossing the desert. Ma, resourceful as ever, smuggles her corpse past the Californian agricultural inspectors. Noah has left them already. On the banks of the Colorado River, he quietly announces his intention: “I can't he'p it. I can't leave this here water.” So he stays.

Connie is the next to go. He had hoped for so much from the Promised Land—a decent job, a little house, comforts for Rose of Sharon when their child was born. The reality is too miserable for him to face. He runs away and is heard of no more.

Then Casy is imprisoned, and later killed in a fight with the police. And Tom, who strikes Casy's murderer dead, has to go into hiding. One day he will emerge, dangerous and armed for the struggle, among the secret forces of revolt. But that is another story.

Ma fights desperately to hold the remaining members of her family together, but further trials await her. Al pairs off with a girl, and breaks away from the group. Rose of Sharon's child is stillborn. And, in the winter floods, the truck itself has to be abandoned. We get one last glimpse of the Joads as they stagger miserably into a barn; and Rose of Sharon kneels to give her unwanted milk to the lips of a starving cotton-picker. The narrative ceases, but the story does not end. There can be no end to it, as long as such wretchedness is permitted to exist upon the earth.

Readers of the earlier novels and stories do not need to be reminded that Mr. Steinbeck is a master of realistic writing—a master among masters, for America is extraordinarily rich in his peculiar kind of talent. In the presence of such powers, such observation, such compassion, such humor, it seems almost ungrateful to make reservations—to ask that what is so good should be even better. But a writer of Mr. Steinbeck's caliber can only be insulted by mere praise; for his defects are as interesting as his merits. What are these defects? Why isn't The Grapes of Wrath entirely satisfying as a work of art?

It is a mark of the greatest poets, novelists and dramatists that they all demand a high degree of cooperation from their audience. The form may be simple, and the language plain as daylight, but the inner meaning, the latent content of a masterpiece will not be perceived without a certain imaginative and emotional effort. In this sense, the great artist makes every one of his readers into a philosopher and poet, to a greater or lesser degree, according to that reader's powers. The novelist of genius, by presenting the particular instance, indicates the general truth. He indicates, but he does not attempt to state it—for to state the general truth is to circumscribe it, to make it somewhat less than itself. The final verdict, the ultimate synthesis, must be left to the reader; and each reader will modify it in accordance with his needs. The aggregate of all these individual syntheses is the measure of the impact of a work of art upon the world. It is, in fact, a part of that work. In this way, masterpieces, throughout the ages, actually undergo a sort of organic growth.

At this point arises the problem of the so-called propaganda-novel, and the often-repeated question: “Can propaganda produce good art?” “All art is propaganda,” the propagandists retort—and, of course, in a sense, they are right. Novels inevitably reflect contemporary conditions. But here the distinction appears. In a successful work of art, the “propaganda” (which means, ultimately, the appeal to the tribunal of humanity) has been completely digested, it forms part of the latent content; its conclusions are left to the conscience and judgment of the reader himself. In an imperfect work of art, however, the “propaganda” is overt. It is stated, and therefore limited. The novelist becomes a schoolmaster.

Mr. Steinbeck, in his eagerness for the cause of the sharecroppers and his indignation against the wrongs they suffer, has been guilty, throughout this book, of such personal, schoolmasterish intrusions upon the reader. Too often, we feel him at our elbow, explaining, interpreting, interfering with our own independent impressions. And there are moments at which Ma Joad and Casy—otherwise such substantial figures—seem to fade into mere mouthpieces, as the author's voice comes through, like another station on the radio. All this is a pity. It seriously impairs the total effect of the novel, brilliant, vivid, and deeply moving as it is. The reader has not been allowed to cooperate, and he comes away vaguely frustrated.

Overt political propaganda, however just in its conclusions, must always defeat its own artistic ends, for this very reason: the politico-sociological case is general, the artistic instance is particular. If you claim that your characters' misfortunes are due to the existing System, the reader may retort that they are actually brought about by the author himself. Legally speaking, it was Mr. Steinbeck who murdered Casy and killed Grampa and Granma Joad. In other words, fiction is fiction. Its truths are parallel to, but not identical with the truths of the real world.

Mr. Steinbeck still owes us a great novel. He has everything which could produce it—the technical ability, the fundamental seriousness, the sympathy, the vision. There are passages in this book which achieve greatness. The total artistic effect falls short of its exciting promise. The Grapes of Wrath is a milestone in American fiction, but I do not believe that it represents the height of its author's powers.

Principal Works

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Cup of Gold: A Life of Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional References to History (novel) 1929

The Pastures of Heaven (novel) 1932

To a God Unknown (novel) 1933

Tortilla Flat (novel) 1935

In Dubious Battle (novel) 1936

Nothing So Monstrous (short stories) 1936

Saint Kay the Virgin (short stories) 1936

Of Mice and Men (novel) 1937

Of Mice and Men: A Play in Three Acts [with George S. Kaufman] (drama) 1937

The Red Pony (novella) 1937

The Long Valley (short stories) 1938

The Grapes of Wrath (novel) 1939

The Forgotten Village (novel) 1941

Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (travel book) 1941

The Moon Is Down (novel) 1942

The Moon Is Down: Play in Two Parts (drama) 1942

How Edith McGillicuddy Met R.L.S. (short stories) 1943

Cannery Row (novel) 1945

The Pearl (novella) 1947

The Wayward Bus (novel) 1947

Burning Bright: A Play in Story Form (novel) 1950

East of Eden (novel) 1952

Viva Zapata! (screenplay) 1952

Sweet Thursday (novel) 1954

The Crapshooter (short stories) 1957

The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (novel) 1957

The Winter of Our Discontent (novel) 1961

Travels with Charley: In Search of America (nonfiction) 1962

Frederic I. Carpenter (essay date 1941)

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SOURCE: Carpenter, Frederic I. “John Steinbeck: The Philosophical Joads.” In American Literature and the Dream, pp. 167-75. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1955.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1941, Carpenter argues that the philosophical center of The Grapes of Wrath lies not in its documentary-style interchapters but in the character of Jim Casy, who, Carpenter notes, embodies and transforms both American transcendentalism and pragmatism.]

A popular heresy has it that a novelist should not discuss ideas—especially not abstract ideas. Even the best contemporary reviewers concern themselves with the entertainment value of a book (will it please their readers?), and with the impression of immediate reality which it creates. The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, was praised for its swift action and for the moving sincerity of its characters. But its mystical ideas and the moralizing interpretations intruded by the author between the narrative chapters were condemned. Presumably the book became a best seller in spite of these; its art was great enough to overcome its philosophy.

But in the course of time a book is also judged by other standards. Aristotle once argued that poetry should be more “philosophical” than history; and all books are eventually weighed for their content of wisdom. Novels that have become classics do more than tell a story and describe characters; they offer insight into men's motives and point to the springs of action. Together with the moving picture, they offer the criticism of life.

Although this theory of art may seem classical, all important modern novels—especially American novels—have clearly suggested an abstract idea of life. The Scarlet Letter symbolized “sin,” Moby Dick offered an allegory of evil. Huck Finn described the revolt of the “natural individual” against “civilization,” and Babbitt (like Emerson's “Self-reliance”) denounced the narrow conventions of “society.” Now The Grapes of Wrath goes beyond these to preach a positive philosophy of life and to damn that blind conservatism which fears ideas.

I shall take for granted the narrative power of the book and the vivid reality of its characters: critics, both professional and popular, have borne witness to these. The novel has been a best seller. But it also has ideas. These appear abstractly and obviously in the interpretative interchapters. But more important is Steinbeck's creation of Jim Casy, “the preacher,” to interpret and to embody the philosophy of the novel. And consummate is the skill with which Jim Casy's philosophy has been integrated with the action of the story, until it motivates and gives significance to the lives of Tom Joad, and Ma, and Rose of Sharon. It is not too much to say that Jim Casy's ideas determine and direct the Joads's actions.

Beside and beyond their function in the story, the ideas of John Steinbeck and Jim Casy possess a significance of their own. They continue, develop, integrate, and realize the thought of the great writers of American history. Here the mystical transcendentalism of Emerson reappears, and the earthy democracy of Whitman, and the pragmatic instrumentalism of William James and John Dewey. And these old philosophies grow and change in the book until they become new. They coalesce into an organic whole. And, finally, they find embodiment in character and action, so that they seem no longer ideas, but facts. The enduring greatness of The Grapes of Wrath consists in its imaginative realization of these old ideas in new and concrete forms. Jim Casy translates American philosophy into words of one syllable, and the Joads translate it into action.


“Ever know a guy that said big words like that?” asks the truck driver in the first narrative chapter of The Grapes of Wrath. “Preacher,” replies Tom Joad. “Well, it makes you mad to hear a guy use big words. Course with a preacher it's all right because nobody would fool around with a preacher anyway.” But soon afterward Tom meets Jim Casy and finds him changed. “I was a preacher,” said the man seriously, “but not no more.” Because Casy has ceased to be an orthodox minister and no longer uses big words, Tom Joad plays around with him. And the story results.

But although he is no longer a minister, Jim Casy continues to preach. His words have become simple and his ideas unorthodox. “Just Jim Casy now. Ain't got the call no more. Got a lot of sinful idears—but they seem kinda sensible.” A century before, this same experience and essentially these same ideas had occurred to another preacher: Ralph Waldo Emerson had given up the ministry because of his unorthodoxy. But Emerson had kept on using big words. Now Casy translates them: “Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of.” And so the Emersonian oversoul comes to earth in Oklahoma.

Unorthodox Jim Casy went into the Oklahoma wilderness to save his soul. And in the wilderness he experienced the religious feeling of identity with nature which has always been the heart of transcendental mysticism: “There was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't separate no more. We was one thing. An' that one thing was holy.” Like Emerson, Casy came to the conviction that holiness, or goodness, results from this feeling of unity: “I got to thinkin' how we was holy when we was one thing, an' mankin' was holy when it was one thing.”

Thus far Jim Casy's transcendentalism has remained vague and apparently insignificant. But the corollary of this mystical philosophy is that any man's self-seeking destroys the unity or “holiness” of nature: “An' it [this one thing] on'y got unholy when one mis'able little fella got the bit in his teeth, an' run off his own way. … Fella like that bust the holiness.” Or, as Emerson phrased it, while discussing Nature: “The world lacks unity because man is disunited with himself. … Love is its demand.” So Jim Casy preaches the religion of love.

He finds that this transcendental religion alters the old standards: “Here's me that used to give all my fight against the devil 'cause I figured the devil was the enemy. But they's somepin worse'n the devil got hold a the country.” Now, like Emerson, he almost welcomes “the dear old devil.” Now he fears not the lusts of the flesh but rather the lusts of the spirit. For the abstract lust of possession isolates a man from his fellows and destroys the unity of nature and the love of man. As Steinbeck writes: “The quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I,’ and cuts you off forever from the ‘we.’” Or, as the Concord farmers in Emerson's poem “Hamatreya” had exclaimed: “'Tis mine, my children's and my name's,” only to have “their avarice cooled like lust in the chill of the grave.” To a preacher of the oversoul, possessive egotism may become the unpardonable sin.

If a society has adopted “the quality of owning” (as typified by absentee ownership) as its social norm, then Protestant nonconformity may become the highest virtue, and even resistance to authority may become justified. At the beginning of his novel Steinbeck had suggested this, describing how “the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe … their men were whole.” For this is the paradox of Protestantism: when men resist unjust and selfish authority, they themselves become “whole” in spirit.

But this American ideal of nonconformity seems negative: how can men be sure that their Protestant rebellion does not come from the devil? To this there has always been but one answer—faith: faith in the instincts of the common man, faith in ultimate social progress, and faith in the direction in which democracy is moving. So Ma Joad counsels the discouraged Tom: “Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people—we go on.” And so Steinbeck himself affirms a final faith in progress: “When theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies … grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward. … Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.” Whether this be democratic faith, or mere transcendental optimism, it has always been the motive force of our American life and finds reaffirmation in this novel.


Upon the foundation of this old American idealism Steinbeck has built. But the Emersonian oversoul had seemed very vague and very ineffective—only the individual had been real, and he had been concerned more with his private soul than with other people. The Grapes of Wrath develops the old idea in new ways. It traces the transformation of the Protestant individual into the member of a social group—the old “I” becomes “we.” And it traces the transformation of the passive individual into the active participant—the idealist becomes pragmatist. The first development continues the poetic thought of Walt Whitman; the second continues the philosophy of William James and John Dewey.

“One's-self I sing, a simple separate person,” Whitman had proclaimed. “Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.” Other American writers had emphasized the individual above the group. Even Whitman celebrated his “comrades and lovers” in an essentially personal relationship. But Steinbeck now emphasizes the group above the individual and from an impersonal point of view. Where formerly American and Protestant thought has been separatist, Steinbeck now faces the problem of social integration. In his novel the “mutually repellent particles” of individualism begin to cohere.

“This is the beginning,” he writes, “from ‘I’ to ‘we.’” This is the beginning, that is, of reconstruction. When the old society has been split and the Protestant individuals wander aimlessly about, some new nucleus must be found, or chaos and nihilism will follow. “In the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node.” Here is the new nucleus. “And from this first ‘we,’ there grows a still more dangerous thing: ‘I have a little food’ plus ‘I have none.’ If from this problem the sum is ‘We have a little food,’ the thing is on its way, the movement has direction.” A new social group is forming, based on the word “en masse.” But here is no socialism imposed from above; here is a natural grouping of simple separate persons.

By virtue of his wholehearted participation in this new group the individual may become greater than himself. Some men, of course, will remain mere individuals, but in every group there must be leaders, or “representative men.” A poet gives expression to the group idea, or a preacher organizes it. After Jim Casy's death, Tom is chosen to lead. Ma explains: “They's some folks that's just theirself, an' nothin' more. There's Al [for instance] he's jus' a young fella after a girl. You wasn't like that, Tom.” Because he has been an individualist, but through the influence of Casy and of his group idea has become more than himself, Tom becomes “a leader of the people.” But his strength derives from his increased sense of participation in the group.

From Jim Casy, and eventually from the thought of Americans like Whitman, Tom Joad has inherited this idea. At the end of the book he sums it up, recalling how Casy “went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, and he found he didn't 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.” Unlike Emerson, who had said goodbye to the proud world, these latter-day Americans must live in the midst of it. “I know now,” concludes Tom, “a fella ain't no good alone.”

To repeat: this group idea is American, not Russian; and stems from Walt Whitman, not Karl Marx. But it does include some elements that have usually seemed sinful to orthodox Anglo-Saxons. “Of physiology from top to toe I sing,” Whitman had declared, and added a good many details that his friend Emerson thought unnecessary. Now the Joads frankly discuss anatomical details and joke about them. Like most common people, they do not abscond or conceal. Sometimes they seem to go beyond the bounds of literary decency: the unbuttoned antics of Grandpa Joad touch a new low in folk-comedy. The movies (which reproduced most of the realism of the book) could not quite stomach this. But for the most part they preserved the spirit of the book, because it was whole and healthy.

In Whitman's time almost everyone deprecated this physiological realism, and in our own many readers and critics still deprecate it. Nevertheless, it is absolutely necessary—both artistically and logically. In the first place, characters like the Joads do act and talk that way—to describe them as genteel would be to distort the picture. And, in the second place, Whitman himself had suggested the necessity of it: just as the literature of democracy must describe all sorts of people, “en masse,” so it must describe all of the life of the people. To exclude the common or “low” elements of individual life would be as false as to exclude the common or low elements of society. Either would destroy the wholeness of life and nature. Therefore, along with the dust-driven Joads, we must have Grandpa's dirty drawers.

But beyond this physiological realism lies the problem of sex. And this problem is not one of realism at all. Throughout this turbulent novel an almost traditional reticence concerning the details of sex is observed. The problem here is rather one of fundamental morality, for sex had always been a symbol of sin. The Scarlet Letter reasserted the authority of an orthodox morality. Now Jim Casy questions that orthodoxy. On this first meeting with Tom he describes how, after sessions of preaching, he had often lain with a girl and then felt sinful afterward. This time the movies repeated his confession, because it is central to the motivation of the story. Disbelief in the sinfulness of sex converts Jim Casy from a preacher of the old morality to a practitioner of the new.

But in questioning the old morality Jim Casy does not deny morality. He doubts the strict justice of Hawthorne's code: “Maybe it ain't a sin. Maybe it's just the way folks is. Maybe we been whippin' the hell out of ourselves for nothin'.” But he recognizes that love must always remain responsible and purposeful. Al Joad remains just “a boy after a girl.” In place of the old, Casy preaches the new morality of Whitman, which uses sex to symbolize the love of man for his fellows. Jim Casy and Tom Joad have become more responsible and more purposeful than Pa Joad and Uncle John ever were: they love people so much that they are ready to die for them. Formerly the only unit of human love was the family, and the family remains the fundamental unit. The tragedy of The Grapes of Wrath consists in the breakup of the family. But the new moral of this novel is that the love of all people—if it be unselfish—may even supersede the love of family. So Casy dies for his people, and Tom is ready to, and Rose of Sharon symbolically transmutes her maternal love to a love of all people. Here is a new realization of “the word democratic, the word en-masse.”


“An' I got to thinkin', Ma—most of the preachin' is about the poor we shall have always with us, an' if you got nothin', why, jus' fol' your hands an' to hell with it, you gonna git ice cream on gol' plates when you're dead. An' then this here Preacher says two get a better reward for their work.”

Catholic Christianity had always preached humility and passive obedience. Protestantism preached spiritual nonconformity, but kept its disobedience passive. Transcendentalism sought to save the individual but not the group. (“Are they my poor?” asked Emerson.) Whitman sympathized more deeply with the common people and loved them abstractly, but trusted that God and democracy would save them. The pragmatic philosophers first sought to implement American idealism by making thought itself instrumental. And now Steinbeck quotes scripture to urge popular action for the realization of the old ideals.

In the course of the book Steinbeck develops and translates the thought of the earlier pragmatists. “Thinking,” wrote John Dewey, “is a kind of activity which we perform at specific need.” And Steinbeck repeats: “Need is the stimulus to concept, concept to action.” The cause of the Okies' migration is their need, and their migration itself becomes a kind of thinking—an unconscious groping for the solution to a half-formulated problem. Their need becomes the stimulus to concept.

In this novel a kind of pragmatic thinking takes place before our eyes: the idea develops from the predicament of the characters, and the resulting action becomes integral with the thought. The evils of absentee ownership produce the mass migration, and the mass migration results in the idea of group action: “A half-million people moving over the country. … And tractors turning the multiple furrows in the vacant land.”

But what good is generalized thought? And how is future action to be planned? Americans in general, and pragmatists in particular, have always disagreed in answering these questions. William James argued that thought was good only in so far as it satisfied a particular need and that plans, like actions, were “plural”—and should be conceived and executed individually. But Charles Sanders Peirce, and the transcendentalists before him, had argued that the most generalized thought was best, provided it eventually resulted in effective action. The problems of mankind should be considered as a unified whole, monistically.

Now Tom Joad is a pluralist—a pragmatist after William James. Tom said, “I'm still layin' my dogs down one at a time.” Casy replied: “Yeah, but when a fence comes up at ya, ya gonna climb that fence.” “I climb fences when I got fences to climb,” said Tom. But Jim Casy believes in looking far ahead and seeing the thing as a whole: “But they's different kinda fences. They's folks like me that climbs fences that ain't even strang up yet.” Which is to say that Casy is a kind of transcendental pragmatist. His thought seeks to generalize the problems of the Okies and to integrate them with the larger problem of industrial America. His solution is the principle of group action guided by conceptual thought and functioning within the framework of democratic society and law.

And at the end of the story Tom Joad becomes converted to Jim Casy's pragmatism. It is not important that the particular strike should be won, or that the particular need should be satisfied; but it is important that men should think in terms of action, and that they should think and act in terms of the whole rather than the particular individual. “For every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken.” The value of an idea lies not in its immediate but in its eventual success. That idea is good which works—in the long run.

But the point of the whole novel is that action is an absolute essential of human life. If need and failure produce only fear, disintegration follows. But if they produce anger, then reconstruction may follow. The grapes of wrath must be trampled to make manifest the glory of the Lord. At the beginning of the story Steinbeck described the incipient wrath of the defeated farmers. At the end he repeats the scene. “And where a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief … the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.” Then wrath could turn to action.


To sum up: the fundamental idea of The Grapes of Wrath is that of American transcendentalism: “Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of.” From this idea it follows that every individual will trust those instincts which he shares with all men, even when these conflict with the teachings of orthodox religion and of existing society. But his self-reliance will not merely seek individual freedom, as did Emerson. It will rather seek social freedom or mass democracy, as did Whitman. If this mass democracy leads to the abandonment of genteel taboos and to the modification of some traditional ideas of morality, that is inevitable. But whatever happens, the American will act to realize his ideals. He will seek to make himself whole—i.e., to join himself to other men by means of purposeful actions for some goal beyond himself.

But at this point the crucial question arises—and it is “crucial” in every sense of the word. What if this self-reliance leads to death? What if the individual is killed before the social group is saved? Does the failure of the individual action invalidate the whole idea? “How'm I gonna know about you?” Ma asks. “They might kill ya an' I wouldn't know.”

The answer has already been suggested by the terms in which the story has been told. If the individual has identified himself with the oversoul, so that his life has become one with the life of all men, his individual death and failure will not matter. From the old transcendental philosophy of identity to Tom Joad and the moving pictures may seem a long way, but even the movies faithfully reproduce Tom's final declaration of transcendental faith: “They might kill ya,” Ma had objected.

“Tom laughed uneasily, ‘Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain't got a soul of his own, but on'y a piece of a big one—an' then—’

“‘Then what, Tom?’

“‘Then it don' matter. Then I'll be aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where—wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad, an'—I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build—why, I'll be there. See?’”

For the first time in history, The Grapes of Wrath brings together and makes real three great skeins of American thought. It begins with the transcendental oversoul, Emerson's faith in the common man, and his Protestant self-reliance. To this it joins Whitman's religion of the love of all men and his mass democracy. And it combines these mystical and poetic ideas with the realistic philosophy of pragmatism and its emphasis on effective action. From this it develops a new kind of Christianity—not otherworldly and passive, but earthly and active. And Oklahoma Jim Casy and the Joads think and do all these philosophical things.

Walter Fuller Taylor (essay date summer 1959)

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SOURCE: Taylor, Walter Fuller. “The Grapes of Wrath Reconsidered: Some Observations on John Steinbeck and the ‘Religion’ of Secularism.” Mississippi Quarterly 12, no. 3 (summer 1959): 136-44.

[In the following essay, Taylor finds that readers twenty years after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath will come away with a considerably different experience than those who read the book while the social issues of its time were fresh in their consciousness.]

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is, of course, vintage of 1939; and now that the wine has aged for twenty years it reveals underlying flavors that in the first flush of discovery were overlooked. Since some of these flavors have a noticeable acerbity, suggestive less of grape than of green persimmon, and since they have undoubtedly been there from the beginning, it is a bit surprising that they should have been so long neglected. Yet the flavor, the “meaning” of a book is not absolute or unalterable. The residue of experience that a reader brings away now from The Grapes of Wrath may be, must be, different from that in 1939, when the naturalism of Zola and Frank Norris still carried prestige, and when the memory of the evils of the Great Depression focused in brilliant bitter light Steinbeck's indictment of social injustice.

The Grapes of Wrath still fulfills, of course, its original twofold function as naturalistic novel and social tract. In the former function, it subjects its people (in Frank Norris's words) to “terrible things,” from Tom Joad's return to an abandoned home to the stillbirth of Rosasharn's “blue shriveled little mummy.” In the latter, it dramatizes the terrible plight of tenant families who have been “tractored out”; it exposes a system of land monopoly as destructive as any set forth in Progress and Poverty; it holds our gaze unsparingly on the tragic attrition of the Joads as a family unit. Truly, “there is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our successes.”

Now a book meant to expose a “crime … that goes beyond denunciation” is likely to be, in the biblical sense, a parable. Its events are made to happen not as they might happen actually, but as they may best carry conviction for the author's case. Its people, while they sometimes act as individuals, at other times act as types or symbols, as do the figures in a medieval morality play. In much of Steinbeck's story, Tom Joad is just the individual man Tom Joad; toward the close he becomes an embodiment—a self-conscious, highly articulate embodiment—of the workingman's resistance to injustice everywhere. The Grapes of Wrath is not, then, a realistic novel, though it makes occasional use of the techniques of realism. It is a parable; and toward the reader's full realization of the meanings of that parable are directed Steinbeck's unusual talents as a maker of myth.

I have purposely said “meanings,” not “meaning,” since The Grapes of Wrath is in intent not single but multiple. It is more than a naturalistic novel, more than a social tract; it is anything but “simple and uncomplicated,” as an early critic incautiously called it. Its social idealism, even, appears sometimes as only an outer layer, the exterior label on a package whose inner core is something else entirely; and in the making of books there is of course no pure-food-and-drug act to require that the contents correspond to the label. Along with its concern for social justice, The Grapes of Wrath actually imparts significances that have nothing at all to do with social justice, but that nevertheless remain with the reader as part of his residue of experience. With the aid of twenty years' perspective, we can, and should, inquire just what are these interior meanings.

Among these meanings—meanings, let us repeat, not organically necessary to the social message of the novel—is the illustration of a kind of secular religion, whose Messiah is the ex-Holinist preacher Jim Casy. Casy of course, modestly disclaims Messiahship, but his very disclaimer is ingeniously made to set forth Steinbeck's own Messianic intention in creating him. “I ain't sayin' I'm like Jesus …,” Casy is made to observe. “But I got tired like Him, an' I got mixed up like Him, an' I went into the wilderness like Him.” Though Steinbeck is misreporting the New Testament story when he refers to Jesus as “mixed up,” the thrice-stated parallel is of course emphatic enough. The same parallel extends through Casy's offering himself in place of Tom Joad to the law, and even to the words Casy speaks to his killers: “You don' know what you're a-doin'.”

If in Jim Casy Steinbeck makes use of the story of the Christ, the theology and ethic of Casy's religion have little enough to do with Christianity. Contrary to Christian dualism, man and man's world are looked on, Transcendental fashion, as part of one great Soul, universally holy except when some “mis' able little fella” acts in arrogrant self-assertion to “bust the holiness.” Contrary to the Christian attitudes of moral selectiveness and self-discipline, in Steinbeck's secular religion there is no need for self-control; all is permitted. To act ethically, men have only to act naturally. They have only to forget the illusion of sin, practice a universal tolerance, and obey that impulse. According to the newly tolerant Casy, “There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do.” And according to his interpreter Ma Joad, “What people does is right to do.”

Steinbeck's secular religion is not, to put it mildly, much turned toward self-discipline. It sanctions any simple, easy, and natural indulgence. His Casy plans to cuss and swear and to “lay in the grass, open an' honest,” with anybody that will have him. His folk find their pleasurable indulgences in storytelling, in an occasional movie, in dancing, in folk music made by fiddle and guitar and harmonica, in the softened, dreamlike world of a gentle drunkenness. They find them, above all, in sex, a simple natural appetite that involves no responsibilities for possible children or for the feelings of one's sexual partner. Once, to be sure, Steinbeck does waver in his uncompromising stand for sexual irresponsibility. According to the customs spontaneously formed in the roadside “worlds” of the migrants, “a man might not have one girl one night and another the next,” for that would endanger the “worlds.” But this falling-off from consistency is minor. Later, in his genial attitude toward Al Joad's promiscuity, Steinbeck makes it clear enough that a man may properly have one girl one week and another the next.

Sex, then, in the Steinbeckian ethic, means simply promiscuity in its simplest and easiest expression. Sexual behaviour with which Steinbeck is sympathetic is that of Tom Joad, who came out of prison “smokin',” found a “hoor girl,” and “run her down … like she was a rabbit.” Or it is that of Grampa's brother, who, if he got “any kids, cuckoo'd 'em, an' somebody else is a-raisin' 'em.” Or it is that of Al Joad, whose tomcatting is described with humorous tolerance. The inevitable result of sexual maturity is not, of course, marriage; it is fornication. “It ain't Aggie's fault,” says her father, of her relations with Al Joad. “She's growed up.”

Now this picture of human mating, curiously simple and sometimes unintentionally humorous, is not employed by Steinbeck as mere shock material, or as a new version of the pleasant rascalities of the picaresque novel, still less as a realistic study of Sex among the Okies. It is part of a persistently held philosophy, according to which the only values lie in the experiences of the moment, the only valid end of living is the continued renewing of the life of the life cells. The same nonteleological outlook appears, for example, in books as different otherwise as Tortilla Flat and The Wayward Bus; and it glows into unusual sharpness in Burning Bright, which sanctions the murder of a man who has fulfilled his seminal function. Looked at from this nonteleological viewpoint, the experiencing of sex unavoidably loses its special human meanings and becomes, not merely primitive, not merely promiscuous, but simply animal.

Now a few of Steinbeck's critics, notably John S. Kennedy, have observed his fondness for animalism: the majority have missed it entirely—a failure of perception the more conspicuous for the fact that Steinbeck took pains to write into The Grapes of Wrath a brief subparable of free and natural sex behaviour:

A committee of dogs had met in the road, in honor of a bitch. Five males, shepherd mongrels, collie mongrels, dogs whose breeds had been blurred by a freedom of social life, were engaged in complimenting the bitch. For each dog sniffed daintily and then stalked to a cotton stalk on stiff legs. … Joad … laughed joyously. “By God!” he said. “By God!” … One dog mounted and, now that it was accomplished, the others gave way and watched with interest, and their tongues were out, and their tongues dripped.

A reader who really “buys” The Grapes of Wrath has bought, it would seem, something besides a plea for social justice. He has in fact bought an elaborately illustrated and reiterated philosophy of casual sex indulgence. He has also bought, along with a concept of sexual promiscuity, a humorous tolerance of the Tobacco-Road way of life once enjoyed by the Joads in Oklahoma. The reader's affections are to embrace Granma, who in a fit of religious ecstasy has ripped one of her husband's buttocks nearly off with a shotgun blast. They are to embrace even more warmly Grampa, who insists on going about with his fly open, and who, choked at table, sprays into his lap a “mouthful of paste.” They are to embrace a social group where it is natural enough for a woman “in a family way” to go raving because the pig got in the house and “et the baby.”

The reader's affections are to embrace also a language employed, not precisely for vulgarity, but for apparently calculated effects of shock and revulsion. Now the mere amount and proportion of obscene language in The Grapes of Wrath are not, to be sure, especially high. Pungent Saxon monosyllables are much scarcer there than in the casual talk of schoolboys, where the same words are taken for granted and make little or no impression. But in The Grapes of Wrath these identical words seem more objectionable because the writer's imagination has so joined fact and idea, and image and word, as to startle the reader into aversion or even nausea. When Tom Joad is hungry he is given—as an appetizer?—the line, “My guts is yellin' bloody murder.” Irritated by a truck-driver's curiosity, he is made to express his annoyance by saying, “You're wettin' your pants to know what I done.”

To this vulgarity in deed and word the reader of The Grapes of Wrath has been expected, for twenty years, to grant approval or at least entire tolerance. Yet the pertinent critical questions suggested by it have hardly been asked, still less answered. It hardly seems in point to ask whether Steinbeck's dialogue is really the language of the California migrants, since after all his book is not realism but social parable. It would be more in point to ask whether the vulgarity contributes anything to the parable—anything, that is, beyond the linking of the book with the established popularity of the Tobacco Road theme. It would be more in point to inquire, apropos of Steinbeck's pungent language, into our different mental responses to a certain act, to the spoken word that designates it, and to the written word; for acts that are in themselves natural and inoffensive may be brought into offensive prominence by the connotations of a spoken word or by the bold black and white of the printed page. And if the act itself is repellent, the spoken word may be pointlessly nauseating. It is one thing to have the reader know that Tom Joad has killed a man in self defense; it is quite another—especially for any reader who has witnessed violent death—to have Tom observe with relish that he knocked the man's head “plumb to squash.”

Now if reader and critic have largely overlooked these questions, and if they have really taken at face value Steinbeck's tolerant instruction that “what people does is right to do,” and if they then take a good, straight, hard look at Steinbeck's pages, they are likely to be disconcerted to find that to Steinbeck some things are not “right” at all; to find, instead, that his pages are sown with emotionally charged moral judgments and sometimes virulent with hatred. Among the things that are emphatically not “right” is the practice of religion, specifically of Christianity. Although no such presentation is needful for Steinbeck's social ends, Christianity appears in The Grapes of Wrath only in the dubious form of certain Holinist sects; and even these are made visible only through a poisonous aura of hostile connotation.

For religion, as Steinbeck allows his readers to see it, is the ridiculous thing that causes Pa Joad to hurt his leg “Jesus-jumpin',” or that wrings out of Granma her shrill and terrible cry, “Pu-raise Gawd for vittory.” It is the malignant force that drives the howling Mrs. Sandry to try to break Rosasharn's spirit, that impels preachers to make their people “grovel and whine on the ground.” It is the source-spring of the intolerance which, when the dance is held at the government labor camp, makes the “Jesus lovers” sit with “hard condemning faces” and “watch the sin.” Nowhere in The Grapes of Wrath, either in these episodes or elsewhere, does Steinbeck reveal any genuine knowledge of Christianity or any other of the great world religions. His approach to religion cannot therefore be that of the informed unbeliever or the genuine intellectual. Instead, he attacks religion by attaching to it belittling labels and emotion-triggering stimuli. He undercuts it by associating it with psychological illness, with morbid sexuality, with the practice of fanatical absurdities. He employs, in brief, the methods of the political demagogue, oblivious of the fact that demagoguery is no less demagogic for using the printed page instead of the political platform.

Apparently, after all, not everything that people do is right to do. Some things, such as keeping up any organized forms of religion, are quite seriously wrong; and one evil, especially, is the most seriously wrong of all. To Steinbeck, the deadliest of the deadly sins is simply being a typical American citizen—that is, a member of the middle classes. Hatred of the middle classes is in fact, according to Steinbeck's secretary Tony Seixas, one of the main “clues” to the understanding of his fiction. But quite apart from her testimony, the fiction itself carries abundant evidence of Steinbeck's feeling. Repeatedly it attacks the middle class not by direct invective or rational illustration, but by the insidious propaganda devices of epithet, innuendo, and hostile connotation.

To illustrate:—In The Grapes of Wrath a child is killed on Highway 66 by a recklessly driven Cadillac. Prosperous owners of Cadillacs, Steinbeck implies, have a way of killing small children, whereas the Okie driver of a battered pick-up only tries, unsuccessfully, to run down a cat. Proletarian talk—that about the woman back home who “had a nigger kid all of a sudden”—is presented as natural and wholesomely robust. Capitalists' talk—that about the movie actress with a venereal disease—is presented as unwholesome gossip. The middle-class stooge who sells under-par hamburger to Ma Joad is presented as a neurotic who “giggled softly.” Salesmen in a used-car lot, watching their victim-customers with “small, intent” eyes, are “neat” and “deadly.” A California landholder is a “fat, sof' fella with little mean eyes. …” California deputies, servants of the middle class, are “fat-assed men with guns slung on fat hips.”

Of this insidious denigration of the middle classes, the core is the description of the people who ride the “big cars” on Highway 66. The women, who to another writer would be just women, become in Steinbeck's imagination “languid, heat-raddled ladies,” who require a thousand accoutrements to freshen their faces, to move their bowels, and to keep their sexual life “safe and unproductive”; ladies who in the midst of all these luxuries remain weary, discontended, and sullen. Their companions, suitable mates, are “little, pot-bellied men …, clean, pink men with puzzled, worried eyes,” men whose business amounts only to “curious ritualized thievery” and whose lives consist only of “thin, tiresome routines.” Such people are naturally looked on with contempt by Steinbeck's fine proletarian truck drivers and by his roadside waitress Mae, who speaks of them with obscene contempt.

Such writing obviously presents no reasoned anti-middle-class philosophy; it offers no illustrated or imaginatively realized case; it does not grow, even, out of the fine old Bohemian tradition of flaying the bourgeoisie. It suggests, rather, a motivation deeply personal, an emotional drive so powerful as to cause Steinbeck to by-pass his reader's intellect and to trigger quite irrational responses. By wrapping the middle classes in connotations of physical weakness, worry, sexual sterility, bafflement, and fear, Steinbeck would waken toward them feelings of revulsion and hate. And if we turn from The Grapes of Wrath to other books of Steinbeck—to Cannery Row or The Wayward Bus—we turn there only to discover the same obsessive hatred of the same class, the same insidious propagandist method, the same skillful aesthetic demagoguery. For many American readers, this discovery could be disconcerting, since they are themselves so likely to be, consciously or unconsciously, members of the middle class. Now it is not disconcerting to deal with an author's hatred of an idea, a particular person, party, or even one of his own characters. But surely it is disconcerting to find that the author hates you, the reader, with a powerful, compulsive hatred; that the tolerance he speaks of so smoothly is in fact never extended to you; and that just in having been born on the right side of the tracks you have committed the one unpardonable sin.

Even so brief a look into these interior meanings of The Grapes of Wrath suggests how incomplete is the customary view of Steinbeck's masterpiece—the view, namely, that the book is a naturalistic novel aimed at the exposure of social injustice. For under cover of a pious social objective a number of other and quite different meanings are slipped past the reader's guard: those of hostility, bitterness, and contempt toward the middle classes, of antagonism toward religion in its organized forms, of the enjoyment of a Tobacco-Road sort of slovenliness, of an easygoing promiscuity and animalism in sex, of Casy's curious Transcendental mysticism, of a tolerance that at first seems all-inclusive but that actually extends only so far as Steinbeck's personal preferences.

Now some of these accessory meanings of The Grapes of Wrath have been defined by certain of Steinbeck's critics, especially Blake Nevius and John S. Kennedy. But with Steinbeck, as with Faulkner, there has been on the whole a tremendous divergence between the “matter” of the author and the “matter” of the critical studies about him. Divergence has even passed at times into contradiction. Steinbeck has been taken at times as a social idealist in the traditional, democratic sense; but such idealism consorts ill with his calculated release of hatred toward much of the American public. He has been taken as Christian; but actually he has only hijacked—if I may borrow for a moment his unscrupulous way with language—he has only hijacked part of the Christian story in order to turn it to the illustration of profoundly non-Christian meanings.

How then has it come about, in an age of criticism such as ours, that an important novelist has been so incompletely perceived? Not, in all likelihood, out of any merely personal limitations on the part of his critics, but rather out of the amorphous state of our general culture. For a half-century and more, that culture has been shaken by certain deep-seated conflicts in ideology—conflicts, that is to say, in systems of value; and these conflicts have been so powerful that they could easily bend out of focus any clear vision of what we and our writers actually are. One such conflict pits an idea of society rooted in our traditional democratic idealism, with its bent toward the reconciliation of class differences, against the hard-boiled Marxian attitude of class struggle, with its corollary of releasing all the hatreds needful for breaking an opposing class. Another conflict, concerned if anything even more deeply with the nature of man, pits the humanism of classical and Christian tradition, with its stress on man as a rational and moral being, against the naturalism of recent times, with its stress on man as a nonrational, instinct-driven cog within a mechanical cosmos.

Now it might be reasonably held that much of the deeper tension of our age comes not just from the Machine or just from the stresses of metropolitan living, but rather from the difficulty of choosing between these dilemmas about the nature of society and the nature of man; or, if not of choosing, at least of finding some tenable median point between the two. The sheer difficulty of these choices has seemed to scant some of our intellectuals of clearly seen and firmly held values, and to leave them with only an uncritical acceptance of the ideas that happen to be in vogue at any given moment. This too-ready acceptance of the current intellectual mode has tended of course to blur critical vision; critical perception has depended on what “truths” were in or out of favor. With Steinbeck, this responsiveness to intellectual fashion has afforded a curious sort of protective coloration. Some of his primary meanings were at first all but invisible, so completely was The Grapes of Wrath toned in with the intellectual hues of the latter nineteen-thirties.

For on the eve of World War II it was still intellectually fashionable to advocate Marxism, and to clothe that philosophy with its appropriate garments of propaganda. It was fashionable to display one's freedom from the Victorian proprieties; indeed, to go as far toward one extreme as the Victorians had gone toward another. And it was fashionable also to assume a kind of secular religion and ethic, not fully defined even yet, but certainly committed to some such formula as “Sex made easy.” Since Steinbeck's earlier critics took these attitudes so much for granted, they naturally turned the discussion of The Grapes of Wrath in other directions, upon other issues. Yet these attitudes, these “values,” were not such as might endure forever, knowing no change of hue or form under the eye of eternity. Already they have been undermined by the cataclysm of World War II, the rise of neo-orthodoxy, and the rediscovery of the need for self-discipline In this new climate of opinion a reader may be, and quite certainly should be, confused or even confounded by the difference between what the critics say is in The Grapes of Wrath, and what he himself intuitively feels to be there.

The experience conveyed by such fiction is one thing, the critical treatment of that same fiction quite another; and the discrepancy between the two suggests a possible function of criticism at the present time—a function not too different from that suggested a century ago by Matthew Arnold. That is the function of defining precisely the great idea-patterns that have furnished the dynamics of so much of our recent literature; of defining them, and then of interpreting that literature in the light of its relation to these currents of thought. With regard to Steinbeck, such a body of criticism would discourage obscurantist talk about his “Christian symbolism” and his unifying of “three great skeins” of traditional American thought, and would lend aid and comfort to the critical minority who have steadily told the truth about his nonteleological naturalism and his contribution to interclass hatreds.

In essaying this difficult reappraisal of recent literature in the light of its dynamic idea-patterns, perhaps we might hope for some outcome beyond the immediate one of the elucidation of works of art. For does not part of the fascination of criticism, as of creation, lie in just this—that the immediate outcome is never the total one? The task is never finished, and therefore keeps perpetually the excitement of pioneering. In perception, as in exploration, the horizon continually changes; always, in the distance, loom other ranges of blue mountains, remote and unexplored. We shall never wholly chart them, but in our partial efforts we may make some ascent from confusion toward clarity, and gain the release from tension that comes of fuller understanding. For in genuinely knowing our recent authors, and the major ideas that have moved them, we may reasonably hope to grow into a more nearly adequate knowledge of what we as human beings are, and of what is, now, for us, the human condition.

Further Reading

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Bredahl, A. Carl, Jr. “The Drinking Metaphor in The Grapes of Wrath.Steinbeck Quarterly 6, no. 4 (fall 1973): 95-8.

Examines the significance of four beverages—liquor, water, milk, and coffee—that appear in The Grapes of Wrath and how metaphor of drinking comes full circle in the final scene.

Campbell, Russell. “Trampling Out the Vintage: Sour Grapes.” In The Modern American Novel and the Movies, edited by Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin, pp. 107-18. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1978.

Analyzes the attempts of film makers to preserve the spirit of Steinbeck's novel in their film version of The Grapes of Wrath, finding that their use of documentary elements ultimately failed to capture the scope of Steinbeck's themes.

DeMott, Robert. “‘Working Days and Hours’: Steinbeck's Writing of The Grapes of Wrath.” In The Grapes of Wrath. Text and Criticism, edited by Peter Lisca, pp. 526-39. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Traces the composition history of The Grapes of Wrath.

Eisinger, Chester E. “Jeffersonian Agrarianism in The Grapes of Wrath.University of Kansas City Review 14, no. 3 (autumn 1947): 149-54.

Argues that the dispossessed farmers in The Grapes of Wrath posit a philosophy of eighteenth-century agrarianism in an attempt to counteract the encroachment of modern industrialism on their way of life.

Fossey, W. Richard. “The End of the Wester Dream: The Grapes of Wrath and Oklahoma.” Cimarron Review, no. 22 (January 1973): 25-34.

Argues that the Depression had a much larger effect on the dispossessed character of Oklahoma than the state's citizens generally recognize, and cites the reaction of Oklahomans to The Grapes of Wrath as evidence.

French, Warren, editor. A Companion to The Grapes of Wrath. New York: The Viking Press, 1963, 243 p.

Collection of essays that discuss the historical background of the Dust Bowl and western migration, the critical reception of the book, and its ongoing reputation.

Hayashi, Tetsumaro. “Steinbeck's Women in The Grapes of Wrath: A New Perspective.” Kyushu American Literature 18 (October 1977): 1-4.

Argues that women are the sustaining force of community in The Grapes of Wrath.

Lisca, Peter. “The Grapes of Wrath as Fiction.” PMLA 72, no. 1 (March 1957): 296-309.

Notes that many critics treated The Grapes of Wrath as a historical document and discusses Steinbeck's difficulties in presenting his material in a fictional form.

———. “The Grapes of Wrath: An Achievement of Genius.” In John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth, pp. 87-110. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1978.

Discusses The Grapes of Wrath as Steinbeck's greatest literary achievement and one of the finest examples of the social novel in American literature.

Nimitz, Jack. “Ecology in The Grapes of Wrath.Hartford Studies in Literature 2, no. 2 (1970): 265-68.

Examines Steinbeck's use of biological theories in The Grapes of Wrath and whether or not this detracts from his art.

Additional coverage of Steinbeck's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 2, 3, 13; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1929-1941; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R, 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 35; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 5, 9, 13, 21, 34, 45, 75, 124; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 9, 212, 275; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 2; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-studied Authors, and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 5, 7; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 6; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 11, 37; Something about the Author, Vol. 9; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth Century Romance and Historical Writers; Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Young Adults.

Peter Lisca (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: Lisca, Peter. “The Dynamics of Community in The Grapes of Wrath.” In From Irving to Steinbeck: Studies of American Literature in Honor of Harry R. Warfel, edited by Motley Deakin and Peter Lisca, pp. 127-40. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1970, Lisca discusses the relevance of Steinbeck's portrayal of social and economic upheaval in The Grapes of Wrath to later readers in times of similar turbulence.]

The Grapes of Wrath, more than Steinbeck's other novels, remains viable not just in drugstore racks of Bantam paperbacks or in college survey courses but in the world of great literature, because in that novel he created a community whose experience, although rooted firmly in the particulars of the American Depression, continues to have relevance. Certainly one aspect of that community experience which contributes to its viability is its dimension of social change. It is not coincidence that in the last decade, full of violent social action in so many aspects of American life, we have found ourselves turning with new interest toward the 1930s, recognizing there an immediate political and emotional relevance. The Grapes of Wrath moves not only along Route 66, east to west, like some delayed Wagon Wheels adventure, but along the unmapped roads of social change, from an old concept of community based on sociological conditions breaking up under an economic upheaval, to a new and very different sense of community formulating itself gradually on the new social realities.

Various facets of the old community concept are solidly developed in the first quarter of the book. The novel opens with a panoramic description of the land itself, impoverished, turning to dust and quite literally blowing away. It can no longer sustain its people in the old way, one small plot for each family, and it is lost to the banks and holding companies—impersonal, absentee landlords—which can utilize the land with a margin of profit by the ruthless mechanical exploitation of large tracts. But for the old community the land was something more than a quick-money crop or columns of profit and loss in a financial ledger, more even than the actual physical sustenance of potatoes, carrots, melons, pigs and chickens. Nor is it fear of the unknown that keeps the community attached to the now useless land. For these are a people with pioneer blood in their veins. The old community is further tied to the land by memories of family history. It is Muley who speaks this most convincingly:

I'm just wanderin' aroun' like a damn ol' graveyard ghos'. … I been goin' aroun' the places where stuff happened. Like there's a place over by our forty; in a gulley there's a bush. Fust time I ever laid with a girl was there. Me fourteen an' stampin' an' jerkin' an' snortin' like a buck deer, randy as a billygoat. So I went there an' I laid down on the groun', an' I seen it all happen again. An' there's the place down by the barn where Pa got gored to death by a bull. An' his blood is right in that groun', right now. … An' I put my han' on that groun' where my own Pa's blood is part of it. … An' I seen my Pa with a hole through his ches', an' I felt him shiver up against me like he done. … An' me a little kid settin' there. … An' I went into the room where Joe was born. Bed wasn't there, but it was the room. An' all them things is true, an' they're right in the place they happened. Joe came to life right there.

Muley rambles, but his selection is not arbitrary—copulation, birth, death. And these are not just vague memories or abstractions. In the presence of the actual bush, the actual barnyard, the same room, this essential past is relived in the present. Muley asks, “What'd they take when they tractored the folks off the lan'? What'd they get so their ‘margin a profit’ was safe? They got Pa dyin' on the groun', an' Joe yellin' his first breath, an' me jerkin' like a billygoat under a bush in the night. What'd they get? God knows the lan' ain't no good. … They jus' chopped folks in two. Place where folks live is them folks.”

Here Muley speaks not only for himself, but for an entire community, the people in whose deserted houses at night he can still sense the “parties an' dancin',” the “meetin's an' shoutin' glory. They was weddin's, all in them houses.” So strong is his attachment that he chooses to stay with the land and its empty houses rather than move away with the rest of his family. Grandpa Joad, too, despite his eagerness at the beginning, was not able to leave the land and had to be given an overdose of pain-killer and carried off. When he dies, just before crossing the Oklahoma border, Casy assures the folks that “Grampa didn't die tonight. He died the minute you took 'im off the place. … Oh, he was breathin', but he was dead. He was that place, an' he knowed it. … He's jus' stayin' with the lan'. He couldn't leave it.” This is amplified to the level of community experience in one of the interchapters, when the choiric voices intone: “This land, this red land is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us.”

As the land itself and its houses are imbued with a traditional experience, so are the farm tools, horses, wagons, the household goods whose value cannot be measured in money: the beaded headband for the bay gelding, “'Member how he lifted his feet when he trotted?” And the little girl who liked to plait red ribbons in his mane. “This book. My father had it. … Pilgrim's Progress. Used to read it. … This china dog … Aunt Sadie brought it from the Saint Louis fair. See? Wrote right on it.” It is a community experience which is imaginatively voiced to the buyers of these goods: “You are not buying only junk, you're buying junked lives. … How can we live without our lives? How will we know it's us without our past?”

In addition to the identity invested in the land, the houses and personal possessions, all of which must be left behind, the community is also defined in terms of social customs and mores. That it is patriarchal, for example, is clear from the deference of the women to male decision and authority. When the decision is made to include Casy in the group, Ma Joad is consulted about whether there would be food enough and space, but once that decision is made, Casy, who “knew the government of families,” takes his place among the planning men. “Indeed, his position was eminent, for Uncle John moved sideways, leaving space between Pa and himself for the preacher. Casy squatted down like the others, facing Grampa enthroned on the running board. Ma went to the house again.” It does not matter that Grampa is senile and utterly useless. Formally, his titular headship must be acknowledged, and, at this point in the novel, Ma must leave men to men's business. Again, when the family is seating itself in their truck, ready to leave, Uncle John would have liked his pregnant niece, Rosasharn, instead of himself, to sit up front in the comfortable seat next to the driver. But he knows “this was impossible, because she was young and a woman.” The traditional distinction in social role is also evident in Ma's embarrassment at Casy's offer to salt down the pork. “I can do it,” he says; “there's other stuff for you to do.” Ma “stopped her work then and inspected him oddly, as though he suggested a curious thing. … ‘It's women's work,’ she said finally.” The preacher's reply is significant of many changes to come in the community's sense of identity and the individual's sense of his total role: “It's all work,” he replies. “They's too much of it to split it up to men's or women's work.”

It is fitting that this break from domestic traditions should be announced by Casy, who is the first person from his community whom Tom meets on the way home from prison, and who announces at that meeting that he, the preacher, the spiritual source and authority of that community, has already abandoned the old dispensation and is seeking a new and better one. And after hearing his short, two-sentence, unorthodox testament of belief in an oversoul, a human spirit “ever'body's a part of,” Tom says, “You can't hold no church with idears like that. People would drive you out of the country with idears like that. Jumpin' an' yellin'. That's what folks like. Makes you feel swell. When Granma got to talkin' in tongues, you couldn't tie her down. She could knock over a full-growed deacon with her fist.” Later in the novel other details of this old-time religion are given, such as the mass total immersions; Pa, full of the spirit, jumping over a high bush and breaking his leg; and Casy going to lie in the grass with young girls of his congregation whose religious fervor he had excited. But Casy is through with all that now, and these particular aspects of community, like those inherent in the land, the houses and personal goods, the domestic codes—all must be left behind.

This is not to say, however, that the sense and need of community is lost or has been destroyed. Steinbeck presents this sense and need on several levels from the biological to the mythical and religious. The novel's first interchapter is that masterful description of the turtle crossing the road, surviving both natural hazards and the attempts of man to frustrate its efforts. The turtle is clearly a symbol of the unthinking yet persistent life force. “Nobody can't keep a turtle though,” says Casy. “They work at it and work at it, and at last one day they get out and away they go. …” The fact that this turtle has been going southwest, that Tom picks it up as a present to the family, and that it continues southwest when released, clearly identifies this turtle and its symbolic attributes with the Joads and the migrants. In them too, there exists the instinct for survival and the necessity for movement which form, on the most elemental level, the basis of community.

The last interchapter of the novel's first part (before the Joads actually start their trip) also presents a biological argument. The abandoned houses are only temporarily without life. Soon they are part of a whole new ecology.

When the folks first left, and the evening of the first day came, the hunting cats slouched in from the fields and mewed on the porch. And when no one came out, the cats crept through the open doors and walked mewing through the empty rooms. And then they went back to the fields and were wild cats from then on, hunting gophers and field mice, and sleeping in ditches in the daytime. When the night came, the bats, which had stopped at the doors for fear of light, swooped into the houses and sailed about through the empty rooms, and in a little while they stayed in dark room corners during the day, folded their wings high, and hung headdown among the rafters, and the smell of their droppings was in the empty houses.

And the mice moved in and stored weed seeds in corners, in boxes, in the backs of drawers in the kitchens. And weasels came in to hunt the mice, and the brown owls flew shrieking in and out again.

Now there came a little shower. The weeds sprang up in front of the doorstep, where they had not been allowed, and grass grew up through the porch boards. … The wild cats crept in from the fields at night, but did not mew at the door-step any more. They moved like shadows of a cloud across the moon, into the rooms to hunt the mice.

This life force, which manifests itself in getting the turtle across the road and in creating a new biological community around the abandoned houses, lies also in the nature of man. And because man can abstract and conceptualize, that force is present in him not only in his instinct for physical survival, but also as projected in his gregariousness and social constructs. Thus, despite the fact that the anonymous truck driver in chapter two, a not particularly likable person, is forbidden to carry riders, and may lose his very valuable job for doing so, it is his need for human contact as well as his need of being a “good guy” that prompts him to give Tom Joad a ride: “Fella says once that truck skinners eats all the time. … Sure they stop, but it ain't to eat. They ain't hardly ever hungry. They're just goddamn sick of goin'—get sick of it. Joints is the only place you can pull up, an' when you stop you got to buy somepin' so you can sling the bull with the broad behind the counter.”

Even Tom Joad, who comes into the novel aggressively independent, not only recollects how a fellow inmate at prison who had been paroled came back to prison because it made him feel “lonesome out there,” but admits to the same desire for human community in himself. “‘The guy's right too,’ he said. ‘Las' night, thinkin' where I'm gonna sleep, I got scared. An' I got thinkin' about my bunk, an' I wonder what the stir-bug I got for a cell mate is doin'. Me an' some guys had a strang band goin'. Good one. Guy said we ought to go on the radio. An' this mornin' I didn' know what time to get up. Jus' laid there waitin' for the bell to go off.’” Casy understands this need of man for community. When he tells Tom, “They's an army of us without no harness. … All along I seen it. … Everplace we stopped I seen it. Folks hungry for sidemeat, an' when they get it they ain't fed,” he is saying in his own words that man cannot live by bread alone, that it takes more than a full stomach to make man happy. In one of the interchapters the choric voice defines in communal terms this “harness” which man needs:

The last clear definite function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself [note he does not say himself], and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam. … For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his accomplishments. … Fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.

It is this inherent feeling of “Manself,” to use Steinbeck's term, which forges the link of community, making out of all the scattered, lonely individuals a huge and irresistible “WE.”

Further, in The Grapes of Wrath these seemingly inherent biological drives toward community are supported and given authority through a continuum of historical and religious reference. The Joads trace their ancestry back to the colonization of the new world: “We're Joads,” says Ma. “We don't look up to nobody. Grampa's grampa, he fit in the Revolution.” Looking into the terrible desert which they are about to cross, Al exclaims, “Jesus, what a place. How'd you like to walk across her?” “People done it,” says Tom. “Lots a people done it; an' if they could, we could.” “Lots must a died,” says Al. “Well,” replies Tom, “we ain't come out exactly clean.” As she consoles Tom for the necessity of suffering insults meekly (when they are stopped by vigilantes at the roadblock), Ma Joad repeats again this sense of being supported by participation in a historical community: “You got to have patience. Why, Tom—us people will go on living when all them people is gone. Why, we're the people—we go on.” And one of these phrases, “We're the people,” strikes echoes answered in Psalm 95: “For He is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand,” thus giving the Joads community with the “chosen people.”

The details which further this association are so numerous and have been pointed out by scholars so frequently as to need little discussion here. Briefly, the twelve Joads are the twelve tribes of Judea; they suffer oppression in Oklahoma (Egypt) under the banks (Pharaohs); undertake an exodus; and arrive in California (Canaan, the land of milk and honey) to be received with hostility by the native peoples. The novel's title, through “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” alludes to Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Revelation, as for example “And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.” In some of the interchapters the strong echoes of the King James Old Testament poetically identify the evils of the present with those decried and lamented by the Prophets:

Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the river and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange.

As the numerous allusions and parallels to the Old Testament establish a historical community between the oppressed migrants and the Israelites, the even more numerous allusions and parallels to the New Testament establish a religious community in Christianity. Again, the evidence is so extensive and has been so thoroughly analyzed elsewhere that little discussion is needed here. The most important of these elements is the itinerant preacher, who has lately left off preaching. Beginning with his initials, J. C.; his rebellion against the old religion; his time of meditation in the wilderness; his announcement of the new religion; his taking on his head the sins of others; to his persecution and death crying out, “You don' know what you're doin'”; Jim Casy is clearly a modern Christ figure. The new messiah arrives in a rich context of traditional Christian symbology, and his message, like that of Christ, is one that considerably broadens man's sense of spiritual community.

It rejects theological notions of sin (“There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do.”); it defines the religious impulse as human love (“What's this call, this sperit? … It's love.”); and it identifies the Holy Spirit as all men, the human spirit (“Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of.”). Later in the novel, Casy becomes bolder and extends this community beyond man—“All that lives is holy”—and finally embraces even the inorganic world—“There was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't separate no more. We was one thing. An' that one thing was holy.” His disciple, Tom Joad, repeats Casy's notion of an Oversoul, and immediately quotes from Ecclesiastes to further support the notion of community: “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.” When his mother expresses fear that they may kill him, he replies, “Then it don' matter. Then I'll be ever'where—wherever you look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. … I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready.” As another said before him, “Behold, I am always with you.”

These forces for community which Steinbeck presents in the novel—biological, social, historical, religious—are impressive for their strength and variety, manifesting themselves in a range from the physical functions of unthinking organisms to the efflux of divine spirit. But in The Grapes of Wrath we do not see the realization of utopian community, for there are anticommunity forces as well; and these, too, are strong and manifest themselves in a wide range. Even the religious impulse, which in Casy and Tom is a positive force, can be a negative one, a perversion of its real purpose. Thus Uncle John's sense of personal sin isolates him from his fellowman and drives him to debauchery and a further sense of sin and isolation. Religion is seen as an isolating force also in the fanatic Mrs. Sandry, who frightens Rosasharn with her descriptions of the horrible penalties God visits on pregnant women who see plays, or does “clutch-an-hug dancin',” seeing these as the causes of miscarriage and malformation, rather than disease and malnutrition, as Satan, in the guise of the camp manager, claims. The greatest practical realization of community in the novel is the government camp at Weedpatch, especially the dance. Despite the strong forces against them the people foil attempts to instigate a fight which will give the corrupt police the power to break up the camp. It is important, therefore, that during the dance the religious fanatics are seen as separate: “In front of their tents the Jesus-lovers sat and watched, their faces hard and contemptuous. They did not speak to one another, they watched for sin, and their faces condemned the whole proceeding.”

Back at the other end of the scale, we see anticommunity forces at work also on the biological level of sheer survival. It is not greed or hatred or even ignorance that makes Willy drive one of the destroying tractors: “I got two little kids,” he says. “I got a wife an' my wife's mother. Them people got to eat. Fust an' on'y thing I got to think about is my own folks.” But Muley notes what is behind the bluster: “Seems like he's shamed, so he gets mad.” Mr. Thomas, the owner of a small orchard who is pressured by the Farmers Association to lower his wages, is also doing what he is ashamed of in order to survive, and he too speaks “irritably” and becomes gruff. Near the end of the novel, Ma Joad sees through the glib gibes of the pathetic little clerk in the expensive company store: “Doin' a dirty thing like this. Shames ya, don't it? Got to act flip, huh?” Whether or not the used-car salesmen overcharging for their jalopies also feel shame we do not learn. But clearly these people, as well as many others in the novel, are working against community because of the need for individual survival. Perhaps that is one of the significances of those calm little descriptions of predatory activity in nature which are found throughout the novel. Immediately preceding the car salesmen, for example, we have this: “gradually the skittering life of the ground, of holes and burrows, of the brush, began again; the gophers moved, and the rabbits crept to green things, the mice scampered over clods, and the winged hunters moved soundlessly overhead.”

Sometimes the instinct of mere survival shades into selfishness and greed, as when the large owners squeeze out the little people and pay far lower wages than they can afford. It is interesting of Steinbeck's method that selfishness as an anticommunity drive, absolutely apart from any necessity for survival, receives its barest treatment in an episode involving the Joads themselves, the children. At the government camp, Ruthie breaks into a peaceful, established croquet game, unwilling to wait her turn. Insisting, “I wanta play now,” she wrestles a mallet from a player. The actions of the other children are interesting. Under the guidance of the supervisor, they simply abandon the game to her, refusing community so to speak, leaving her alone and ridiculous on the court until she runs away in tears.

A third anticommunity force is the result of still another step beyond mere survival—the creation of a system, a machine, a monster, which seems to have a life of its own. Steinbeck presents it in a hypothetical choric dialogue:

We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you're wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in the bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it.

But a monster need not be a bank. It may be “an owner with fifty-thousand acres,” or it may be the entire economic structure itself which works against community: “Men who can graft the trees and make the seed fertile and big can find no way to let the hungry people eat their produce. Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten … the works of the roots of the vines, of the trees must be destroyed to keep up the price. … And coroners must fill in the certificates—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.”

In the light of certain cliches about the social message in Steinbeck's supposedly “revolutionary” novel, it is interesting that these concepts of the “monster” and of a backward religion are only two of several anticommunity forces, and that the rest lie not in social structures but in man's own nature or individuality, as with the forces toward survival and selfishness discussed above and the forces of suspicion and ignorance. It is distrust that makes the transport company place a “No Riders” sign on the windshield of its trucks. It is a suspiciousness learned in jail that makes Tom, before his conversion, say for the second time, “I'm just puttin' one foot in front a the other,” and again in a few pages, “I ruther jus' lay one foot down in front a the other.” He doesn't trust people enough to extend himself. So deeply engrained is this suspicion that even at the government camp he is immediately suspicious of the “committee” which he is told will visit them tomorrow, and Pa Joad is openly hostile toward the camp manager's visit, although both occasions are friendly and helpful. Casy tells the story of the organizer who got a union started to help the workers: “An' know what? Them very folks he been tryin' to help tossed him out. Wouldn' have nothin' to do with 'im. Scared they'd get saw in his company. Says, ‘Git out. You're a danger on us.’”

Along with suspicion and distrust is ignorance. There is the simple ignorance of the hired tractor driver who perhaps lives twenty miles away in town and needs not come back to his tractor for weeks or months:

And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation. And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation. For nitrates are not the land, not phosphates; and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all of these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis. The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis. But the machine man driving a dead tractor on land that he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself. When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and his home is not the land.

A more complex aspect of ignorance as a force against community appears in the interchapters, most clearly in that chapter wherein migrants are forced to sell their household goods to profiteers who take advantage of their need in order to pay very little for honest goods, and who are addressed by the choric voice: “you're buying bitterness. Buying a plow to plow your own children under, buying the arms and spirits that might have saved you. Five dollars, not four. I can't haul them back—Well, take 'em for four. But I warn you, you're buying what will plow your own children under. And you won't see. You can't see. … But watch it, mister. There's a premium goes with this pile of junk and the bay horses—so beautiful—a packet of bitterness to grow in your house and to flower some day. We could have saved you, but you cut us down, and soon you will be cut down and there'll be none of us to save you.” Perhaps no other passage in the novel carries so convincingly this great truth of human community, that no man is an island, that what you do unto the least of these you do unto me. The tenor of all these forces of ignorance against community is, of course, in Casy's dying words, an echo of Christ's own words—“You don' know what you're doin'.”

Because it is not theological or sociological determinism, but ignorance breeding selfishness and distrust, that is so largely responsible for the forces against community, it follows that the establishment of the new community will come out of true knowledge, out of which in turn will come love and sharing. It is Casy, the spiritual leader, who first abandons the old ways and becomes a seeker for new truth. When he first appears he has already abandoned his conventional notions of sin, hellfire, and the salvation of individual souls for the doctrine of universal love and the transcendental Oversoul. He asks to go along with the Joads because he wants to learn more: “I'm gonna work in the fiel's, in the green fiel's, an' I'm gonna try to learn. Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear 'em talk, gonna hear 'em sing. Gonna listen to kids eatin' mush. Gonna hear husban' an' wife poundin' the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with 'em an' learn.” What he finally learns, in jail after giving himself up to save Tom and Floyd, is that man's spiritual unity must express itself in a social unity, which is why he becomes an organizer. The grace which he reluctantly gives over his first breakfast with the Joads is already groping in this direction: “I got to thinkin' how we was holy when we was one thing, an' mankin' was holy when it was one thing. An' it on'y got unholy when one mis'able little fella got the bit in his teeth an' run off his own way, kickin' an' draggin' an' fightin'. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they're all workin' together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang—that's right, that's holy.”

It is this growing knowledge of the necessity of sharing with strangers far beyond the usual circle of family and friends that becomes the most powerful force for establishing the new community. The novel's action opens with a series of acts of sharing. The truck driver shares a ride, Tom offers to share his whiskey with him and does share it with Casy. Muley not only shares his rabbits, but makes the first statement of this new principle: “‘I ain't got no choice of the matter.’ He stopped on the ungracious sound of his words. ‘That ain't like I mean it. That ain't. I mean’—he stumbled—‘what I mean, if a fella's got somepin' to eat an' another fella's hungry—why, the first fella ain't got no choice. I mean, s'pose I pick up my rabbits an' go off somewheres an' eat 'em. See?’” To this is added Mrs. Wilson's answer to Ma Joad's thanks for help: “People needs—to help.” Just a few pages later Ma Joad, in replying to Mrs. Wilson's thanks for help, gives the concept a further turn: “you can't let help go unwanted.” It is significant that the first example of spontaneous sharing with strangers on the journey is a symbolic merging of two families: Grampa's death in the Wilson's tent, his burial in one of the Wilson's blankets with a page torn from the Wilson's bible, and Ma Joad's promise to care for Mrs. Wilson. As Pa Joad expresses it later, “We almost got a kin bond.” And Ma Joad, who starts off with a ferocious defense of her family against all comers—“All we got is the fambly”—four hundred pages later says, “Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do.” Her progress is charted by the numerous occasions for sharing which are described in the novel—their past, their knowledge, their food and hunger, gasoline, transportation, shelter, work, talent, joy and sorrow.

The narrative is saturated with the particulars of this sharing, and it is in the choric voice of the interchapter: “And because they were lonely and perplexed … they huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country. … In the evening twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the west was one dream.” It is this sharing that creates the unity, the change from “I” to “We,” the new sense of community through which the people survive. And those who do not share, who continue selfish and distrustful, “the companies, the banks worked at their own doom and they did not know it.”

The more one reads The Grapes of Wrath, the more thoroughly one knows the many ramifications of its informing theme, the more perfect and moving seems the novel's ending. Here, in this one real and symbolic act everything is brought together. Rosasharn gives her milk out of biological necessity to do so; she feeds not her own baby but an old man, a stranger. The Rose of Sharon, Christ, offers his body in communion. Biology, sociology, history, and religion become one expression of the community of mankind.

Leonard Lutwack (essay date 1971)

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SOURCE: Lutwack, Leonard. “The Grapes of Wrath.” In Heroic Fiction: The Epic Tradition and American Novels of the Twentieth Century, pp. 47-63. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Lutwack identifies The Grapes of Wrath as a novel in the epic tradition, drawing in particular from the stories of the Israelites in the biblical Exodus narrative and the Trojans in the Aeneid.]

The line of descent from The Octopus to The Grapes of Wrath is as direct as any that can be found in American literature. The journey of the Okies in Steinbeck's book is certainly in the spirit of one of those “various fightings westward” that Norris identified as productive of epic writing: “Just that long and terrible journey from the Mississippi to the ocean is an epic in itself.”1 As one would expect, too, the later book reflects a more advanced stage of economic development, presenting as it does the struggle of proletarian masses against capitalist power, while the conflict in The Octopus is between two parties of the owning class, the ranchers, or small entrepreneurs, against the trust. Both novels have a universalizing tendency in that they create from a local situation a synecdoche of worldwide import. Thus Steinbeck's Okies, having all the surface characteristics of rural Americans of a certain region, are essentially farmers suddenly reduced by natural catastrophe and economic process to the status of unskilled laborers. Theirs is a cataclysmic predicament of the twentieth century. In the course of the journey imposed upon them they learn to identify themselves as a separate class and then to discover and develop leaders who will guide them in their effort to reestablish themselves in society. The Grapes of Wrath is a thoroughly didactic epic novel: an exploited group discovers that it is being exploited, that it is, indeed, a new class in society, the proletariat; individuals within that class discover the manner of that exploitation and grope for the means to combat it, or at least protest it; and the reader of the book, presumably, discovers that an alarming world economic condition is now making itself felt in America. The novel has a two-part theme, the education of a people and the education of its emerging leaders, and a three-part action, the dispossession, migration, and resettlement of a people.

To dignify his starving sharecroppers and give form to their story, Steinbeck draws upon two epic traditions of migratory peoples, the account of the Israelites in the Book of Exodus and the story of the Trojans in the Aeneid. From the New Testament and the epic tradition he derives the forms of heroism and self-sacrifice that inspire the leaders of these people. Criticism has taken more note of the Bible influence because it is so obvious: there are unmistakable parallels between the trials of the Okies and the Israelites, between preacher Casy and Christ, and between Tom Joad and Moses. It is not surprising that Steinbeck's language is a close imitation of the English of the King James Version. A result of his deliberate effort to adapt style to subject in all his works, it constitutes a much more successful solution to the problem of creating a special style for an epic novel than Norris's romantic colors in The Octopus. To obtain elevation of style Steinbeck poeticizes his prose by echoing the phrasing and vocabulary of the King James Version in his descriptive passages and, secondly, by endowing the low-colloquial speeches of Casy and Tom Joad with an unusual amount of passion, imagery, and philosophical comment. As an example of the first method, here is the opening paragraph of chapter 17, one of the interchapters:

The cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and they took the migrant way to the West. In the daylight they scuttled like bugs to the westward; and as the dark caught them, they clustered like bugs near to shelter and to the water. And because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a new mysterious place, they huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country. Thus it might be that one family camped near a spring, and another camped for the spring and for company, and a third because two families had pioneered the place and found it good. And when the sun went down, perhaps twenty families and twenty cars were there.2

Employing Biblical devices more thickly than most, this passage indicates what Steinbeck is seeking to do and the means he uses. Dignity and solemnity are imparted to the miserable plight of the Okies by triadic phrasing, augmentations such as “near to” and “it might be,” repetitions of word and phrase, and exact echoes such as “found it good.” Association with the Bible story of the Israelites through language alone leads considerable elevation to the Okies. In his second method of aggrandizing the prose style of his novel, Steinbeck tries to intensify with poetic expressiveness the crude speech of his Okies. The result, as illustrated in an informal sermon by Casy, resembles the style of Huck Finn in his lyrical moments:

“I ain't sayin' I'm like Jesus,” the preacher went on. “But I got tired like Him, an' I got mixed up like Him, an' I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin' stuff. Nighttime I'd lay on my back an' look up at the stars; morning I'd set an' watch the sun come up; midday I'd look out from a hill at the rollin' country; evenin' I'd foller the sun down. Sometimes I'd pray like I always done. On'y I couldn' figure what I was prayin' to or for. There was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't separate no more. We was one thing. An' that one thing was holy.”

(P. 110)

Between these two extremes, the thick Biblical and the poetic low colloquial, lies the narrative style in which the bulk of the Joads' story is told. It retains some of the deliberate rhythm of the Biblical and some of the realistic vocabulary of the colloquial styles. The three styles make a blend, one style modulating well with another. There is no weakness in the book on that score, but there is some question about the appropriateness of the exalted styles altogether. Just as in the ritual behavior of the Okies, so in the exalted language that describes them and in the impassioned speech that they sometimes use, there is considerable pompousness. In both gesture and speech Steinbeck occasionally comes too near to a burlesque tone; his seriousness becomes excessive, and he commits the prime error of many writers who attempt the epic, swelling and grandioseness. He lifts the Joads, in particular, and the Okies, in general, too quickly and abruptly from their realistic existence to the level of epic heroism.

There is no question of the influence of the Old and New Testaments on The Grapes of Wrath. Parallels with the Aeneid are hardly as deliberate, but are worth pointing out as evidence that the whole ancient heroic tradition contributes to the materials of the epic novel. In the American work the three-part narrative scheme of the Aeneid appears again in the record of a people who lose their homeland, make a perilous journey to a promising new land, and fight against the hostile natives there for a chance to begin a new life. The first two parts are more tightly woven than the third because the family stays very close together as they leave home and travel the road across the country, but after their arrival in California the pressures pulling them apart multiply. Uncle John's guilt gets worse, Rosasharn's time is drawing near, Al's desire to strike out for himself is intensified, the youngsters Ruthie and Winfield are less controllable, Casy and Tom are being drawn into the larger community. The Joad family's mode of travel, the improvised car-truck piled high with household goods, can no longer serve as a striking central image after the journey is over and the family lives in a more complicated social setting. The result of all this individual stress and social complication is an increased variety of material and a more episodic structure in the third part of the novel. There is still a strong line of action in the economic struggle, but it does not have the clear goal of the earlier drive towards freedom in the West. The same blurring of the narrative line, the same sense of confused action, is to be noted in the last part of the Aeneid; but whereas this falling-off of intensity is a fault in the Aeneid because it does not accord with the triumph of Trojan arms, in the novel it is in perfect accord with the frustration of Okie ambitions. Undoubtedly, interest in the third part of the Aeneid flags because attention is turned away from sharply focused individuals, Aeneas himself and Dido, to more generalized accounts of tribes and warring nations. Similarly, in The Grapes of Wrath the exclusive interest in the family sustains the first two parts better than the last part, in which there is a scattering of interest among larger social units.

Narrative structure is the most accomplished aspect of The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck achieves a successful solution to the chief structural problem of the epic writer, whether it be Homer or Tolstoy: the harmonization of the general social action involving masses of people and major issues with particular actions involving closely examined individuals and their concerns. Steinbeck simplifies his problem somewhat by restricting himself to the members of one family and their few close associates, Casy and the Wilsons, and to a few quickly drawn agents of their enemies. His Joads serve the same synecdochic purpose of Zola's Maheus in Germinal, but it is to be noted that Zola does not confine himself to one side of the struggle alone nor to one family of miners. The Joads exemplify in detail what is presumably going on in thousands of similar families. Moreover, Steinbeck supplies a more explicit link between the general and particular actions by using “interchapters” or panoramic narrative in which the activities of all the Okies are summarized, sometimes from an objective viewpoint and sometimes as collective monologue from the viewpoint of representative Okies. Enough details are common to both kinds of action to give the sense that the Joads are living the same kind of life and having the same thoughts and feelings as the masses described in the interchapters. Except for the interruption they make in the story of the Joads, the interchapters are readily assimilated for their thematic and material relevance.

A few minor echoes from classical epics may be cited. The patriarch of the family whose fortunes we follow, the Joads, has to be carried onto the truck when they are forced to leave home; he dies on the way, and a pause in the journey is made to bury him with solemn rites in a strange land. After the feast of pork and potatoes, Ma Joad declares, “Grampa—it's like he's dead a year.” A granddaughter consoles the dead man's grieving old wife; she lies “beside the old woman and the murmur of their soft voices drifted to the fire” where the men were sitting. At the place where Grampa dies the Joads make friends with another family of Okies, the Wilsons, whose car has broken down. The two Joad boys undertake to repair it and they find the necessary parts in an auto graveyard presided over by a one-eyed “specter of a man,” who cries miserably as he tells them his sad plight. This scene, according to an early commentator on Steinbeck, “afterwards floats in the mind like a piece of epic.”3 The car is repaired and the two families now join forces as they proceed on their journey together. These are but faint echoes of the story of Aeneas's father, Aeneas at Eryx, and Odysseus's tale of Polyphemus.

The ceremonial solemnity with which the Joads perform certain family functions suggests a more general epic quality. The frequent family councils, the ritual killing of the pigs before the departure, the burial of Grampa, and many other activities are executed by Steinbeck's American sharecroppers with all of the ponderous care and sacred protocol of noblemen out of the heroic tradition of the past. Such attempts to aggrandize the folk, also to be found in The Octopus and For Whom the Bell Tolls, often fall into bathos in Steinbeck. Much more effectively done are the many prophecies of disaster uttered all along the road to California, particularly one by a kind of Teiresias whom the Joads meet in one of the improvised campsites. A “ragged man,” his coat a mass of “torn streamers,” he at first refuses to say what lies in store for the Joads in California. “I don' wanna fret you,” he tells Pa. What he finally does reveal is exactly what happens to the Joads in the remaining half of the book—their being exploited in an economic situation in which thousands of men compete for a few jobs. He finishes his prophecy, “and then he turned and walked quickly away into the darkness.”

Jim Casy is a prophet in another, more hopeful, tradition, that of Christ in the New Testament. Disturbed by the economic plight of the farming class he serves as a Baptist preacher, he makes a retreat in order to ponder their situation and decides that he cannot help by continuing in the ministry. Actually, his Christianity is simply broadened by the sudden growth of his social consciousness. He becomes inspired with the idea that the brotherhood of all men must work together for social justice, and to this he adds a more abstract idea of the holy relatedness of mankind in a kind of Emersonian oversoul.4 This doctrine he preaches as a new revelation to save the Okies from destruction and the world from economic warfare. He dies preaching for the cause and saying to his assailants, “You don' know what you're a-doin!” But he leaves behind a disciple in Tom Joad, who at once begins to tell the story of Casy and even thinks he sees him after his death.

If Casy is Christian and socialist, Ma Joad is pagan and primitive. If Casy adds the spirit of a New Testament prophet to the doctrine of a twentieth-century class-conscious revolutionary, Ma Joad is in the ancient tradition of the kore-goddess protecting her hero-son and her people. She is splendidly revealed (dea certe) to Tom when he returns home, a stranger, after spending four years in prison for having killed a man in a quarrel:

Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. … And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess.

She moved toward him lithely, soundlessly in her bare feet, and her face was full of wonder. Her small hand felt his arm, felt the soundness of his muscles. And then her fingers went up to his cheek as a blind man's fingers might. And her joy was nearly like sorrow. …

(Pp. 100-101)

The only embrace between mother and wandering son is the touch of her hand to his face; between mother-goddess and human son is the same gulf that we see between Venus and Aeneas in book one of the Aeneid: “Oh, why may we not join / Hand to hand, or ever converse straightforwardly?” Like Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls, like Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, Ma Joad is richly endowed with the awesome, divine presence of the goddess who presides over the generations of the family and the cycle of life. Her every action—except one, as we shall see—is motivated by the instinctive desire to keep the family together for the purpose of mere survival. She cradles the dying Granma Joad in her arms, she protects and nourishes her pregnant daughter, she restores her son Tom to life.

Produced by the influences of a Christ-like companion, Casy, and his mother-goddess, Tom Joad is indeed a hero of divine origin. He is moved to heroic acts by the spirit of anger and revenge which the murder of Casy stirs in him, and on the other hand by the spirit of compassion and love for mankind which his mother so well demonstrates in her selfless devotion to the family. Images of death and rebirth mark Tom's relations with Casy and Ma Joad, as in their different ways they strive to bring him to the role of a hero. There is something terribly grim and sad about the career of Tom. Never allowed a romantic interlude, he is plunged into the troubles of his people upon his return from prison and slowly comes to an awareness of his responsibilities of leadership. Almost glumly, with little expression of personal feeling, he does not only what is expected of him but more besides. A peak in his development occurs when, in the manner of a classic brother-in-arms, Tom at once kills the strikebreaker who has killed Casy; Tom is then himself struck, escapes from his pursuers, and comes to an irrigation ditch, where he bathes his torn cheek and nose. Casy, when he was a preacher, used to baptize people in irrigation ditches; he is killed as he stands beside a stream. Tom's introduction to the bitter struggle of worker against producer dates from the violent experience beside the stream. The stinging baptism at the irrigation ditch, after he has fled, does not lead him into his new life at once, however. He must die before he can be wholly reborn, and he must make a retreat to consecrate himself to the cause in his soul as well as in his arm and receive the blessing of his goddess-mother as well as the example of his surrogate father. He rejoins the family, but because he is being sought by the police and can easily be identified by his wounds, he must remain hidden: he is as one who no longer exists in the Joad family. To get past the guards who are looking for him, he lies between two mattresses in the Joad truck, and then he takes refuge in the brush near the boxcar that the family is now inhabiting. After Ruthie has told her playmates about her big brother Tom, Ma decides that she must release Tom from his obligation to the family for his own safety, and she goes to the “cave of vines” he has improvised. Tom, in the meantime, has come around to a sense of his duty to “fight so hungry people can eat” and is ready to begin a new life away from the family.

The scene in which Ma and Tom part is the climax of Tom's career as a hero and the very heart of Steinbeck's point that class must replace family as the social unit worth fighting for. It is a high point in Steinbeck's writing, and some of its strength comes from the association of rebirth imagery and myths of the mother-goddess and her hero son with the crude story of an organizer of farm labor in twentieth-century America. Carrying a dish of “pork chops and fry potatoes,” Ma walks at night “to the end of the line of tents” in the camp of fruit pickers and steps “in among the willows beside the stream” until she reaches “the black round hole of the culvert where she always left Tom's food.” She leaves her package at the hole and waits a little distance away, among the willows:

And then a wind stirred the willows delicately, as though it tested them, and a shower of golden leaves coasted down to the ground. Suddenly a gust boiled in and racked the trees, and a cricking downpour of leaves fell. Ma could feel them on her hair and on her shoulders. Over the sky a plump black cloud moved, erasing the stars. The fat drops of rain scattered down, splashing loudly on the fallen leaves, and the cloud moved on and unveiled the stars again. Ma shivered. The wind blew past and left the thicket quiet, but the rushing of the trees went on down the stream.

(P. 567)

A “dark figure” finally appears at the culvert; it is Tom and after her plea to talk with him he leads Ma to his hideout, across a stream and a field filled with “the blackening stems” of cotton plants. Ma crawls into the “cave of vines” and there in the dark they talk. She explains that she did not let him go earlier because she was afraid for him; with the touch of her hand she discovers that he has a bad scar on his face and his nose is crooked. Again, as in the first scene of recognition between mother and son, the hand of the mother lingers lovingly on the face of the son, just as Thetis “took her son's head in her arms” before she releases him for battle in book 18 of the Iliad. Ma Joad forces her gift of seven dollars on Tom to help him on his perilous way. Full of his new mission in life, he does not respond to the love his mother expresses for him, but simply says, “Goodby.” Ma returns to the camp, and Tom presumably will go on to his doom as Casy did before him but also to a sort of immortality for men who have fought for social justice:

“Then I'll be all aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where—wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'—I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build—why, I'll be there.”

(P. 572)

This is a kind of immortality that Ma “don' un'erstan',” although it is she who confers it on him by making his heroism possible.

It is not enough to say that this wonderful scene is inspired by the New Testament story of Christ's resurrection from the tomb.5 The “cave of vines” and the tomb are the womb from which the hero is delivered to a new life, but the landscape in Steinbeck's scene is more nearly that of the classical underworld. The nourishing of the hero-son by the earth-goddess mother until he is strong enough to leave her suggests the myth of Ishtar and Tammuz, and the commitment of the son to war and eventual death recalls the sad exchange between Thetis and Achilles. Tom Joad's “death” brings an end to his ordinary existence as one of thousands of Okies; he is reborn into the life of the epic hero, who dooms himself to an early death as soon as he elects a heroic course of action. His consecration is affirmed by his discipleship to Casy and the ritual release performed by his mother. If there is a resurrection, it is the resurrection of Casy in Tom. Tom's rebirth through the agency of Casy and Ma Joad has a striking antecedent in the experience of Henry Fleming in Crane's Red Badge of Courage. The change in Henry's attitude toward heroism—from callow sentimentality to a mature sense of its real consequences—is in part wrought by the example of Jim Conklin, another Christ-like figure, and Henry's encounter with death in the forest, alone, and rebirth among his comrades.6

The rebirth of Tom as hero is emphasized by the ironical implication of another incident. Shortly after Ma Joad has returned from the stream and the willows, the pregnant Rosasharn distractedly seeks refuge in the very same place, along “the stream and the trail that went beside it.” She lies down among the berry vines and feels “the weight of the baby inside her.” Not long after this the rains come. Pa Joad and other men in the camp work feverishly to hold back the swollen stream from flooding their miserable living quarters; they build an earth embankment, but it is swept away and the water washes into the camp. At the same time Ma Joad and some neighboring women are helping Rosasharn deliver her baby, but they meet with no greater success—the baby is stillborn. Uncle John is delegated to bury the “blue shriveled little mummy”; instead, he takes the apple box it is in and floats it down the river, hoping that it will be a sign to the California landowners of the Okies' sore affliction. “Go down an' tell 'em,” he says, in words echoing the Negro spiritual “Go Down, Moses” and thus linking three oppressed peoples—Israelites, American Negro slaves, and the Okies. The river is the same that saw the rebirth of Tom, who is a kind of Moses to his people, and now it receives the dead infant.

In Tom the Biblical and epic traditions of the hero came together to make a proletarian leader of the twentieth century. The man of anger and the quick blow of revenge is also the disciple devoted to self-sacrifice in the cause of the downtrodden and deprived. The son of the spouse-goddess is released from the death that is the family in order to do battle for the class that will possess the future. The man of violence bred from personal pride—Tom killed his first man in a tavern brawl—is baptized in the violence of class struggle, and he turns, like the classical hero, from the defense of his own rights to the defense of all men's rights. Like Presley in The Octopus, Tom is an apprentice-hero who learns from a man more experienced in warfare, in class warfare. What Presley learns from his mentor, the anarchist barkeep, is in the same political tradition as what Tom learns from Casy; the leftist attack on capitalism is rejected by Norris, however, and seemingly accepted by Steinbeck after it is filtered through Christian feeling and presented in Biblican and epic images.

The Grapes of Wrath begins with a drought bringing death to the land and dispossession to its inhabitants and ends ironically with a flood that again destroys the land and disperses the people. Nature as well as society dooms the Okies, who fall from one catastrophe into another, losing their land, their belongings, their livelihood, and finally even their miserable shelters. But in spite of homelessness and despair, the Joads have succeeded in making an important journey, passing from one bond, the family, to another, mankind. “They's changes—all over,” it is said. “Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody.” In place of the family a new form of social organization is tentatively envisaged on the model of a small socialist community. Not all can see the promised land—only Casy, who does not live to enter it, and Tom, who is on the verge of entering it at the close of the book. Pa Joad's symbolical attempt, in fighting the river, to unite the community after the old style of neighborly cooperation comes too late and fails. Having long since relinquished control of the family to Ma, Pa Joad is a man without a role to play in the world. He joins Magnus Derrick in the company of those in the older generation who, unable to accommodate themselves to a new situation, are only pitifully heroic. Others, those who seek individual solutions, are shown to be equally futile. Muley Graves stays on the abandoned farmlands in Oklahoma and must live “like a coyote” on the trash left behind and the wild animals still surviving on the plains. Uncle Noah wanders away down a river he half-wittedly fancies, and Uncle John gets drunk when he can sneak the money. Al, Tom's younger brother, strikes out for himself, ironically to start another hapless family. While Ma cannot understand Tom's social idealism, she and Rosasharn do come around to the side of humanity in the closing scene of the book when Rosasharn, with her mother's prompting, feeds to a dying old man, a stranger, the milk her body had stored for her child. With neither child nor husband Rosasharn must abandon the idea of family. Ma's family has disintegrated, Rosasharn's has not even had a chance to begin.

The images of the community and the hero that dominate the ending of The Grapes of Wrath are pitiful enough: a fugitive coming out of hiding to do unequal battle with an infinitely superior enemy and two frightened women trying desperately to save a dying old man in an empty barn. It seems to be an image of miserable survival in the face of awesome odds. Still, out of the sordid circumstances of a purely naturalistic life a hero is born in a manner reminiscent of great heroes of the past. The affirmation of a better future seems groundless, but there is affirmation nonetheless, and a hero is ready to attempt its achievement by leading people who have prepared themselves for a new kind of society. “The book is neither riddle nor tragedy,” insists Warren French, “it is an epic comedy of the triumph of the ‘holy spirit.’”7

Norris explores the possibilities of heroism in one novel, Steinbeck and Hemingway in a whole succession of novels. Steinbeck seems to want to believe in heroic behavior and the ideal community, yet in one novel after another he submits a negative report as to the chances of either in our time. His first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), in Warren French's summary, “asserts that there is no place for the swashbuckling hero in the modern world.”8 In Tortilla Flat (1935) Steinbeck lovingly presents the irregular habits and amusing antics of a number of paisanos, but at the same time, by stressing a mock-heroic parallel with Malory's Morte d'Arthur, he insists upon our viewing their attempts to be heroic as ridiculous. In the end, Danny, the Arthur of a paisano Round Table, armed with a broken table leg, goes out to do battle and dies in a duel with “The Enemy” in the “gulch,” a place which he and his companions used for want of an outhouse. Although the hero in the next novel, In Dubious Battle (1936), bears a slight resemblance to another figure from the Arthurian legend, Percival, the mood of this work is starkly naturalistic. Jim Nolan's attempt to become the leader of embattled laborers is soon ended by the blast of a shotgun that renders him, horribly and quite literally, a hero without a face. His epitaph is spoken by his mentor, Mac, and is necessarily brief: “Comrades! He didn't want nothing for himself—.” Lennie, the hero in Of Mice and Men (1937), is a feebleminded giant, “shapeless of face,” and obviously incapable of responsible behavior. In his time of trouble he takes refuge in a place near a river where a path winds “through the willows and among the sycamores.” But Lennie is not reborn there; his best friend must become his executioner there because Lennie cannot control the great strength he has and is consequently a menace to the community.

In The Grapes of Wrath, for the first time, Steinbeck offers a not altogether forlorn image of the epic hero. Tom Joad is a hero with a face, badly battered though it is; he survives the assault upon him, his spirit is revived at a place where willows grow by a stream and, presumably, he is embarked upon a heroic career. Jim Nolan finishes before he ever really begins, and the possibility of rebirth never materializes. Just before his death Mac advises him of a place of refuge should the occasion ever arise, “a deep cave” hidden by willows near a stream. But Jim never gets to the cave; he dies actually, not symbolically as Tom does. Nor does Jim have Ma Joad as his protective goddess and Casy as his martyred mentor. Mac, a hardheaded and cautious labor organizer, does not have the mythical credentials to inspire a hero. Lennie also has a cave to retire to if he becomes too much of a burden to his friend George, but there is no returning from it. Only Tom returns from the cave and the willows, the place of death, to present the face of a hero to the world, a face so badly scarred that he can no longer be recognized as Tom Joad. Of all Steinbeck's heroes, he is the only one who affirms the possibility of a hero arising out of the anonymity of twentieth-century economic strife and still bearing the signs of an ancient dedication.


  1. “A Neglected Epic,” The Responsibilities of the Novelist (New York, 1928), p. 281.

  2. The Grapes of Wrath (New York, 1939), p. 264.

  3. Harry T. Moore, The Novels of John Steinbeck (Chicago, 1939), p. 71.

  4. Steinbeck's Emersonian transcendentalism is carefully worked out by Peter Lisca in The Wide World of John Steinbeck (New Brunswick, N. J., 1958), pp. 168-69.

  5. See H. Kelly Crockett, “The Bible and The Grapes of Wrath,College English, 24 (December 1962), 197; Charles C. Dougherty, “The Christ Figure in the Grapes of Wrath,” ibid., p. 226.

  6. See John E. Hart, “The Red Badge of Courage as Myth and Symbol,” University of Kansas City Review, 19 (Summer 1953), 249-56.

  7. John Steinbeck (New York, 1961), p. 107.

  8. Ibid., p. 37.

Duane R. Carr (essay date summer-fall 1975)

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SOURCE: Carr, Duane R. “Steinbeck's Blakean Vision in The Grapes of Wrath.Steinbeck Quarterly 8, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1975): 67-73.

[In the following essay, Carr uses Jim Casy's speech at Grandpa Joad's graveside as a starting point to analyze instances of allusion to the poetry of William Blake in The Grapes of Wrath.]

Steinbeck criticism has come a long way since Edmund Wilson's early judgment of The Grapes of Wrath as principally about animals, not humans,1 and Stanley Edgar Hyman's rather harsh judgment of Steinbeck as interested only in the study of ecology.2 Three critics in particular—Peter Lisca, Warren French, and Joseph Fontenrose—have demonstrated Steinbeck's interest in the growth of the individual man from self-centered isolation to involvement in the human community,3 and Fontenrose notes that “Steinbeck is an heir of the Romantic movement,” not the Naturalistic.4 I would like to place Steinbeck even more firmly in the Romantic tradition by demonstrating his close affinity to the poet William Blake.

Steinbeck's interest throughout his writing career in Blake's themes, as well as in the actual poetry, is evident from his first published novel, Cup of Gold, a title taken from Blake's “The Mental Traveller.” The novel deals with innocence and experience, and Steinbeck describes the gold cup as containing a distorted Blakean illustration: “around its outer edge four grotesque lambs chased each other, and inside, on the bottom, a naked girl lifted her arms in sensual ecstasy.”5 The Blakean influence is also seen in the 1950 play-novelette, Burning Bright, which takes its title from “The Tyger.” In this work, Steinbeck attempts to deal with the themes of that poem and quotes the first stanza as an introduction. The most important allusion to Blake, however, is contained in a highly significant scene in Steinbeck's most famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath. When asked to pray at Grampa Joad's graveside, Jim Casy says this: “Heard a fella tell a poem one time, an' he says ‘All that lives is holy.’ Got to thinkin', an' purty soon it means more than the words says.”6 The line, only slightly misquoted—“Everything that lives is holy”—concludes Blake's much anthologized The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a work Steinbeck could easily have known.7 In the context of Casy's graveside prayer, Blake's words reinforce the notion that one's chief concern should be with the living, not the dead. This concern leads to Casy's development and contributes to the larger Blakean themes of the interdependence of all men and the movement of individual man from innocence to experience to a higher innocence. Thus, I believe that an examination and comparison of The Grapes of Wrath with those Blake texts most accessible to the non-scholar will reveal a similar treatment of these themes.

The innocence to experience and to higher innocence theme is central to Blake's poetry and begins with Songs of Innocence wherein the children are joyful, instinctive, and under the protection of an earthly mother, a spiritual father, or both. In these poems Christ is the lamb and the shepherd: “He is watchful while they are in peace, / For they know when their Shepherd is nigh” (p. 118). But there is a hint that all is not joy, however, particularly in “The Chimney Sweeper” and “Holy Thursday.” In “Night” we are told directly that childhood innocence ends: “Farewell, green field and happy groves, / Where flocks have took delight” (p. 119). And “The Echoing Green” which opens as “The Sun does arise,” ends with the sun descending “On the darkening Green” (p. 116).

From Innocence, the child emerges into Experience: “I wander thro' each charter'd street, / Near where the charter'd Thames does flow, / And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe” (p. 216). Throughout the Songs of Experience, the former innocent is introduced to aspects of the human condition unknown in his earlier state—cruelty, selfishness, fear, hypocrisy, deceit, poverty, and hunger. In Songs of Innocence, “Mercy has a human heart, / Pity a human face, / And Love, the human form divine, / And Peace, the human dress” (p. 117). But in Songs of Experience, we learn that “Pity would be no more / If we did not make somebody Poor; / And Mercy no more could be / If all were as happy as we. / And mutual fear brings peace, / Till the selfish loves increase” (p. 217).

Experience, however, is absolutely essential for Blake, for it leads man not only to an awareness of these negative human attributes, but also to self-knowledge of his own divinity. That is, if he allows his divinely given Imagination to function, he comes to realize that he is, indeed, a part of the “Divine Image,” and he partakes of, and participates in universal love as well as the Mutual Forgiveness of Christ. In this way, man can achieve the higher innocence.

If man does not allow his Imagination to lift him beyond both innocence and experience to a participation in the Divine Image, he simply becomes corrupted and “builds a Hell in Heaven's respite,” or he refuses experience altogether to retreat into ignorance. This is what happens in The Book of Thel. There Blake asserts the interdependence of all life. The little Cloud's transient existence is justified because it unites with the dew, “bearing food to all our tender flowers” (p. 128). The Lilly, in turn, “doth nourish the innocent lamb” and tends “her numerous charge among the verdant grass” (p. 128). The Cloud tells Thel, “Everything that lives / Lives not alone for itself” (p. 129). But Thel, “the Virgin,” refuses the conditions of life—self-sacrifice and death, and she flees “back unhinder'd till she came into the vales of Har,” a refuge for sterile innocence (p. 130).

While this summary of Blake's vision is admittedly simplified, I believe it will lead us into a more fruitful reading of The Grapes of Wrath, for in that novel, Steinbeck moves his principal characters from the innocence of the Oklahoma chapters, to the experience of the highway and California episodes, to the higher innocence of the closing scenes of the novel.

The book opens in Oklahoma, the land of innocence, with a preponderance of animals who go happily about their business unaware of the tragedy being enacted by the people around them. A typical early passage reflects this: “The cotton field scurried with waking life, the quick flutter of morning birds feeding on the ground, the scamper over the clods of disturbed rabbits” (p. 90). It is, in fact, the animals who inherit the Oklahoma land when the people abandon it. Life abounds not only among the animals, but as well among the plants that are described as “young thirsting” and the grass heads as “sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed” (p. 20). Even the ground throbs, and clods take on life, recalling the Fairy's words to the Poet in Blake's Europe: “I'll sing to you to this soft lute, and shew you all alive / The world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy” (p. 237). In this early section of The Grapes of Wrath, the people are constantly compared to animals, and those who do not grow with experience and realize themselves as parts of the “whole” of humanity, are still described in animalistic terms at the end of the novel.

To this land of innocence belong a number of static, child-like characters. Muley Graves stubbornly refuses to enter the world of experience on the highway and remains to haunt the land “like a … graveyard ghos'” (pp. 69, 151). Grampa, “vicious and cruel and impatient, like a frantic child” (p. 105), is afraid to leave, dies through sheer force of will, and is assigned by Preacher Casy a role common to the lower forms of life but nevertheless a role that Thel fled—to become “the food of worms” (p. 129). And Granma, “lecherous” and “savage” (p. 105), follows Grampa in death soon after. All three are likable in their child-like innocence, but they also represent the amoral and selfish state Blake associated with innocence, as do the children, Winfield, Ruthie, and Al, older but still childlike.

Noah Joad is the most Thel-like in that he has “little pride, no sexual urges,” and “has never been angry in his life” (p. 106). It is he who deserts the family early in the journey when they pause to rest and bathe in a stream. Before he walks off through the willows beside the water, he tells Tom, “I'd like to jus' stay here. Like to lay here forever. Never get hungry an' never get sad. Lay in the water all life long … lazy as a brood sow in the mud” (p. 278)—words that tie him to the animal imagery Steinbeck associates with his state of development and also to the water imagery reminiscent of The Book of Thel.

But growth of the individual from innocence to experience, and the recognition of his divinity and awareness that he is a member of the Eternal Brotherhood is Blake's message as it is Steinbeck's. Thus, some characters—Ma, Tom, Rose of Sharon, and Jim Casy do achieve an awareness and, in Ma Joad's words, become more than themselves.

In the opening pages of The Grapes of Wrath, Jim Casy, who formulates all the major themes of the novel, has just emerged from a sect within traditional Christianity whose name reflects its ties with an older God of vengeance, and a set of “Thou shalt not” rules. “I was a preacher,” he tells Tom Joad, “Reverend Jim Casy—was a Burning Busher. … But not no more. … Just Jim Casy now. Ain't got the Call no more. Got a lot of sinful idears—but they seem kinda sensible” (p. 27). The “sinful idears” are of a sensual nature and Casy is no longer willing to condemn such outward manifestations of God-given energy. He sees them now, in a Blakean sense, as a necessary part of man's experience and growth as an individual. Casy clearly wants to eat of Blake's “Tree of Life” so as to discover the nature of error which has caused humanity to suffer so.

When Casy lost his earlier “call” to preach a conventional brand of Christianity, he gained another call. “The Sperit's strong in me, on'y it ain't the same,” he tells Tom. “I ain't sure of a lot of things. … Here I got the sperit sometimes an' nothin' to preach about. I got the call to lead the people, an' no place to lead 'em” (pp. 28-29). Later he finds the answer: “I says, ‘What's this call, this sperit?’ An' I says, ‘It's love. I love people so much I'm fit to bust sometimes.” Still later he realizes “Maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit—the human sperit” (pp. 32-33). This passage recalls Blake's lines in “The Divine Image”: “And all must love the human form, / In heathen, turk, or jew; / Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell / There God is dwelling too” (p. 117). When asked to say grace at the Joads', Casy responds with a prayer that ends, “I can't say no grace like I use' ta say. I'm glad of the holiness of breakfast. I'm glad there's love here. That's all” (pp. 110-11). And he describes Ma to Uncle John: “There's a woman so great with love—she scares me” (p. 313). “If a thing loves it is infinite,” Blake wrote, and added, “He who sees the Infinite in all things, sees God” (pp. 91, 98). Ma Joad, in turn, paraphrases Blake when she describes Casy as having “that look they call lookin' through” (p. 127). Blake had written, “I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would question a Window concerning a sight,” and said, “I look thro it & not with it” (p. 617).

In the beginning of the novel, Casy goes “into the wilderness like Jesus to try to find out somepin'” (p. 521). What he finds out is that “all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of,” and that “a wilderness ain't no good, 'cause his little piece of soul wasn't good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole” (p. 570). Thus, Casy's goal becomes to reunite all of “mankin'” into one soul again in much the way Blake saw Christ as the final divine unification of all men. Bent on bringing about such a unification, Casy follows the migrants to California, working in the fields with them.

The final truth of the message Casy has been formulating throughout the novel comes to him when he is in jail. He discovers the need of self-sacrifice, of each individual working for the good of all. Actually, the first hint of this had come earlier when Muley Graves had shared his rabbits with Casy and Tom, declaring that “I ain't got no choice in the matter. … If a fella's got somepin to eat an' another fella's hungry—why, the first fella ain't got no choice.” In reply, Casy had reflected that “Muley's got a-holt of somepin, an' it's too big for him, an' it's too big for me” (p. 66).

It takes sometime for Casy to put this idea in place in his overall scheme, but it fits well with other notions he gathers along the way—that if “one mis'able little fella got the bit in his teeth an' run his own way,” then the bond between men, “the holiness,” is broken (p. 110). What Casy learns in jail is that there is strength in numbers. A body of men working together can accomplish what the same men working separately cannot. His role as labor agitator is symbolic of this cooperative spirit, and his final words when he is killed—“You fellas don' know what you're doin'” (p. 527)—reflect the Mutual Forgiveness of the Christian and the Blakean Christ.

Tom Joad emerges as a follower of Casy; he will carry on the work Casy has begun. But he is to be more than a labor organizer. He will, in fact, become the spirit of humanitarian brotherhood. But he comes slowly to this awareness. In the beginning, he is self-centered. He callously tempts the truck driver with a bottle of whiskey right after the driver has told him he can't drink on the job (p. 16), and he wraps the proud and haughty turtle up in his coat and won't let it go despite its constant struggles for freedom and Casy's admonition that he will smother it (pp. 24, 28). This act is doubly significant when we remember that Casy, echoing Blake, defines the ultimate human error as the hindrance of the action of any man—and thus, by extension, of any life.

Steinbeck very pointedly ties Tom to a state of innocence in the beginning of the novel with the Christmas card Granma sends him while he is in prison. The verse paraphrases two lines from “The Lamb”—“He is meek & he is mild; / He became a little child” (p. 115)—with these words: “Merry Christmas, purty child, / Jesus meek an' Jesus mild, / Underneath the Christmas tree / There's a gif' for you from me” (p. 35).

The experience of the road, however, toughens Tom to defiance against injustice and awakens in him Casy's belief that each man has “a little piece of a great big soul” that belongs to all of mankind, and thus his final words to Ma—“I'll be ever'-where—wherever you look” (p. 572)—relate to the words of Christ—“Lo, I am with you always”—but again it is a Blakean Christ, the culmination of all men.

For Blake there is a final awareness, an apocalypse for individual men and for mankind as a whole. This is, of course, essentially the message that Casy, with his doctrine of love and interdependence, is preaching throughout The Grapes of Wrath. Tom learns it from Casy, as does Ma, who says in the final chapter, “Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody” (p. 606). Ma has not only realized her debt to all humanity but has ceased the protective mother role associated with Blake's Songs of Innocence. In cutting loose family ties, she sees each individual must make his own experience and come to his own individual knowledge. And Rose of Sharon, who throughout the novel has been self-absorbed, who has to be admonished a number of times by Ma to stop engaging in self-pity, in the end offers her milk to a starving stranger. In this final scene, she assumes the womanly role of protector of life—but this time, it is not her own, nor is it the family's; it is all life. Steinbeck effectively uses the final scene to reassert Blake's truth: “Everything that lives is Holy.”


  1. Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1950), pp. 35-45.

  2. Stanley Edgar Hyman, The Promised End (Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1963), pp. 17-22.

  3. Peter Lisca, The Wide World of John Steinbeck (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1958); Warren French, John Steinbeck (New York: Twayne, 1961); Joseph Fontenrose, John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1963).

  4. Fontenrose, p. 90.

  5. Steinbeck, Cup of Gold (New York: Bantam Books, 1953), p. 150.

  6. Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath: Text and Criticism, ed. Peter Lisca (New York: Viking Press, 1972), pp. 196-97. All quotations from The Grapes of Wrath are from this edition and identified by page number following quotations.

  7. William Blake, Blake: Complete Writings, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 160. All quotations from Blake are from this edition and are identified by page numbers following the quotations. Blake repeats “Everything that lives is holy” in Visions of the Daughters of Albion (p. 195) and America (p. 199).

Martha Heasley Cox (essay date 11 November 1975)

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SOURCE: Cox, Martha Heasley. “The Conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath: Steinbeck's Conception and Execution.” San Jose Studies 1, no. 3 (11 November 1975): 73-81.

[In the following essay, Cox reviews critical reaction to the ending of The Grapes of Wrath and examines Steinbeck's own discussion of the novel in his journals to argue that the final scene was not hastily conceived sentimentalism but instead a well-thought-out part of Steinbeck's total plan for the book.]

According to local legend, John Steinbeck completed The Grapes of Wrath about three o'clock on the morning of October 23, 1938, awakened his wife and house guests who had gathered in his Los Gatos, California, home for the occasion, and read them the final pages. That celebrated ending has probably aroused more comment and controversy than the conclusion of any other contemporary novel.

Though Howard Levant, in the most recent book-length study of Steinbeck's novels, exaggerates the negative reaction when he says that the final scene “has been regarded universally as the nadir of bad Steinbeck,”1 the conclusion has been the subject of at least five separate articles,2 none condemnatory, and has been discussed in almost every review and analysis of the novel. John M. Ditsky, in the last published article devoted exclusively to the ending, asserts that the crucial problem of the value and meaning of the final scene remains unsettled and is as deserving of attention as ever.3 For Levant, however, the conclusion is “a disaster from the outset, not simply because it is sentimental; its execution, through the leading assumption, is incredible.” He sees no preparation and no literary justification for Rose of Sharon's transformation into Ma's alter-ego.4 Both Peter Lisca and Warren French, major Steinbeck critics, have defended the ending. Lisca concludes that the entire final chapter “compactly re-enacts the whole drama of the Joads' journey in one uninterrupted continuity of suspense,” in which Steinbeck brings his novel to a close “without doing violence to credulity, structure, or theme.”5 French believes that the final tableau, instead of halting an unfinished story as some critics have charged, shows that the education of the Joads is completed. They have “triumphed over familial prejudices” and “saved themselves from spiritual bigotry.”6

No critic shows any indication, however, of having read Steinbeck's unpublished journal, the “Diary of a Book,” which he kept as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath.7 The journal, in Steinbeck's words, is “a record of working days and the amount done on each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day.” In the diary, Steinbeck comments frequently on the symbolic ending and its significance.

Those remarks reveal that the ending was not merely hastily contrived melodrama replete with false symbolism as its detractors have charged repeatedly. Instead, Steinbeck carefully planned and prepared for the conclusion from the time he wrote the initial chapters of the novel. It helped to determine and control character development, symbolic meaning, and thematic structure. It was an integral part, if not the most important segment, of Steinbeck's design. Steinbeck's comments, furthermore, provide authorial insight into Rose of Sharon's act and dispel some of the ambiguity and disagreement which has resulted from varying critical interpretations. Since Steinbeck's journal was unknown to his critics, it, together with their commentary, provides an opportunity both to assess critical acumen in regard to an author's conception and execution of his work and to judge an author's achievement in the light of his intention. A brief examination of the ending and an overview of the critical reaction it elicited may make Steinbeck's remarks about his conclusion more meaningful.

The final setting for the novel is a rain-blackened barn where the Joad family—or the half that has endured—seeks refuge from the flood. Destitute, hungry, wet, and ill, they have reached the nadir of their devastating experiences: the eviction from their Oklahoma home; the trauma of the trip west with the deaths enroute of Granma and Granpa; the desertions of the sons, Noah and Al, and the son-in-law, Connie; the martyrdom of Jim Casy; the flight of Tom, who murdered to avenge Casy's death and now continues his mission; and the loss of Rose of Sharon's still-born child. Ma's early and worst fears are now a reality. The family unit has disintegrated and only Rose of Sharon, Ruthie, Winfield, Uncle John, Pa and Ma remain. Their meager possessions are under water in the box-car. They have no means of transportation, for the truck, which none of them can drive anyway, is now inundated. It matters little, for they have nowhere to go.

When they have reached the barn, they find it already occupied by other refugees, a starving man and his son. Ma asks them for a blanket for Rose of Sharon and folds the dirty comforter the boy supplies around her exhausted daughter (Steinbeck mentions the comforter five times in the last two pages). In turn, the frightened boy pleads for help, explaining that his father, who had not eaten in six days, could not retain the bread he stole for him the previous night: “Got to have soup or milk. … He's starvin' to death, I tell you.” The “two women looked deep into each other”; then Ma at Rose of Sharon's request takes the others into the adjoining tool shed. The girl draws the comforter around her and offers her breast to the starving man. When he slowly shakes his head, she urges, “You got to.” Supporting his head with her hand, she looks across the barn and smiles “mysteriously.” In their ultimate need, Rose of Sharon and the starving man exchange what each has to share. Taking comfort from the stranger, she gives him life.

This final scene was both censured and commended by early reviewers. Malcolm Cowley considered it “theatrical and inconclusive”8 and a Time reviewer thought it the “most melodramatic” ending in the Steinbeck canon.9 Clifton Fadiman, who called The Grapes of Wrath “the American novel of the season, probably the year, possibly the decade,” denounced the ending, however, as “the tawdriest kind of fake symbolism” adding that “just occasionally Steinbeck's dramatic imagination overleaps itself and you get a piece of pure, or impure, theatre like these last pages.”10 Other early reviewers of the novel praised the ending, though, as have most later critics. Charles Poore wrote in his review for The New York Times: “The most memorable scene is the last one, where all the ordeals of the journey, from a blighted farm to blighting prospects, are summed up in one final, lucid and completely inexorable view of chaos. In a more sentimental mood, Mr. Steinbeck might have provided soft music and a rosy ending. And if he'd done that he would have invalidated the main truth of his story. Everything in the book leads up to it.”11

Steinbeck scholars, who tend to agree with Poore's early assessment, offer multiple and far-reaching interpretations for this concluding episode. Biblical parallels predominate. Several critics have suggested that Rose of Sharon's milk symbolizes the Eucharist and thus resurrection (“I am the body and the blood.”);12 one compares it to the manna given to the Hebrews in the wilderness.13 Such a reading can be supported by other evidence in the text. Rose of Sharon's name, which her mother loved to repeat and pronounced “Rosasharn” is from The Song of Songs (“I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valley”). A further parallel lies in the title's imagery which informs the entire novel. The figurative grapes, which come from Revelation by way of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” also occur in King Solomon's song to the Shulamite “Let thy breasts be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy breath like apples; and thy mouth like the best wine.” Steinbeck knew the Canticles and had long been fascinated by them, particularly “the delightful chapter headings which go to prove that the Shulamite is in reality Christ's Church.”14 He certainly chose Rose of Sharon's name, with all its connotations, in the context of this Biblical knowledge. With her act the grapes fermented into wrath are transmuted into mercy.

Several critics have pointed out additional biblical, mythical, and fictional counterparts for the girl. She has been called “another Eve, another Hester Prynne—if you will, another Zenobia or Pocahontas.”15 Others find thematic significance in Rose of Sharon's act, saying that it “symbolically transmutes her maternal love to a love of all people”;16 that it symbolizes “the main theme of the novel: the prime function of life is to nourish life,”17 that it merges the themes of Christ and the fertility goddess,18 that it brings together the novel's two counter themes, education and conversion, in a symbolic paradox: “Out of her own need she gives life; out of the profoundest depth of despair comes the greatest assertion of faith.”19

To critics who charge that Steinbeck failed to complete the story or to supply answers to questions he posed, others reply: “Steinbeck finds his answer in love rather than in revolution”;20 “It is fitting that the novel ends with the Joads wiser and more experienced, but still with no sense of belonging, no permanence in the country, no home of their own”;21 “Steinbeck ends his book on a quiet note: that life can go on, and that people can and must succor one another. If this is an ‘evasion’ of some of the social, political, and ideological directions in the novel, then I suggest that it is an honest, honorable, and even prophetic one.”22

For some scholars, like Richard Astro, The Grapes of Wrath ends in triumph.23 George de Schweinitz concurs, noting that the last scene supplies all of the inexplicable, the mystery and the miraculous “that the reader needs in order to feel a heart-stopping resurgence of faith in himself and his fellow man.”24 He finds Steinbeck's use of the word “mysteriously” to describe Rose of Sharon's smile felicitous as it evokes religious art and iconography. But Agnes McNeill Donohue disagrees: “The ritual takes place in a barn—a stable—and although the Earth Mother or Divine Maternity is certainly suggested, the child born to Rose of Sharon is no redeemer, but a stillborn messenger of death. In the fallen Eden of John Steinbeck, no redeemer comes.”25

Joseph Fontenrose also sees the final scene as ritual, but interprets its symbolic meaning differently: The child that has been born is not that of Rose of Sharon and the selfish Connie Rivers. Instead it is the new collective organism as her final act symbolizes: “It is a ritual act: she who cannot be mother of a family adopts the newly born collective person as represented by one of ‘the people [who] sat huddled together’ in the barns when winter storms came. It is the family unity and strength imparted to the larger unit. In primitive adoption rituals the adopting mother offers her breast to the adopted child.”26 Wright notes, too, that giving the breast was a ritual of adoption, and concludes: “Up to 1640, few decorous readers would have been startled by Rose of Sharon's method of preserving a life. And in many parts of the world today, John Steinbeck would be commended for choosing, as his dénouement, a potent example of ‘moral virtue.’”27

Steinbeck should not have been surprised at the clamor his conclusion aroused for he had been forewarned by Pat Covici, his long time editor, who anticipated much of the reaction. On January 9, 1939, when Covici finished reading the manuscript, he wrote Steinbeck that he considered the ending a possible weakness or fault: “Your idea is to end the book on a great symbolic note, that life must go on and will go on with a greater love and sympathy and understanding for our fellow men. The episode you use in the end is extremely poignant. Nobody could fail to be moved by the incident of Rose of Sharon giving her breast to the starving man yet, taken as the finale of such a book with all its vastness and surge, it struck us on reflection as being all too abrupt. … As the end of the final episode it is perfect; as the end of the whole book not quite.” Covici thought that the incident needed “leading up to” and “leading away from,” that the meeting with the starving man should not be so much an accident or chance encounter.28 Steinbeck replied immediately: “I'm sorry but I cannot change that ending. It is casual—there is no fruity climax, it is not more important than any other part of the book—if there is a symbol, it is a survival symbol not a love symbol, it must be an accident, it must be a stranger, and it must be quick. … The giving of the breast has no more sentiment than the giving of a piece of bread. I'm sorry if that doesn't get over. It will maybe. I've been on this design and balance for a long time and I think I know how I want it. … The incident of the earth mother feeding by the breast is older than literature.” He concludes: “I know that books lead to a strong deep climax. This one doesn't except by implication, and the reader must bring the implication to it. … There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won't find more than he has in himself.”29

Had Covici read Steinbeck's “Diary of a Book,” he would have known how integral the ending was to Steinbeck's plan and how important to his design. He was not to see the journal, however, until Christmas of 1950, when, more than twelve years after it had been written, Steinbeck sent the diary “an account of a long time ago,” to Covici. In an accompanying letter, Steinbeck made two requests: the journal was not to be printed during his lifetime and it should be made available to his sons, “who were born so comparatively late in my lifetime that it is reasonable to suppose that I will not be around during a large part of theirs” if they should ever want to see it. Steinbeck wrote that his sons might sometime “want to look behind the myth and hearsay and flattery and slander a disappeared man becomes, and to know to some extent what manner of man their father was. And I cannot think of any better way than in this book which was not written for anyone to see.”30

Steinbeck started the diary on the same day he began writing, The Grapes of Wrath, Wednesday, the first day of June, 1938. By the end of June, he had completed only Book I, “the background of this book,” yet the ending was firmly in his mind: “Yesterday the work was short and I went over the whole of the book in my head—fixed on the last scene, huge and symbolic toward which the whole story moves. And that was a grand thing, for it was a reunderstanding of the dignity of the effort and the mightyness [sic] of the theme. I felt very small and inadequate and incapable but I grew again to love the story which is so much greater than I am. To love and admire the people who are so much stronger and purer and braver than I am.”

On July 6, Steinbeck wrote in his diary, “Make the people live. Make them live. But my people must be more than people. They must be an over-essence of people.” Two days later, on the completion of the chapter concerned with the first day and night of the trip, including the initial communication with other migrants, he expressed concern about his characters, particularly Rose of Sharon: “I wonder how this book will be. I wonder. Yesterday it seemed to me these people were coming to life. I hope so. These people must be extremely alive the whole time. I was worried about Rose of Sharon. She has to emerge if only as a silly pregnant girl now. She has to be a person.” Already aware, of course, of the symbolic role Rose of Sharon is to fill in the final scene, Steinbeck also recognized her importance thematically. Rose of Sharon must learn the lesson essential for survival, the necessity of sustaining not only one's self, or one's husband and child, or even one's kindred, but the whole of mankind. To make that lesson better understood within the framework of the novel, Rose of Sharon is then, designedly, not only a silly pregnant girl, but the most self-centered of all the Joads, the one who frets and complains and demands the most. Perhaps it is morally as well as biologically necessary for her to lose both husband and child, before she can undergo what Warren French calls “the education of the heart,” which he maintains the Joad family achieves.31 To make her instruction more convincing, her conversion more dramatic, and her recognition scene more symbolic, her transformation must be traumatic.

As weeks passed, Steinbeck became eager to complete his long labor, but wrote on September 21, “I still can't see the end of this book.” Two days later, however, he could say: “The book is beginning to round out. I think they go to Shafter. I think I can begin to see the end. But that time jump is bound to give me trouble. I want this book to be perfectly integrated.” By September 28, he had decided: the Joads will go to Shafter, “Will go north for the cotton and will end there: Go to the box car be moved by flood waters. And the book will end there. But there is a hell of a lot to happen yet. I musn't get impatient. … This is the important part of this book. Must get it down.” On October 5, Steinbeck again summarized, in staccato fashion but in slightly amplified form, the events yet to occur: “And my story is coming better. I see it better. Ma's crossing with the clerk and then Tom's going out—meeting Casy—trying to move the men in the camp. Arrest and beating—return in secret. Move. Cotton. Flood. And the end. Tom comes back. Stolen things. Must go. Be around. Birth. And the rising waters. And the starving man. And the end.” Several more summaries appeared before the diary and novel were complete. Some included actions or events which Steinbeck either subsequently decided to omit or later deleted when he “repaired” a scene: Tom was to return in the flood bringing stolen food (perhaps that contemplated scene generated the brief episode in which the boy told Ma that he broke a window the night before and stole bread for his starving father) and there was to be a “hint of small pox, measles, measles for Rose of Sharon weakening. Cause miscarriage or rather birth of a dead baby. Breast pump. Then the rain.”

Steinbeck's decision to omit some of these projected scenes appears to be cogent. Tom's return after the haunting farewell to Ma could only have been anti-climatic. Rose of Sharon had endured quite enough to make her stillborn child, “the blue shriveled little mummy,” completely credible without the added debilitation from measles. And it seems unlikely that the box car or its inhabitants could have supplied a breast pump. Rose of Sharon's milk, moreover, was essential for both thematic and symbolic purposes in the final scene.

On October 14, Steinbeck prepared to write his final interchapter. His remarks here show the exhilaration he felt: “I'm getting excited now that the end is coming up. Rather work than not. I'll be sad when this is done. … The last general must be a summary of the whole thing. Group survival.”

The group survival theme was not new to Steinbeck. It had been central in, among other works, “The Leader of the People” and In Dubious Battle. Now, as he makes clear, it was his major concern in The Grapes of Wrath. The October 14 entry continued: “Yes I am excited. Almost prayerful that this book is some good. … Now let's see what we have. [Here follows another slightly expanded summary of action to come.] Not so much you see and concentrated tempo. And ending where I thought. …” On October 19, he wrote: “I'm on the very last chapter now. It may be fifteen pages long but I can't help that. It may be twenty. The rain—the birth the flood the barn. The starving man and the last scene that has been ready so long.” Steinbeck implied here, then, that his dénouement was carefully planned if not actually written long before he completed the novel.

Steinbeck's exhaustion was clear in these final diary entries and he feared it would affect the book's conclusion. The last week's comments, filled with doubts and pain and illness, reveal too his determination to make the ending commensurate with what has gone before. The October 19 entry continued: “I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don't want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest, but I am sure of one thing—it isn't the great book I had hoped it would be. It's just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best thing I can do.” The October 20 entry read “my nerves blew out like a fuse and today I feel weak and powerless. … I hope the close isn't controlled by my weariness. I wouldn't like that.” On October 24 he wrote: “Monday again and I think it is my last week. I'm almost dead for lack of sleep. Can't go to sleep. I don't know why. Just plan for the ending.” But the next day's entry revealed that he couldn't work the day before—or that day either: “I don't know whether it was just plain terror of the ending or not. My stomach went to pieces yesterday. May have been nerves. I lay down and slept all afternoon. Went to bed at 10:30 and slept all night may be some kind of release. … Can't work today. … I think I have every single move mapped out for the ending.”

Finally, on October 26, Steinbeck recorded his last day on the manuscript of what was to be his major novel: “Today should be a day of joy because I could finish today—just the walk to the barn, the new people and the ending and that's all. But I seem to have contracted an influenza of the stomach or something. Anyway I am so dizzy I can hardly see the page. … If I can finish today I don't care much what happens afterward. … I wonder if this flu could be simple and complete exhaustion. …” The last line at the end of the page read: “Finished this day—and I hope to God it's good.”

Three months were to elapse before Steinbeck wrote Covici: “I'm sorry but I cannot change that ending. … I'm sorry if that [its meaning and implication] doesn't get over. It will maybe.” He was right; it has. Perceptive critics have read Steinbeck better, perhaps, than he dared hope. Though their interpretations have differed, most have understood the ending of The Grapes of Wrath and many have found it good.


  1. The Novels of John Steinbeck: A Critical Study. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974), p. 124.

  2. Celeste Turner Wright, “Ancient Analogues of an Incident in John Steinbeck, Western Folklore, 14 (January, 1955) 50-51; Theodore Pollock, “On the Ending of The Grapes of Wrath,Modern Fiction Studies, 4 (Summer, 1958), 177-78; Jules Chametsky, “The Ambivalent Endings of The Grapes of Wrath,Modern Fiction Studies 11 (Spring, 1965), 34-44, Mary Clarke, “Bridging the Generation Gap: The Ending of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath,Forum (Houston) 8 (Summer, 1970), 16-17; and John M. Ditsky, “The Ending of The Grapes of Wrath: A Further Commentary,” Agoro 2 (Fall, 1973), 41-50.

  3. Ditsky, p. 41.

  4. Levant, p. 124.

  5. The Wide World of John Steinbeck (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1961), pp. 176-77.

  6. John Steinbeck (New Haven: College and University Press, 1961), p. 107.

  7. Quoted by permission of The Steinbeck Estate and the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. “The Grapes of Wrath Journal,” which continues until January 30, 1941, is in the Steinbeck Manuscript Collection in the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas.

  8. Think Back on Us … A Contemporary Chronicle of the 1930's, Henry Dan Piper, ed. (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), p. 350.

  9. “Books,” Time, 33 (April 17, 1939), 87.

  10. “Highway 66—A Tale of Five Cities,” New Yorker, 15 (April 15, 1939), 81-82.

  11. “Books of the Times,” New York Times, April 14, 1939, p. 27.

  12. Martin Shockley, “Christian Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath,College English, 18 (November, 1956), 94; H. Kelly Crockett, “The Bible and The Grapes of Wrath,College English, 24 (December, 1962), 199; Peter Lisca, “The Grapes of Wrath as Fiction,” PMLA, 22 (March, 1957), 303.

  13. Thomas F. Dunn, “The Grapes of Wrath,College English, 24 (April, 1963), 124.

  14. In a letter to his agents written in March, 1934, five years before he began The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck revealed his familiarity and fascination with the Canticles. Puzzled at the failure of critics and other readers to recognize his theme in Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck suggested that he revise the novel to make it clearer: “What do you think of putting in an interlocutor, who between each incident interprets the incident, morally, aesthetically, historically, but in the manner of the paisanos themselves? This would give the book much the appeal of the Gesta Romanorum, those outrageous tales with monkish morals appended, or of the Song of Solomon in the King James Version, with the delightful chapter headings which go to prove that the Shulamite is in reality Christ's Church.” Lewis Gannett, “Introduction: John Steinbeck's Way of Writing,” The Portable Steinbeck (New York: The Viking Press, 1970), pp. xiii-xiv.

  15. Charles L. Sanford, “Classics of American Reform Literature,” American Quarterly, 10 (Fall, 1958), 309.

  16. Frederick I. Carpenter, “The Philosophical Joads,” College English, 2 (January, 1941), 321.

  17. Earl W. Carlson, “Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath,College English, 19 (January, 1958), 174.

  18. Edwin M. Moseley, Pseudonyms of Christ in the Modern Novel (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), p. 172.

  19. Peter Lisca, “The Grapes of Wrath as Fiction,” p. 309.

  20. Charles C. Walcutt, American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956), p. 263.

  21. Edwin T. Bowden, The Dungeon of the Heart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961), p. 141.

  22. Jules Chametzky, p. 44.

  23. John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1973), p. 128.

  24. “Steinbeck and Christianity,” College English, 19 (May, 1958), 369.

  25. “‘The Endless Journey to No End’: Journey and Eden Symbolism in Hawthorne and Steinbeck,” A Casebook on the Grapes of Wrath, Agnes McNeill Donohue, ed. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968), pp. 264-5.

  26. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1963), p. 74.

  27. “Ancient Analogues of an Incident in John Steinbeck,” p. 51.

  28. John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath: Text and Criticism, Peter Lisca, ed. (New York: The Viking Press, 1972), p. 857. The Covici/Steinbeck file of correspondence is in the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas.

  29. Ibid, p. 858.

  30. This letter is placed in “The Grapes of Wrath Journal” in the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas.

  31. John Steinbeck, p. 107.

James D. Brasch (essay date May 1977)

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SOURCE: Brasch, James D. “The Grapes of Wrath and Old Testament Skepticism.” San Jose Studies 3, no. 2 (May 1977): 16-27.

[In the following essay, Brasch finds elements from stories in the Old Testament in The Grapes of Wrath.]

John Steinbeck's Salinas Valley has always rested in the shade of the mountains of the Old Testament, and the legends of the people of Israel have frequently charted and illuminated the vicissitudes of his characters. Humble gestures and heroic achievements in Steinbeck's novels recount the history of “God's chosen people” as they struggled from the Garden of Eden to the Promised Land. Frequently, the speech rhythms of Steinbeck's chosen people echo the stately rhythms of the King James Version of the Old Testament. Even when he used quotations from the Vedas (To a God Unknown) or Paradise Lost (In Dubious Battle) as epigraphs for his novels, the tone, diction, syntax, and characterization were reminiscent of the language patterns of the Old Testament writers. This debt to the old chronicles of grief and pain has never been more obvious and influential than in The Grapes of Wrath (1939).1

The religious, political, philosophical and economic context of The Grapes of Wrath has concerned readers and critics of Steinbeck's work ever since the novel was published.2 Jim Casy has usually been accepted as the articulator of Steinbeck's concern. Recalling the religious mentors in great nineteenth-century novels by Melville and Dostoievski, for example, critics have described the presence of Casy as the fulcrum around which the characters and events revolve. Generally speaking, this has involved the somewhat contradictory assumptions that Casy is a Christ-figure and the Joads (read Judah) represent the Children of Israel returning from exile in Egypt. On occasion the paradox has been resolved by suggesting that in the face of economic calamity, philosophical issues generally remain unresolved. Rather sentimentally, much of the philosophical speculation has assumed that the lack of resolution could be explained by noting the conflicting echoes of American transcendentalism. Steinbeck, however, was not such a casual writer, and the easy assumption that Casy represents the voice of salvation, even though his initials are “J. C.,” fails to recognize and acknowledge the precise nature of Steinbeck's inspiration and focus as he expanded his journalistic reports on the Okies into one of the most powerful social novels ever written.

I am convinced that a careful reading of the text of The Grapes of Wrath demonstrates that John Steinbeck was not the great celebrant of American values and assumptions articulated by Emerson and Whitman. When Casy emerged from forty days in the wilderness, it was not for the purpose of reaffirming the Over-soul which presumably guided the actions and thoughts of nineteenth century Americans. Nor was Casy the end of a long line of prophets predicting the ultimate triumph of the afflicted on the basis of salvation and hope articulated by Jesus Christ. Casy returned to question the authenticity and, indeed, the very existence of the God who had apparently abandoned his chosen people. In short, his voice was not one of affirmation and consolation; he was a skeptic. He was not Joshua leading the chosen people to victory or Job affirming his God after “the dark night of the soul” or Jeremiah preaching truth to the dispossessed in exile. And he most certainly was not Jesus Christ. Casy was the despairing man of God who found a little comfort in the pleasures and actions and humour of men. He was not a preacher; he was the preacher. Casy exemplifies the writer of Ecclesiastes who in Melville's tribute was “the truest of all men,” because he wrote “the truest of all books”: Ecclesiastes, “the fine hammered steel of woe.”3

Casy has traditionally and rightly been considered the philosophical centre of the novel. Recognition of his Ecclesiastical origins, however, places a different complexion on the novel. Casy's origins were presented by Tom Joad. Just before Tom leaves his mother because of his impending arrest, the two of them examine their general plight, and Tom tells her about Casy's influence. He recalls a sermon by Casy:

Says one time he 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 soul wasn't no good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn' think I was even listenin'. But I know now a fella ain't no good alone.”4

Casy's reference to a “little piece of a great big soul” is generally considered as a folk rendering of Emerson's Over-Soul, “within which everyman's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart. …” Tom's passage, however, did not end there. Steinbeck carefully emphasized Casy's relationship to the writer of Ecclesiastes in the passage that followed. Tom went on:

“He spouted out some Scripture once, an' it didn' soun' like no hell-fire Scripture. He tol' it twicet, an' I remember it. Says it's from the Preacher.”

“How's it go, Tom?”

“Goes, ‘Two are better than one, because they have 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.’ That's part of her.”

“Go on,” Ma said. “Go on, Tom.”

“Jus' a little bit more. ‘Again, if two lie together then they have heat; but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him, and a three-fold cord is not quickly broken.’”

“An' that's Scripture?”

“Casy said it was. Called it the Preacher.”

“… An' I got to thinkin', Ma—most of the preachin' is about the poor we shall have always with us, an' if you got nothin', why, jus' fol' your hands an' to hell with it, you gonna git ice cream on gol' plates when you're dead. An' then this hear Preacher says two get a better reward for their work.”

(p. 570; my italics)

“The Preacher”, of course, is the author of Ecclesiastes. The italicised passages are verses 9-12 of chapter 4, where the Old Testament preacher reflects on the obstacles to happiness especially as they are related to labour and wealth. Tom realizes that Casy's quotation of the preacher represented a departure from the opiates provided by complacent Southern preachers whose platitudinous efforts amounted to duplicitous apologia for the exploitive economic system. “Ice cream on gol' plates when you're dead” is no solution for Tom, Casy, or John Steinbeck in the face of the abuse of the workers and their families. Casy, like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, teaches Tom that there is more consolation in the warmth and comfort of another human being than in all the consolations of religion and transcendental philosophy. Actually, the introduction of Casy in Chapter 4 is, broadly speaking, a summary of the events and attitudes described in Ecclesiastes.

Casy's earthy diction was sometimes upsetting to conventional critics who were reluctant to consider Casy's religious and philosophical orientation, but Casy merely reflects his Old Testament origins. Both the Old Testament sage and Casy realized that one of their chief problems was to seek out “acceptable words” (12:10) in order to explain their disillusionment to their followers and still remain their leaders. The old words of Israel's greatness and, evidently, nineteenth century America were insufficient. The language of Emerson was of little concern to the Okies trapped in the dust bowls of Oklahoma.

Casy's involvement with the Okies has always given rise to some skepticism just as the Old Testament Preacher's indulgences (See Eccl. 2:10. “I withheld not my heart from any joy.”) led to God's displeasure. Whether he was participating in militant actions or being oversolicitous of one of the attractive women on the journey, Casy had a way of rationalizing his involvement. Casy's human concerns which refuse to be intimidated by theological orthodoxy or “puritanical” tradition are not unlike Koheleth's reminiscences about his earlier life. He writes, for example:

I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour and the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.5

Casy also ponders his sexual interests in the light of his emphasis on proletarian concerns, as did the Old Testament writer (7:20, for example). Casy analyzes himself:

I use to think it was jus' me. Finally it give me such a pain I quit an' went off by myself an' give her a damn good thinkin' about … I says to myself, ‘What's gnawin' you? Is it the screwin'?’ An' I says, ‘No, it's the sin.’ … I says, ‘Maybe it ain't a sin. Maybe it's just the way folks is. Maybe we been whippin' the hell out of ourselves for nothin’ … There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say.

(pp. 31-32)

The diction is unbiblical, but the tone and substance recall the result of Koheleth's introspection: “For there is not a just man upon earth that doeth good, and sinneth not.” (7:20). As Koheleth considered the distinctions between good and evil in his own life and in the history of the Israelites, the only conclusion he recorded was the one which Casy and the migrant workers ultimately adopt: “… God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.” (7:29).

Steinbeck, however, not only patterned his itinerant preacher on the Old Testament preacher but was influenced by the general philosophical disposition of the Old Testament skeptic6 in at least three areas. In the first place, Steinbeck's proletarian emphasis closely parallels the Old Testament lament for the exploited workers in Israel. Secondly, the titular emphasis promising that the “grapes of wrath” are ready for the harvest—that oppression leads inevitably to violent conflict—stems from Koheleth's warnings. Finally, and perhaps most revealing, Steinbeck's attempts to find a solution to the conflict clearly reflect the admonitions of the Old Testament sage: the most practical solution to economic and political tyranny is to be found in compassion and sympathy and human understanding. An examination of these three aspects of the novel in addition to consideration of the theological origins and pronouncements of the unorthodox preacher, Jim Casy, reveals Steinbeck as a writer profoundly influenced by the wisdom of Old Testament skepticism especially as it is recorded in Ecclesiastes.

Proletarian concern as recorded in Ecclesiastes was the result of the problems of the United Kingdom of Israel which led to its division into the kingdoms of Judah and Israel in about 1000 to 900 B.C. Earlier historians (Samuel and the writers of Kings and Chronicles, for example) had extolled the victories and triumphs of the former heroes of Israel such as Moses, Joshua, and David which led to great wealth and prosperity for the faithful. Hard times had come to the children of Israel, however, and Koheleth set his task to speculate on the true worth of man in the light of Israel's former glory. Somewhat reluctantly he recognized that he had to provide consolation for the dispossessed, because the Israeli dream, like its American counterpart, was not always apparent or symbolized in the natural landscape and its rulers. Ecclesiastes was not, therefore, a book of Psalms or a chronicle of the successful kings of Israel. Koheleth philosophized that “… in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” (1:18). Moreover, love and concern for his people and their labours led Koheleth to recognize that his source of power as a leader or convener in the assembly (i.e.: a preacher), lay in his own dependency on the labour of the people: “… the profit of the earth is for all: the king himself is served by the field.” (5:9). All riches, therefore, are derived from the labour of the people of Israel.

Accordingly, there are many references to the proletarian point of view in Ecclesiastes. Koheleth recorded that “All things are full of labour” (1:8) and that since there is “no new thing under the sun” (1:9) labour becomes the means whereby progress and quality may be evaluated. As a result, Koheleth argues that man should “rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion …” (3:22). If man is temporarily disheartened because he is dispossessed, he should be gratified in the knowledge that “the profit of the earth is for all.” (5:9). Moreover, the quiet humor of the labourer will serve to preserve his sense of dignity and self-respect: “The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich [man] will not suffer him to sleep.” (5:12). Finally, because man has “no preeminence above a beast” and returns to dust like the beasts, there can be “nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works.” (3:19-22).

Just as the Old Testament preacher realized that the common labourers' real remuneration lay in the satisfactions which they received from honest toil, so Steinbeck's characters consoled themselves with thoughts of their ultimate survival and at least partial triumph. Just as Koheleth recognized that “There is no end of all the people” (4:16), Ma cautions Tom in one of the focal passages of the novel:

“Easy,” she said. “You got to have patience. Why, Tom—us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people—we go on.”

(p. 383)

When Tom asks her how she knows this, her faith triumphs over his skepticism as she answers, “I don't know how” (p. 383), and this intuitive assertion leaves the Joads in a mystical relation to their surroundings from which they gain strength even in moments of intense despair. Considered in the light of Ecclesiastes, the passage reflects a proletarian recognition of the importance of labour to the kingdom of Israel and not some vague echo of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Carl Sandburg. The Biblical tone is emphasized in several intercalations as faith in proletarian progress, and triumph is prophesized in Biblical syntax:

This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national religions, economics, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back. This you may say and know it and know it.

(pp. 204-5, my italics)

The passage continues in a Biblical tone and rhythm revealing Steinbeck's insistence on the Biblical precedent, as he warns of oppression. There is strength for the poor in this knowledge.

Steinbeck's attitude toward justice was significantly established, moreover, by the Old Testament skeptic who pleaded for justice in the tradition of the great prophets of Israel. Virtually alone, he recognized the futility of expecting justice on this earth.7 Koheleth had attempted to console his poor with the knowledge that their labour rendered them the basic fabric of the nation, but he was quite aware that “oppression maketh a wise man mad” (7:7). It was this inevitable result of excessive persecution and eternal frustration that Steinbeck also wanted to avoid in California. The ominous predictions in The Grapes of Wrath are legion. The titular passage of the novel warns of impending disaster in Biblical diction and tone and with imagery from Ecclesiastes:

… in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the soul of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

(p. 477)

The problem with injustice, both Koheleth and Steinbeck argue, is that it is futile. In the final analysis Steinbeck feels with the Old Testament radical that “… that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts … as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast; for all is vanity.” (3:19). Both commentators on the lot of the dispossessed recognized that in the sense of community and the warmth of fellow sufferers, some meaning or rationale would emerge. According to Koheleth, Yahweh's power was apparently as far from the people as the abstract consolation of American capitalism and transcendentalism were removed from the Okies for Steinbeck. Significantly, Steinbeck had Casy resort to direct quotation from Ecclesiastes in order to underline the point of closest contact between the Old Testament writer and the history of the dispossessed Okies:

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.

(Grapes, p. 570; Eccl. 4:9, 10)

Those desperate consolations parallel proletarian awareness in the fourth chapter of the long Old Testament lament. This lament and the tradition of skepticism with its ultimate humanistic dependence is most obviously summarized by the final incident of the novel as Rose O'Sharon gives her dead baby's milk to a starving migrant. Rose O'Sharon, of course, takes her name from the country maiden in The Song of Solomon who refuses the seductive entreaties of her wise and powerful king by choosing fidelity to her rustic lover. She resists the entreaties, not with the grapes of wrath, but with the plea that the “foxes” be taken away since “… our vines have tender grapes.” (The Song of Solomon, 2:15). Whether the reader accepts the literal interpretation of the song or the allegorical overtones detected after the birth of Christ, the incident reveals Steinbeck's insistence on the circular nature of history and the Old Testament parallels to the lives of the Okies.

It is, therefore, in the recognition of “tender grapes” and in Rose O'Sharon's human gesture that the grapes of wrath may be overcome. Both The Song of Solomon and the author of The Grapes of Wrath agree that such human gestures are the most significant means of survival in the face of oppression and exploitation. Steinbeck's positive solution to the exploitation of the helpless farmers is not to be found in the abstruse consolation of Emerson and Whitman, but in the existential compassion symbolized and summarized by Rose O'Sharon's gesture.

The incident is no isolated event in the novel. Early in the record of the westward trek of the Okies, Steinbeck had commented on the movement to solidarity in the crucial Chapter 14. The passage deserves quotation in full, not only for its depiction of proletarian solidarity, but for the Biblical tone and rhythm which characterize the passage.

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—“We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have a little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It's wool. It was my mother's blanket—take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from “I” to “we”.

(p. 206)

Later in the novel, Steinbeck repeated this theme of consolation in human solidarity as he described the attempts of the farmers to console each other after the long day's trek:

In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream. And it might be that a sick child threw despair into the hearts of twenty families, of a hundred people; that a birth there in a tent kept a hundred people quiet and awestruck through the night and filled a hundred people with the birth-joy in the morning. A family which the night before had been lost and fearful might search its goods to find a present for a new baby. In the evening, sitting about the fires, the twenty were one. They grew to be units of the camps, units of the evenings and the nights.

(pp. 264-65; my italics)

It is important to note that in the midst of Steinbeck's most intense criticism of the corruptions of the American system, the strongest note of hope and proletarian solidarity stems not from Marx, Emerson, Whitman or Jesus Christ, but from the Old Testament skeptic. “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” (9:4).

Jim Casy‘s exaggerated, perhaps evangelical plea for a unified mankind is, therefore, a positive celebration of mankind's communion in the face of an economically demeaning isolation and exploitation. The Oklahoma preacher tells his fellow sinners that once in the wilderness he was forced to reconsider his religious assumptions. The result is a gentle sermon, perhaps the key to the entire novel. Casy summarizes the Ecclesiastical emphasis on proletarian insights, predicts inevitable economic conflict, and prescribes the compassionate human solutions and understandings which constitute Steinbeck's attitude toward the oppressed Okies. Like Jesus, Casy found himself in the wilderness, but he makes some nice distinctions which critics have formerly ignored:

I ain't sayin' I'm like Jesus, the preacher went on. But I got tired like Him, an' I got mixed up like Him, an' I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin' stuff. Nighttime I'd lay on my back an' look up at the stars; morning I'd set an' watch the sun come up; midday I'd look out from a hill at the rollin' dry country; evenin' I'd foller the sun down. Sometimes I'd pray like I always done. On'y I couldn' figure what I was prayin' to and for. There was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't separate no more. We was one thing. An' that one thing was holy … I got thinkin' how we was holy when we was one thing, an' mankin' was holy when it was one thing. An' it thinkin' how we was holy when we was one thing, an' on'y got unholy when one mis'able little fella got the bit in his teeth an' run off his own way, kickin' an' draggin' an' fightin'. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they're all workin' together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang—that's right, that's holy.

(p. 110, my italics)

Here is no triumph of American transcendental self-reliance but rather a wise and gentle teacher reminiscing on the sources of strength and consolation for these latter day Israelites. He even goes on to apologize for the abstractness of the word “holy.” Its meaning is closer to home. He concludes his prayer: “I can't say no grace like I use' ta say. I'm glad for the holiness of breakfast.” (p. 110). This conclusion to the prayer is preceded by a gentle reminder of Koheleth's disdain for the meaningless repetitions which characterize the participation of many people at divine services. Steinbeck notes that the Joads “had been trained like dogs to rise at the ‘amen’ signal (p. 110) and as a result kept their heads bowed no matter what their preacher/guest suggested.8 Whatever else the passage suggests, it must qualify many of the heroic attributes which critics have assumed from the Joad's Biblical origins. For the dispossessed Okies, there was nothing more holy than a comfortable breakfast. The tangible experience is holy; the abstract consolation is meaningless. Casy's intense humanity is reminiscent of Melville's sympathies which he too portrayed as a “wanderer” from the Old Testament searching for peace. This is the element of Steinbeck's identification with the Old Testament skeptics which has been most consistently ignored by Steinbeck critics in spite of Casy's definitive disclaimer and directive:

No, I don't know nobody name' Jesus. I know a bunch of stories, but I only love people … Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe … it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang.

(pp. 32-33)

There are, perhaps, some superficial similarities between Emerson, Whitman and the American pragmatists on the one hand and the writer of Ecclesiastes on the other. These similarities—the self-reliant common man, the mass democracy of Whitman and man's natural progress towards success—must be replaced by a more skeptical demeanor when the plight of the Joads is considered in the light of the Old Testament writer. One detects, perhaps, in the parallel to Ecclesiastes an attitude suggestive of Fitzgerald's Omar Khyyam or Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, and certainly Steinbeck's interpretation of the Joad's experience must take its place with the skeptical tradition of Hawthorne, Melville, Mark Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner rather than with the apologists for American transcendentalism. Progress for both the Joads and the children of Israel was virtually impossible within the eternal cycles of nature and human fallibility, catalogued by Koheleth and Steinbeck as they pondered economic and social disaster in an inscrutable universe.

Primarily Steinbeck was interested in questioning the arrogance of the American economic system with its emphasis on the triumph of the individual. His warnings understood in the light of Ecclesiastes urge a suspicious attitude toward any system which produces victims by the thousands. Probably the most important result of this adjusted reading of Casy's mission is to realize that like Koheleth, Steinbeck's intent is philosophic rather than religious. Casy as a Christ-Figure leads to an interpretation of The Grapes of Wrath as a recognition of the ultimate American victory which Steinbeck, by his emphasis on Ecclesiastes, clearly did not intend. Rose O'Sharon's final gesture is not, therefore, symbolic of any ultimate triumph or of better times to come. But as a gesture it is important in itself. It has profound meaning when considered in the light of:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun … There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

(1:9, 11)

Unlike Jesus, Casy knows that there is no new thing under the sun, there is no good news for the morrow and there are only the humours and labours of the people on which to base a structure for survival.


  1. See, for example Peter Lisca, “The Grapes of Wrath as Fiction,” PMLA, 72 (Mar, 1957), pp. 296-309. Lisca writes “… the grand design is there: the plagues (erosion), the Egyptian (banks), the exodus (journey), and the hostile tribes of Canaan (Californians), p. 302. He goes on to cite four Biblical sources for the “grapes” of the title and Psalms (95:7) as the source of Ma Joad's “We are the people …” speech. As I will show later, the correct source for this much-quoted speech is Eccl. 4:16.

  2. The first attempt to provide this context was Harry T. Moore's pioneer study, The Novels of John Steinbeck (Chicago: Normandie House, 1939). Moore briefly noted the similarity between Casy and Christ, the “Old Testament grimness” (p. 67), and a number of other literary parallels and reflections. It was not until Frederick Lewis Carpenter published “The Philosophical Joads” College English, 2 (Jan., 1941), pp. 315-325, that Steinbeck's sources were given detailed consideration. Carpenter detected a triumphant twentieth-century culmination of Emerson's transcendentalism, Whitman's mass democracy, and realistic pragmatism. Most significant, Carpenter announced, was the itinerant preacher, Jim Casy, whose unorthodox clerical habits and sermons portrayed American radical protestant militancy. Carpenter assumed rather comfortably that Casy underlined Steinbeck's belief in the ultimate victory of the indomitable forces protecting the common man as celebrated by Emerson and Whitman. Carpenter's interpretation generally influenced later critics. Warren French (John Steinbeck, New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961) for example, discusses The Grapes of Wrath in the context of the Old and New Testament, but his general treatment does not recognize Steinbeck's precise source and attitude. Assuming that both the Old and the New Testaments represent Steinbeck's courses, French concludes that a “relativistic view of sin leads Steinbeck into a philosophical mire from which he fails to emerge satisfactorily” (p. 109). Peter Lisca (The Wide World of John Steinbeck, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958) generally supports Carpenter's thesis but extends it to emphasize Casy as a Christ figure after noting the parallels between the Joad's flight and the children of Israel's return to the land of milk and honey. Joseph Fontenrose (John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963) extends Lisca's interpretation of Casy as a Christ figure and some of the Old Testament parallels. Tom becomes “the new Moses” (p. 78) as well as a Christ-figure (p. 80), but Fontenrose's heroic conception of the Joads (Judah) leads him to admit their similarity to the children of Israel. Perhaps the most important insistence on Casy's presentation as a Christ figure is Martin Staples Shockley's “Christian Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath,College English, 18 (Nov. 1956), pp. 87-90. Shockley's outspoken position (“I would avoid theological subtleties. I see Jim Casy as a simple and direct copy of Jesus Christ.” p. 88) developed Alan Paton and Liston Pope's “The Novelist and Christ” (Saturday Review, Dec. 4, 1954, pp. 15-16, 56-59) which casually assumed that Casy was one of many Christ-figures in fiction. Shockley provoked a number of challenges, the most important of which were: Eric W. Carlson, “Symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath,College English, 19 (Jan., 1958), pp. 172-175; Charles T. Dougherty, “The Christ-Figure in The Grapes of Wrath,College English, 24 (Dec., 1962), pp. 193-199. Briefly, Carlson objects to Shockley's “essentially and thoroughly Christian” interpretation and supports Carpenter. Dougherty also supports Carpenter, but wonders if Tom may not be a better Christ-figure than Casy. Crockett reiterates the Christ-figure interpretation but recognizes a few over-tones from the Old Testament. More recently, Theodore Ziolkowski (Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972) glosses over the Old Testament parallels noted by Lisca to promote Casy, once again, as a Christ-figure, now secularized into “Comrade Jesus.” He admits, moreover, Casy's rebuke: “I ain't sayin' I'm like Jesus,’ the preacher went on.”

  3. Although a longstanding tradition including this reference in Melville ascribes Ecclesiastes to Solomon (about 1000 B.C.), a more accurate dating places the composition considerably later, probably about 200 B.C. The author remains unknown. He is generally referred to as Koheleth (or Qoheleth) which is the Hebrew rendering of the Greek ekklesiastikos (the leader of an open assembly, or an assembly which embraces what is under the sun). The Abingdon Bible Commentary, ed. Frederick Carl Eiselen, Edwin Lewis, David G. Downey, New York: Abingdon Cokesbury Press, 1929, p. 614. The popular rendering of Koheleth is “preacher,” the word usually used by the Okies when referring to Casy. For the sake of convenience, I will follow the modern custom of referring to the writer of Ecclesiastes as Koheleth.

  4. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, New York: The Viking Press, 1939, p. 570. Further references to the novel are for this edition and are included in the text.

  5. Eccl. 8:15. See also 2:24 and 3:13;22. R. B. Y. Scott, The Anchor Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1965 renders the original translation of vanity as “vapors” pp. 201-2. Moreover, Scott describes Koheleth's attitude as tempered by things inexplicable so that “the only satisfaction open to man … is the enjoyment of being alive.” p. 191.

  6. Scott, Ibid., p. 192 notes that unlike the other Hebrew prophets whose testimonies make up the bulk of the Old Testament, the author of Ecclesiastes is a “rationalist, an agnostic, a skeptic, a pessimist, and a fatalist.” Scott emphasizes that these designations are not pejorative.

  7. Scott, Ibid., p. 191, comments on the divergence of Ecclesiastes from the other Old Testament writers: “In Ecclesiastes God is not only unknown to man through revelation; he is unknowable through reason, the only means by which the author believes knowledge is attainable. … He is rather the mysterious, inscrutable Being whose existence must be presupposed as that which determines the life and fate of man, in a world man cannot change, and where all his effort and values are rendered meaningless.”

  8. See Eccl. 5: 3-7; 5:1; 9:2 and Scott, Ibid., p. 199.

Floyd C. Watkins (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: Watkins, Floyd C. “Flat Wine from The Grapes of Wrath.” In In Time and Place: Some Origins of American Fiction, pp. 19-29. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, Watkins contends that Steinbeck made many errors in his depiction of Oklahomans in The Grapes of Wrath.]

A character in fiction is known in part by his relationship with things; he is defined by the clutter of his world. If the things are vague or false, the character is unlikely to be genuine. In a novel with sparse details, the people usually share the vagueness of the environment. Nature may be a large part of the raw materials of fiction. When an author does not know the natural objects of the world he is writing about, then he also gets the manufactured products and the people wrong. A skyscraper or a horse trough or a churn helps to make characters what they are. A writer who does not know a world well should not write about it. But that is precisely what Californian John Steinbeck did in The Grapes of Wrath when he wrote about Okies, a people he did not know.

The effect on fiction of an author's ignorance is difficult to measure. It may also be difficult for a critic who is ignorant of a culture to try to interpret fiction about it. One who knows a country or small-town culture can perhaps understand the mores of another country people better than he can understand his own city kinsmen. A rural southerner might read a novel about a Pueblo Indian with more comprehension, for example, than he would have of the urban world of Herzog. Can a critic who does not know the culture of the people discussed by an author tell whether or not the author knows that culture? What can he measure by? Some critics presume to judge the truth of fiction when they do not know its background. Reviewers of The Grapes of Wrath, for example, thought it was “true”—“great art” and “great sociology.”1 Can a critic or a reader who is well acquainted with a folk culture of his own measure a writer's accuracy when the writer treats a culture foreign to the critic? How long must a writer study an alien culture before he can write about it? Can he acquire such knowledge merely from books? These questions, of course, can be only pondered, not answered.

“Genuine history,” Hippolyte Taine has written, “is brought into existence only when the historian begins to unravel, across the lapse of time, the living man, toiling, impassioned, entrenched in his customs, with his voice and features, his gestures and his dress, distinct and complete as he from whom we have just parted in the street.”2 The novelist and the critic after him may have to cross a barrier of place or culture instead of time as the historian does, but the distance may be just about as great. The novelist is as subject to error as the historian. Hawthorne maintains that a romance must be true to the human heart. Likewise, a social novelist must be true to the cultural as well as to the human. Steinbeck has written what poses as a study in fiction of social reality, but the facts are wrong. Can a credible truth of the heart be embodied in cultural untruth? As The Grapes of Wrath is often false and vague, so the characters are false also.

People in a small town or the country are never truly pleased to be the subject of fiction. Mountaineers have objected to James Dickey and Thomas Wolfe, Mississippians to William Faulkner, Indians to Scott Momaday. Many Oklahomans have been infuriated by what they regarded as the insult of The Grapes of Wrath. They attacked it on social, factual, and moral grounds, but most of them did not point out many of the specific errors. Lyle H. Boren used the Congressional Record to object to the facts: Steinbeck “had tractors plowing land of the Cookson Hills country where there are not 40 acres practical for tractor cultivation. He had baptisms taking place in the irrigation ditches in country near Sallisaw, Oklahoma, where an irrigation ditch has not run in the history of the world.” But the congressman did not consider his people exposed with justification. “The truth is,” he said, “this book exposes nothing but the total depravity, vulgarity, and degraded mentality of the author.”3 Grampa longs to go to California, where he can have enough “grapes to squish all over his face” while in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, he already lives “in one of the greatest grape growing regions in the nation.”4 Frank J. Taylor has disputed almost all the social details about the lives of the migrant workers in The Grapes of Wrath—their food, shelter, medical treatment, wages. His bias seems as strong as Steinbeck's when he defends California businesses and governments.5 Carey McWilliams, on the other hand, writes that “the LaFollette Committee came along in 1939 and verified the general picture of conditions in the state as set forth in The Grapes of Wrath.6

Most of Steinbeck's errors about Oklahoma and country people like the Joads have never been pointed out. Some of the mistakes are entirely factual; that is, they can be proved wrong without involving any critical judgment. Including the three errors above, The Grapes of Wrath contains nearly twenty plain linguistic and factual inaccuracies:

In the dust bowl “ant lions started small avalanches.”7 Native Oklahomans do not know what ant lions are. Like southerners instead of Californians, they call them doodlebugs.

The famous old “land turtle” (p. 21) which crosses the highway early in the novel is also not native to Oklahoma. The Joads would have called him a terrapin.

Steinbeck's “land turtle” has an armored tail, a biological impossibility. Armadillos have armored tails, but not “land turtles.”

Steinbeck's vocabulary is sometimes wrong. By a far stretch of the imagination, a coyote might squawk (p. 31). But flies do not roar (p. 8).

Tom Joad would not speak of a “leg” of pork, a wrong term for the meat. It should be ham or shoulder.

Ma Joad says salting down meat is woman's work (p. 146), but that task belongs to men on an Oklahoma farm.

Muley eats prairie dogs in eastern Oklahoma, where prairie dogs have never lived.

Tom Joad wears a coat as he walks on the highway in hot weather (p. 9), and Muley wears “an old black suit coat” over his “blue jeans” (p. 61), which he would call overalls or overhalls. The dress is authentic, but not in this season. Two Oklahomans told me that no one would wear such clothing except a preacher or an idiot.

The driver of a truck looks out at cornfields and sees that “little flints shoved through the dusty soil” (p. 12). First, the perspective is wrong. The driver could not see them from a truck moving on the road. Furthermore, small flints are not visible through plowed and dusty earth. I have hunted arrowheads in plowed fields in Oklahoma. They are not visible until after a rain, and obviously there had been no rain in the dust bowl in The Grapes of Wrath.

The truck driver has had a course in mind-training. After he passes someone on the road, he tries to remember “ever'thing about him, … how he walked an' maybe how tall an' what weight an' any scars” (p. 16). Scars would not be visible from a passing truck.

When Muley comes toward Tom Joad and Casy, they “can't see 'im for the dust he raises” (p. 61). Oklahomans who remember dust bowl storms say that you could hardly see a man for the dust, but Muley is not in a storm, and a walking man did not raise that much dust.

Wages are wrong. Tractor drivers in the novel were paid $3.00 a day (p. 50). Actually, $1.50 would have been good pay for the time.

The Joads have chopped cotton for “fifty cents a clean acre” (p. 63), but that is not the custom. People chopped by the day rather than by the acre.

After Uncle John is baptized, he “jumped over a feeny bush as big as a piana” (p. 39). Feeny bushes are not known to Oklahomans, and I have not been able to find out what one is. Raymond John Taylor, an Oklahoman and a biologist, tells me that a typical bush at a creek where a baptizing occurred would be a button bush. A novelist writing authentically about a region would use a bush common to the area but unknown to many other places and then make it visual. Steinbeck does not do that.

Oklahoma has no lobo wolves.8

Besides the factual errors, there are a number of improbable occurrences in The Grapes of Wrath. An ant runs “into the soft skin inside the shell” of the “land turtle,” and the terrapin crushes it (p. 21). It would be close in there, but not insecticidal. The Joads' house is pushed down by a tractor (pp. 54, 62, 70). I learned of one such occurrence near Caddo, Oklahoma, in the 1940s, but again the event was not sufficiently representative for Steinbeck to use it in fiction aiming at social truth.

The variety of geography and the diversity of cultures in the United States make a single national literature impossible. In a sense there is no national literary history in America, but there are many different ones. Certain things are nationwide; I believe doves appear all over the country. When a novelist uses only objects that are as universal as the dove, he does not describe a region. Steinbeck did not know Oklahoma well enough to attempt to write a novel about it. The particulars he uses are either from California, or universal, or wrong. The Joads are a kind of people that Steinbeck did not know very well; they have individual identities, but they are not peculiarly Oklahoman. Such things as scissortails and horned toads are not found in The Grapes of Wrath. Nor are Indians, and it is impossible to travel far in Oklahoma without seeing some of them. The novel here is incomplete if not erroneous. On one occasion Steinbeck publishes his ignorance of his subject. Casy and Tom Joad see a “dry watering trough, and the proper weeds that should grow under a trough were gone” (p. 55). Now Faulkner would know what kind of weeds were there. The botanical life of Yoknapatawpha County is lush with honeysuckle, heaven trees, dog fennel, jimson weeds, wistaria, verbena, and many other particular plants. “Proper weeds” is plain bad writing. In this case Steinbeck did not even provide a dove, much less a scissortail.

The Grapes of Wrath is sometimes wrong and often vague, but many details also ring true. Much of the nature is right. Water did have “surface dust” after a storm (p. 6). Jackrabbits do have boils (p. 67). A hungry man could eat skunk meat after washing the musk off the fur (p. 66). The anatomy of the hog-killing is right (p. 143). The gophers (p. 3) and wild oats (p. 21) and the big owl with a “white underside” (p. 70) are natives of Oklahoma. Some unusual customs in the novel were practiced by the poor people during the Depression. Farmers lashed barbed wire to fence posts with baling wire because they had no money to buy nails or staples (p. 24). Urine is used as a medicine by Oklahomans. Farmers have urinated on animals to stop bleeding, rubbed urine as a cure on horses' sores, and used urine as a medicine for earache (p. 235). That “picture of an Indian girl in color, labeled Red Wing,” is on a can of Calumet Baking Powder, an item once found in every farm kitchen.

So what if the facts are wrong and omitted? Does that make the fiction bad? In a way it does because it becomes allegorical, invented. It is fantasy, and it is false. The people are usually wrong in much the same way the facts are. They live in a flat universality instead of among the clutter of their daily lives. Poverty is not an absence of things in the daily world. The poor have different kinds of things from those who are more fortunate, but they may be surrounded with objects which depict them, as in homes in a junkyard. But Steinbeck's Okies are too much without objects.

A comparison of Steinbeck's journeying Joads with Faulkner's journeying Bundrens in As I Lay Dying shows the emptiness of the world of The Grapes of Wrath. The Bundrens are relatively poor, but they are culturally rich. During Addie's illness and her death and her funeral she is surrounded by children, her husband, neighbors, a doctor, and a minister—all functioning in their personal and ministering roles with the tools and the clothes and the objects that belong to their characters. The long and almost ridiculous cortege moves through the cultural world of Yoknapatawpha County. Grampa and Granma Joad die outside society and their familial cultures. They have been uprooted. They have no funerals, no neighbors, no ritual, no chance to love. This is an essential difference between the life of a yeoman society still functioning in its tradition and the life of an uprooted society thrown out into a world where all the forms are dead and past. In part, the cultural vacuum of the Joads is a thematic representation of the life of migrants. But they had no cultural richness in their life before they left, as the Bundrens did. They live in a void not so much because Oklahomans left their ways at home as because Steinbeck did not know them well in the first place. The Bundrens and Eudora Welty's poor people and Robert Penn Warren's yeoman farmers have more folk manners than a middle-class society. And wandering peoples take their traditions with them. Country people such as the Joads must be given credit in fiction for the gentility they do have. Without all their trappings, they are reduced to caricatures and buffoons. They may also be made ridiculous even when the author is trying to portray them favorably. As Sinclair Lewis, another writer about the ways of the little man, said, “Steinbeck did not quite get those Okies. … He got so lousy sentimental he read sounds into their mouths they could never have uttered.”9

When The Grapes of Wrath violates the mores of people like the Joads, the result almost every time is a reduction of the humanity of the characters. Grampa's leaving his underwear unbuttoned and his fly open is a violation of conventions in the rural Protestant ethic, and even if he is “lecherous as always” (p. 105) his misbehavior would not have been tolerated by members of his family, especially the females. Pa's language before his wife and daughter seems incredibly exaggerated when he refers to his lecherous son's “nuts just a-eggin' him on” (p. 112). Grampa calls a brother, a daughter, and a grandson “sons-a-bitches,” and that cuss-word is almost never taken lightly by people of his class and place. Except in foolish and drunken situations, such name-calling usually has dire consequences (as is potentially true in Light in August and As I Lay Dying). But Grampa's language provokes not even a shrug. For the sake of sensationalism, perhaps, Steinbeck momentarily forgets the abstract philosophical goodness he attributes to most of the migrants, and he does not even allow them the dignity they do possess. Granma has “survived only because she was as mean as her husband” (p. 105). She opposes him “with a shrill ferocious religiosity that was as lecherous and as savage as anything Grampa could offer.” After she rips “one of his buttocks nearly off” with a shotgun blast, he admires her. Grampa and Granma “both sleeps in the barn” (p. 102). The humanity of these characters is so utterly destroyed by Steinbeck's treatment of them that no dignity can survive even when they die. They are ruined by a tone of amused tolerance of near-murder with a shotgun. And their manners at the table leave them with no measure of dignity.

Granma said proudly, “A wicketer, cussin'er man never lived. He's goin' to hell on a poker, praise Gawd! Wants to drive the truck!” she said spitefully. “Well, he ain't goin' ta.”

Grampa choked, and a mouthful of paste [pork, biscuit, thick gravy] sprayed into his lap, and he coughed weakly.

Granma smiled up at Tom. “Messy, ain't he?” she observed brightly.

(p. 108)

Actually Steinbeck is demeaning his own characters whom he presumably pities and loves. He is condemning them on social grounds even though the book thematically protests economic abuse of them. At times Steinbeck's amused treatment of them is as inhumane or inhuman as the capitalists are to the migrants. Tom Joad's family are as unloving as they are illiterate when he spends four years in jail and his mother writes him only a postcard after two years and then granny sends him a Christmas card a year later. Yet the Joads should be a writing family. Witness the extensive correspondence between uneducated soldiers and their families during the Civil War. In other incidents caricature occurs because Steinbeck, unintentionally perhaps, reveals how his poor people are unfeeling. The truck they travel on is crowded, no doubt. Yet it is implausible to take all the mattresses and barrels of pork and cooking utensils yet to be unable to find a place for the single stationery box of letters and pictures which Ma burns before she leaves (p. 148). Surely she could sew the most precious into the mattresses.

That pig that “got in over to the Jacobs' an' et the baby” (p. 56) becomes a curious social and cultural generalization about poor Oklahomans instead of being merely a statement of the hardships of their life and the animalism of pigs. The author may intend no slur on the nature of the human beings here, but it is conveyed nevertheless. Pigs do not break into houses and eat babies except in situations too extraordinary for the author to select as representative details. The reason is that families guard their houses too well to admit hogs. Basically the episode attacks the humanity of the people by reflecting on their care of their children. Even if there is a factual precedent, the atrocity is so unrepresentative that it is too sensational for fiction which intends to be socially true. Here the novel is more like lurid journalism than fiction intending to depict the character of a people.

The same anecdote in two different contexts may produce entirely different effects. In Old Southwest humor like that written by George Washington Harris or Johnson Jones Hooper, cruel jokes and brutal fights are more slapstick comedy than social generalizations. Steinbeck writes tall tales in The Grapes of Wrath, but the overriding social theme cannot be detached from them. The integrity of the characters is affected and even destroyed. Steinbeck exaggerates absurdity in supposedly good people as much as Faulkner does in the evil Snopeses. Worse, he assigns the absurdities to all the people, creating a wide social generalization, and even the good people threaten violence. Albert, for example, visits the city and returns to find that the folks decided that he had “moved away without sayin' nothin'” (pp. 58-59). They stole the stove, beds, window frames, “eight feet of plankin' … from the south side of the house.” When he returns “Muley Graves was goin' away with the doors an' the well pump.” Albert collected his stuff from the neighbors, but not the pillow stolen by Grampa, who said he would “blow his goddamn stinkin' head off if he comes messin' aroun' my pilla” (p. 59).

Steinbeck denies the Joads and their kind the dignity of their religion, and he does it for a social cause. Casy, the approved philosopher and prophet of the novel, believes in a religion of man which permits meaningless sexual promiscuity. Walter Fuller Taylor has argued that “A reader who really ‘buys’ The Grapes of Wrath has bought … an elaborately illustrated and reiterated philosophy of casual sexual indulgence.”10 In the Bible belt and among southern yeoman whites their education as well as their religious beliefs derive from the close and intimate knowledge many of them had of the Bible. Steinbeck ridicules this knowledge. Tom Joad does not know whether the Bible is the origin of a country saying: “Don't roust your faith bird-high an' you won't do no crawlin' with the worms.” Grampa Joad gets the Bible and Dr. Miles' Almanac all “mixed up” (p. 123). Granma has a “ferocious religiosity” (p. 105), yet her ecstatic pentecostal experience, “speaking in tongues,” is still going on when she shoots her husband's buttocks nearly off. Religion is thus associated with humorous violence. She ardently desires a blessing at the table, but she has not “listened to or wondered at the words used” for years (p. 109). Despite a Christ figure or two, every Christian in The Grapes of Wrath is belittled. Steinbeck's animosity to Christianity shows clearly through once when he writes that they “had been trained like dogs to rise at the ‘amen’ signal” (p. 110). Why dogs instead of monarchs or holy men? How else should they rise and at what other time? There are no alternatives. Steinbeck is objecting to their Christianity rather than the method or time of rising. He attempts to demean it by comparing them to dogs, and yet he has diminished the presumably good people who are his admired and suffering souls.

Steinbeck's derogatory views of fundamental religionists are presented extensively in the novel. The woman religious fanatic at the government camp in California is nearly as evil and destructive as the agents of the large landowners who wish to use the migrants and to destroy those who object. A preacher virtually makes war on his congregation when he preaches near an irrigation ditch. He “paced like a tiger, whipping the people with his voice, and they groveled and whined on the ground.” He shouted, “Take 'em, Christ! and threw each one in the water” (p. 450). All Steinbeck's Christians are attacked; the only religion he respects is one like his own belief in the “one big soul ever'body's part of” (pp. 570-572).

Fundamentalists and Christians in fiction do not all deserve contempt. The Reverend Shegog's sermon in The Sound and the Fury is probably the best example in fiction of admirable uneducated Christianity, and other such sermons appear in Mosquitoes and Moby-Dick. James Weldon Johnson, Robert Penn Warren, and Scott Momaday have also created good but plain ministers. Steinbeck uses the rule passed against taking up collections in camp to suggest that all ministers in the camp are interested only in money. Casy's religion of man is more in harmony with Steinbeck's social views. To substitute a kind of biological transcendentalism like that in this novel for religion is not true to the Protestant ways of the characters. Orthodoxy and tradition in Oklahoma are a part of the way of life. There are many irreligious souls, but most of them are skeptics or hell-raising unbelievers or the indifferent. Casy must surely be the only uneducated rural minister converted to Emersonianism who ever lived in Bible-belt areas like the South and Oklahoma. Tradition, experience, and culture make preachers in these areas fall to the flesh or to the demon rum, not to free-thinking. If a preacher did fall as Casy does among a people like the Joads, their own religion would damn him more than one who fell to the flesh.

It seems strange that a novelist of the stature, talent, and humanity of Steinbeck should get the culture, the facts, and the religion as wrong as he did in The Grapes of Wrath. The reason may be simple. The tragedies of the dust bowl and the migrant workers grabbed his interest. He set out to write about them with humanity and for a social purpose, but he was too ignorant of his characters' ways. In this book Steinbeck is what Robert Penn Warren has called a “doctrinaire; that is, he appreciated a work of art to the degree in which it supported his especial theory.”11 Mildly, Steinbeck has allowed social purpose to control him as it has some Russian authors and critics, who, naturally enough, admire this novel especially. He was not a great enough artist to be able to put aside his social beliefs and prejudices. The theme and the practice of the novel show that he could not lift himself to that level. The Grapes of Wrath resembles those novels which make all good characters white and all bad ones black or vice versa. But Steinbeck does worse than categorize characters by whether they are good migrants or bad capitalists. He did “conspicuous violence to his laborers” because he tried to blend “left-wing … dialectics and the country people together.”12 Communal and biological forms of a unified society do not conform to the fiercely Anglo-American culture which has been established in farming areas like eastern Oklahoma.


  1. Quoted in “Red Meat and Red Herrings,” Commonweal 30 (October 13, 1939): 562.

  2. H. A. Taine, History of English Literature, trans. H. Van Laun (New York, 1879), pp. 17-18.

  3. Remarks by Hon. Lyle H. Boren, Congressional Record, Appendix 86, part 13 (1940), 140.

  4. County Agent Houston B. Ward, quoted by Martin Staples Shockley, “The Reception of The Grapes of Wrath in Oklahoma,” American Literature 15 (1944): 353.

  5. Frank J. Taylor, “California's ‘Grapes of Wrath,’” Forum 102 (November 1939): 232-238.

  6. Carey McWilliams, “California Pastoral,” Antioch Review 2 (Spring 1942): 104.

  7. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking Press, 1939), p. 3. All parenthetical references in the text are to this edition.

  8. The Grapes of Wrath, p. 231; H. Kelly Crockett, “The Bible and The Grapes of Wrath,College English 24 (December 1962): 193.

  9. Frederick F. Manfred, “Sinclair Lewis: A Portrait,” American Scholar 23 (Spring 1954): 180.

  10. Walter Fuller Taylor, “The Grapes of Wrath Reconsidered,” Mississippi Quarterly 12 (Summer 1959): 139.

  11. Robert Penn Warren, “The Blind Poet: Sidney Lanier,” American Review 2 (November 1933): 37.

  12. Quoted in “Red Meat and Red Herrings,” p. 563.

John Ditsky (essay date summer 1979)

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SOURCE: Ditsky, John. “The Grapes of Wrath: A Reconsideration.” Southern Humanities Review 13, no. 3 (summer 1979): 215-20.

[In the following essay, Ditsky describes The Grapes of Wrath as “a romantic epic of the U.S. highway.”]

It can be argued that the American road provides the major theme of our national literature. Broaden the consideration to include the road's literary counterparts—the river and the sea—and the point acquires further strength. Four decades after its creation, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath begs recognition as the sort of book it really is: a classic of undiminished power that is fundamentally a romantic epic of the U.S. highway. Misguided assumptions stemming from the critical attitudes of the Thirties have kept this book from being seen for what it has always been—a volume in the service of mankind, of course, but not one with a sense of specific doctrinal mission, a philosophical axe to grind.

Naturalist, sentimentalist, non-teleologist—a succession of terms such as these has been used to describe, and thus to dismiss, the author of The Grapes of Wrath. As the work of a new generation of Steinbeck critics has shown (I am thinking especially of Richard Astro and Robert DeMott), the thinking of this humblest of writers cannot so easily be encapsuled in a single descriptive noun; and as the recent publication of the man's own commentary on his creative processes (Journal of a Novel and the Life in Letters) has helped us to see, it has always been particularly absurd to attempt to limit Steinbeck to some especial and singular intention, such as those of the social engineer or documentary journalist. The glass brogan simply will not fit.

Instead, The Grapes of Wrath gives us an artistic rendering of a specific historical situation in which an acutely local observation of pertinent detail is raised to universal relevance through a process of patent stylization. The Joads are a deliberate cross-section of types and attitudes, and were they not managed with a skill beyond the capacities of simple naturalism they might resolve themselves into the stuff of mobile soap-opera, a sort of Airport'39. Though they constitute “the people,” they are capable of being mean-spirited and small-minded; their poverty does not of itself ennoble them. Their speech articulates a human progress upward: as Oklahomans, they represent the final thrust of the westering spirit, now once again quickened in response to recent need—like a dry seed animated by a spring rain. Instead of being, as Edmund Wilson mistakenly thought them, beings arbitrarily limited to the status of animals, they are embodiments of what began as animal, perhaps, but used its capacity for evolutionary upward striving to assert its right to something higher. The real parallel to The Grapes of Wrath, to use recent filmic enterprises as sources of examples, is not so much the nostalgic moment of holistic communion that takes place in Bonnie and Clyde (through superficially Steinbeckian resonances) as, rather, the reach of humanity after a more intelligent existence one finds in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Joads are less simply colorful than they are an archetypical cross-section of America; and as diverse types en route to Canaan on a ramshackle narrenschiff-on-wheels, they represent the renewing of the frontier spirit—the taking-onward of the necessary adventure of the country by the citizens of its last-settled “contiguous” state, individuals in whom such energies represent much more than vestigial tourist myths.

Thus the Joads, much like the book's Elmer Hader dustjacket illustration itself, are a cross between post-office-mural substance and grainy documentary. If they are posed on the edge of the promised land, they are not about to get there simply through linear geographical movement. In fact, when their own infant Moses is set adrift later in the novel, the baby is already dead. This California is “nice country. But she was stole a long time ago,” the Joads are warned as they enter the state. The irony of the expected Eden land is one that is central to Steinbeck's purposes, animating such an early work as The Pastures of Heaven as much as the late East of Eden, and appearing prominently in other works as well. Much as he is thematically committed to the union of man and landscape, John Steinbeck is consistent in underscoring the vanity of mere human wishing: the Joads will have to learn to find their Canaan in their inner selves, or not at all. In wedding the road motif to the notion of the disappointment of the American dream, Steinbeck chose a mighty theme with which to write a mighty book.

If it is absurd to reduce the Joads to the stature of the singleminded instinctual directioning of the famous land turtle to which our attention is pointed early on, it is equally foolish to impute to them a heroism they cannot sustain—so rudimentary is the stage at which their group consciousness resides. The heroism which pervades The Grapes of Wrath attaches less to individuals than to westering Americans as a corporate entity, and it is that enormous and powerful new Being-acoming that will possess the Homeric strength some readers have sensed in the novel. Steinbeck has not imparted a ridiculously exaggerated stature to his Joads, as some have mistakenly concluded; rather, he has employed the interchapter technique to relate their plight to that of tens of thousands of others in a similar bind. In so doing, he has created a sense of Mass-Man on the move that is impressive to behold—real Potemkin stuff! The more-or-less realistic depiction of the Joads themselves, creating in many readers an expectation of a traditionally naturalistic denouement, is deliberately contrasted with the poeticized narration of the interchapters, and it is there that the epic stature lies. Steinbeck's waning fascination with the group-man is already undercut, in The Grapes of Wrath, by the fact of audience: this book is not a call to revolutionary action, but a clear warning to middle-class readers of what will come into existence—of what rough beast will slouch towards birth—if the just demands of the displaced Okies for humane treatment are ignored much longer.

That is why the immediate controversy over the book's accuracy of documentary representation—a “critical” debate some examples of which were once collected in book form by Warren French—is in quick retrospect so laughable, and why arguments as to the book's continued relevance to the plight of Cesar Chavez's farm workers today are critical red herrings: The Grapes of Wrath incorporates a social cause; it does not espouse one directly. In epitomizing a critical decade of American history that was already ending—its values permanently altered, or even vanished—Steinbeck created an enduring fiction that never concerned itself with the petty realities of Californian booster-pride. (Had he wanted to establish a socio-political syllogism, he might well have ended his book with the happy hiatus in the government camp, with its angelic overseer—the “Tom” of the novel's dedication—dressed in white.) The Grapes of Wrath is an episodic novel about a family's education, a bildungsroman in the collective sense.

None of which is to deny Steinbeck's very real sympathies, acquired first-hand as they were, with the dispossessed Okies; but it is rather to deny the charge of sentimentality with which Steinbeck's writing is so often taxed, and to deny it on the basis of the evidence of the book itself. Its careful structure, its wonderful mixing of voices and tones and points-of-view, all operate to distance the reader from any possible wallow of emotional involvement. In this quasi-Brechtian sense the book is “epic,” and its very real distance from the reader's ordinary sense of time and space helps establish for it a genuinely romantic quality. Moreover, if its initial focus is on the collective, on Mass-Man, its finer deliberations are on the existential coming-to-be of the individual. The source of the novel's title, the “Old Plantation Melody” Battle Hymn of the Republic with its Julia Ward Howe lyrics (included at Steinbeck's request as the endpapers of the first edition) is arguably as much about the single seizure of freedom as it is about group militancy of purpose. Craftsmanship of language is what makes this ambitious mixture work, and it is seldom craftsmanship of language that distinguishes the major works of American naturalism. The Grapes of Wrath is clearly something else.

It would be clear, once enough serious consideration were expended, that there is no book in the canon of American literature to which The Grapes of Wrath bears such a structural resemblance as Moby Dick. (To make this obvious comparison implies no inflating of claims as to the later book's greatness; but the fact of withstanding such a pairing does imply something about the staying power of Steinbeck's novel.) In the immensity of its novelistic architecture, Moby Dick interrupts its plot with vast digressions on a variety of thematically or symbolically related topics, and inflates the importance of a single whaling voyage by means of verbal daring and rhetorical exaggeration. If Steinbeck's novel does much the same thing, then we are at least made aware of the scope of his ambitions as a writer.

If Melville's cadences are not only Shakespearean and Miltonic, but Biblical as well, Steinbeck's are primarily Biblical, but with the same mélange of Old and New Testament values that Melville uses. The power of Ahab's rant, given differing authorial intentions, is of a kind with Jim Casy's clear echoes of Christ and Old Testament prophets; and in both books, there are a number of interchapters present to slow down the action and swell the book's significance. But just as Moby Dick is hardly just a novel “about” whaling, so too The Grapes of Wrath is not about Route 66 and poverty, or about Christ and the art of truck maintenance. This is, I repeat, no attempt to create a new importance for Steinbeck's book, but rather to place it in its proper literary perspective, so that we may see that a set piece of Dos Passos-like, pure-Thirties naming-of-parts—the chapter, for instance, on used-car salesmanship—is, more accurately, a verbal rhapsody of material pertinence. The sheer pressure of quantities—quantities denied—moves the Steinbeck novel towards the epic romance. But whereas the Melville book possesses tragic resonance because of the isolated world its characters are forced to inhabit, The Grapes of Wrath, on account of its communal dimensionality, can be argued to have achieved a genuinely comic ending.

Such an argument must oppose the cookiecutter reasoning of readers who maintain that Steinbeck's novel, as a book of the Thirties about poor people, must necessarily be naturalistic in intention and effect. Alas, it is difficult from the perspective of the late Seventies to see how Steinbeck could ever have been seen as a thoroughgoing naturalist. Indeed, he has far more in common with Fitzgerald than with Farrell: the handling of quantities, the references to the continental dream, the surrendering of innocencies to higher necessities (albeit higher innocencies, Emersonian purities), can all be said to betoken Fitzgerald's romanticist vision of America lost, the thrown World Series. The new community of men that The Grapes of Wrath describes aborning is one which forsakes the nuclear family in favor of the new worldly order the dollar bill proposes: though Joad after Joad succumbs to death or wanderlust, the residue of the party that set out from Oklahoma has long since developed the ability to incorporate newcomers into its fabric (while the residue of the party itself has readjusted to the greater structure all around it); though that residue acquires Jim Casy, it develops Tom, and in the end it has learned to pool resources with strangers without some apparent “head” to direct its acting-to-adjust. The most significant feature of the events of the latter part of the novel, then, is the displacement of male intellectuality by a female and instinctual recombinative ability. In so doing, Steinbeck's novel is as fundamentally subversive and cozily evil as Melville's; assumptions—and what else is naturalism but the comfort of assumptions?—are destroyed in the name of a higher sort of truth.

And it is only in a novel of romantic sweep that such sexist symbolism is truly acceptable, if only temporarily; Steinbeck's depiction of events depends greatly upon the new order's reliance on primary female strengths. I am referring not merely to Ma's famous refusal to take Pa's direction, but especially to the understanding signified by the exchange of glances between Ma and Rose of Sharon that brings about the novel's ending tableau. I have argued that this scene constitutes a confirmation of Steinbeck as epic romanticist, and that in it, the once-controversial gesture in which Rose of Sharon offers her breast to feed a starving stranger becomes an icon for the new community. The older and insipidly literalistic interpretation of this scene, with its discussions of whether or not mother's milk is actually good for adult males, is itself the token of the failure of prior criticism to come to grips with Steinbeck's achievement. The very theatricality of this final scene is, I think, the end result of Steinbeck's careful structuring pattern. By it, the world of Joad and the greater family-of-man continuity of the interchapters are brought into an identical focus, an adoptive reordering of roles and goods in which conventional terms such as “mother,” “husband,” “son,” and the like are abolished or at least changed utterly.

Can we define a classic as a book we can talk about to a literate friend without having to begin with a plot summary? If so, then The Grapes of Wrath can be presumed to be a classic. What we are most in need of is a redefinition of why the book has attained that status. If there has been a resurgence of interest in Steinbeck in recent years—a creative refocusing on such later works as The Winter of Our Discontent and on his other “big” book, East of Eden (as well as on such an earlier masterpiece as In Dubious Battle)—it is still The Grapes of Wrath that is, for most readers, synonymous with Steinbeck's artistry at its highest point of achievement. Though all the usual paraphernalia of the criticism industry are now his, including the existence of a busily active international society created in his name and possessing its own quarterly journal, it is this one-time bestseller that retains primacy of place in any consideration of his extensive output. That is as it should be: the very fact of its enduring eminence is itself a demand for the periodic re-examination of The Grapes of Wrath, as I have attempted to do here. Like the other permanent landmarks of American writing, it has re-entered the Garden and given its name to the Tree.

Reloy Garcia (essay date summer-fall 1981)

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SOURCE: Garcia, Reloy. “The Rocky Road to Eldorado: The Journey Motif in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.Steinbeck Quarterly 14, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1981): 83-93.

[In the following essay, Garcia argues that The Grapes of Wrath derives its fundamental structure from the “initiation motif of African and Native American quest tales.]

In The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck's unhappy travellers span two apparently distinct and opposing worlds: the droughty Oklahoma of the early chapters of the novel and the rich and fertile paradise of Chapter Eighteen and after. His characters, here and everywhere, stand invariably one foot in the Oklahoma of the real world and the other in the California of their dreams. This juxtaposition of promise with sterile reality is pervasive in Steinbeck. Melanie Mortlock contends that his characters “attempt to escape the physical world and the world of reality by creating a dream-world, a world of fantasy or illusion. …”1 For every dream there is an awakening, for every Eden a snake. The longer works, in particular, are impelled by a journey to a land of dreams which evaporates mirage-like as it nears. This pattern seems to hold in The Grapes of Wrath; indeed, that is the way the novel is most often read. But the novel and Steinbeck's pattern, I suggest, are far richer and more complex than is generally supposed.

Perhaps the key to this complex pattern—and even a clue to the question of naturalism in Steinbeck—is in the voyage to “Eldorado,” to California, and in what this natural paradise comes to mean for them. John Ditsky writes that “we all live east of Eden … in our race's imagination we come out of the East, out of the land where the sun rises. And in America, in California, we contemplate the starting out on our imaginary journey even as we stand in the place of our dreaming, the embodiment of all our doubts.”2 Except as a hell to leave, Oklahoma at first seems of clear and limited importance, while California seems all important as the green, promised land. As a result, all the characters but “mad” Muley Graves in his sanity and Grampa in his senility yearn to leave Oklahoma for the new world.

The structure underlying their quest is that of the initiation motif, here pieced together from African and American Indian initiation rites, and whose stages are: I. Separation from the “Mother”; II. Travel to the Sacred Place of Initiation; III. Arrival at the Sacred Place (usually a mountain, grotto, cave, or, as is the case here, a valley or garden); IV. Confrontation with the “Monster,” resulting in a Physical or Psychic Marking; and V. either Failure or Entrance into a Confraternity.

Given this form, the Oklahoma of the first ten chapters—Chapter Eleven is an epilogue to the first movement—is the barren and windy mother, the “scarred earth” with “starved tree clumps” (p. 14), where the “raw smell of hot dust was in the air” (p. 37), where the “land ain't much good … cottoned damn near to death” (p. 64). Here, over this desolate land, “the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood” (p. 16); here “the earth was bloody in its setting light” (p. 121). The machines rule this tired land like malevolent despots. The tractors, “like insects,” are “snub-nosed monsters” whose driver “did not look like a man … he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat. The thunder of the cylinders sounded through the country, became one with the air and the earth, so that earth and air muttered in sympathetic vibration” (pp. 47-48).

Interestingly, the threat in the first movement of the novel comes invariably from the oppressive, blood-red sun and from the East, traditionally the direction of birth and rebirth, light and enlightenment. “Dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east” (p. 65). Similarly, “a redness grew up out of the eastern horizon” (p. 94). Just so, the orders to displace the Okies come from the East (p. 52). The sterility of the desolate mother earth—where Rosasharn's baby was conceived and for which it is a symbol—encloses the inhabitants too. One of the tenant farmers says or thinks, “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 [here]” (p. 119); “they's somepin worse'n the devil got hold a the country, an' it ain't gonna let go till it's chopped loose” (p. 175), Casy says.

In this land the machine has replaced the organism and become an apt representation both of lost humanity and of lost communion with the land. The machines and trucks have displaced the people not only because of the conditions of drought but because some spirit has died in them which must be recovered before they can change and before the land, in turn, can be made productive once again. “The land,” Steinbeck writes, “bore under iron and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses” (p. 49)—as if the iron is the result, and the loss of feeling and prayers the curse. In a harsh but appropriate parody of the once-loving relationship between man and the land, now “behind the harrows, the long seeders—twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion” (p. 49). The goggle-eyed driver, eating Spam sandwiches and looking like an insect, is the new regent of the wasteland, like a newly fallen Lucifer in Hades. This is the cursed and infected land of iron, of “not plowing but surgery” (p. 48), not of love but of passionless rape, of “cutting,” “slicing,” and “combining with iron teeth.” Even “the house was dead, and the fields were dead; but [their] truck was the active, the living principle … the new hearth” (pp. 135-36). The truck, their ark, is the perfect symbol of their changed status as thirteen homeless pilgrims, a homeless dog—later to be killed by an automobile—and a preacher without a vocation, Jim Casy, later to be killed in mindless violence by heartless people once he has found his vocation as an activist preacher in overalls.

In classical or mythological terms, a drought such as that which drives the Okies out has a cause in some failure in the people themselves, or in their Fisher King, whose impotence is a symbol for their general sterility. In my opinion, Steinbeck intends for us to consider this as a symbolic cause of the drought in the novel, even if not for the actual drought from which the novel derives. If this is true—even if it is not—the movement to the promised land by the Okies suffers from a false premise: that the causes of the drought are external, that a change of place will alleviate their misery. It does not. It merely changes the location of their suffering and, finally, makes California a decayed false-paradise, infected by the same worm of callous disaffection and greed which devours Oklahoma. The people themselves must first change, then their conditions will change, for “if they ever know themselves, the land will be theirs” (p. 325).

Too little is written of Uncle John's symbolic function in this scheme. Repeatedly he illustrates how aware he is of a sin or curse, and how the family might be the carriers of a sin. He feels, however, that he is the carrier, when in reality the sin is widespread. But he is the chorus in this Morality Play, aching “all over, an' I got it comin'. I oughta go away where I won't bring down punishment on my own folks” (p. 435). One of the displaced tenant farmers muses on the drought which drove them west: “maybe we sinned some way we didn't know about” (p. 271).

Where Oklahoma was a formless desert, California is “vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees set in rows, and the farm houses” (pp. 309-10); it is a “valley golden and green” (p. 313), a “purtier—better lan'” (p. 577), where “it never gets cold. Why you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange” (p. 46), “where I can pick me an orange when I want it. Or grapes” (p. 112); California is “the new rich land … where the fruit grows” (p. 119), where it's “never cold. An' fruit ever'place … an' the little fellas go out an' pick oranges right off the tree” (p. 124) and “they's grapes out there, just a-hangin' over inta the road” (p. 126). The pilgrims are a people “in flight from the sun and the drought” (pp. 274-75), always moving away from the domain of the evil and pitiless sun and east, to the green pastures of the west. Always, their dream is associated with greenness, abundance, fruit, and with “the mother road, the road of flight” (p. 160) to “a new and mysterious place” (p. 264). All of them except Tom embrace the dream of western plenty. Even Ma, who knows everything but how to drive a truck, has only a flicker of doubt: “I'm scared somepin ain't so nice about it” (p. 123), she says. His imagination tempered by four years in prison, only Tom avoids completely the effusiveness and extravagant metaphors for California, to conclude eventually, “this ain't no lan' of milk an' honey like the preachers say. They's a mean thing here” (p. 342).

Thus, in literature, as in religion, a journey is always more than a movement from one place to another. The archetype of the journey is the quest in sterile darkness for the light, for the holy grail of insight, in which the traveller must undergo trials and ordeals to leave the maze of the cursed, manifest world, of which both Oklahoma and California are symbols, to reach the garden of knowledge and peace, which is beyond time and place. California is merely the illusion of that garden, but it is also the desert from which the real New Jerusalem will be seen, intangible and spiritual.

This novel has two climaxes: one false and one real. The first and false one occurs at the arrival at the Promised Land with Chapter Eighteen; the second closes the novel. The mood of great promise and arrival at the sighting of the valley of their dreams is compromised beautifully in several respects. First, Ma announces that Granma has died during the night, perhaps precisely when Rosasharn and Connie had intercourse. Thus they have made their rite of passage to Eldorado in the company of a corpse (which must later be buried, ignominiously, by the County). As they descend into the valley, “a rattlesnake crawled across the road and Tom hit it and broke it and left it squirming” (p. 314). This garden has a snake, as all gardens apparently do. Immediately after this, Chapter Nineteen gives the history of how land in California accumulated in the hands of a few, which is precisely the curse of Oklahoma. They have travelled from Oklahoma to California and nothing has changed but the landscape. If anything, conditions are worse because the abundance exaggerates their poverty. Here, in Eldorado, “the decay spreads over the state” (p. 476), ruining, in turn, the cherries, the prunes, the pears, the grapes, the people. Worse, “the smell of rot fills the country” (p. 477) because “men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby the fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the State like a great sorrow” (p. 476). The government camp is a small oasis in a vast moral wasteland, offering flush toilets, showers, and hospitality, but even this sanctuary lasts but a month, and when they leave it, yet another “snake wriggled across the warm highway. Al zipped over and ran it down and came back to his own lane” (p. 499), just as the turtle of Chapter Three was hit. But this one is a harmless gopher snake and Tom reprimands Al for what he has done. Eden has both good and bad snakes for those who can discriminate. Whereas dryness and dust typified the sterility of Oklahoma, in California “if the rain can git in the way of a crop, it'll rain” (p. 584), but the effect is the same, drought or flood: lost crops and fugitives.

Further, the “monster” of the archetypal passage in California differs in no essential respect from the sphinx which besieges Oklahoma, whose agents are the large landowners and banks, and whose riddle the people cannot decipher: “… the owner men explained the workings and thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. … Those creatures don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money … the monster's sick. … It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it” (pp. 43-45). The monster is thus typified by its intent—to destroy the family, to steal the land—and by its coldly impersonal, mechanical nature. The monster is not Nature, but it acts through and upon it, as well as through and upon men.

Like the owners from the East who expropriated lands in Oklahoma, the large owners of California convert farming to industry, create the mega-farm, displace the grain fields, and remove themselves from the land to rule in absentia, while exploiting the dispossessed and attacking their primitive efforts to unionize. The union, in this respect, is the political manifestation of the family. Maxwell Geismar says that Steinbeck here finds the origin of human frustration “in the social pathology of an economic system both incoherent and inexcusable. The ‘Curse’ is indeed civilization,”3 thus properly analyzing the role of the association of landowners, but neglecting the collaboration of Nature and the possible root cause in the people themselves, for this is literature, not a tract.

The archetypal monster must always pose a threat—to dismember, devour, fixate, deprive, dissolve, ensnare, extinguish, render impotent, or kill.4 This is the collective threat of the monster of the novel, and the common denominator of Oklahoma and California, from first to last. Its object of attack is the family. Read with this threat in mind, the novel reveals a pervasive concern with the changing condition of the family. In my opinion, this is the major theme of the novel: the assault on the family by inhuman forces and inhumane authorities and institutions, and the startling insight, allowed only to the chosen, that the family can survive—will survive—only when it redefines itself. Almost all of the pilgrims are assaulted in this regard in one form or another, and they either threaten to leave or are driven out, die, or are killed. Grampa is too weak and old to survive the flight. Without him, Granma soon becomes ill, suffers convulsions, becomes dislocated, and dies. “They were too old” (p. 313), and, by implication, too weak. Noah, the mental defective, wanders off at the river. The combined Joad-Wilson family is broken when Sairy Wilson is left dying and Mr. Wilson remains to care for her. Connie, “jackrabbit-quick and fox-sneaky” (p. 425), goes up the river, because as Pa says, “Connie wasn' no good. … Didn' have no guts, jus' too big for his overhalls” (p. 372). Uncle John repeatedly threatens to leave, to “go away where I won't bring down punishment on my own folks” (p. 435). Al threatens to leave first to get a garage job and again later to marry Aggie Wainwright, even though this would leave the family truckless in Gaza. Casy threatens to leave: “I was thinkin' I'd go off alone by myself. I'm a-eatin' your food an' a-takin' up room” (p. 341). Rosasharn threatens to leave after Connie has abandoned her, and “Pa's lost his place” (p. 536) too, says Ma. Even Tom threatens to leave, to be talked out of it by Ma and to be forced to leave later, although to take up a higher cause. Only Ma sees the threat: “We're crackin' up, Tom,” she says. “There ain't no fambly now” (p. 536).

This disruptive pattern is prefigured when, the family truck in disrepair, Tom suggests in Chapter Sixteen that the Joad-Wilson party (who “got almost a kin bond” [p. 227]) separate, just before which “the shadow of a buzzard slid across the earth, and the family all looked up at the sailing black bird” (p. 227). But Ma violently asserts her authority over Pa, who agrees with Tom: “Pa was amazed at the revolt” (p. 229). Jackhandle in hand, she faces down Pa and the others, exclaiming, “What we got lef' in the worl'? Nothin' but us. Nothin' but the folks. … An' now, right off, you wanna bust up the folks—” (p. 231). This is the pivot in the novel from male to female, for now “she was the power. She had taken control. … ‘All we got is the family unbroke. … I ain't scared while we're all here, all that's alive, but I ain't gonna see us bust up’” (p. 231). The threat of the monster is unrelenting and, apparently, victorious, given the impressive casualty list of the novel. The five-part initiation structure is not severely compromised by the failure of the monster to appear (it is omnipresent but visible only through its functionaries), to win (as it appears to do), or to lose (as it in fact does). The monster will not let itself be so neatly formulated.

Part IV of the initiation pattern, dealing with the physical and/or psychic scarring, and Part V, the entrance into the confraternity, are easier to chart, but they too are important only if we see that physical marking must lead to an emotional insight to be of real symbolic importance; and, secondly, that we must consider the “family”—not its individual members—of primary importance. For if the threat of the monster is the disintegration of the family, the promise in and of the people is one of union. Given this, only four of the original thirteen pilgrims have the capacity to “see” this and thus to be numbered among the elect. The others, echoing the dreams in Of Mice and Men, seek only to “live off the fatta' the lan'.” Further, insight must be rendered “active” to be fully significant, “active” meaning that the chosen one must reach out in some manner to extend the concept of the family. Frederic I. Carpenter points to The Long Valley and The Grapes of Wrath as suggesting “the possible realization of the American Dream through courage and active intelligence. … In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck's characters have integrated dream with action. …”5 But not all of them do. Ma, the “arbiter,” as remote and faultless in judgment as a “Goddess” (p. 150), is active in this sense repeatedly, from the very beginning in Chapter Eight when she is willing to feed two supposed strangers (her returning son Tom and Jim Casy) until she feeds hungry children from limited stores in Chapter Twenty. More than anyone else, she knows what she must do, hold the family together, and the threat that faces them: “the fambly's breakin' up” (p. 381), she warns repeatedly, and, “You ain't got the right to get discouraged. This here fambly's goin' under” (p. 479).

Casy too is marked very early, for “the light of the morning made his forehead seem to shine” (p. 93). He knows, even in Oklahoma, the sacred information that nature whispers only to those who can hear. Wandering, “like Jesus,” he has “got tired like Him, an' I got mixed up like Him, an' I went into the wilderness like Him” to learn that “there was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't separate no more. We was one thing. An' that one thing was holy. … I got thinkin' how we was holy when we was one thing, an' makin' was holy when it was one thing” (p. 110). When he says this, he becomes “suddenly a spirit, not human any more, a voice out of the ground” (p. 111). Tom, baptized by Casy himself, “wasn't mean, but you was tough. Sometimes a tough kid grows up with a big jolt of the sperit in him” (p. 57). We must remember that the curse on the people is that the “sperit” has died in them. It is Tom who admonishes Casy later in California, “when ya think you can get ta work an' quit thinkin' a spell?” (p. 341). He becomes active in the interests of others in an interesting fashion, by kicking a “deputy in the neck” when the police attempt to round up Floyd Knowles, Tom Joad, and other agitators. Both Tom and Casy thus become leaders of the people, although California is Tom's wilderness.

The novel is in reality two novels: a road novel taking up agrarian travellers in conflict with apparently unfelling nature, the other a “political” novel, beginning with the arrival at Hooversville in the long Chapter Twenty, roughly at mid-point of the narrative. That awareness is insufficient unless its travelling companion's political action accounts for the unmistakable shift in the work. One of the functions of the interchapters analyzed so astutely by Peter Lisca is to forebode this shift. Thus Lisca concludes that in To a God Unknown and Of Mice and Men “the relationship [of man to the land] is mystical, symbolic, and mythical. While these values persist in The Grapes of Wrath, man's identification with the growth cycle is also seen as pragmatic, socially practical in Jeffersonian terms.”6

Lastly, Rose of Sharon, heiress to the crown of mother-goddess, Ishtar to her mother's mater dolorosa, smiles the mysterious, knowing smile of the novel's close very early (p. 175), and “her hair, braided and wrapped around her head, made an ash-blonde crown” to accompany her “self-sufficient smile” (p. 129). She senses some truth beyond herself early, but she must transcend her childishness, her impetuosity, and her lack of patience to undergo her apotheosis. Oklahoma is not enough; she must undergo the fire and flood of California. H. K. Crockett points out that Rose of Sharon, a “self-centered girl,” must be “tempered by suffering … before she is worthy to share Ma's great spirit.”7 Most of all, she must transcend her distorted hierarchy of values, at whose apex is her worthless and selfish garage-dreaming husband, and even her baby. This she finally does, for she gains what the other three have. Thus, I disagree with Mortlock that Steinbeck believed that “man's continual attempt to create heaven on earth must always result in failure,” of which she sees The Pastures of Heaven as a text, or even that paradise will be lost “at the first opportunity,” as she contends.8

To a rationalist, what they learn must seem simplistic, even simple-minded; yet they have travelled to a new Eldorado, to a knowledge, as Jim Casy would say, “beyond thinkin'.” As Paul Shepherd points out in his brilliant Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature, this “ancient belief that the natural world is composed of a myriad of living patterns or beings in social union” may be “the key to understanding the universe.”9 This is the lesson of poetry and poverty. Nor is it necessary that Steinbeck have read Josiah Royce to come to his theory of the relation of the individual to the whole,10 for Steinbeck's vision transcended but included social organisms and organizations. Of the thirteen pilgrims, only four are capable or worthy of achieving something so simple that it can re-order the universe, dispel the dust of fear or hate, and raise “bright-red” flowers in the flood. B. R. McElderry feels that their quest is “the uncompleted journey toward opportunity and justice,”11 but this interpretation sees it as complete because some have found themselves, even if—perhaps because—robbed of opportunity and denied justice; their spiritual journey is completed. California is not what they expected, yet it is more; they have empty bellies but full hearts.

Henry David Thoreau asks, “What does the West stand for? Is it not our own interior white on the chart?”12 All the travellers get to California but only a few find the Eldorado of the integrated and expanded self because they travel a road contiguous to the highway of flight, Highway 66. In his early review of the novel, Christopher Isherwood says of the pilgrims, “they have exchanged a bad life for a worse,” and he contends further that the flood is “the final scene of their disintegration.”13 The first statement is correct but narrow, the second, in my opinion, a misreading of Steinbeck's intent, for they have found themselves.

With Ma and Rosasharn's final act of charity, even angry nature, which “hammered on the roof and curtained the entrance” to the barn where it takes place (p. 616) is subdued: “the pounding of the rain decreased to a soothing swish on the roof” (p. 617). This particular family has been brutalized, but those who could see finally do see; those who could not were blind for a reason. They looked only for a physical paradise of perpetual spring and plentiful crops, of picket fences and white houses. Clearly, Steinbeck did not believe in the democracy of vision or insight. In Oklahoma the seer, “mad” Muley Graves, knew that he must share his freshly-killed rabbits with Tom Joad and Jim Casy, a family act to which Casy responded, “Muley's got a-holt of somepin, an' it's too big for him an' it's too big for me” (p. 66). Having no need to go to the Promised Land, he is left in the novel wandering through the cemetery, a prophet whom no one understands. The others go to California and fare worse, most of them. The novel admits of two alternate and mutually exclusive interpretations, first because it is a big book and one finds what one looks for in big books, but chiefly because we follow too readily down the path of early, easy, earthly definitions of Paradise. When Steinbeck slowly lifts his view from the road immediately ahead to the far horizon, from soured paradise to a state of awareness, we too readily conclude that the quest has been a failure, that they have not found their Eldorado. But even in California one can learn.

Steinbeck's rage for travel—he saw mobility and restlessness as American traits in America and Americans—was a rage for order, for each element in the natural and social schemes to vibrate in harmony; the only alternative to this biological rhythm is the mechanical disorder diagnosed in the novel, in which one element, turtle or man—turtle and man (both travellers)—is violated. I do not know if Steinbeck would agree with Emerson that “traveling is a fool's paradise.” It would depend, I suppose, on the road and the paradise. He himself travelled a great deal. In May of 1960 he wrote, “I'm going out alone, out toward the West by the northern way but zigzagging through the Middle West and the mountain states. I'll avoid cities, hit small towns and farms and ranches, sit in bars and hamburger stands and on Sunday go to church. I'll go down the coast from Washington and Oregon and then back through the Southwest and the South and up the East coast but always zigzagging. …”14 He was looking for the “idiom” of his people and he zigzagged, but he knew the way.


  1. Melanie Mortlock, “The Eden Myth as Paradox: An Allegorical Reading of The Pastures of Heaven,Steinbeck Quarterly, 11 (Winter 1978), 7. References to The Grapes of Wrath, incorporated parenthetically, are to the Viking Compass edition (New York: Viking Press, 1958).

  2. John Ditsky, “The ‘East’ in East of Eden,” in John Steinbeck: East and West, Steinbeck Monograph Series, No. 8, eds. Tetsumaro Hayashi, Yasuo Hashiguchi, and Richard Peterson (Muncie, Indiana: Steinbeck Society, 1978), p. 61.

  3. Maxwell Geismar, “John Steinbeck: Of Wrath or Joy,” in A Casebook onThe Grapes of Wrath,” ed. Agnes McNeill Donohue (New York: Crowell, 1968), p. 139, referred to as Casebook in subsequent footnotes.

  4. See the schema following p. 82 in Erich Neumann's The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype (New York: Pantheon Books, 1955).

  5. Frederick I. Carpenter, “John Steinbeck: American Dreamer,” in Steinbeck and His Critics, eds. E. W. Tedlock, Jr. and C. V. Wicker (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1957), p. 69.

  6. Peter Lisca, The Wide World of John Steinbeck (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958), p. 153. See also Chester Eisinger's “Jeffersonian Agrarianism in The Grapes of Wrath,Casebook, pp. 143-50.

  7. H. K. Crockett, “The Bible and The Grapes of Wrath,Casebook, p. 114.

  8. Mortlock, pp. 14-15.

  9. Paul Shepherd, Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature (New York: Knopf, 1967), p. 96.

  10. See Charles Shively's “John Steinbeck: From the Tidepool to the Loyal Community,” in Steinbeck: The Man and His Work, pp. 25-34.

  11. B. R. McElderry, The Grapes of Wrath: In the Light of Modern Critical Theory,” Casebook, p. 130.

  12. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Knopf, 1946), p. 286.

  13. Christopher Isherwood, “The Tragedy of Eldorado,” Casebook, p. 77.

  14. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, eds. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (New York: Viking Press, 1978), pp. 666-67.

Christopher L. Salter (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: Salter, Christopher L. “John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as a Primer for Cultural Geography.” In Humanistic Geography and Literature: Essays on the Experience of Place, edited by Douglas C. D. Pocock, pp. 142-58. London: Croom Helm, 1981.

[In the following essay, Salter discusses Steinbeck's descriptions of places and landscapes to explore the effects of human mobility on geographical issues.]

There is no need to write additional textbooks in cultural geography. All the messages of the profession are already committed to ink. The motivations, processes, patterns and the consequences of human interaction with the landscape have all been discovered and chronicled with grace and clarity. Authors dedicated to the comprehension and elucidation of order within the overtly haphazard flow of human events have given academics the materials needed to profess the patterns which illustrate this order. We fail, however, as scholars to make adequate use of these data for the simple reason that this material is labelled ‘fiction’.1

Fiction in its primary meaning denotes invention. Ironically, the process of invention in the human species is one of the most consistently lauded acts that we can be associated with. Invention in professional fields is celebrated as creativity and insight. The same act in the commercial world generates considerable cash. And even greater commendation is heaped on the inventor if the product of his or her imagination can be used in fields other than the inventor's own. That becomes the product of genius.

Yet, invention in the field of creative writing—the fiction of imaginative observation—is too often held to be non-transferable. It is in this domain that—for academics—fiction can assume its pejorative connotation. Constrained by a narrowly conceived framework of objectivity, the inventions of a good literary mind may indeed be unsuitable source material for research or teaching. The nature of human experience, however, whether that between fellow humans or in their relationship with place, cannot be captured in a rigidly objective framework. Imaginative literature articulates the kaleidoscope of human experience and the teacher of cultural geography who adopts an alternative artistic or humanistic stance to such material may himself be deemed inventive. The arguments in favour of such a literary teaching programme for cultural geography may be briefly enumerated.

Consider first the learning atmosphere engendered by the use of a novel in addition to, or in lieu of, an orthodox text in cultural geography. Largely because a novel is a work of fiction, a reader slips into the narrative with a curious mind. The interest in understanding the author's work derives from an informal competition between the reader and the author. What is the message here? asks the student. Can the author make me concerned enough about it to give of my mind, wit and time?

In the same situation, a traditional textbook would be anticipated as a collection of facts strung together as beads on a time line. The ambition of the reader would be most probably focused upon retention rather than upon understanding, hence diminishing creative speculation regarding the implications of the material presented. A novel gains strength because it may fire one's imagination through subtle allusion and illusion. A textbook, on the other hand, damps down the same fire through demands for inclusion and conclusion.

Literary fiction works well with cultural geography because the substance of both endeavours is life itself. The capacity for attitudes that shape environmental manipulation are present in all people, whether their perspectives emerge from an author's pen or a social scientist's interview data. The task of the cultural geographer is the same regardless of the data base: to mould individual specifics into understandable, reliable predictabilities. If the target audience of such an intellectual effort becomes involved in and concerned with the specifics of the human process, it will be easier for the teacher to instruct in the larger realities. These mundane specifics are exactly the material the novelist employs to create his fiction.


Because so many works of fiction are fundamentally genuine in their description of people and place, the range of works available to a class is large. In the selection of a novel for such an experiment, therefore, the teacher's best guide is his or her own personal preference in authors and settings.2 The re-reading of a classic, with an eye focused upon the themes of cultural geography, may well produce new insights and new analysis.

… I have chosen to use the major work by the American author John Steinbeck. In his 1939 The Grapes of Wrath3 several significant criteria are met. In the first place, the novel is the product of vital and personal fieldwork by the author. He was writing of a world that he knew very intimately.4 Secondly, he has his characters move through a variety of distinct physical and cultural regions. Such movement adds variety to the geographic observations that are potential in a novel. In the third place, Steinbeck employs a useful literary convention in the book in his use of inner chapters. These short episodes that break up the specific narrative of the Joad family provide the reader with an overview of the cultural landscape during the time the fiction of the novel takes place. By interrupting the flow of the personal narrative of the primary family, Steinbeck effectively causes the reader to back away from the specific incidents of his main family and, instead, to view the difficulties of these people as part of a larger social fabric. While such a technique is far from unique to Steinbeck, the structure of The Grapes of Wrath is particularly well suited to developing societal themes as opposed to simply personal themes.

The final reason for the selection of The Grapes of Wrath is that if members of a class become interested in Steinbeck's style and concerns, there exists a large corpus of work that may be subsequently turned to. Once a student begins to read fiction with part of his mind searching out distinctive landscapes and culture systems, education has essentially reached a new and higher level. It is fitting that a cultural geographer should play some role in that attainment.

In The Grapes of Wrath three major theme areas in cultural geography are particularly evident for elaboration. Human mobility—the kinetic energy of so much landscape transformation—plays a dominant role in Steinbeck's narrative. Tensions between competing modes of land use spark much of the drama in the novel, while illustrating the social consequences of such variant decisions in economic patterns. Finally, the specific social and spatial configurations encountered by the Joads during their epic move from Oklahoma to California serve as vignettes around which a geographer can structure expanded explanations of human transformation of the land. In this paper, our concern is focused upon the themes of human mobility.


Systems of belief as well as spatial order are constantly subject to change. The intrusion of competing systems—through the processes of migration and expanded communications—is a key force in such change. To the cultural geographer human mobility affords a thematic domain that embraces environmental perception, regional, cultural and economic variation, problem landscapes that impede migration and mobility, as well as contesting systems of custom, government and settlement. Steinbeck weaves all of these elements into his novel of America in the 1930s. By sorting out several of the most significant sub-themes in this universe of movement, an orderly analysis of both the novel and this aspect of cultural geography is possible.


Axial to any model of decision-making in a migration scenario is the process of deciding where one is to go when the hearth area no longer accommodates a person or a people. The information available in that selection of a goal area derives from hearsay, media messages, feedback from earlier migrants, reading and current folklore. This initial consideration of the choice of goal area is appropriate in our analysis of The Grapes of Wrath because so great a part of the novel is concerned with the search for a haven. In this process, the Joads and their fellow travellers were continually confronted with the riddle of ‘where to go’. The image of California that was known in Oklahoma was one of a tarnished Eden. Although news of the fields, the fruit, the opportunity for land and the generalised abundance of everything in California was widespread, there were increasing rumours of the existence of an ugly dark side to this vision. In the two passages below, members of the Joad family touch on the emotional extremes of the images that came to the Okies as they were forced to pack up their few belongings and set out for new lands. Grampa speaks first, representing the popular image of an abundant reward awaiting those who chose California for a goal area in the departure from the drought-stricken Great Plains.

The old man thrust out his bristly chin, and he regarded Ma with his shrewd, mean, merry eyes. ‘Well, sir,’ he said, ‘we'll be a-startin' ‘fore long now. An', by God, they's grapes out there, just a-hangin' over inta the road. Know what I'm a-gonna do? I'm gonna pick me a wash tub full a grapes, an' I'm gonna set in 'em, an' scrooge aroun', an' let the juice run down my pants.’5

Just before that passage, Ma Joad allowed herself to speculate on some of those same images when she allowed herself to think of

how nice it's gonna be, maybe, in California. Never cold. An' fruit ever'place, an' people just bein' in the nicest places, little white houses in among the orange trees … An' the little fellas go out an' pick oranges right off the tree. They ain't gonna be able to stand it, they'll get to yellin' so.6

But a parallel ambivalence the family felt about California and the decision to uproot and head west is evident in this turn of the conversation between Ma and her son, Tom, who has just been paroled from prison.

‘I knowed a fella from California. He didn't talk like us. You'd of knowed he come from some far-off place jus' the way he talked. But he says they's too many folks lookin' for work right there now. An' he says the folks that pick the fruit live in dirty ol' camps an' don't hardly get enough to eat. He says wages is low an' hard to get any.’

A shadow crossed her face. ‘Oh, that ain't so,’ she said. ‘Your father got a han'bill on yella paper, tellin' how they need folks to work. They wouldn't go to that trouble if they wasn't plenty work. Costs 'em good money to get them han'bills out. What'd they want ta lie for, an' costin' 'em money to lie?’7

This refusal of Ma to accept the information that Tom brought from prison—from one who had witnessed a different image of the state—is significant, for it is illustrative of the manner in which the migrant begins to exclude information that threatens the positive image of the goal area. Once plans for a migration have been made, blinkers are put on in an attempt to disallow any dilution of that resolution. As one ponders the trauma of an uprooting from the home and place that has served as home for decades for a family, such a response becomes increasingly understandable. The psychological costs of such a move provide the second theme for consideration.


The whole tone of movement in The Grapes of Wrath is one of regretful departure. Except for occasional, if powerful, allusions to a better life in California voiced by the young Joads and Grampa, the family leaves their Oklahoma sharecropping past with reluctance.8 This wrenching of the move is not limited to the Joads. Steinbeck creates one of his strongest characters in the person of Muley, one of the few people the reader meets who has decided not to move to California. The combination of Ma Joad and Muley—although they never share the same stage—is effective in making an observer realise that this process of uprooting at a time of crisis has deep and profound psychological costs far beyond the economic dislocation associated with such a migration.

In the one case—that of Ma Joad—there is a buffer created by the fact that she is taking her family with her. She will at least be able to maintain basic associations with the people who are most important in her life. In the case of Muley, Steinbeck creates a character who is cast adrift entirely. In his attempts to maintain his attachment to the past and his personal tradition, he reverts to a near-primitive, taking solace in his attempts to make trouble for the agents of change sent by the banks and the police.9

This trauma of movement derives also from the sheer financial burdens of relocation. For the Okies, to whom Steinbeck gives his novel, there were few resources available to lighten the burden of the move. Human resources were the greatest riches these farmers had, and it was these very family members who found themselves at odds with each other because of decisions about where to go or how to travel or what to drive. Details in the inner chapters as well as the Joad narrative point out to the reader the complexity of human mobility, a complexity that involves both the emotions and the finances of individuals and families. Such an understanding helps an observer to realise the gravity of the decision to uproot and move on.

Passages that demonstrate the power of these themes of dislocation come from conversations between Tom and Muley, Ma and Tom, and descriptions of the car lots in the inner chapters. In the first excerpt below, Muley, Tom and Casy are talking around a small fire on the nearly deserted farmlands of the town where Tom and Muley were raised. Muley is getting increasingly excited as he explains how he felt as he saw his house emptied, his parents leave and his farmland all reduced to a sameness under the power of the new tractors on the land.

‘I wanta talk. I ain't talked to nobody. If I'm touched, I'm touched, an' that's the end of it. Like a ol' graveyard ghos' goin' to neighbors' houses in the night. Peters', Jacobs', Rance's, Joad's; an' the houses all dark, standin' like miser'ble ratty boxes, but they was good parties an' dancin'. An' there was meetin's and shoutin' glory. They was weddin's, all in them houses. An' then I'd want to go in town an' kill folks. 'Cause what'd they take when they tractored the folks off the lan'? What'd they get so their ‘margin a profit’ was safe? They got Pa dyin' on the groun', and Joe yellin' his first breath, an' me jerkin' like a billy goat under a bush in the night. What'd they get? God knows the lan' ain't no good. Nobody been able to make a crop for years. But them sons-a-bitches at their desks, they jus' chopped folks in two for their margin a profit. They jus' cut 'em in two. Place where folks live is them folks. They ain't whole, out lonely on the road in a piled-up car. They ain't alive no more. Them sons-a-bitches killed 'em.’ And he was silent, his thin lips still moving, his chest still panting. He sat and looked down at his hands in the firelight. ‘I-I ain't talked to nobody for a long time,’ he apologized softly. ‘I been sneakin' around like a ol' graveyard ghos'.’10

Ma shows some of the same unprecedented irritation as she attempts to organise her family's goods for the uncertain trip west.

‘Ma,’ he said, ‘you never was like this before!’ Her face hardened and her eyes grew cold. ‘I never had my house pushed over,’ she said. ‘I never had my fambly stuck out on the road. I never had to sell-ever'thing …’11

A little later on, Ma looks at the pile of household goods that the family cannot carry and asks a most critical question: ‘How can we live without our lives? How will we know it's us without our past? No. Leave it. Burn it.’12

The economic difficulties of the sharecroppers' moves are compounded by the size of the multitude that is taking to the road. In one of the novel's most effective inner chapters, Steinbeck gives the reader a close-up of a used car lot. In the excerpt below, the reader gains a strong sense of how victimised migrants can be when some environmental or social catastrophe forces so many people to move simultaneously that individuals lose any economic leverage they might otherwise have.

What you want is transportation, ain't it? No baloney for you. Sure the upholstery is shot. Seat cushions ain't turning no wheels over.

Cars lined up, noses forward, rusty noses, flat tires. Parked close together.

Like to get in to see that one? Sure, no trouble. I'll pull her out of the line.

Get 'em under obligation. Make 'em take up your time. Don't let 'em forget they're takin' your time. People are nice, mostly. They hate to put you out. Make 'em put you out, and then sock it to 'em.

Cars lined up, Model T's, high and snotty, creaking wheel, worn bands. Buicks, Nahes, De Sotos.

Yes, sir. '22 Dodge. Best goddam car Dodge ever made. Never wear out. Low compression. High compression got lots a sap for a while, but the metal ain't made that'll hold it for long. Plymouths, Rocknes, Stars.13

This reality is further exploited in scenes from town when the Joads attempt to sell their household goods. There is little return on a lifetime of accumulation when the entire farm community is trying to sell its untransportable furniture and farm implements at the same time.14

Notwithstanding the agonies associated with the move, the people do uproot and leave. Not only is that departure essential to the novel, but it is a reality in consideration of human mobility. Even in the face of the hardships narrated in The Grapes of Wrath, as well as in the myriad others that exist in all migration, people do carry through with the plan to try some other place, hoping that the change will bring them more benefit than cost. In that movement, the people and the landscape are changed. Such change introduces a third major theme area in the study of human mobility from the perspective of cultural geography.


It is not the migrants alone who are changed by the process of migration. Demographic shifts modify the complexion of the hearth area as well as the goal area. If the process or the novel that we are studying is based on an individual's experience, then the scale of such impact is probably small. However, as the size of the population in motion grows, the magnitude of the influence created by the migration increases accordingly. Additionally, the corridor through which the movement takes place is bombarded with new demands, demands which are seldom met with welcome.

The nature of this intermediate response is captured in a number of episodes by Steinbeck, but perhaps most powerfully in his scenes from a Highway 66 diner. The excerpt below shows the pensive nature of a waitress, for example, who has had her entire universe confused by all of the people and families moving west.

Flies struck the screen with little bumps and droned away. The compressor chugged for a time and then stopped. On 66 the traffic whizzed by, trucks and fine stream-lined cars and jalopies; and they went by with a vicious whiz. Mae took down the plates and scraped the pie crusts into a bucket. She found her damp cloth and wiped the counter with circular sweeps. And her eyes were on the highway, where life whizzed by.15

This life that whizzed by in Mae's eyes brought changes all along Highway 66. Traditionally free services such as water and air at the roadside gas stations became so overused that dealers began to charge for such facilities. Used tires, fan belts and engine service all became more expensive as service-station owners' reactions went from irritation and suspicion to entrepreneurial opportunism, creating an image of their services through roadside junk.

The truck drove to the service-station belt, and there on the right-hand side of the road was a wrecking yard—an acre lot surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence, a corrugated iron shed in front with used tires piled up by the doors, and price-marked. Behind the shed there was a little shack built of scrap, scrap lumber and pieces of tin. The windows were windshields built into the walls. In the grassy lot the wrecks lay, cars with twisted, stove-in noses, wounded cars lying on their sides with the wheels gone. Engines rusting on the ground and against the shed. A great pile of junk; fenders and truck sides, wheels and axles; over the whole lot a spirit of decay, of mold and rust; twisted iron, half-gutted engines, a mass of derelicts.16

The images of the migration process—whether in the novel or in a teacher's reality—are frequently tied to this very problem of transportation. Just as the covered wagon of a century earlier became metonymy for the entire process of American westward expansion and settlement, the jalopy with its children, inverted chairs, wooden barrels of dishes, pans and rags became the visual signature of the migration depicted by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. These rigs required impressive levels of self-reliance and inventiveness, qualities that begin to emerge in any migration as the movers are forced to deal with the landscapes and the people they encounter in their flight from the past.

Thus they changed their social life—changed as in the whole universe only man can change. They were not farm men any more, but migrant men. And the thought, the planning, the long staring silence that had gone out to the field, went now to the roads, to the distance, to the West. That man whose mind had been bound with acres lived with narrow concrete miles. And his thought and his worry were not any more with rainfall, with wind and dust, with the thrust of the crops. Eyes watched the tires, ears listened to the clattering motors, and minds struggled with oil, with gasoline, with the thinning rubber between air and road. Then a broken gear was tragedy. Then water in the evening was the yearning, and food over the fire. Then health to go on was the need, and strength to go on, and spirit to go on. The wills thrust westward ahead of them, and fears that had once apprehended drought or flood now lingered with anything that might stop the westward crawling.

The camp became fixed—each a short day's journey from the last.17

To accompany this psychological change in attitude came an associated change in setting. Finding a few physical elements deemed necessary for a nighttime haven—water, a little firewood and perhaps a nearby dump for scavenging—these people began a pattern of creation anew each night. As some of these ‘Hoovervilles’ became established, they began to take on a geography of their own. Such settlements are a bona fide segment of the landscape of change in this human movement.

There was no order in the camp; little gray tents, shacks, cars were scattered about at random. The first house was nondescript. The south wall was made of three sheets of rusty corrugated iron, the east wall a square of moldy carpet tacked between two boards, the north wall a strip of roofing paper and a strip of tattered canvas, and the west wall six pieces of gunny sacking. Over the square frame, on untrimmed willow limbs, grass had been piled, not thatched, but heaped up in a low mound. The entrance, on the gunny-sack side, was cluttered with equipment. A five-gallon kerosene can served for a stove. It was laid on its side, with a section of rusty stovepipe thrust in one end. A wash boiler rested on its side against the wall; and a collection of boxes lay about, boxes to sit on, to eat on. A Model T Ford sedan and a two-wheel trailer were parked beside the shack, and about the camp there hung a slovenly despair.

Next to the shack there was a little tent, gray with weathering, but neatly, properly set up; and the boxes in front of it were placed against the tent wall. A stovepipe stuck out of the door flap, and the dirt in front of the tent had been swept and sprinkled. A bucketful of soaking clothes stood on a box. The camp was neat and sturdy. A Model A roadster and a little home-made bed trailer stood beside the tent.

And next there was a huge tent, ragged, torn in strips and the tears mended with pieces of wire. The flaps were up, and inside four wide mattresses lay on the ground. A clothes line strung along the side bore pink cotton dresses and several pairs of overalls. There were forty tents and shacks, and beside each habitation some kind of automobile. Far down the line a few children stood and stared at the newly arrived truck, and they moved toward it, little boys in overalls and bare feet, their hair gray with dust.18

Every choice humankind makes for the manipulation of an environment sets in motion a tension. The prior state of development at any given point was either natural (increasingly unlikely) or represented some other human wish or design. Cultural geography finds much of its meaning from the process of analysis and evaluation of such a change process, and resultant environments. Questions of natural conditions, technology, economic systems, social attitudes, demography, custom and, finally, special forces of the moment all must be factored into any equation that attempts to explain change. The creation of the Hoovervilles—noted above—was one of the most explicit signals to the Californians that their state was destined to undergo marked social and spatial change in response to this migration stream that had been initiated more than a thousand miles away. These response patterns in the goal area introduce us to our final theme in the cultural analysis of mobility in the novel.


Although public response to the 1939 publication of The Grapes of Wrath was vastly supportive in terms of book purchases, Steinbeck found himself very uncomfortable in California.19 His portrayal of his state's citizens as being unsympathetic, avaricious, even malicious towards this stream of migrants from Oklahoma and other states of the Dust Bowl, sorely wounded the pride of the folk with whom Steinbeck had grown up.20 Criticism was focused upon his inability to acknowledge the impact this immigration of penniless, rural and distraught folk would have on the social order of California. The Great Depression, although not damaging this western state as profoundly as it had other parts of the country, had already taxed municipal and state agencies to the margin of their abilities to cope with unemployed, angry people. The spectre of additional hundreds of thousands of like souls, but souls new to the state, making similar demand on modest resources excited no small anxiety in the eyes of nearly all Californians.

Steinbeck establishes the potentially explosive mood of this tension between the migrants and Californian patterns of farming in one of his strongest inner chapters. He describes the capital-intensive nature of local farming, pointing out the fixed expenses for chemical fertilisers, spraying and irrigation technology. The depressed prices, however, of the late 1930s drove prices below a level that generated essential income for the strictly managed farms. Instead of selling at such a level, owners decided to destroy fruit in order

to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came from miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. A million people hungry, needing the fruit—and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains …

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorry here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot … In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.21

One of the classic confrontations of the new migrants with the old order in California came in the hiring of pickers for the ripening fruits up and down the central valley of the state. Contractors would go to the Hoovervilles, offer work at 30 cents an hour at some distant farm and give families directions on how to get there. Arriving at the place, having exhausted resources and given up space at the camp, people would be told that the rate was only 15 cents an hour—and there would be a surplus of workers even at that rate. Occasionally, migrants who had been caught up in this painful misrepresentation several times would attempt to dissuade the Okies from falling into the trap. The scene below illustrates one such happening.

‘You men want to work?’ … men from all over the camp moved near. One of the squatting men spoke at last. ‘Sure we wanta work. Where's at's work?’

‘Tulare County. Fruit's opening up. Need a lot of pickers.’

Floyd spoke up. ‘You doin' the hiring?’

‘Well, I'm contracting the land.’

The men were in a compact group now. An overalled man took off his black hat and combed back his long black hair with his fingers. ‘What you payin'?’ he asked.

‘Well, can't tell exactly, yet. ‘Bout thirty cents, I guess.’

‘Why can't you tell? You took the contract, didn't you?’

‘That's true,’ the khaki man said. ‘But it's keyed to the price. Might be a little more, might be a little less.’

Floyd stepped out ahead. He said quietly, ‘I'll go, mister. You're a contractor, an' you got a license. You jus' show your license, an' then you give us an order to go to work, an' where, an' when, an' how much we'll get, an' you sign that, an' we'll all go.’

The contractor turned, scowling. ‘You telling me how to run my own business?’

Floyd said, ‘'F we're workin' for you, it's our business too …’

Floyd turned to the crowd of men. They were standing up now, looking quietly from one speaker to the other. Floyd said, ‘Twicet now I've fell for that. Maybe he needs a thousan' men. He'll get five thousan' there, an' he'll pay fifteen cents an hour. An' you poor bastards'll have to take it 'cause you'll be hungry. 'F he wants to hire men, let him hire 'em and write out an' say what he's gonna pay. Ast ta see his license. He ain't allowed to contract men without a license.’22

Clandestine farming was another point of contention between the uprooted farmers of the Dust Bowl and the California residents who became increasingly uneasy about the threat to their patterns of agriculture.

Now and then a man tried; crept on the land and cleared a piece, trying like a thief to steal a little richness from the earth. Secret gardens hidden in the weeds. A package of carrot seeds and a few turnips. Planted potato skins, crept out in the evening secretly to hoe in the stolen earth.

… Secret gardening in the evenings, and water carried in a rusty can.

And then one day a deputy sheriff: Well, what you think you'r doing?

I ain't doin' no harm.

I had my eye on you. This ain't your land. You're trespassing.

The land ain't plowed, an' I ain't hurtin' it none.

You goddamned squatters. Pretty soon you'd think you owned it … Get off now. And the little green carrot tops were kicked off and the turnip greens trampled … Did ya see his face when we kicked them turnips out? Why, he'd kill a fella soon's he'd look at him. We got to keep these here people down or they'll take the country … Outlanders, foreigners … Sure, they talk the same language, but they ain't the same. Look how they live. Think any of us folks'd live like that? Hell, no!23

In The Grapes of Wrath—and even more so in the reality of the migration—there were instances of a more welcoming response to the migrants. People were able to see these families as fundamentally hardworking farm people who had been set in motion by the extraordinary combination of the natural forces of the drought and dust conditions of the Great Plains and the economic chaos of the Depression. Steinbeck portrays one such sympathetic farmer in the person of a Mr Thomas who hires men from the government camp of Weedpatch. He is a small farmer, deeply dependent upon a credit line from his bank, even though he appears to have been an efficient farmer. In this excerpt Mr Thomas has just told his small work crew that the 30 cents an hour they had been getting was being reduced to 25 cents that morning.

Timothy said, ‘We've give you good work. You said so yourself.’

‘I know it. But it seems like I ain't hiring my own men any more.’ He swallowed. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I got sixty-five acres here. Did you ever hear of the Farmers' Association?’

‘Why, sure.’

‘Well, I belong to it. We had a meeting last night. Now, do you know who runs the Farmers' Association? I'll tell you. The Bank of the West. That bank owns most of this valley, and it's got paper on everything it don't own. So last night the member from the bank told me, he said, “You're paying thirty cents an hour. You'd better cut it down to twenty-five.” I said, “I've got good men. They're worth thirty.” And he says, “It isn't that,” he says. “The wage is twenty-five now. If you pay thirty, it'll only cause unrest. And by the way,” he says, “You going to need the usual amount for a crop loan next year?”’ Thomas stopped. His breath was panting through his lips. ‘You see? The rate is twenty-five cents—and like it.’24

Conditions, then, at the place of arrival paralleled the set of conditions that drove the farmers off the land and onto Highway 66. The banks that had been seeking the ‘margin of profit’ that Muley spoke of in Oklahoma appeared to be in charge of farming decisions on small and large landholders alike in California. The vagaries of nature that brought drought and turned sharecropping counter-productive also produced the prolonged rains and floods that end the book with the remnants of the Joad family stranded in a desolate boxcar, still out of touch with the land that they had set out for. Although migration had been undertaken, the same paucity of options that faced these families at the outset seems to characterise their future as the novel is closed.

That, perhaps, is the fiction that cultural geographers should do battle with in their instruction on human mobility. Even with the specifics broadly varying from case to case, the fact of migration does open new options. People change in the process of movement; places change as the migrants grow more familiar with the setting and cultural fabric of these new locales. In a harsher sense, the least adaptive of the initial migrants have probably left the migration stream, diminishing the competition in the search for support at the final destination.

New skills are learned by the migrant farmers as they leave the land to their past and find outlets for their ambition in the cities. New settlement features grow up around the migrants who finally do create a marginal haven for themselves and their families, and bring their music, foods, clothes and language into the society of the new setting. Almost nothing is able to escape some modification in the face of a migration stream as robust and intense as this particular American flight from the Great Plains in the mid-1930s. The event in itself is a dramatic exercise in the elements of cultural geography.


To the cultural geographer, then, lessons from the landscape and human movement in The Grapes of Wrath provide focus for instruction in migration, settlement forms, economic systems, cultural dualism, agricultural land use patterns, transportation technology and social change. To the reader of creative fiction, these same realities generally lie scattered within the pages of this epic of one family's unsuccessful search for a new beginning. But, to the reader of fiction who is also attempting to comprehend something of the underlying systems in this chaos of conflict and flight, the study of this novel provides a window on geographic phenomena broadly ranging from mental maps to economic infrastructures.

In the face of such complexity, effective thinking—let alone instructing—calls for the use of all the human resources available. Evocative fiction in creative literature is one of these resources. Such work, when read with a searching mind, and then re-read with a disciplined perspective, is capable of illustrating patterns, preferences and problems of humankind. And it conveys all of these dynamics with vitality. Cultural geographers—in their ambitious quest for the understanding of human society and cultural landscapes—would do well to capture and utilise such dynamics and such vitality. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is one volume that possesses both qualities in such abundance that it serves provocatively as a primer for cultural geography.


  1. There is a broad literature discussing the use of fiction in both teaching and research. Some of the items of interest in the literature of fiction include A. J. Lamme III, ‘The Use of Novels in Geography Classrooms’, Journal of Geography, vol. 76, no. 2 (February 1977), pp. 66-8; D. W. Meinig, ‘Environmental Appreciation: Localities As a Humane Art’, Western Humanities Review, vol. 25 (Winter 1971), pp. 1-11; C. L. Salter and W. J. Lloyd, ‘Landscape in Literature’, Resource Papers for College Geography (Association of American Geographers, Washington DC), no. 76-3 (1977); Sherman E. Silverman, ‘The Use of Novels in Teaching Cultural Geography of The United States’, Journal of Geography, vol. 76, mp/4 (April/May 1977), pp. 140-6; C. L. Salter, ‘Signatures and Settings: One Approach to Landscape in Literature’ in Karl W. Butzer (ed.), Dimensions of Human Geography (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978), pp. 69-83; John Conron, The American Landscape (Oxford University Press, Chicago, 1973).

  2. Salter and Lloyd, ‘Landscape in Literature’, pp. 29-30, includes a number of useful references for searching out fiction to coincide with region and, sometimes, theme of a teacher or researcher.

  3. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (Viking Press, New York, 1939).

  4. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (eds.), Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (Penguin, New York, 1976). This collection has two sections that deal with the period of preparation for The Grapes of Wrath (pp. 57-190). These Steinbeck letters and their associated discussion provide the reader with a strong sense of how immediate the Oklahoma sharecropper migration was to Steinbeck during the 1930s. See also John Steinbeck, Their Blood is Strong (Simon J. Lubin Society, San Francisco, 1938); Peter Lisca, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (pp. 75-101), and George Bluestone, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (pp. 102-21) in Robert Murray Davis (ed.), Steinbeck: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1972).

  5. Steinbeck, Grapes, p. 126.

  6. Ibid., p. 124.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Grampa fills the role of a particularly tragic character in the early part of the novel because of the naivety of his vision of California, as well as his difficulty in comprehending the magnitude of the family move. The Joad children and their friends become caught up in the adventure of moving and exploration, also failing to sense the impending rupture in the family's situation. See Chapter 10 (pp. 122-56).

  9. In Chapter 6 (pp. 54-82) Muley shows Tom and Casy how thorough his adaptation to his new life has been. He anticipates the arrival and search behaviour of the sheriff; produces rabbits that he has caught with a fierce efficiency, and he rants on and on about the bank and its determination to ruin the sharecroppers of the region for its ‘margin a profit’. Steinbeck uses this character to illustrate the consequences of making a decision not to move away from this drought-plagued region.

  10. Steinbeck, Grapes, pp. 70-1.

  11. Ibid., p. 104.

  12. Ibid., p. 120.

  13. Ibid., p. 84.

  14. Chapter 9 (pp. 117-21) is a short inner chapter that dramatises the deep frustration that the sharecroppers felt as they tried to sell the goods that they could not transport west. The intensity of this sorrow and anger was shown as families piled household goods in their front yards, set fire to them, and watched them burn as they climbed into their overloaded trucks and headed for their uncertain future. Peter Lisca discusses these inner chapters and their accuracy, while pointing out that Steinbeck's novel launched numerous volumes supporting and disputing the images created by his characterisation of the migration. Lisca, ‘The Grapes’, pp. 78-93.

  15. Steinbeck, Grapes, pp. 220.

  16. Ibid., pp. 241-2.

  17. Ibid., pp. 267-8.

  18. Ibid., pp. 328-9.

  19. The Viking Press issued the first edition of Grapes in April 1939 and the book went through ten printings before the end of the year.

  20. Steinbeck once revealed that an undersheriff of Santa Clara County in California—a prime agricultural county at the time—warned him to be careful because local people had plans to set up a fake rape case in order to discredit him (Steinbeck and Wallsten, Letters, p. 187). In a conversation with a librarian in Salinas, California, in the summer of 1979, I was told that only ‘in the last few years have the townspeople taken any pride at all that John Steinbeck was born here. Before that he was seen as a disgrace.’

  21. Steinbeck, Grapes, pp. 476-7.

  22. Ibid., pp. 358-9.

  23. Ibid., pp. 321-2.

  24. Ibid., p. 402.

The extracts from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, copyright 1939, renewed © 1967 by John Steinbeck, are reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.

Donald Pizer (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: Pizer, Donald. “John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath.” In Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation, pp. 65-81. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Pizer finds the Joads the embodiment of Steinbeck's ideals in spite of, rather than because of, Steinbeck's literary expression of them.]

Steinbeck's most famous novel is enshrouded in a number of myths about its origin and nature. Here is a work which appears to be the epitome of the 1930s proletarian novel in that all its good people speak bad English, which sweetens its animal view of human nature with an anomalous mixture of Christian symbolism and scientific philosophy, and which appeals principally on the level of sentimentality and folk humor. The Grapes of Wrath, in short, is naturalism suffering the inevitable consequences of its soft thinking and its blatant catering to popular interests.1

The Grapes of Wrath is indeed closely linked to the 1930s. Unlike either Studs Lonigan or U.S.A., The Grapes of Wrath is set entirely within the 1930s and is concerned with a distinctive condition of the depression. The novel is also a work of the 1930s in the sense that it is a product of Steinbeck's artistic maturation during that decade. His first three novels, all of the late 1920s, are marked by excessive fantasy and turgid allegory. In 1930 Steinbeck married Carol Hemmings, met the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, and began to interest himself in economic and social problems.2 His wife's deep commitment to his career, Ricketts' philosophical naturalism, and the impingement of contemporary social events on his writing seemed to push Steinbeck not into a denial of his earlier “romantic” strain but toward a hybrid form in which symbol making and ideas have a solid base in contemporary life. In the mid-1930s Steinbeck became absorbed in the plight of the migrant farm workers of the central California valleys. He reported their conditions, talked at great length about their ways in the prairie West and California with the sympathetic manager of a government camp,3 and thus gained an awareness of the substantive detail which crowds The Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath is also a depression novel in its often doctrinaire 1930s economic, social, and political ideas. As late as 1960, in a reminiscence of the 1930s, Steinbeck still held a melodramatic view of the decade, one in which Hoover epitomized the forces of social evil and Roosevelt of good.4The Grapes of Wrath has something of the same character. Evil is epitomized by the great banks and corporations which oppress the common worker and manipulate, by fear, the lower middle class. The California portion of the novel even enacts an American version of European fascism, in which the deputies and vigilantes are proto-fascists and the migrants are hounded Jews. To this 1930s mix, Steinbeck adds an appropriately Marxist interpretation of history and of economic processes. The migrants can be exploited because labor is abundant, the “lesson of history” is that the increasing chasm between the haves and the have-nots will result in revolution, and organization of the masses—from camp sanitation committees to labor unions—is the solution to all social problems.

There is also an element of truth in the view that The Grapes of Wrath contains an uneasy amalgam of what Edmund Wilson called “biological realism”5 and an overapparent Christian symbolism. Few readers today would accept Wilson's remark of 1940 that Steinbeck's characters are “so rudimentary that they are almost on the animal level” or the obsessive concern in the 1950s and early 1960s with Biblical parallels in the novel.6 Nevertheless, the Joads are primitive folk who live close to the natural processes of life, Steinbeck does occasionally indulge in a blatant animism (the turtle crossing the road is a famous example), and the Joads' exodus and Casy's life and death are immediately evocative of Christian myth.

Perhaps the most troublesome matter involving the background of The Grapes of Wrath in recent decades has been the relationship between the themes of the novel and the philosophical ideas expressed by Steinbeck in his Sea of Cortez. Ostensibly a record of a voyage in 1940 by Steinbeck and Ricketts to study marine life in Lower California, Sea of Cortez also contains a number of philosophical meditations. The most significant of these is an “Easter Sermon” on the advantages of “non-teleological” or “is” thinking.7 The non-teleological thinker accepts the fatuousness of man's belief that his will can control events and thus concentrates on understanding experience rather than on judging men. Steinbeck also expresses in Sea of Cortez a belief in group identity,8 an identity which he elsewhere calls the “phalanx.” As individuals, all creatures, including man, are usually weak and unknowing; as members of a group they can “key in” to the strength and knowledge of the group. A group can thus have a distinctive identity. As Steinbeck wrote in a letter of 1933, when he first became interested in this idea, “the fascinating thing to me is the way the group has a soul, a drive, an intent, an end, a method, a reaction and a set of tropisms which in no way resembles the same things possessed by the men who make up the group. These groups have always been considered as individuals multiplied. And they are not so. They are beings in themselves, entities.”9

The two ideas, non-teleological thinking and the phalanx, have long been thought to be the product of Steinbeck's association with Ed Ricketts, but they have also been viewed as irreconcilable ideas both in Sea of Cortez and in Steinbeck's fiction. The amoral passivity of “is” thinking and the possibility for beneficial and self-directed group action by the phalanx appear to be incompatible, and “is” thinking in particular seems to be foreign to the moral indignation present in much of Steinbeck's fiction of the decade. But with the recent publication of Richard Astro's John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts: The Shaping of a Novelist and Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten's Steinbeck: A Life in Letters it can be seen that the problem in fact does not exist. Although both Steinbeck's and Ricketts' names appear on the title page of Sea of Cortez, it was always believed that Steinbeck himself wrote the narrative portion of the book and that he therefore assumed full responsibility for all of the ideas in that portion. We now know, however, that Steinbeck incorporated verbatim sections from Ricketts' unpublished philosophical writing including the passage on non-teleological thinking.10 Although Steinbeck occasionally used or referred to Ricketts' non-teleological beliefs, he was absorbed most of all during the 1930s, as his letters reveal, by the phalanx idea. He could thus either ignore or contradict “is” thinking when other, more compelling beliefs attracted him. In Sea of Cortez, for example, the narrator of the voyage (here presumably Steinbeck) records his anger at the Japanese factory fishing boats which were depleting the waters off Lower California and thus causing hardship among the Mexicans.11 And so in The Grapes of Wrath itself Casy's early defense of non-teleological thinking—“There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do”12—is clearly in the context of an attack on a puritan sexual morality. The issue of the anomaly of Steinbeck's non-teleological philosophy is really a non-issue. The concept was largely Ricketts', and though Steinbeck does occasionally endorse it in special contexts, his own deepest involvement was in the emotionally and morally compelling social activism implied by the phalanx idea.

Thus, there indeed are primitivist, Marxist, Christian, and scientific elements in The Grapes of Wrath. But no one of them is the single most dominant element and none is present in a single and obvious way. Rather, they exist in a fabric of complex interrelationship which constitutes both the power and permanence of The Grapes of Wrath as a naturalistic tragedy.


The first two portions of The Grapes of Wrath—the Joads in Oklahoma and on the road to California—enforce upon us the realization that the more we come to know and admire the humanity of the Joads the more inhumanely they are treated. Steinbeck's success in involving us in this irony derives in part from his ability to place the Joads within two interrelated mythic sources of value: they are primitives and they are folk. Their “natural” ways and feelings touch upon a core belief which in various forms runs through American life from the Enlightenment to the primitivistic faith of such moderns as Faulkner and Hemingway.

The Joads are close to the natural processes and rhythms of life. They are farmers who have always farmed and hunted. They have little education and little association with town or city. Their unit of social life is the family with its “natural” crests of birth, puberty, and marriage at one end of life and aging and death at the other. Indeed, the Joads seem to live in a pre-tribal stage of social evolution, since their principal contacts are with other families rather than with school, church, or state. Spoken and written expression to them is always a barrier; they communicate largely by action and by an instinctive sensitivity to unspoken feelings. We first encounter them not in person but rather in the long series of anecdotes about them which Tom and Casy share at the opening of the novel, anecdotes which establish their shrewdness, openness, and understanding in a context of crudity and occasional bestiality. But even this texture of animality in their lives helps establish their naturalness.

As primitives, the Joads have an “honest” relationship to their land. They farm to live, not for profit, and out of the intrinsic relationship between their work and their existence there emerges the life-sustaining values of industry and pride as well as an instinctive generosity and compassion. They seem at first lawless because of their opposition to those who wish to remove them from their land, but their experiences on the road reveal that regulation and order in their lives arise organically out of their needs and conditions. The different families meeting each night in makeshift camps along Route 66 quickly establish unwritten codes of behavior which maintain order and equity in the camps.

The care with which Steinbeck molds our sense of the primitive strength of the Joads early in the novel is especially revealed in two areas of their experience. The Joads are attuned to solving the problems of their lives without outside aid. They raise and prepare their own food, they make their own clothes, and they create and maintain their own special form of transportation. We thus come to accept that the Joads are latter-day pioneers, that the myth of the self-sustaining pioneer family still lives in them. But the Joads not only solve problems by the exercise of individual skills but also by the maintenance of a group strength and efficiency. Here Steinbeck is at pains to dramatize his phalanx notion of the distinctive identity of the group. So, for example, in the family councils just before departure or soon after Grandpa's death, the family when it meets to solve its problems becomes a powerful and cohesive single body, “an organization of the unconscious. They obeyed impulses which registered only faintly in their thinking minds” (135).

The Joads are folk as well as primitives; that is, we also experience the comic and the ritualized in their naturalness. For example, the three generations of the Joads constitute a gallery of family folk types: earthy and querulous grandparents, eccentric and even occasionally demented uncles and brothers, cocky and sexually vibrant late adolescents, and over-curious and problem-creating children. Above all, the Joads contain the archetypal center of the folk family, the mother as source of love, wisdom, and strength. The Joads as folk salt the novel with the sexuality and excrementality of folk humor and with the ritualized forms of folk life, particularly of courtship and death. Some of the folk attributes and experiences of the Joads have both a Dickensian predictability of repetitive motif and a freakish humor characteristic of Erskine Caldwell's portrayal of poor whites. (The Joads' discovery of the flush toilet is pure Caldwell.) But the folk element in the lives of the Joads, when combined with the central strain of their primitivism, contributes to rather than diminishes our sense of their basic humanity. The earthiness and humor of the Joads as folk permit Steinbeck to avoid the heavy-breathing and lush primitivism of his early fiction—notably of To a God Unknown—and encourage us to respond to them not only as symbols but as “real” people.

The Joads as primitive folk appear to be opposed by the life-denying forces of the mechanical, institutional, and intellectual. In Oklahoma these forces are allegorized by the banks and corporations which have the law and wealth on their side but which lack the human attributes of understanding and compassion. The forces are symbolized above all by the impersonal and mechanical tractor which destroys the farmers' homes and by the anonymous car which attempts to run over the turtle as it goes about its “business” of spreading the seed of life. Yet the mechanical and the commercial are not inherently evil. The Joads' jerry-built truck soon becomes a symbol of family unity as well as a means of fulfilling their striving for a better life. And the small businessmen along the road and the small California ranchers are themselves threatened with destruction. If the tractor were owned and used by the Joads, Steinbeck tells us, it would be a beneficial mechanical force. The real evils in the Joads' life are thus not the abstractions of the mechanical or the institutional but the human failings of fear, anger, and selfishness. Those who cheat or beleaguer or harass the Joads in Oklahoma and on the road and in California may symbolize the opposition of the structured in life to the natural but they are above all greedy or frightened men who wish to preserve or add to what they own. Steinbeck's depiction of this essentially human conflict suggests that his attempt in The Grapes of Wrath was not to dramatize a labored and conventional primitivistic ethic. It was rather to engage us, within the context of primitivistic values, in one of the permanent centers of human experience, that of the difficulty of transcending our own selves and thereby recognizing the nature and needs of others.

Although the Joads as a family are the matrix of this growth, the process of transcendence occurs most pointedly and fully in the lives of Tom, Ma, and Casy, The experiences of these characters illustrate Steinbeck's faith in the ability of man to move from what he calls an “I” to a “We” consciousness.13 The “conversion” of Tom, Ma, and Casy to a “We” state of mind is both the theme and the form of The Grapes of Wrath; it is also Steinbeck's contribution both to the naturalistic theme of the humanity of all sorts and conditions of men and to the naturalistic tragic novel of the 1930s.

Tom is initially the symbol of “natural man.” He is big and raw-boned, is uncomfortable in store-bought clothes, and he can roll a cigarette or skin a rabbit expertly. He has humor, understanding, and a common-sense shrewdness and he is proud and independent. He judges men and events with generosity of spirit, but his faith in his judgment and in a natural order in life has been tempered by his imprisonment for killing a man in self-defense during a drunken brawl. He cannot understand his punishment and emerges from prison with the belief that it is better to live from moment to moment than to seek to understand and thus to plan.

If Tom is natural man, Ma is natural woman in the roles of wife and mother. Steinbeck's initial description of her renders with a blatantly exultant religiosity her character and function as preserver of the family:

Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. … And from her great and humble position in the family, she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. … She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.


Tom's power lies in his pride and shrewdness, Ma's in her capacity to love and in her sense of continuity. To her, life is not a series of beginnings and endings but rather “all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls. … Woman looks at it like that. We ain't gonna die out. People is goin' on—changin' a little, maybe, but goin' right on” (577). If Tom represents natural strength, Ma represents natural religion. She is appalled by the religion of fear and sin which she encounters in the woman in black at Grandma's death and in the “Jesus-lover” at Weedpatch. Her religion is of love, and love to her means constant rededication to preserving the family, just as Tom's strength means solving the problems which this pledge demands.

Whereas Tom and Ma are fully realized both as characters and as symbols, Casy functions principally as a symbol. Dissatisfied with conventional religious truth because it runs counter to his own impulses, he seeks to find God in his own spirit rather than in Bible or church. On the morning of the Joads' departure, he is asked to say grace before breakfast. He seizes the opportunity to tell them of his attempt to commune with God in the hills. He felt a oneness with all things, he explains,

“An' I got thinkin', on'y it wasn't thinkin', it was deeper down than thinkin'. I got thinkin' how we was holy when we was one thing, an' mankin' was holy when it was one thing. An' it on'y got unholy when one mis'able little fella got the bit in his teeth an' run off his own way, kickin' and draggin' an' fightin'. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they're all workin' together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang—that's right, that's holy.”


The Joads, however, scarcely listen; they are absorbed in the expectation of breakfast. And Casy does not really understand the implications of his insight into the nature of “holiness” as a kind of phalanx of group oneness. The journey of the Joads, and particularly of Tom, Ma, and Casy, is thus not so much to California as toward a full understanding and acceptance of this vision of human sanctity and strength.


The “I” quality of life, man's selfishness in its various forms, is the dominant force in the Oklahoma portion of The Grapes of Wrath. It exists not only in the corporate “I” of the banks and land companies which are displacing the Joads but in the Joads themselves. Their intense and instinctive commitment to family unity and preservation is a superficially attractive but nevertheless narrow and limited form of self-absorption. It has already been revealed as ineffective in that it has not prevented their eviction. And the local young man who is driving the tractor which is bulldozing their home displays its vital flaw when he says, in defense of his turning against his own people, “‘You got no call to worry about anybody's kids but your own’” (51). Not to worry about someone else's children, however, as the novel makes clear in incident after incident involving a child, is to aid not only in the destruction of the children of others but of one's own.

The Oklahoma section of the novel also contains several strains of “We” thinking, strains which emerge more clearly and fully as the novel proceeds. The famous description of the turtle crossing the road is a parable not only of persistence within nature—of the turtle continuing his journey with ingenuity and strength despite hazards and setbacks—but of the relatedness and unity of all life. The turtle unconsciously carries in a crevice of his shell a seed from a plant he has brushed against; he thus has both a specific goal and the general function of contributing to the perpetuation of other forms of life. Tom and Ma at this point are somewhat like the turtle in that while pursuing a specific narrow goal they also reveal in several ways an unconscious acceptance of a “We” ethic. Ma, when she reflects on the number of tenant farmers being evicted, moves instinctively toward a Marxist idea of unity: “‘They say there's a hun'erd thousand of us shoved out. If we was all mad the same way …—they wouldn't hunt nobody down’” (104). And Tom accepts without question Muley's observation that “‘If a fella's got somepin to eat an' another fella's hungry—why, the first fella ain't got no choice’” (66). But these “We” qualities, like those of the turtle and other animals, are both instinctive and ungeneralized. They have not taken on the human qualities of consciousness and abstraction, the qualities which Steinbeck later in the novel associates with “Manself”—the distinctive ability of man to give up something material, even life itself, for a concept. The “We” in man, though an attribute of the universal potential for a phalanx identity, is distinguished by conscious awareness and direction.

The tension between the primitive folk “I-ness” of the Joads' commitment to family and their tentative reaching out toward a “We-ness” continues on the road. Now, however, new conditions and experiences impress on the Joads a greater sense of the meaning and validity of “We.” “I-ness” is of course still paramount in their minds, particularly after Grandpa's death raises the specter of eventual dispersal of the family. Their response to the crisis of his death—the decision to bury him by the side of the road—renews a pioneer custom and thus affirms the primacy of the family in the westering experience. But on the road the Joads encounter families like them in intent and need, such as the Wilsons, and so begin to move out of their isolation.14 And in the wayside camps the Joads begin to realize the benefits of group cooperation. Perhaps most of all they begin to sense the potential strength in the fact that so many share the same condition; they are beginning to shape in their minds the vital difference, as Steinbeck expresses it in an interchapter, between “I lost my land” and “We lost our land” (206).

The California experiences of the Joads—and particularly of Ma and Tom—make explicit to them the difference between “I” and “We.” This portion of the novel is divided into four segments. The first two (the Hooverville and Weedpatch) demonstrate concretely to the Joads the opposition between the “I” and “We” ways of life; the second two (the peach ranch and the boxcar) demand of them a conscious allegiance either to “I” or “We.” The Hooverville and the government camp at Weedpatch represent, as many readers have complained, a loaded contrast in human values. The Hooverville is an allegorical representation of anarchistic animality, of the anger, cruelty, and desperation of men seeking to survive in a world in which they are pitted against each other. Put in Marxist terms, the Hooverville is a free market economy when the supply of labor exceeds demand and when labor is unorganized. The government camp, though it is an island in a hostile sea, is maintained on the principle of the surrender of some individual rights for the greater good of the whole. Its method is organization to achieve group aims, and its operative unit is the committee. Put in Marxist terms, it is the proletarian state.

The Joads are almost immediately involved in the destructive violence of the Hooverville; at Weedpatch they flourish and contribute to the suppression of violence. As throughout the novel, the ethical distinction between the “I” of the Hooverville and the “We” of Weedpatch is revealed by the treatment of children at the two camps. When the Joads arrive at the Hooverville Ma prepares supper and soon finds herself surrounded by starving children. She is torn between her commitment to her own family and her responsiveness to the silently begging children, and can only cry out, “‘I dunno what to do. I got to feed the fambly. What'm I gonna do with these here?’” (350). In Weedpatch the problem of hungry children is resolved not by depriving one's own—not by the “I” principle of the conflict between mine and yours—but by maintaining a camp fund which dispenses loans to those in need.

The peach ranch to which the Joads are forced to move in order to get work unites the Hooverville and Weedpatch principles in one volatile setting. Inside the ranch, in a kind of prison, are the families driven to the “I” of scabbing because of their desperate need; outside are striking migrants who have organized to help all migrants. Casy had been separated from the Joads at the Hooverville when he had been arrested for coming to the aid of a man being framed by the deputies. He now reappears as a strike leader and union organizer, and explains his conversion to Tom. “‘Here's me, been a-goin' into the wilderness like Jesus to try to find out somepin. Almost got her sometimes, too. But it's in the jailhouse I really got her’” (521). What he had learned in prison, in the incident of the men acting in unison to gain better food, was the principle of group action to achieve just ends. Life had a holy unity both in the wilderness and in jail, but he has discovered in jail that his function was not passively to accept this holiness but to seek actively to render it concrete in social life. Tom, however, doesn't fully understand Casy's explanation, and Casy says, “‘Maybe I can't tell you. … Maybe you got to find out’” (522).

The vigilantes attack the strikers, and as Casy is about to be clubbed down, he says, “‘You fellas don' know what you're doin'. You're helpin' to starve kids’” (527). The first sentence of this speech (and its repetition by Casy just before his death) is often cited as a specific parallel between Casy and Christ. In fact, Casy is a Christ-figure only in the social-activist sense of the Christian life in The Grapes of Wrath. The vigilantes are not killing the son of God but children who have been denied their humanity, and Casy is not sacrificed to vouchsafe a heaven for man but to aid man to achieve a better life on earth. Holiness is not a condition between God (or his son) and man but between man and man, between all the members of the “whole shebang,” as Casy put it earlier. Helping to starve children is thus unholy or parallel to killing Christ; helping to create a society in which children will be fed is man's true Christ-like role on earth.

Even though Tom fails to grasp Casy's meaning at this point, he has been growing in understanding. True, his two acts of involvement so far—his coming to the aid of the Hooverville migrant earlier and of Casy now—were instinctive responses to blatant acts of bullying. But he has also been absorbing a sense of the social injustice and of the fundamental inhumanity in the condition of the migrants which is now reaching the level of consciousness. He realizes that the landowners wish not only to employ the migrants but to turn them into a kind of obedient domestic animal. “‘They're a-workin' away at our spirits,’” he tells the family. “‘They're a-tryin' to make us cringe an' crawl like a whipped bitch. They tryin' to break us’” (381).

In defending Casy, Tom has killed a man and therefore has to live in the fields when the family moves on to pick cotton and live in an abandoned boxcar. Musing over Casy's ideas and experiences, he now accepts what he had earlier neither understood nor had even consciously heard. Casy, he recalls,

“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. Funny how I remember. Didn' think I was even listenin'. But I know now a fella ain't no good alone.”


Tom here expresses both Casy's wilderness vision and his later social expansion and application of that vision. The wilderness (contemplation and passivity) is not a true joining of one's soul to that of all men; only in social unity and action can this be achieved. So Tom decides to pursue a true “We-ness”; like Casy, he will now attempt to organize the migrants.

The Joads, and particularly Ma, move in an analogous direction. In the crisis of Rose's delivery during the flood, the Wainwrights, who are as beleaguered as the Joads, come to their aid. When Ma tries to thank Mrs. Wainwright, she replies,

“No need to thank. Ever'body's in the same wagon. S'pose we was down. You'd a give us a han'.”

“Yes,” Ma said, “we would.”

“Or anybody.”

“Or anybody. Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do.”


So Ma, the staunchest defender of the “I” of the family, has come to accept consciously the principle of “We” embodied in the “anybody” of those in need.

The conclusion of the novel, when Rose of Sharon gives her breast to the starving man in the barn, unites in one symbolic act various themes which have been fully dramatized in the conversions of Tom and Ma. Throughout the novel Rose's pregnancy has represented one of the major strands in the primitive character of the Joads as a family. Her child-bearing is honored because it is a contribution to family continuity, and it constitutes, because of her intense self-preoccupation, the inward-turning nature of the family. But with the birth of her still-born child—a child who is the last “starving kid” of the novel—she is freed from these “I” roles. Encouraged by Ma, she can now—in a climactic gesture of conversion—move outward to the “We” of the starving man. She is saying, in effect, that all those who hunger are her children, just as Tom has given himself to the anonymous migrants who require leadership and Ma to the “anybody” who needs.

By the close of the novel the Joads have been stripped clean in several senses. They have lost most of their possessions, including the truck which had served since their departure from Oklahoma as a symbol of family unity. In the family itself, the weak (Grandpa and Grandma) and the irredeemably self-preoccupied (Noah, Connie, and finally Al) have fallen away. Left is a core of Ma and Pa, Uncle John and Rose, and the two children, Ruth and Winfield. With the exception of the children but including Tom, this is a group in which each figure has conformed to the Biblical promise that to lose all is often to gain one's salvation; that is, each has struggled through to a form of “We” consciousness. Tom in his decision to trade a day-to-day existence for militant organizing, Ma in her acceptance at last of commitments beyond that of saving the family, Rose in the translation of her biological self-absorption into an almost blissful giving, Pa in his neglect of his anger at his loss of status in the family as he marshals the boxcar migrants into a group effort to save their dwellings, and even John, in that for once his life-long preoccupation with his guilt is replaced by an outward-directed anger (it is he who sets Rose's dead baby afloat in a box to remind the nearby townspeople that they are starving children)—each has made the journey from “I” to “We.”

In one of the major ironic motifs of The Grapes of Wrath, this reduction of the Joads to an almost animal struggle for survival also bares fully their essential humanity, their Manself. Throughout the novel the migrants' poverty has been viewed by others as an index of their inhumanity. The gas station attendant at Needles cries, “‘Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live like they do. A human being couldn't stand it to be so dirty and miserable’” (301). But it is the very absence of that which defines humanity to the limited understanding which at last helps shape the penetrating clarity of spiritual insight of the Joads and thus enables them to discover a transcending sense of oneness with all men.


Our understanding of and response to the Joads' journey to awareness are aided by a number of fictional devices. Of these, the natural and Biblical symbolism requires little detailed discussion. The one serves to establish certain similarities between the Joads and natural life, the other between them and man's spiritual character. Together they contribute to Steinbeck's theme of the enriching unity of all life, in which the natural is also the spiritual and the spiritual is also the natural. Less obvious in their function are the interchapters and the cyclic structure of the novel. Both serve as forms of editorial commentary through which the Joads' experience is translated into a statement on the human condition. The interchapters have a number of forms, from generalized narrative and prose poem to dramatic exchange and authorial philosophizing. They also vary in content from social realism to expressionistic exaggeration and in tone from humor and satire to bombast and supplication. But they are bound together, whatever their form, content, or tone, by the underlying authorial emotion of anger. Steinbeck uses the narrative of the Joads to involve us in the tragic pathos of the life of a migrant family, and the interchapters to involve us in the anger we must feel when we understand the inhumanity to man which their lives illustrate. The interchapters not only allegorize the Joads into universal figures of the poor and downtrodden but also engage us, through Steinbeck's devices in these sections, in an intensity of emotion usually foreign to allegory and other forms of abstraction. The interchapters are not extraneous to the novel but rather are central to its ability to move us.

Anger, yet an anger which contains an element of hope, is also an important characteristic of the cyclic form of The Grapes of Wrath. The novel begins with the Joads poor and landless in a drought-stricken Oklahoma; it ends with them even poorer and still landless in a flooded California. In Oklahoma, the men are at first silent and puzzled but then become “hard and angry and resistant” as they sit “thinking—figuring” (6-7). In California, the men, in a parallel moment, are at first fearful and then angry (592). Anger is thus a source of both strength and continuity. In California, moreover, anger has found a focus and therefore a potential resolution. Nature, whether drought or flood, is not to blame for the condition of the migrants, nor is the Oklahoma tractor driver or the California deputy or ranch foreman. To blame is the greed exemplified by the economic system, and against this force, the Joads, who have thought and figured, have begun to find an answer in their willingness (as symbolized by Tom) to mold themselves into a group force equal in strength. So the last two chapters of the novel end with images of renewal in the midst of the carnage. After the starvation of the winter, “Tiny points of grass came through the earth, and in a few days the hills were pale green with the beginning year” (592); and after the Joads are driven from the boxcar by the flood, Rose nurses the starving man in the barn.


Much that is central in The Grapes of Wrath as a naturalistic novel of the 1930s can be understood by noting the remarkable number of similarities, as well as some significant differences, between it and an earlier naturalistic novel of social conflict in California, Frank Norris' The Octopus. In both works a struggle for land occurs within a cycle of natural growth, and in both the weaker figures in the conflict—the wheat ranchers and the migrants—suffer a tragic defeat. But in both instances, the most insightful and feeling of those crushed—Annixter, Vanamee, and Presley, and Tom, Ma, and Casy—struggle through to an understanding both of the underlying nature of the conflict and the essential nature of life. The three young men in The Octopus learn that the machinations of men cannot affect the omnipotence and benevolence of the natural process of growth, and the Joads learn to accept the oneness of all existence. Both works are fundamentally naturalistic despite these religious overtones. As is also true of The Octopus, the naturalism of The Grapes of Wrath resides in the theme that man can find in verifiable natural and social life the basic truths he should live by. In The Octopus the continuity of life is discovered not in the Pauline symbol of the seed—that man shall be reborn in heaven—but in the real seed, that man and nature reproduce themselves. And in The Grapes of Wrath, Casy's discovery that all things are united in holiness is only a vaguely felt concept until its meaning is completed by his finding that oneness is union organization and that holiness is the power to correct injustice. Men may come to know these truths initially by an instinctive or intuitive reaching out, but the truth itself must be not only felt but also observed and validated in experience. Both novels are thus conversion allegories, but the “religion” to which the characters are converted is that of the sanctity of life itself rather than of some aspect of man, God, or nature which is different from or superior to the life we lead and know.

The Grapes of Wrath also has its own distinctive character as a naturalistic novel of the 1930s. The Octopus proclaims that “all things, surely, inevitably, resistlessly work together for good,”15 since the natural process of growth is both omnipotent and beneficent. Although the railroad monopoly is a bad thing which affects individuals adversely, it does not adversely affect mankind in general, since society and its conflicts are subsumed under the cosmic beneficence of the natural order. Men have died in the struggle for a crop of wheat, but the wheat itself will feed the starving millions of India. Steinbeck's perspective is quite different. Much of the fruit grown by the San Joaquin ranchers doesn't reach anyone because it is destroyed to maintain high prices, an act which aids the wealthy but harms the poor, including the migrant children who hunger for the oranges they see all around them. Steinbeck views the American economic system not as part of a natural process but as a baneful social illustration of the “I” principle. Men can and must struggle through to a “We” activism of camp committees and unions rather than accept that good will eventually accrue to the greatest number through cosmic beneficence. Although Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath occasionally appears to be endorsing a Marxist theory of historical necessity by his references to the inevitability of class conflict if class divisions continue to grow, he is really endorsing a naturalistic version of a traditional social gospel activism in which one's beliefs must be realized in social life as well as be expressed in the temple.

Some of the obvious and often noted defects of The Grapes of Wrath stem from its character as a 1930s naturalistic novel, though a good many of these are less disturbing if the allegorical mode of the novel is at once accepted. Parables such as the turtle crossing the road, characters who exist principally as symbols, the hell-paradise contrast of the Hooverville and Weedpatch—these are major weaknesses only if one adopts the notion that naturalism is limited to the probabilities of social realism. Much more significant as a flaw in The Grapes of Wrath is the conflict between its tragic and social impulses. Steinbeck asks us to respond to the fate of the Joads with the compassion we bring to other accounts of men who must be stripped naked and suffer before they can understand the needs of the poor naked wretches around them. But he also generates intense anger toward those causing the misery of the Joads and points out ways in which their condition can be improved. The two intents seem to be related. It is the economic system as a whole which is the equivalent of the Joads' initial “I” values. Thus, compassion for their suffering as they move toward a “We” consciousness, and anger at the economic system for failing to undergo this change appear to be coordinate sentiments. But in fact the presence of these two emotions both diffuses and confuses the tragic theme and form of the novel. Steinbeck has succeeded so well in engaging us in the nature and quality of the Joads as primitive folk that the family assumes a validity at odds with his ultimate goal for them. We wish the Joads to find a better life in California, but we are not really persuaded that the committees and unions and other activities which represent the “We” principle in their lives are really better than the folk inwardness and the clearly definable entity that is their family. Here we are perhaps victims of a change in perspective since the 1930s in that we are no longer convinced that committees are inherently superior to other forms of awareness and action. We are also reacting in a way unforeseen by Steinbeck to his conviction that the humblest man can rise to the wisest thoughts. Steinbeck believed that it would be primarily the “thoughts”—the acceptance by the Joads of “We-ness”—which would hold us. But instead it is the Joads themselves who are the source of the enduring power of the novel.


  1. Two collections of Steinbeck criticism contain most of the pertinent commentary on The Grapes of Wrath: A Casebook on “The Grapes of Wrath,” ed. Agnes McNeill Donohue (New York: Crowell, 1968) and Steinbeck: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert M. Davis (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972). The two most important views of Steinbeck as a naturalist are Woodburn O. Ross, “John Steinbeck: Naturalism's Priest,” College English 10 (May 1949): 432-38 and Warren French, “John Steinbeck: A Usable Concept of Naturalism,” in American Literary Naturalism: A Reassessment, ed. Yoshinobu Hakutani and Lewis Fried (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1975), pp. 122-35 (also in French's second edition of his John Steinbeck [New York: Twayne, 1975]). Ross stresses the mysticism at the center of Steinbeck's naturalism, and French views The Grapes of Wrath as a move by Steinbeck from naturalism to a “drama of consciousness.” My “John Steinbeck and American Naturalism,” Steinbeck Quarterly 9 (Winter 1976): 12-15, concentrates on Of Mice and Men.

  2. In the absence of a full-scale biography, Peter Lisca's The Wide World of John Steinbeck (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Pr., 1958) and Elaine Steinbeck's and Robert Wallsten's Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (New York: Viking, 1975), are the best sources for information about Steinbeck's life.

  3. See Jackson J. Benson, “‘To Tom, Who Lived It’: John Steinbeck and the Man from Weedpatch,” Journal of Modern Literature 5 (Apr. 1976), 151-94.

  4. “A Primer on the 30's,” Esquire 53 (June 1960): 85-93.

  5. “John Steinbeck: The Boys in the Back Room,” Classics and Commercials (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1950), p. 44.

  6. Wilson, Classics, p. 36, and J. Paul Hunter, “Steinbeck's Wine of Affirmation in The Grapes of Wrath,” in Essays in Modern American Literature, ed. Richard E. Langford (DeLand, Fla.: Stetson Univ. Pr., 1963), pp. 76-89.

  7. Sea of Cortez was initially published in 1941. A useful later edition is Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez: The Narrative Portion of the Book “Sea of Cortez” with a Profile “About Ed Ricketts” (London: Heineman, 1958 [1951]). The “Easter Sunday” chapter in the Log is pp. 131-51.

  8. The Log from the Sea of Cortez, p. 165.

  9. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, p. 76. See also pp. 81 and 87.

  10. As early as 1948 Frederick Bracher, in his “Steinbeck and the Biological View of Man,” Pacific Spectator 2 (Winter 1948): 14-29, announced that Steinbeck had derived the non-teleological thinking passage in Sea of Cortez from Ricketts' journals. Not until the appearance of Astro's study in 1973, however, was Ricketts' responsibility for the passage fully substantiated. Nevertheless, some critics—for example, Jackson J. Benson, in his “John Steinbeck: Novelist as Scientist,” Novel 10 (Spring 1977): 248-64—continue to attempt to reconcile the ideas of the passage with Steinbeck's ideas in his fiction.

  11. The Log from the Sea of Cortez, pp. 247-50.

  12. The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking, 1939), p. 32. Citations will hereafter appear in the text.

  13. Steinbeck first uses the “I” to “We” formulation on pp. 206-7, soon after the Joads begin their journey to California.

  14. In perhaps a conscious effort to make a connection between the Wilsons and other such families later in the novel—the Wallaces at Weedpatch and the Wainwrights in the boxcar—Steinbeck begins all three surnames with the same letter.

  15. The Octopus, in Collected Writings of Frank Norris (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1928), vol. 2, p. 361.

John J. Conder (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Conder, John J. “Steinbeck and Nature's Self: The Grapes of Wrath.” In Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase, pp. 142-59. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

[In the following essay, Conder examines the role of determinism in The Grapes of Wrath.]

Both Dreiser and Dos Passos saw the self as a product of mechanisms and hence incapable of freedom, and both postulated the existence of a second self beyond the limitations of determinism. Dreiser arrived late at the notion and, borrowing it wholesale from Brahmanic thought, barely tested its meaning, save to see it as the source of man's freedom. Although Dos Passos never developed a version of such a self, he early found its existence and suppression the cause of man's misery and, in elaborating on that theme, he was able to enlarge a cluster of themes and attitudes associated with a second self—in particular those associated with its relationship to society and to nature. In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck renders his version of a second self in man and brings to mature development that cluster of themes and attitudes. Significantly, he brings them to maturity within a framework of determinism and so harmonizes authentic freedom and determinism in a way that Dos Passos never could do, since the second self, the true source of man's freedom, remains forever an embryo in his pages.

The interchapters of Steinbeck's novel create a network of interlocking determinisms through their emphasis on the operations of abstract, impersonal forces in the lives of the Oklahomans. Chapter 5 is especially effective both in capturing the poignancy of the human situation created by such forces and in pointing to the kind of deterministic force underlying the others in the novel. In one fleeting episode a nameless Oklahoman who threatens the driver of a bulldozer leveling his house is told that armed resistance is futile, for the driver acts in the service of the bank, and “the bank gets orders from the East.” The Oklahoman cries, “But where does it stop? Who can we shoot?” “I don't know,” the driver replies. “Maybe there's nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn't men at all. Maybe … the property's doing it” (52). Or at least the Bank, the monster requiring “profits all the time” in order to live and dwarfing in size and power even the owner men, who feel “caught in something larger than themselves” (44, 42).

The vision that appears here has a name: economic determinism. This view does not say that man has no free will. One might indeed find among a group of bank presidents a corporate Thoreau who prefers jail (or unemployment) to following the demands of the system. It merely asserts that most men charged with the operation of an economic structure will act according to rules requiring the bank's dispossession of its debtors when a disaster renders them incapable of meeting payments on their mortgaged property. Far from denying free will, such determinism fully expects and provides for the willed resistance of the Oklahomans. The police take care of that. Nor is this vision without its moral component, though neither the police nor the owner men can be held individually responsible. “Some of the owner men were kind,” Steinbeck writes, “because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold” (42). These anonymous men are not devil figures but individuals performing functions within a system, so the work indicts the system rather than individuals who act in its service. In the case of the Oklahomans, the indictment is founded on a fundamental irony: societies, designed to protect men from nature's destructive features—here a drought—complete nature's destructive work, expelling men from the dust bowl into which nature's drought has temporarily transformed their farms.

But the expulsion of the Oklahomans is not the only inexorable consequence of the operation of economic force. These men, women, and children who “clustered like bugs near to shelter and to water” (264) automatically create in their camps a society within the larger society, acting according to the same instinctual dictate that initially made the Joad family, seeking self-preservation, seem “a part of an organization of the unconscious” (135). “Although no one told them,” the families instinctively learned “what rights are monstrous and must be destroyed” (265)—the “rights” of rape, adultery, and the like—and which must be preserved. Instinct welds the group “to one thing, one unit” (272); and the contempt, fear, and hostility they encounter as they traveled the highways “like ants and searched for work, for food” reinforce the bonds of group solidarity by releasing an anger whose ferment “changed them … united them” all the more (388, 385). Here is the basis of that much-remarked-on shift in the novel from farmer to migrant, from “I” to “we,” from family to group.

This emphasis upon the spontaneous development of a social group is not limited to the interchapters; but it is there that Steinbeck notes not only the inevitability of its development but, more important, the concurrent emergence of a group consciousness and the inevitable future consequences that its emergence entails. Economic determinism thus spawns responses that are biologically determined. Of course the scope of Steinbeck's biological determinism is sharply limited. He states with certainty but two simple facts: that the “anlage of movement” (20) possessed by the oatbeards, foxtails, and clover burrs of chapter 3 has its counterpart in the anlage of “two squatting men” discussing their common plight, and that the realization of the potential in such anlage is inevitable. As the narrative voice proclaims to the owner men: “Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here ‘I lost my land’ is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—‘We lost our land’” (206). Thus, forces that destroy one community create another by stimulating the communal anlage inherent in instinct, which sets the primary goals of life—in the Oklahomans' case, survival.

But in a novel that so beautifully portrays society as a system of interrelated forces, there is more to the matter than what has just been described. If economic determinism breeds biological determinism, biological determinism in turn spawns an inevitable social conflict that in time becomes an historically determined sequence of events with predictable outcome. Although there are references to it elsewhere, chapter 19 most clearly transforms this economic determinism into an historical one. It describes armed Californians, who earlier had stolen land from Mexicans, guarding the stolen land. Following the pattern of the Romans (“although they did not know it”), “they imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos” (316). Later appear the dispossessed Oklahomans of the East, “like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land” (317). When the slaves rebel, Steinbeck, using repetition, emphasizes the cause-effect relationship between the migrants' condition and their rebellion against it. “The great owners, striking at the immediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity; … not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes. The causes lie deep and simply” (204). And that he believes these causes compel the appearance of the effect proceeding from them—that is, believes the causes determine that effect's emergence—becomes clear in chapter 19 when he associates “the inevitability of the day” (325) when the owners must lose their land with their violent temporizing: “Only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on” (325).

But now some observations about the relation of the interchapters and the plot of The Grapes of Wrath are needed in order to show that Steinbeck's determinism can embrace freedom of the will because his literary structure creates a statistical determinism. The interchapters display the growth of a group consciousness controlled by instinct's response to the dynamic of economic forces. This emphasis is carried into the story in a variety of ways, most notably through Ma's insistence on keeping the family together. But in the story proper, instinct does not rule each person with equal power. The instinctual power that drives the group in the interchapters is unequally distributed among its individual members. Granpa's resistance to leaving Oklahoma testifies to the power of age to overcome the instinct to survive. And age is not the only force limiting the role of instinct in individual lives. Attached to his land, Muley Graves refuses to leave it in order to depart for California. He makes a choice that reduces him to “a ol' graveyard ghos'” (71) living by night as a trespasser on land once his own. Noah finds the hardships of the journey greater than the comfort derived from the group and leaves, last seen walking by a river into the greenery of the surrounding countryside to an unknown future. Connie, angry that he did not remain to work for the bank (and thus aid in the Oklahomans' dispossession), abandons his pregnant wife Rosasharn.

In the plot, then, free will plays a major role. Even those who remain with the group make numerous free choices to assure its survival, as Ma's words about the need to get to California testify: “It ain't kin we? It's will we?” (139). This emphasis on choice and free will sets limits on the rule of instinct, limits that avoid reducing the individual to the level of a will-less animal, a mere pawn of instinct. Man's possession of instincts roots him in nature, but he is different from other things in nature, as Steinbeck makes clear by describing in chapter 14 man's willingness to “die for a concept” as the “one quality [that] is the foundation of Manself … distinctive in the universe” (205). And this emphasis on man's uniqueness in nature, so inextricably related to his will, in turn limits the scope of the novel's historical determinism, which is based on Steinbeck's biological determinism. Even in the group that will give history its future shape, there are individuals who will depart from the historical patterns which that group is aborning.

Seen in this way, Steinbeck's determinism does not at first sight seem a far cry from Dos Passos's, at least insofar as the economic base that underlies their respective deterministic outlooks issues in a statistical determinism for each writer. But Steinbeck's interchapters are a technical innovation that create a significant expansion and difference of vision, first appearances notwithstanding. Steinbeck gains two major advantages from them. First, by creating this preserve for rendering abstract social forces, he releases a considerable number of other chapters—his plot chapters—for portraying characters as developing states of consciousness rather than as those fragments of force which they seem to be in Manhattan Transfer. He thereby can emphasize the existence of free will in his novel. Just by making freely willed decisions the basis of his statistical determinism, in other words, he gives will a role more prominent than the one it plays in Dos Passos's work, where chance prevails and will is nugatory.

The second advantage is of far greater importance because it shows Steinbeck's idiosyncratic way of harmonizing determinism and freedom. In addition to portraying abstract forces operating on a grand scale in space and time, those chapters also are instrumental in showing the change in the group from an organism biologically determined by instinct and externally determined by social forces to an organism that achieves rationality and hence a freedom of will capable of transcending the bonds of determinism.1 The interchapters are indispensable because they dramatize Steinbeck's belief that a group is a living organism possessing a life of its own independent of the individuals who comprise it, and the implementation of that view is a part of the novel's genius.

Steinbeck clarifies his view of a group in The Sea of Cortez, a collaboration of sorts (see below, p. 219), where in a passage specifically written by him he uses marine analogies to explain his sense of the normal relation of an individual to the group of which he is a part:

There are colonies of pelagic tunicates which have taken a shape like the finger of a glove. Each member of the colony is an individual animal, but the colony is another individual animal, not at all like the sum of its individuals. Some of the colonists, girdling the open end, have developed the ability, one against the other, of making a pulsing movement very like muscular action. Others of the colonists collect the food and distribute it, and the outside of the glove is hardened and protected against contact. Here are two animals, and yet the same thing. … So a man of individualistic reason, if he must ask, “Which is the animal, the colony or the individual?” must abandon his particular kind of reason and say, “Why, it's two animals and they aren't alike any more than the cells of my body are like me. I am much more than the sum of my cells and, for all I know, they are much more than the division of me.” There is no quietism in such acceptance, but rather the basis for a far deeper understanding of us and our world.2

This quotation stresses the individuality of the group and the uniqueness, apart from it, of its component elements. In the following quotation Steinbeck introduces an added dimension in the larger animal, here a school of fish:

And this larger animal, the school, seems to have a nature and drive and ends of its own. … If we can think in this way, it will not seem so unbelievable … that it seems to be directed by a school intelligence. … We suspect that when the school is studied as an animal rather than as a sum of unit fish, it will be found that certain units are assigned special functions to perform; that weaker or slower units may even take their place as placating food for the predators for the sake of the security of the school as an animal.3

Biology thus seems to confirm the eternal copresence of the one and the many. Applying the thrust of the thought of this passage to the relation of the human individual to his group, one can account for this phenomenon, the purposiveness of the larger animal independent of the individuals composing it, only by assuming that individual men have a dual nature, both a group identity and a personal one independent of it but not necessarily in conflict with it.

More must be made of this observation, but in order to do so precisely, it is necessary to restate the earlier relation established between interchapters and plot, using now not the language of determinism and free will but language taken from Steinbeck's quotation above. The content of the interchapters and the content of the plot of The Grapes of Wrath relate to each other as the larger animal (the migrant group) to the individuals composing it. The plot portrays members of the school in their rich individuality, whereas the interchapters show the formation of the larger animal that they compose, a formation that takes place both on a de facto level (by virtue of circumstance, a physical group is formed) and on an instinctive one, which endows the animal with life. By virtue of the instinct for self-preservation, in the camps twenty families become one large family, sharing a single instinct. The animal can come to life on this instinctual level because the animal's anlage is in the separate family, the basic unit through which man fulfills his needs, and the instinctual sense of unity is strengthened by a common set of threatening circumstances issuing in shared emotions: first fear, then anger. In this condition, the “school intelligence” directing its drives is instinctual alone, and hence the human group is more like the school of fish to which Steinbeck refers. Guided solely by instinct, the human group-animal achieves a measure of protection from a hostile social environment, but with instinct alone, it can no more transcend the social determinism of the body politic than the turtle (which in the novel symbolizes it in this condition) can transcend the machinations of the drivers eager to squash it. Chance alone can save the group or the turtle as both walk, like Tom, one step ahead of the other, living from day to day.

But the group changes, and in this respect the plot goes one step further than the interchapters, which halt with the fermenting of the grapes of wrath. For the plot shows the emergence of a rational group consciousness, first in Casy, then in Tom, whose final talk with his mother, representing the principle of family, discloses that his own consciousness has transcended such limitations. In fact it is mainly in Tom that the group develops a head for its body; for he survives the murdered Casy, and he was from the beginning more clearly a member of the de facto group than Casy, who owned no land. And by stressing how the animal that is the group achieves rational consciousness and (hence) freedom, Steinbeck harmonizes freedom and determinism in his most important way. The group determined by instinct and circumstance in the interchapters achieves both rational self-awareness and freedom in the person of a member who substitutes the consciousness of a group for a private consciousness and thus gives the group access to the faculty of human will. Tom thus enables it to move from instinct to reason and to that freedom which reasoned acts of the will provide. By having the group consciousness mature in the plot section of his novel, Steinbeck thus unites it to the interchapters structurally and harmonizes his novel philosophically.

And he provides a triumph for the group within the context of determinism, for their attainment of rational group consciousness is itself a determined event because such potential is inherent in the species. Their achieved freedom of will as a group thus is the final term of a socially determined sequence of events that leads to the group's creation, and the group's exercise of it to attain its ends fulfills the historical determinism of the novel. Yet this is not the only hope in these pages, for the prospective triumph of the group provides hope for the triumph of the individual as a whole person.

The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the exploitation of a dispossessed group, and it is difficult not to feel that it will always engender sympathies for the dispossessed of the earth wherever and whenever they might appear. But the novel's indictment of society for what it does to individuals should have an equally enduring appeal; for here its message goes beyond the conditions of oppressed groups and addresses individuals in all strata of complex societies. The condition of individual Oklahomans in fact is an extreme representation of the condition of social man, and in the capacity of individual Oklahomans to change lies the hope for social man.

The migrants' achievement of rational freedom speaks for more than freedom for the group. It tells readers of a vital difference in kinds of freedom. Steinbeck has written, “I believe that man is a double thing—a group animal and at the same time an individual. And it occurs to me that he cannot successfully be the second until he has fulfilled the first.”4 Only the fulfilled group self can create a successful personal self; only freedom exercised by a personal self in harmony with a group self can be significant.

This aspect of the novel's vision depends upon Steinbeck's fuller conception of an individual's two selves. One is his social self, definable by the role he plays in society and by the attitudes he has imbibed from its major institutions. The other is what is best called his species self. It contains all the biological mechanisms—his need for sexual expression, for example—that link him to other creatures in nature. And by virtue of the fact that he is thus linked to the natural world, he can feel a sense of unity with it in its inanimate as well as its animate forms. But the biological element in this self also connects him to the world of man, for it gives him an instinctive sense of identification with other members of his species, just as the members of other species have an instinctive sense of oneness with their own kind.

The species self thus has connections to nonhuman and human nature, and Steinbeck refers to the latter connection when he speaks of man as a “group animal.” He views a healthy personal identity as one in which the species self in both its aspects can express itself through the social self of the individual. But society thwarts, or seeks to thwart, the expression of that self. It seeks not only to cut man off from his awareness of his connections to nonhuman nature, it seeks also to sever him from the group sense of oneness with the human species that the individual's species self possesses. Ironically, therefore, purely social man loses a sense of that unity with others which society presumably exists to promote.

The novel's social criticism rests on this view, and its emphasis on grotesques, purely social beings cut off from their connections to nature, both human and nonhuman, portrays an all-too-familiar image of modern man. In too many instances, by imposing mechanical rhythms on human nature, society creates half-men. Its repeated attempts to distort the individual's identity is emphasized by numerous dichotomies between social demands and instinct. Tom tries to comprehend the meaning of his imprisonment for killing in self-defense. Casy tries to understand the meaning of his preaching sexual abstinence when he cannot remain chaste himself. And the point is made by the basic events that set the story moving. A mechanical monster, indifferent to the maternal instincts of the Ma Joads who exercise their species selves in the interest of family solidarity, expels families from their land. The social mechanism thus tries to thwart the demands of the group aspect of the self to remain together. And the same mechanism is responsible for sowing what has become a dust bowl with cotton, rendering it permanently useless for agriculture, thus showing its indifference—nay, hostility—to the connections with nature that the species self feels.

This suppression of the species self is not rigorously foreordained for every individual, and hence the novel's determinism does not rest on the universality of its occurrence. Ma's personality remains undistorted from the novel's beginning to its end. Her intense commitment to the family proceeds from a very live species self; and though she must enlarge her vision to include more than her family, her insistence that Casy join the family on its westward exodus and numerous demonstrations of her concern for others outside her immediate family bear witness that her vision is not all that limited to begin with. But such suppression is nonetheless widespread, and indeed a sufficient number of people must be transformed into grotesques if social structures are to perpetuate themselves. They thereby make many men grotesques and subject all men to economic determinism. Thus the attention to grotesques is part of the pattern of economic determinism in the novel; such determinism can only prevail under conditions guaranteeing with statistical certainty that society can distort man's nature.

The novel singles out two social institutions that assure the creation of grotesques: religion and the law. Lizbeth Sandry is the major representative of a grotesque created by religion. Her intolerance of dancing represents her intolerance of sex, and such intolerance displays religion's warping influence on human instinct. She arouses Ma's ire by warning Rosasharn, “If you got sin on you—you better watch out for that there baby” (421). Her religious views, importing a supernatural mandate into the realm of nature, impose on natural behavior value judgments (like “sin”) designed to thwart the normal expression of the species self. This divorce between her social and species selves, indicated by her views, makes Lizbeth Sandry much like one of Sherwood Anderson's grotesques, as all social selves alienated from the species self must be.

Uncle John and Connie's wife, Rosasharn, carry into the family Lizbeth Sandry's fanaticism. Uncle John's felt sense of guilt over his wife's death impels him to blame all the family misfortunes on what he takes to be his sin: his failure to summon a doctor when she complained of physical ailments. His exaggerated sense of sin fails to take into account his own human nature (his natural fallibility) and circumstance; for his reluctance to call a doctor doubtlessly depended on strained finances. His compulsive references to that sin make him as much a grotesque as Lizbeth Sandry, his grotesquerie compounded by his need for wild drinking bouts to escape the sin.

Not only does he become a grotesque, but his obsession with sin blinds Uncle John to the true cause of the family's misfortunes and so shows that religion can indeed be an opiate of the people useful for sustaining an unjust social structure. In this sense Rosasharn is like him, for she has been affected by Lizbeth Sandry's sense of sin. Of course, Rosasharn's sense of sin does not transform her into the grotesque that Uncle John has become. It illustrates that selfishness noted by other critics, for throughout most of the novel she thinks only of herself and her unborn baby, to the total exclusion of the problems of other people. But her view of Tom's killing a deputy, which is one illustration of her selfishness (she shows concern only for her baby, not for her brother), also points to the larger consequences of Uncle John's obsession with sin. She tells Tom, “That lady tol' me. She says what sin's gonna do. … An' now you kill a fella. What chance that baby got to get bore right?” (537). Like Uncle John's explanation for family misfortunes, her view of the real-enough threat to her unborn child deflects the source of that threat into a theological realm inaccessible to man, the realm of the devil who tempts man's fallen nature to sin, rather than assigning it to the realm of the accessible and the real, the social forces responsible for the deaths of Casy, the deputy, and her own child.

If religion enforces a split between man's two selves, suppressing one and thus deforming the other, so do most social institutions. Hence the law motif is central to the novel, law being the second (and more important) institution that Steinbeck indicts in his defense of the self; for it is law that holds society's other institutions together and, supported by police power, gives them their governing authority.

References to the law appear in a variety of contexts, but their meaning is best embodied in the opposition between law and fundamental human needs, those “‘got to's’” (191) to which Casy refers that compel men to say, “They's lots a things 'gainst the law that we can't he'p doin'” (608). Burying Granpa, for example, in defiance of local edict. But there are more important illustrations of how the law thwarts the expression of man's nature, even when it does not manage to distort it. Tom finds no meaning, at the novel's outset, in a system that imprisons him for killing in self-defense, and he discovers the true meaning of the system only after he kills the deputy who murders Casy—a nice bit of symmetry that illustrates his growth in awareness as he perceives, like Casy, that his second killing is also an instinctual response, one of self-defense against the true assaulter, the system, which so thwarts man's instinctual life that it leaves him no choice other than to strike back. This line of meaning is echoed by others: by Ma, who says of Purty Boy Floyd, “He wan't a bad boy. Jus' got drove in a corner” (501); by the nameless owner men who tell the tenants early in the novel, “You'll be stealing if you try to stay, you'll be murderers if you kill to stay” (46). And it is implicit in Tom's own position at the beginning of the plot: to leave the state violates the conditions of his parole, yet to stay means to break up the family and to face unemployment and possible starvation.

Under such circumstances, it is not surprising to discover that the true prison in The Grapes of Wrath is the world outside the prison walls, the real point of Tom's story of a man who deliberately violated parole to return to jail so that he could enjoy the “conveniences” (among them good food) so conspicuously absent in his home (36). “Here's me, been a-goin' into the wilderness like Jesus to try to find out somepin,” Casy says. “Almost got her sometimes, too. But it's in the jail house I really got her” (521). He discovers his proper relationship to men there because it is the place of the free: of men who exercised the natural rights of nature's self only to be imprisoned by the society that resents their exercise. And in fact he can see how the law violates self because he has already seen how religion does. Without the revelations of the wilderness, he would not have had the revelation of the jailhouse; the first is indispensable to the second. Together, they make him the touchstone for understanding the novel's philosophy of self and for measuring the selves of the novel's other characters.

Just as the species self is the ultimate source of freedom for a group, it is the same for an individual. If man can recognize that he is a part of nature by virtue of that self's existence—if he can affirm for this aspect of a naturalistic vision—he can liberate himself from the condition of being a grotesque and, in recognizing his oneness with others, escape the tentacles of economic determinism as well. This is the novel's philosophy of self, and Casy's life is its lived example, both in his thought and in his practice.

Casy has arrived at the vision that man is a part of nature in the novel's opening pages, the discrepancy between his religious preachment and his sexual practice prompting his withdrawal from society to go to the hills in order to comprehend his true relation to the world and leading to his Emersonian sense of connection with nonhuman nature: “‘There was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't separate no more’” (110). Casy has thus found his deepest nature, that self which is connected even to nonhuman nature, and so he has taken the first vital step toward his liberation. In his way of recovering this self, Casy should be measured less by Emerson than by Thoreau, who went to the woods “to drive life into a corner” and discovered that “not till we are lost …, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations” (Walden, chapters 2 and 8). For Thoreau, as for Casy and Steinbeck, a true knowledge of the relationship between one's self and the external world can only be derived from an empirical study of the structure of physical reality. Such empiricism imparts the knowledge that man does relate to the whole and inspires, in Steinbeck's words written elsewhere, “the feeling we call religious,” the sense of unity between self and outside world that makes “a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein.”5 Writing of his own interest “in relationships of animal to animal,” Steinbeck later gave a clue to the general source of the religious vision at which Casy has arrived at the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath:

If one observes in this relational sense, it seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And then not only the meaning but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it.6

Any reader of “Song of Myself” would know instantly what Casy and Steinbeck mean. This sense of relationship inspires reverence not for an unknowable God outside of nature but for knowable nature in all its forms; for if one feels united to “the hills,” one is clearly in a position to take the next step and feel reverence for nature in its animate forms, and especially in the form known as the human species to which all men belong. And Casy has clearly taken this step as well, as his subsequent remarks on the holiness of man testify. “I got thinkin' how we was holy when we was one thing, an' mankin' was holy when it was one thing.” Such human holiness and the consequent sense of human solidarity it engenders come from each man feeling he is “kind of harnessed to the whole shebang” (110), to all of nature. In finding his deepest self, then, Casy has run against the grain of his old social self to embrace a naturalistic religious view which, from Steinbeck's angle of vision, more surely inspires that sense of brotherly love preached by Christianity than Christianity does. A passage from The Log from The Sea of Cortez aptly represents the religious view of the novel:

Why do we so dread to think of our species as a species? Can it be that we are afraid of what we may find? That human self-love would suffer too much and that the image of God might prove to be a mask? This could be only partly true, for if we could cease to wear the image of a kindly, bearded, interstellar dictator, we might find ourselves true images of his kingdom, our eyes the nebulae, and universes in our cells.7

By descending into his species self, Casy abandons the arrogance of social man who thinks of himself only in terms of his distinctiveness in nature. Specifically, he abandons his social self as preacher and the limitations which it imposes on creating significant relationships with the world outside. As a preacher he necessarily divorced himself from his species self, with its instinctual need for sexual expression, because of Christianity's sexual ethic. Or, rather, since in fact he did act on these instincts, it is more accurate to say that the Christian sexual ethic cut him off from the knowledge that his species self is his better self. Not only does it promote a sense of connection with nature which a Christian sense of man's uniqueness denies—more important, it promotes a sense of connections with all of mankind suppressed by Christianity's parochialism, its division of the world between those who possess the truth and those who live in outer darkness.

Casy's reverence for nature (which also inspires a reverence for human life) allows him to escape character deformations visible in other figures in the novel. Such reverence is markedly absent in men who use their cars to try to run a turtle down, just as it is absent in Al, who swerves his car to squash a snake. When Al becomes “the soul of the car” (167), of course, he is helping his family in their and his time of need, and to that extent the promptings of his species self are very much with him. But its larger sympathies are blunted because the social means by which he is forced to help his family, the automobile on which he must rely, tarnishes him with the taint of “mechanical man,” a phrase Steinbeck uses to describe the social man divorced from his species self, and thus accounts for his squashing the snake. In the car he loses contact with that aspect of the species self which reveres life in all its forms, and by so much he becomes a warped victim of society.

Casy escapes this kind of warping because he has established a relationship to the whole, to nonhuman nature. But he also escapes the warping of an Uncle John or a Lizbeth Sandry because he is empirical in establishing a relation to the parts, to the members of the human community which must be man's first concern, as he makes clear when he says, “I ain't gonna preach” and “I ain't gonna baptize”:

I'm gonna work in the fiel's, in the green fiel's an' I'm gonna be near to folks. I ain't gonna try to teach 'em nothin'. I'm gonna try to learn. Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear 'em talk, gonna hear 'em sing. Gonna listen to kids eatin' mush. Gonna hear husban' an' wife a-poundin' the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with 'em an' learn. … All that's holy, all that's what I didn' understan'. All them things is the good things.


Like Thoreau, Casy has reason to believe that most men “have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever’” (Walden, chapter 2). But his empiricism, not oddly at all, makes him accept in others the very religious view he has already rejected, for such might prove to be the true expression of another's nature. Here he is best measured by Emerson, the Emerson who proclaimed, “Obey thyself,” when he tells Uncle John, “I know this—a man got to do what he got to do,” or when he says of Uncle John's obsession: “For anybody else it was a mistake, but if you think it was a sin—then it's a sin” (306).

And he follows Emerson in another way. Casy's interest in the parts shows that, like Emerson, he cannot rest satisfied with a religious “high,” the feeling of oneness with “the all” that he has already experienced at the novel's opening and that Emerson experienced as “a transparent eyeball” (Nature: 1836). Like Emerson, he must translate the insight derived from that experience into ethical terms on the level of practical action. Having concluded that the devil whom most men should fear is society (“they's somepin worse'n the devil got hold a the country” [175]), he not surprisingly discovers the level of practical action by which he can relate to them in a prison, whose inmates are there mainly “'cause they stole stuff; an' mostly it was stuff they needed an' couldn' get no other way. … It's need that makes all the trouble” (521). Since society cannot provide man's basic needs, Casy will help to secure them and, in the process, he brings his species self into relation with men by adopting a social one that permits its expression. He becomes a strike organizer.

Casy's new personal identity is thus an expression of a larger self which, as Emerson knew, can be realized in a diverse number of concrete social forms, though such self-realization earns the world's displeasure. Members of the family who remain in the group thus move toward that larger self when they abandon older views of theological sin as a causal factor in human affairs and approximate Casy's newer view in their words and actions. Uncle John displays this movement, his escape from the ranks of the grotesque, when he floats Rosasharn's stillborn baby to the town, admonishing it to “go down in the street an' rot an' tell 'em that way” (609), just as Rosasharn does when she breastfeeds the old man in the novel's closing paragraph. Her gesture acknowledges the truth of Uncle John's words, that the sin that killed her baby was social and not theological in origin. The same gesture shows her overcoming a solipsism engendered by her pregnancy by enlarging the sympathies of her species self to embrace more than the child that society denied her. That gesture, finally, is the perfect one to signal the awakening of nature's self, the self growing from that human biological nature which mothers and fathers the species.

The novel thus suggests the desirability of a society based not on absolutes imported supernaturally into nature by systems derived from a priori thinking, but one whose institutions accommodate themselves to subjective absolutes. In this way Steinbeck's novel expands the naturalistic vision of Manhattan Transfer. It develops the theme only subordinate in the earlier novel: man and nature are one, not two. But The Grapes of Wrath is also a logical and satisfying conclusion to naturalism prior to Dos Passos. If man's connections to nonhuman nature seemed a source of savagery for Crane, nonetheless, at the last, nature in “The Open Boat” was just nature—a vast system for man to interpret for his own benefit, could he but escape the complicated social fabric to see that the primary purpose of societies is to aid him in creating such interpretations. Even in McTeague, brute nature is not entirely without its redeeming values: it alone provides McTeague with the sixth sense to flee the city that so twists the lives of the people in Norris's pages. Because the novel is so completely deterministic, however, nature is not used as an avenue of escape. In its form as sexual drive, it instead contributes to McTeague's destruction. But for Steinbeck, nature did become a viable avenue of escape when he developed a religious vision based on the feeling resulting from empirically ascertainable knowledge, the knowledge that man is related to the vast system called Nature. This vision is implicit in Dreiser's view of a creative spirit, but unlike Dreiser, Steinbeck postulates no unknowable purpose in this spirit possibly running at cross-purposes to man's own. He escapes the tentacles of determinism that hold Dreiser's men and women in thrall because he does not unravel the Hobbesian dilemma; because he does not reduce consciousness to temperament or instinct; because he instead makes consciousness in the service of man's instinct the center of man's freedom. Like Emerson, and Dreiser at the last, he assumes that if nature's spirit has purpose, man as part of it can give it expression and direction by realizing his own purpose. To attain knowledge of this ability is to begin to meet the demands of spring.


  1. In Thematic Design in the Novels of John Steinbeck (The Hague: Mouton, 1969), Lester Jay Marks argues that the group possesses will from the very beginning (a point he stresses several times: pp. 68, 73-74, 75-76), and that Steinbeck uses the interchapters as “a second structural element … [supporting] the idea of willful movement in the novel” (p. 69). My own judgment is that the interchapters stress determinism, not will, and that Marks's opposite view necessarily fails to see the complexities of Steinbeck's literary implementation of his biological concept of group man.

  2. John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez: The narrative portion of the book “Sea of Cortez” with a profile ‘About Ed Ricketts’ (London: Heinemann, 1958), p. 165. Quotation and idea identified by Astro as added and endorsed by Steinbeck: Richard Astro, John Steinbeck and Edward F Ricketts (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1973), pp. 45-46. See my bibliographical essay for comments on the collaboration between Steinbeck and Ricketts in Sea of Cortez.

  3. Steinbeck, Log, pp. 240-41. Passage and concept identified by Astro as added and endorsed by Steinbeck: Steinbeck and Ricketts, p. 47.

  4. Steinbeck, “Some Thoughts on Juvenile Delinquency,” Saturday Review 37 (28 May 1955): 22.

  5. Steinbeck, Log, p. 217. Astro believes that both Ricketts and Steinbeck shared this belief: Steinbeck and Ricketts, p. 31.

  6. Steinbeck, Log, pp. 216-17. Comment of n. 5 applies.

  7. Steinbeck, Log, pp. 264-65. I do not know whether this was originally Ricketts' sentiment or Steinbeck's, but I find nothing in Steinbeck's thought to suggest that he disagrees with it.

Louis Owens (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Owens, Louis. “The Culpable Joads: Desentimentalizing The Grapes of Wrath.” In Critical Essays on Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, edited by John Ditsky, pp. 108-16. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1989.

[In the following essay, Owens examines the elements with which Steinbeck balances the potential sentimentality in The Grapes of Wrath.]

The Grapes of Wrath is one of John Steinbeck's great experiments, perhaps his greatest, a novel that exploded upon the American conscience in 1939, bringing home to American readers both the intimate reality of the Joads' suffering and the immense panorama of a people's—the Dust Bowl migrants'—suffering. In spite of howls of outrage from opposite ends of the novel's journey—both Oklahoma and California—America took the Joads to heart, forming out of The Grapes of Wrath a new American archetype of oppression and endurance, survival if not salvation.1 So warmly did readers embrace the Dust Bowl Okies, in fact, that critics began almost immediately to accuse Steinbeck again of sentimentality in his portrayal of the downtrodden proletariat. Edmund Wilson was one of the first serious critics to take such a position, declaring that in this novel Steinbeck learned much from films, “and not only from the documentary pictures of Pare Lorentz, but from the sentimental symbolism of Hollywood.”2 Bernard De Voto had anticipated Wilson when he complained that the novel's ending was “symbolism gone sentimental.”3 Still a third major American critic, R. W. B. Lewis, found Steinbeck's fiction “mawkish” and “constitutionally unequipped to deal with the more sombre reality a man must come up against. …”4

As Steinbeck's most imposing and both popularly and critically successful work, The Grapes of Wrath has been studied from a multitude of angles, with critics focusing on its historical, political, philosophical, religious, symbolic, structural, and stylistic aspects. Steinbeck's great formal experiment in this novel—the interchapters—has been often studied and commented upon. What has been little noted in this novel, however, is the care Steinbeck takes to counterbalance the narrative's seemingly inevitable drift in the direction of sentimentalism as the story of the Joads and of the migrants as a whole unfolds in all its pathos. While Steinbeck is undeniably intensely sympathetic in this novel to the suffering of the croppers and to the plight of the seemingly powerless “little people” caught up in the destructive path of corporate America, he is at the same time painstakingly careful not to sentimentalize these figures, a fact of utmost importance to a critical understanding of The Grapes of Wrath.

A primary means by which Steinbeck attempts to unsentimentalize this story of displacement and suffering is through his use of interchapters. As has been often noted, the most obvious value of the intercalary chapters is to provide the big picture, to ensure the reader's awareness of the panoramic dimensions of this socioeconomic tragedy. At the same time, the narrative chapters focusing on the Joad family stem from Steinbeck's self-professed awareness that “It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.”5 Through the interchapters we feel the scope and dimension of the Dust Bowl drama; through the narrative chapters we experience the tragedy of one family on a personal, intimate level. A second very important function of the interchapters, however, one that has gone largely unnoticed, is that of offsetting the intimacy of the narrative chapters, of creating necessary distance between the reader and Steinbeck's representative family, the Joads. Steinbeck uses the interchapters skillfully as a means of preventing the reader from identifying too closely with the Joads. Again and again, just as we begin to be drawn fully into the pain of the Joads' experience, Steinbeck pulls us away from the intimate picture into the broad scope of one of the interchapters, reminding us that these are merely representative people, that the scale of suffering is so great as to dwarf the anguish of one small group such as Ma Joad's family. Chapter 18 ends, for example, with the Joads about to descend into the promised land of California's Central Valley, weighted with the emotionally charged burden of the dead Granma. The heartbreaking courage of Ma, who has lain beside Granma all night to ensure that the family gets “across,” is deeply moving, and as the Joads drive down into the highly stylized Eden of the valley the reader must respond emotionally to the courage and suffering of the family. Immediately, however, with the opening lines of chapter 19, Steinbeck shifts the reader's focus away from the Joads onto a broad, impersonal sweep of California's agricultural history culminating in a view of the Hoovervilles and a generic portrait of the migrants. The Joads' suffering is put into perspective as we realize once again that this family's tragedy is every migrant's, that there must be a thousand Granmas and as many Ma Joads, and that the family is about to descend into a sea of families in precisely the same circumstances and facing their predicament with roughly the same proportion of courage and cowardice. In place of the familiar voices of Tom and Ma Joad the reader now hears the voice of history, and the perspective is readjusted once again. It is more difficult to become sentimental about the fate of the individual when one is simultaneously aware of the fate of the species.

In addition to the depersonalizing distance achieved through the movement from narrative chapter to interchapter, Steinbeck also takes advantage of a more familiar device to desentimentalize his treatment of the downtrodden sharecropper in this novel: the objective authorial stance that he exploited so successfully in the earlier study of oppressed workers, In Dubious Battle. In that novel, published just three years before, Steinbeck was careful to underscore the failings of the migrant workers as well as those of the oppressors—both sides are greedy, selfish, lazy, bloodthirsty, and ignorant. These are simply aspects of the human character, says Steinbeck in that strike novel, simply the way it is, nonteleologically.6 In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck does not assume the purely objective stance of the narrative voice of In Dubious Battle, choosing not to become “merely a recording consciousness, judging nothing” as he claimed to be in the earlier strike novel.7 In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck allows his authorial voice the freedom to intrude in the guise of a modern Jeremiah, judging, condemning. However, once again in spite of his sympathies with the displaced Okies, as he did in In Dubious Battle in Grapes Steinbeck takes care to similarly undercut the nobility and “goodness” of the migrants.

Tom, for example, is a loner who begins the novel looking out only for number one, as his solitary initial appearance and his aggressive manipulation of the witless truck driver indicate. Only gradually, through the tutoring of Casy, does the unsympathetic Tom grow into his role of proletarian savior. Throughout the novel, Pa Joad is self-centered and weakwilled, too ineffectual to assume the role of leadership demanded of him, a character thoroughly incapable of igniting the reader's sympathy, as Tom makes clear when he tells Casy late in the novel “Think Pa's gonna give up his meat on account a other fellas?”8 Tom's brother Al is concerned chiefly with his own concupiscence, eager even near the end of the novel to abandon his family and strike out on his own with his wife-to-be. Rose of Sharon's husband, Connie, proves himself to be a selfish and soft-minded believer in the American Dream advertised in comic books and a deserter of his pregnant wife. Rose of Sharon, in turn, forces the reader to suffer through hundreds of pages of whining self-pity before her miraculous conversion near the novel's end. Even Ma, larger-than-life Earth Mother and obvious heroine of this novel, demonstrates her limitations as she rambles on pointlessly about “Purty Boy Floyd,” repeating herself tediously the way real people really do as she intones one of the folkmyths of Oklahoma and the Dust Bowl region.

While the trials of the Joads engage us, even excite our admiration and pity, Steinbeck takes pains to deny us the luxury of sentimental attachment. The Joads, including even the ultimately heroic and Christ-like Casy, are no better, no greater, no less human than they should be. Nor are any of the other migrants in the novel.

More important than either Steinbeck's illumination of the human failings of his characters on such limited levels or his use of the interchapters as distancing devices is his care to emphasize the migrants' culpability, their portion of responsibility for what has happened to the land and to themselves. Certainly Steinbeck makes it clear that the sharecroppers are victimized by an inhuman economic monster that tears at the roots of Jeffersonian agrarianism. However, when Steinbeck causes his representative migrant voice to plead with the owners for a chance to remain on the land, he qualifies the celebrated Jeffersonian agrarianism and love-for-the-land by tainting the croppers' wish: “Get enough wars and cotton'll hit the ceiling” (32), the cropper argues. A willingness to accept war and death as the price for further cottoning out of the land is difficult to admire on any level. And Steinbeck goes a step further, to make it clear that the migrants are firmly fixed in a larger, even more damning American pattern. Though the tenants have tried to persuade the owners to let them hang on, hoping for a war to drive up cotton prices, the tenant-voice also warns the owners: “But you'll kill the land with cotton.” And the owners reply: “We know. We've got to take cotton quick before the land dies. Then we'll sell the land. Lots of families in the East would like to own a piece of land” (33). With their words the westering pattern of American history is laid bare: we arrive on the Atlantic seaboard seeking Eden only to discover a rocky and dangerous paradise with natives who aggressively resent the “discovery” of their land; the true Eden must therefore lie ever to the west, over the next hill, across the next plain, until finally we reach the Pacific Ocean and, along with Jody's grandfather in The Red Pony, we end up shaking our fists at the Pacific because it stopped us, breaking the pattern of displacement, a pattern put into focus in Walt Whitman's poignant query in “Facing West from California's Shores”: “But where is what I started for so long ago? / And why is it yet unfound?”

That the croppers are part of this pattern becomes even more evident when the representative tenant voice informs us that their fathers had to “kill the Indians and drive them away.” And when the tenants add, “Grampa killed Indians, Pa killed snakes for the land” (34), we should hear a powerful echo of the Puritan forebears who wrested the wilderness from the Satanic serpent and his Indian servants, killing and displacing the original inhabitants of the new Canaan.

It is difficult to feel excessive sorrow for these ignorant men who are quite willing to barter death to maintain their place in the destructive pattern of American expansion, a pattern that has ravaged a continent. That Steinbeck thought long about the American phenomenon of destroying the Garden just discovered in the search for an even better Garden is suggested in his declaration more than a decade later that in East of Eden, his great investigation of the myth of America, “people dominate the land, gradually. They strip it and rob it. Then they are forced to try to replace what they have taken out.”9

The tenant and owner voices are wrong, of course: you cannot “kill the land.” The land can be altered, made inhospitable for the sons of Cain who inhabit it, but it will survive. The epic perspective with which the novel begins suggests the enduring nature of this earth, the land which “abideth forever.”

The first paragraph of The Grapes of Wrath opens with an impressionistic swath of color reminiscent of Stephen Crane as Steinbeck intones, “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.” He continues:

The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

A close look at this paragraph shows that following the panoramic, generalized opening, the paragraph begins to focus, to zoom in: “The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks.” And finally, from the impressionistic opening image our vision has closed the distance to focus very closely upon not just “the growing corn” but the “line of brown” that spreads “along the edge of each green bayonet.” At once the narrative eye begins to pan back to register broader details of clouds and generalized “weeds” until the paragraph ends where it began, with a panoramic image of the earth, which “became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.” In the second paragraph, the camera's eye again zooms in for a close-up: “In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams.” And again this paragraph expands to end with a panorama: “The air was thin and the sky more pale, and every day the earth paled.”

In these first paragraphs, Steinbeck is introducing the pattern upon which The Grapes of Wrath will be structured: a pattern of expansion and contraction, of a generalized panoramic view of the plight of the migrants in the interchapters followed in the narrative chapters by a closeup of the plight of the representative individuals, the Joads. As early as the novel's opening paragraph, the reader is being subliminally programmed for this movement in the novel, and he is being introduced to the idea that beyond the Joads is the pattern made up of the migrants and the Dust Bowl phenomenon as a whole; beyond the seeming tragedy of the drought and the cropped-out land is the pattern made up of the panoramic earth itself. The shifting focus is designed to remind us that the individual tragedies are played out against a backdrop of enduring life. In teleological terms, as defined by Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, the drought, the Dust Bowl, and the tragedy of the migrants seem immeasurable disasters for which blame must be assigned; in nonteleological terms, however, we are reminded by the panoramic sweep of the author's brush that we are seeing only part of the picture, partial indices of what the Log defined as “all reality, known and unknowable.”10

Paradoxically, such a nonteleological perspective serves to make the Dust Bowl a tragedy only insofar as it is judged according to transient, human values. From a distance, the drought-wasted land is lovely, a sweeping panorama of pastels; up close, the picture becomes one of horror, but only in human terms. For the sharecroppers this is a tragedy; the larger picture suggests that the tragedy is limited, transient, that the earth abides beyond man's errors and shortsightedness. To believe, as the croppers and landowners in this novel do, that one can “kill the land” is to see only part of the picture, to commit the error Joseph Wayne commits in Steinbeck's early novel To a God Unknown of believing that the land can die. The biblical prose style of these opening paragraphs, recalling the incantatory force of Genesis, also underscores the power of primal creation that precedes man and exists beyond man's ability to affect or effect. Like the people who, drawing their strength from the earth, “go on,” the earth cannot be destroyed, and Steinbeck's style and tone in these first paragraphs is designed to reinforce that message.

If Steinbeck's message in the opening paragraphs is that the land cannot die, he nonetheless begins as early as the second sentence of the novel to subtly imply human responsibility for the disruption of the drought. In the second sentence, he tells us that “The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks,” superimposing an ultimately self-destructive human pattern—the erosion-inducing plow lines—upon the natural watershed pattern. The rivulet marks are a sign of the earth's flow, cycle, continuum; their crossing and erasure is a sign of a failure of human understanding. The wheels that “milled the ground,” and the hooves that “beat the ground” until “the dirt crust broke and the dust formed” further underscore man's responsibility for the human tragedy depicted in the first paragraphs and developed throughout the novel. By the novel's end, the rain will come again in a great, destructive, cleansing flood, erasing in its turn the pattern of human failure set upon the Edenic valleys of California.

Steinbeck also foreshadows in these opening paragraphs the fate of the migrants. The “weed colonies” that are “scattered … along the sides of the roads” suggest the colonies of migrants that will soon be scattered the length of Route 66; and the miniscule ant lion trap, a funnel of finely blown sand from which the ant simply cannot escape, serves as a naturalistic image to define the situation of the sharecroppers. They have no future in the cropped-out region of blowing dust and sand; they have sealed their fates should they stubbornly struggle to remain. Muley Graves, whose name hints strongly at his character and fate, chooses to remain in the trap, a “graveyard ghos'” without a future.

Through this burnt country cut the tracks of walking men and machines, raising dust clouds as signs of their passage. When Tom Joad appears, he will be the representative walking man, the individual who must accept responsibility for what man has done to himself and to the earth. Along with Tom, the Joads and all of the migrants will be sent on the road on a quest to rethink their relationship with humanity as well as with the land itself. What Warren French has aptly termed the “education of the heart”11 is a journey toward a new national consciousness, one that may, Steinbeck seems to imply, finally break the grip of the westering pattern in this country, causing Americans to free themselves from the delusive quest for a New Eden and thus from the destructive process of exploitation and removal entailed in such a pattern.

Once the Joads and their fellow migrants have reached California, they can go no farther. The Joads are the representative migrants, and the migrants are the representative Americans. The migrants' westward journey is America's, a movement that encapsulates the directionality of the American experience. The horrors of the California Eden confronting the migrants have been brought on by all of us, Steinbeck implies; no one is innocent. When Uncle John releases Rose of Sharon's stillborn baby upon the flood waters with the words, “Go down an' tell 'em” (493), Steinbeck is underscoring the new consciousness. This Moses is stillborn because the people have no further need for a Moses. The Promised Land has long ago been reached, and there is nowhere else to go, no place for a Moses to lead his chosen people. The American myth of the Eden ever to the west is shattered, the dangers of the myth exposed. The new leader will be an everyman, Tom Joad, who crawls into a cave of vines—the womb of the earth—to experience his rebirth and who emerges committed not to leading the people somewhere else but to making this place, this America, the garden it might be. The cleansing, destructive flood that prepares for the novel's concluding tableau rises not merely around the threatened migrants but over the entire land.

The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck's jeremiad, his attempt to expose not only the actual, historical suffering of a particular segment of our society, but also the pattern of thought, the mindset, that has led to this one isolated tragedy. In this novel, Steinbeck set out to expose the fatal dangers of the American myth of a new Eden, new Canaan, new Jerusalem, and to illuminate a path toward a new consciousness of commitment in place of removal, engagement instead of displacement. And in making his argument, Steinbeck was careful not to sentimentalize his fictional creations, careful to emphasize the shared guilt and responsibility—there are no innocents; a new sensibility, not sentimentality, is Steinbeck's answer.


  1. For reactions to The Grapes of Wrath, see Peter Lisca, “Editor's Introduction: The Pattern of Criticism,” in The Grapes of Wrath: Text and Criticism, ed. Peter Lisca (New York: Viking Press, 1972).

  2. Edmund Wilson, The Boys in the Back Room: Notes on California Novelists (San Francisco: Colt Press, 1941), 61.

  3. Bernard De Voto, “American Novels: 1939,” Atlantic Monthly 165 (January 1940): 68.

  4. R. W. B. Lewis, “John Steinbeck: The Fitful Daemon,” rpt. in Steinbeck: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Murray Davis, 171 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972).

  5. John Steinbeck, in the preface to the The Forgotten Village (New York: Viking Press, 1941).

  6. See my discussion of In Dubious Battle in my study John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), 89-100.

  7. John Steinbeck, in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, ed. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, 98 (New York: Viking Press, 1975).

  8. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking Press, 1939; rpt. Bantam Pathfinder Editions, 1972), 424; hereafter cited in the text.

  9. John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel (New York: Viking Press, 1969), 39.

  10. John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez (New York: Viking Press, 1951), 217.

  11. Warren French, “From Naturalism to the Drama of Consciousness—The Education of the Heart in The Grapes of Wrath,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations ofThe Grapes of Wrath,” ed. Robert Con Davis, 24-35 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1982).

Nellie Y. McKay (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: McKay, Nellie Y. “‘Happy[?]-Wife-and-Motherdom’: The Portrayal of Ma Joad in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.1 In New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, edited by David Wyatt, pp. 47-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, McKay examines the ways in which the women in The Grapes of Wrath subvert stereotypical gender roles.]

Women's social roles in western culture are central concerns in contemporary feminist criticism. The discourse focuses on the idea that our society is organized around male-dominated sex-gender systems that admit two genders, that privilege heterosexual relationships, and that embrace a sexual division of labor in which wife and mother are the primary functions of women.2 In such works as Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich,3Man's World, Woman's Place by Elizabeth Janeway,4The Reproduction of Motherhood: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender by Nancy Chodorow,5 and Contemporary Feminist Thought by Hester Eisenstein,6 critics argue that, in spite of prevailing social dogma to the contrary, the biological functions of childbearing and lactation (motherhood), and the cultural one of nurturing (mothering) are divisible. Whereas one is restricted to women, the other need not be. Parenting, in place of mothering, is not biologically determined, and there is no proof that men are less capable of nurturing children than women, or that children would suffer adverse effects if women were not their primary caretakers. However, female oppression under patriarchy dictates an institution in which the heterosexual family is at the center of the social system; woman, wife, motherhood, and mothering are synonymous; and sex-role stereotyping separates the social expectations of women from those of men. From this institution, “Happy-Wife-and-Motherdom” assumes woman's ideal social, emotional, and psychological state.

The success of such sex-role stereotyping depends on establishing socially acceptable clusters of behavioral attitudes that define male and female gender identities differently from the biological (sex-based) identities of women and men. To function properly, these behaviors require social placement on a hierarchical scale of dominant versus submissive, strong versus weak, independent versus dependent, in favor of men.7 Consequently, women are conditioned toward passivity while men are rewarded for more aggressive behavior. For women, the expressive traits (affection, obedience, sympathy, and nurturing) are hailed and rewarded as “normal” behavior; men are expected to be aggressive, tenacious, ambitious, and responsible. Objecting to psychological impositions that render women subordinate to men, Elizabeth Janeway, among others, speaks out against social scientists like Freud and Eric Erickson who, in defense of the status quo, made it their business to substitute “prescription” for “description,” as they tried to explain how women ought to be, rather than how they are.8 She argues that there is no scientific basis for the male-constructed definition of women's nature, and that opinions on the biological aspects of women's inabilities to perform as well as men in some areas, and vice versa, are not facts, but are, rather, social mythology based on beliefs and practices that shape social life according to a particular set of values.9 This social mythology of women's nature enables men to define the “natural” capabilities of women in ways that make women socially and economically dependent on men.

The image of woman/wife/mother with children as the “core of domestic organization is implicit in patriarchal sex-gender systems.”10 Traditionally, men perform in the public sphere, while women's place is in the home, where they loom large and powerful, although, in the larger world, they remain under the control of husbands and fathers. Nor are women innocent in the development of these systems. Several feminist critics now argue that sex-role differentiation originated partly in male propaganda, and partly because women found certain of its elements sufficiently attractive willingly to give up intellectual, economic, and political power in exchange for private power in the domestic sphere. As women/wives/mothers, they are able to hold sway over the lives of their children, and to manipulate their husbands in the sexual arena.11 This arrangement frees men from domestic responsibilities and permits them to focus their lives primarily in the public sphere: the masculine world of social and political control that determines the lives of men and women. The husband/father assumes the socially approved masculine responsibility to make important decisions and provide monetarily for his family, while the wife/mother agrees to accept a variety of unspecified familial obligations, including constant attunement to the needs of her husband and children. His support is expected to be largely material; hers, emotional. Nor are the rewards equal. By society's standards, his contributions to the family are perceived greater; hers are lesser. He articulates his family and gives it a place in the larger world; she is bound by that articulation.12

Until recently, literary representations of women, especially by men, subscribed almost exclusively to the ideology of locating women's place in the domestic world. Women who moved outside of their designated boundaries in search of authority over their own lives were stigmatized as unfeminine, bad mothers and wives, and social deviants. The most well-known positive image in the category of the good woman is the Earth Mother, who, engaged in selfless mothering, dedicates her entire being to the welfare of her husband and children. In The Lay of the Land, Annette Kolodny reminds us of how powerful the representation of a symbiotic relationship between femaleness and the land (the earth) is in the national consciousness. The desire for harmony between “man” and nature, based on an experience of the land as woman/mother—the female principle of “receptivity, repose, and integral satisfaction,” is one of our most cherished American fantasies, she tells us.13 In her analysis of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writings by early settlers in America, Kolodny writes that the members of this group carried with them a yearning for paradise, and perceived the New World as a “maternal ‘garden,’ receiving and nurturing human children.”14 Furthermore, she asserts that for these settlers there was

a need to experience the land as a nurturing, giving maternal breast. … Beautiful, indeed, that wilderness appeared—but also dark, uncharted, and prowled by howling beasts. … Mother was ready to civilize it … [to make] the American continent … the birthplace of a new culture … with new and improved human possibilities … in fact as well as metaphor, a womb of generation and a provider of sustenance.15

This equation of the American land with woman's biological attributes did much to foster the widespread use of literary images of women as one with the “natural” propensities of a productive nurturing earth, and to erase, psychologically, the differences between the biological and the social functions of women.

Fully immersed in this tradition, men, male vision, and the relationships of men to each other and to the rest of the world dominate the works of John Steinbeck, whereas women, without whom the men would have no world, have no independent identity of their own. The social and economic conditions in the lower working-class milieu in which many of these women appear can easily give rise to what on the surface seems to represent a very different relationship to the social structure from that of women in other strata. On the contrary, the ideology that woman's place is rooted in her interests in others, preferably those of husbands and children, remains the same. Steinbeck's women seldom need seek the right to work outside of their homes, or to choose careers equal to those of men. They have no connections to the “gentle-companions” female identity or to the ideology of femininity that became popular in the nineteenth century. Work, as hard as that of farm men, or lower class men struggling for survival outside of the agrarian economy, occupies a great deal of their time. In the words of Tom Joad, “Women's always tar'd, … that's just the way women is, 'cept at meetin' once an' again.”16 They are always tired because they are always attending to the needs of everyone but themselves. Even domestic violence against these women is socially acceptable within the group.17 Only race privilege protects them from the barbarous abuse of others outside of their community that women of color in similar situations experience. Yet, the most they can achieve and hold onto with social dignity is the supportive nurturing role of woman's place in a man's world.

The centrality of women to the action of The Grapes of Wrath is clear from the beginning as well. For one thing, not only among the Joads, the main characters in this novel, but in all the families in crisis, the children look to the women for answers to their immediate survival: “What are we going to do, Ma? Where are we going to go?” (47) the anonymous children ask. In male-dominated sex-gender systems, children depend on their mothers for parenting, and their stability rests mainly on the consistency and reliability with which women meet their needs. There is no question that in this model the woman/wife/mother makes the most important contributions to family stability. This chapter does not challenge Steinbeck's understanding of the value of women's roles in the existing social order. I attempt, however, to place his vision of those roles within the framework of an American consciousness that has long been nourished by gender myths that associated women with nature, and thus primarily with the biological and cultural functions of motherhood and mothering, whereas men occupy a separate masculine space that affords them independence and autonomy. By adopting Robert Briffault's theory that matriarchy is a cohesive, nonsexually dominating system,18 Steinbeck assures us that the family can survive by returning to an earlier stage of collective, nonauthoritarian security while the larger society moves towards a socialistic economy. As he sees it, in times of grave familial or community need, a strong, wise woman like Ma Joad has the opportunity (or perhaps the duty) to assert herself and still maintain her role as selfless nurturer of the group. In this respect, she is leader and follower, wise and ignorant, and simple and complex, simultaneously.19 In short, she is the woman for all seasons, the nonintrusive, indestructible “citadel” on whom everyone else can depend.

This idealistic view of womanhood is especially interesting because, although there are qualities in Steinbeck's work that identify him with the sentimental and romantic traditions, as a writer with sympathies toward socialism he also saw many aspects of American life in the light of harsh realism. His reaction to the plight of the Oklahoma farmers in this novel moved him to a dramatic revision of the frontier patriarchal myth of individual, white-male success through unlimited access to America's abundant and inexhaustible expanses of land. He begins with the equivalent of a wide-lens camera view that portrays the once-lush land grown tired and almost unyielding from overuse, and then follows that up with vivid descriptions of farmers being brutally dispossessed by capitalist greed from the place they thought belonged to them. His instincts are also keen in the matter of character development; unanticipated circumstances alter the worldview that many of the people in the novel previously held, and their changes are logical. As they suffer, the Joads, in particular the mother and her son Tom (the other Joad men never develop as fully), gradually shed their naïveté and achieve a sound political consciousness of class and economic oppression. This is a difficult education for them, but one which they eventually accept. Through it all, without the unshakable strength and wisdom of the mother, who must at times assert her will to fill the vacuum of her husband's incapability, nothing of the family, as they define it, would survive. Still, she never achieves an identity of her own, or recognizes the political reality of women's roles within a male-dominated system. She is never an individual in her own right. Even when she becomes fully aware of class discrimination and understands that the boundaries of the biological family are much too narrow a structure from which to challenge the system they struggle against, she continues to fill the social space of the invincible woman/wife/mother.

Critics identify two distinct narrative views of women in Steinbeck's writings. In one, in novels such as To a God Unknown (1933) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), the image is positive and one-dimensional, with female significance almost completely associated with the maternal roles that Kolodny and others decry. In the other, for example Tortilla Flat (1935), Of Mice and Men (1937), East of Eden (1952), and several of the short stories in The Long Valley (1938), the portraiture is socially negative. Whores, hustlers, tramps, or madams are the outstanding roles that define the majority of these women. More graphically stated by one critic, these women “seem compelled to choose between homemaking and whoredom.”20 Interestingly, in spite of their questionable behavior, women within this group are often described as “big-breasted, big-hipped, and warm,” thus implying the maternal types.21 In his post-1943 fiction, after he moved to New York City, sophisticated women characters who are jealous, vain, and cunning—the opposite of the women in his earlier works—appear (as negative portrayals) in Steinbeck's work. Furthermore, Steinbeck's “positive” women are impressively “enduring,” but never in their own self-interests. Their value resides in the manner in which they are able to sustain their nurturing and reproductive capabilities for the benefit of the group. As Mimi Reisel Gladstein notes,

they act as the nurturing and reproductive machinery of the group. Their optimistic significance lies, not in their individual spiritual triumph, but in their function as perpetuators of the species. They are not judged by any biblical or traditional sense of morality.22

In conjunction with their ability to endure and to perpetuate the species, they are also the bearers of “knowledge—both of their husbands and of men generally,” knowledge which enables them to “come … [closer than men] to an understanding of the intricacies of human nature and the profundities of life in general.”23

Since its publication in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath, one of Steinbeck's most celebrated works, has been the subject of a variety of controversial appraisals. Seen by some as “an attempted prose epic, a summation of national experience at a given time,”24 others belabor its ideological and technical flaws. The disagreements it continues to raise speak well for the need to continue to evaluate its many structural and thematic strands.

The novel opens on a note that explodes the American pastoral of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that Kolodny describes in her work. The lush and fertile lands that explorers in Virginia and the Carolinas saw give way to the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, where “… dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn” (5). The impotence and confusion of a bewildered group of displaced people replace the assuredness and confidence of the nation's early settlers. In this world where nature is gone awry, and human control lies in the hands of men greedy for wealth and in possession of new technology that enhances their advantages, the men, women, and children who have, until now, lived on the land are helpless against an unspeakable chaos.

Feeling completely out of control in a situation they cannot comprehend, the men stand in silence by their fences or sit in the doorways of the houses they will soon leave, space that echoes loudly with their impotent unspoken rage, for they are without power or influence to determine their destinies. Even more outrageous for them is their profound sense of alienation. Armed with rifles, and willing to fight for what they consider rightfully theirs, there is no one for them to take action against. They can only stare helplessly at the machines that demolish their way of life. They do not understand why they no longer have social value outside of their disintegrating group, and they do not know how to measure human worth in terms of abstract economic principles. “One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families,” the representatives of the owner men explain to the uncomprehending displaced farmers. That some of their own people assist the invaders leaves them more befuddled.

“What are you doing this kind of work for—against your own people?”

a farmer asks the tractor-driver son of an old acquaintance. The man replies:

[for] “three dollars a day. … I got a wife and kids. We got to eat … and it comes everyday.”

“But for three dollars a day fifteen or twenty families can't eat at all,”

the farmer rebuts, and continues:

“nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for your three dollars a day. Is that right?” … And the driver says, “Can't think of that. Got to think of my own kids. Three dollars a day, and it comes in every day. Times are changing, mister, don't you know? Can't make a living on the land unless you've got two, five, ten thousand acres and a tractor. Crop land isn't for little guys like us anymore. … You try to get three dollars a day some place. That's the only way.”


The quality of the frustration and level of the ineffectiveness that the men feel is displayed in the actions of Grampa, the patriarch of the Joad clan. He fires a futile shot at the advancing tractor, but succeeds only in “blow[ing] the headlights off that cat', … [while] she come on just the same” (62). The march of technology and the small farmers' distress go hand in hand.

Deprived of traditional assertive masculine roles, for the most part, the helpless, silent men seldom move; only their hands are engaged—uselessly—“busy,” with sticks and little rocks as they survey the ruined crops, their ruined homes, their ruined way of life, “thinking—figuring,” and finding no solution to the disintegration rapidly enveloping them. Nor do the women/wives/mothers precipitously intrude on their shame. They are wise in the ways of mothering their men; of understanding the depth of their hurt and confusion, and in knowing that at times their greatest contribution to the healing of the others' psychic wounds lies in their supportive silence. “They knew that a man so hurt and so perplexed may turn in anger, even on people he loves. They left the men alone to figure and to wonder in the dust” (7). Secretly, unobtrusively, because they are good women, they study the faces of their men to know if this time they would “break.” Also furtively, the children watch the faces of the men and the women. When the men's faces changed from “bemused perplexity” to anger and resistance, although they still did not know what they would do, the women and children knew they were “safe”—for “no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole” (7).

In the face of such disaster, enforced idleness is the lot of men. Their work comes to a halt. The women, however, remain busy, for the housewife's traditional work, from which society claims she derives energy, purpose, and fulfillment, goes on. In addition, as conditions worsen and the men further internalize impotence, the women know they will be responsible for making the crucial decisions to lead their families through the adjustment period ahead. Critic Joan Hedrick explains the dynamics of the division of labor in sex-gender-differentiated systems this way, rather than as women's “nature”:

Though there are no crops to be harvested, there are clothes to mend, cornmeal to stir, side-meat to cut up for dinner. In a time of unemployment, women embody continuity, not out of some mythic identity as the Great Mother, but simply because their work, being in the private sphere of the family, has not been taken away. …25

According to critics Richard Astro and Warren Motley, Steinbeck's philosophy of women was deeply influenced by his readings of Robert Briffault's The Mothers: The Matriarchal Theory of Social Origins (1931), a work they include in a group that “strove to heal the … post-Darwinian split between scientific thinking and ethical experience.”26 Although Briffault saw matriarchy (historically antecedent to patriarchy) as a primitive and regressive order, he felt it described a “relationship based on cooperation rather than power,” and fostered an “equalitarian” society to which “authority” and “domination” were foreign. As Motley sees it, Steinbeck did not believe that matriarchy was regressive, but he was convinced that the shock of dispossession undermined the patriarchal authority (based on male economic dominance) of the Joad men and the other farmers to such an extent that they were forced to turn back to matriarchy, the more positive social organization force, epitomized by Ma Joad's “high calm,” “superhuman understanding,” and selfless concern for her family, as the hope for a better future.27 Matriarchy, divested of the threat of authority and domination over men, was a system that suited Steinbeck's purpose in this novel.

The Grapes of Wrath delineates the tragedy of an agrarian family in a world in which capitalist greed and the demands of rapidly advancing technology supersede human needs and extenuating financial circumstances. Different in their attitudes from other white groups who seek the American Dream in social and economic mobility, the hard-working Joads, once tenant farmers, now reduced to share-cropper status, lived contentedly on the land in a community of like others, for three generations. They asked little of anyone outside of their world. Solid Americans, as they understand that term, they wanted only to live and let live. For instance, oblivious to the implications of his racial politics, the tenant man proudly explains his family's contributions to the pioneer history of white America. His grandfather arrived in frontier Oklahoma territory in his youth, when his worldly possessions amounted to salt, pepper, and a rifle. But before long, he successfully staked out a claim for his progeny:

Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. … An we [the third succeeding generation] was born here. … And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then, but we stayed and got a little bit of what we raised.


Unfortunately, the irony of their helplessness in confrontation with the power of the banks, with the absent, large land owners, and with the great crawling machines versus the fate of the Indians (to the farmer, of no greater concern than the comparison he makes of them to snakes or weeds) completely escapes the present generation. The subsequent education in class politics might have come sooner and been less psychologically devastating to the Joads and their friends if they had been able to recognize the parallels between racial and economic hegemony.

Three characters drive the action in The Grapes of Wrath: Jim Casy, a country preacher turned political activist; Tom Joad, the eldest son, ex-convict, and moral conscience of the family; and the indestructible Ma Joad, who holds center stage. At times she assumes mythic proportions, but her portraiture is also realistic and she acts with wisdom. Impressionistically, she is firmly planted in the earth, but she is more dependable than the land, which could not withstand the buffeting of nature or the persistent demands of small farmers or the evil encroachment of technology and corporate power. Her position is established at the beginning of the novel:

Ma was heavy, but not fat; thick with child-bearing and work … her strong bare feet moved quickly and deftly over the floor. … Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a big calm and superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family.

(99-100—italics mine)

Unless she admitted hurt or fear or joy, the family did not know those emotions; and better than joy they loved her calm. They could depend on her “imperturbability.” When Tom, Jr., returns from prison to find no homestead, the house pushed off its foundations, fences gone, and other signs of living vanished, his first thought is “They're gone—or Ma's dead” (56). He knows that under no circumstances would she permit the place to fall into such ruin if she were there. His is not a casual observation, but a statement fraught with anxiety. As Nancy Chodorow points out, in the sex-gender system, the absent mother is always the source of discomfiture for her children. Tom Joad closely associates the physical deterioration of his home with a missing mother, a signal for him of the catastrophe of which he is yet unaware.28

There is no question that Steinbeck had, as Howard Levant stresses, “profound respect” and “serious intentions” for the materials in The Grapes of Wrath. His sympathies are with a group of people who, though politically and economically unaggressive by other traditional American standards, represented an important core in the national life.29 His portrayal of the misfortunes and downfall of this family constitutes a severe critique of a modern economic system that not only devalues human lives on the basis of class but, in so doing, that violates the principles of the relationship between hard work and reward and the sanctity of white family life on which the country was founded. In light of the brutal social and economic changes, and the disruptions of white family stability, there is no doubt that Steinbeck saw strong women from traditional working-class backgrounds as instrumental in a more humane transformation of the social structure. Of necessity, women are essential to any novel in which the conventional family plays a significant role. Here, he gives the same significance to the destruction of a family-centered way of life that one group had shaped and perpetrated for generations as he does to the economic factors that precipitated such a dire situation. Furthermore, through female characters in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's sensitivities to the values of female sensibilities demonstrate a point of view that supports the idea of humanitarian, large-scale changes that would make America, as a nation, more responsive to larger social needs.

In this respect, in spite of the grim reality of the lives of the Joads and their neighbors, The Grapes of Wrath is optimistic in favor of massive social change. We can trace this optimism from the beginning of the book, in which, unlike traditional plots of the naturalistic novels of its day, events unfold through the consciousness of the characters in such a way as to permit them to envision themselves exercizing free will and exerting influence on their social world. In addition, as a result of his economic politics, Steinbeck reinforces the idea that the situation is not the dilemma of an isolated family, but of an entire group of people of a particular class. If sufficiently politicized, they can and will act. The novel chronicles the misfortunes and political education of the Joad family, but they represent the group from which they come, and share the feelings of their like-others. For example, also at the beginning, an unnamed farmer, recognizing his individual impotence in the face of capitalism and the technological monster, protests: “We've got a bad thing made by man, and by God that's something we can change” (52—italics mine). While neither he nor his fellow farmers can comprehend the full meaning of that statement at the time, the end of the novel suggests that those who survive will come to realize that group action can have an effect on the monstrous ideology that threatens their existence. But first they must survive; and the women are at the center of making that survival possible.

The first mention of Ma Joad in the novel occurs when Tom, recently released from jail after serving four of a seven-year sentence for killing a man in self-defense, returns to the homestead to find it in ruin. During his absence, he had almost no contact with his family, for, as Tom observes to his friend Casy: “they wasn't people to write” (57). Two years earlier, however, his mother sent him a Christmas card, and, the following year, the grandmother did the same. His mother's appears to have been appropriate; his grandmother's, a card with a “tree an' shiny stuff [that] looks like snow,” with an embarrassing message in “po'try,” was not:

Merry Christmus, purty child,
Jesus meek an' Jesus mild,
Underneath the Christmus tree
There's a gif' for you from me.


Tom recalls the teasing of his cellmates who saw the card. Subsequently, they call him “Jesus Meek.”

Given the living situation within the Joad community—the hard work and frustration over the yield of the land and the absence of genteel rituals, especially in such hard times—the fact that both women sent Christmas cards to the incarcerated young man is testimony to the quality of their commitment to mothering. Gramma's card, however, is not appropriate for the young man confined involuntarily among men for whom only masculine symbols and behavior are acceptable. Nevertheless, Tom does not hold this against her. He understands and accepts her impulse and her motive. He believes she liked the card for its shiny exterior and that she never read the message, perhaps because, having lost her glasses several years before, she could not see to read. Symbolically, Granma may have good intentions, but she lacks the perception to fill successfully the present or future needs of her family. Later, when both grandparents die enroute to California, the family realizes that they were too old to make the transition from one way of life to another. On the other hand, although there is no mention of the nature of Ma Joad's card, we can assume that it was not a cause of embarrassment for her son. She is the woman of wisdom who knows how to use her talents to comfort her family in its moments of greatest distress. The differences in the two Christmas cards set the stage for understanding that Ma Joad is the woman who will be the significant force in the life of the family in the difficult times ahead.

Critics of Steinbeck's women often note that the first time we come face to face with Ma Joad she is engaged in the most symbolic act of mothering—feeding her family. I add that the second time we see her, she is washing clothes with her arms, up to her elbows, in soapsuds, and the third time, she is trying to dress the cantankerous grandfather who is by now incapable of caring for his own basic needs. Occurring in quick succession on a busy morning, these are the housewife's most important tasks: feeding the family, keeping them clean, and tending to the needs of those too young or too old to do so for themselves. In these earliest scenes with Ma Joad, the family is making its final preparations for the journey to California, and women's work not only goes on almost uninterruptedly, but increases in intensity. The adults, though full of apprehensions, have high hopes that steady work and a return to stability await them at the end of the trip. They have seen handbills calling for laborers to come to California to reap the harvests of a rich and fruitful land. They believe the handbills, for who would go to the expense of printing misrepresentations of the situation?

Although at all times the Joads have very little or almost no money; and, while in Oklahoma, no realistic appraisal of how long the trip to California will take in their dilapidated vehicle; and, in California, no assurances of how soon they will find work or a place to settle or know the nature of their future; an interesting aspect of Ma Joad's mothering psychology surfaces in different locations. On one hand, through most of the novel, she insists that her considerations are mainly for her family; on the other, she is willing to share the little food she has, to nurture whoever else is in need and comes along her way. We see this for the first time in Oklahoma, on first meeting her. Tom and his friend Casy arrive just as she completes the breakfast preparations on the day before the long, uncertain journey begins. Before she recognizes who they are, she invites them to partake of her board. Most notably, evidence of her largesse occurs again under more stressful circumstances, when she feeds a group of hungry children in California, although there is not sufficient food even for her family.

Another extension of Ma Joad's mothering precipitates her into a new and unaccustomed position of power within the family when she insists that Casy, with no family of his own, but who wishes to travel with them, be taken along. This is her first opportunity to assert herself outside of her housewife's role, to claim leadership in important decision making, whereas previously only the men officiated. Casy travels with the Joads only because Ma Joad overrides the objections of her husband, whose concerns for their space needs, and the small amount of money and little food they have, lead him to think it unwise to take an extra person, especially an outsider to the family, on the trip. Questioned on the matter, Ma replies:

It ain't kin we? It's will we? … As far as ‘kin,’ we can't do nothin', not go to California or nothin'; but as far as ‘will,’ why, we'll do what we will.


When the conversation ends, Casy has been accepted and she has gained new authority. She accepts this unpretentiously and with an absence of arrogance that will accompany her actions each time she finds it necessary to assert her will in the weeks and months ahead. And always, she asserts herself only for the good of the family. Two incidents that illustrate the group's understanding and acceptance of her wisdom and good judgment are especially noteworthy in this context. One occurs when the car breaks down during the journey and she refuses to agree to split up the family in order to hasten the arrival of some of its members in California. When her husband insists that separating is their better alternative, she openly defies him and, armed with a jack handle, challenges him to “whup” her first to gain her obedience to his will (230).30 The second incident takes place in California, when, after weeks of the groups' unsuccessful search for work and a decent place to settle down, she chides the men for capitulating to despair. “You ain't got the right to get discouraged,” she tells them, “this here fambly's goin' under. You jus' ain't got the right” (479).

But these situations, in which Ma's voice carries, also illustrate the tensions between men and women, in sex-gender-role systems, when women move into space traditionally designated to men. Each time Ma asserts her leadership she meets with Pa's resentment, for, regardless of her motives, he perceives that she usurps his authority. In the first instance, when Casy is accepted into the group, “Pa turned his back, and his spirit was raw from the whipping” her ascendancy represented to him (140). She, mindful of her role, leaves the family council and goes back to the house, to women's place, and women's work. But nothing takes place in her absence, the family waits for her return before continuing with their plans, “for she was powerful in the group” (140). During the trip (when Ma challenges Pa to “whup” her), after several suspenseful minutes, as the rest of the group watch his hands, the fists never form, and, in an effort to salvage his hurt pride, he can only say: “one person with their mind made up can shove a lot of folks aroun'!” (230). But again she is the victor and the “eyes of the whole family shifted back to Ma. She was the power. She had taken control” (231). Finally, in California, when Ma has her way once more in spite of Pa's opposition, and the family will move from a well-kept camp that had been a temporary respite from the traumas of the journey and their stay in Hooverville, but that placed them in an area in which they could find no work,

Pa sniffled. “Seems like times is changed,” he said sarcastically. “Time was when a man said what we'd do. Seems like women is tellin' now. Seems like it's purty near time to get out a stick.”


But he makes no attempt to beat her, for she quickly reminds him that men have the “right” to beat their women only when they (the men) are adequately performing their masculine roles.

“You get your stick Pa,” she said. “Times when they's food an' a place to set, then maybe you can use your stick an' keep your skin whole. But you ain't a-doin' your job, either a-thinkin' or a-workin'. If you was, why, you could use your stick, an' women folks'd sniffle their nose an' creep-mouse aroun'. But you jus' get you a stick now an' you ain't lickin' no woman; you're a fightin', 'cause I got a stick all laid out too.”


In each of the instances mentioned here, once the decision is made and Ma's wise decision carries, she returns to women's place and/or displays stereotypical women's emotions. After her first confrontation with Pa over Casy, she hastens to tend the pot of “boiling side-meat and beet greens” to feed her family. Following the second, after she has challenged Pa to a fight and wins, she looks at the bar of iron and her hand trembles as she drops it on the ground. Finally, when she rouses the family from despair, she immediately resumes washing the breakfast dishes, “plunging” her hands into the bucket of water. And, to emphasize her selflessness, as her angry husband leaves the scene, she registers pride in her achievement, but not for herself. “He's all right,” she notes to Tom. “He ain't beat. He's like as not to take a smack at me.” Then she explains the aim of her “sassiness.”

Take a man, he can get worried an' worried, an' it eats out his liver, an' purty soon he'll jus' lay down and die with his heart et out. But if you can take an' make 'im mad, why, he'll be awright. Pa, he didn't say nothing', but he's mad now. He'll show me now. He's awright.


Only once does Ma come face to face with the issue of gender roles, and the possibilities of recognizing women's oppression within the conventions of the patriarchal society, and that is in her early relationships with Casy, when, in her psychological embrace of him, he is no longer a stranger, or even a friend, he becomes one of the male members of the family. He thanks her for her decision to let him accompany them to California by offering to “salt down” the meat they will carry with them. To this offer, she is quick to point out that the task is “women's work” that need not concern him. It is interesting that the only crack in the ideology of a gender-based division of labor to occur in the novel is in Casy's reply to Ma, and his subsequent actions: “It's all work. … They's too much to do to split it up to men's and women's work. … Leave me salt the meat” (146). Although she permits him to do it, apparently, she learns nothing from the encounter, for it never becomes a part of her thinking. On the other hand, Casy's consciousness of the politics of class is in formation before we meet him in the novel and he is the only character in the book to realize that women are oppressed by the division of labor based on the differentiation of sex-gender roles.

If the wisdom that Steinbeck attributes to women directs Ma to step outside of her traditional role in times of crisis, as noted above, her actions immediately after also make it clear that she is just as willing to retreat to wifehood and motherdom. In this, she supports Steinbeck's championing of Briffault's theory that, in matriarchy, women do not seek to have authority over men. In her case, not even equality of place is sought, only the right to lead, for the good of the group, when her man is incapable of doing so. And Steinbeck suggests why women are better equipped to lead in time of great social stress: They are closer to nature and to the natural rhythms of the earth. When family morale is at its lowest point, Ma continues to nurture confidence: “Man, he lives in jerks—” she says, “baby born an' a man dies, an' that's a jerk—gets a farm an' loses his farm, an' that's a jerk.” But women are different. They continue on in spite of the difficulties. “Woman, its all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that” (577). In times of crisis, Steinbeck suggests, the survival of the family and, by extension, the social order, depends on the wisdom and strength of the mother, whose interests are always those of her husband and children.

The long trek from Oklahoma to California provides many instances that demonstrate Ma's selfless nurturing, her wisdom, her leadership abilities, and, above all, her centeredness in the family. An important illustration of the latter occurs at the time of the death of the grandmother on the long night in which the family makes an incredibly precarious desert crossing into California. Lying with the dead old woman all night to conceal this partially unforeseen mishap from the rest of the group, Ma Joad's only thought during the ordeal is: “The fambly hadda get acrost” (312). Alone with her secret of the true state of the old woman's condition, her considerations for the other members of the family, in this case particularly for the future of the younger children and for her daughter's unborn child, take precedence over the tremendous emotional cost to herself. Her determination to protect the family is almost ferocious, as she stands up to the officials at the agricultural inspection station on the California border to prevent them from discovering the dead woman by making a thorough check of the contents of the truck.

Ma climbed heavily down from the truck. Her face was swollen and her eyes were hard. “Look, mister. We got a sick ol' lady. We got to get her to a doctor. We can't wait.” She seemed to fight with hysteria. “You can't make us wait.”


Her apparent distress over the welfare of the old woman's health is convincing. One inspector perfunctorily waves the beam of his flashlight into the interior of the vehicle, and decides to let them pass. “I couldn' hold 'em” he tells his companion. “Maybe it was a bluff,” the other replied, to which the first responded: “Oh, Jesus, no! You should of seen that ol' woman's face. That wasn't no bluff” (308). Ma is so intent on keeping the death a secret, even from the rest of the group as long as their overall situation remains threatening, that, when they arrive in the next town, she assures Tom that Granma is “awright—awright,” and she implores him to “drive on. We got to get acrost” (308). She absorbs the trauma of the death in herself, and only after they have arrived safely on the other side of the desert does she give the information to the others. Even then she refuses the human touch that would unleash her own emotional vulnerability. The revelation of this act to protect the family is one of the most powerful scenes in the novel. The members of the family, already almost fully dependent on her emotional stamina, look at her “with a little terror at her strength” (312). Son Tom moves toward her in speechless admiration and attempts to put his hand on her shoulder to comfort her. “‘Don' touch me,’ she said. ‘I'll hol' up if you don' touch me. That'd get me’” (312). And Casy, the newest member of the family, can only say: “there's a woman so great with love—she scares me” (313).

In Steinbeck's vision of a different and more humane society than capitalistic greed spawned, he also believed that efforts like Ma Joad's, to hold the family together in the way she always knew it (individualism as a viable social dynamic), were doomed to failure. Although she is unconscious of it at the time, her initial embrace of Casy is a step toward a redefinition of family, and, by the time the Joads arrive in California, other developments have already changed the situation. Both Grampa and Granma are dead. Soon after, son Noah, feeling himself a burden on the meager resources at hand, wanders away. In addition, Casy is murdered for union activities; Al, whose mechanical genius was invaluable during the trip, is ready to marry and leave; Connie, Rose of Sharon's husband, deserts, and her baby is stillborn; and Tom, in an effort to avenge Casy's death, becomes a fugitive from the law and decides to become a union organizer, to carry on Casy's work. Through these events, first Tom, and then Ma, especially through Tom's final conversation with her, achieve an education in the politics of class oppression, and realize that the system that diminishes one family to the point of its physical and moral disintegration can only be destroyed through the cooperative efforts of those of the oppressed group. “Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody,” Ma is forced to admit toward the end of the novel (606).

But, although the structure of the traditional family changes to meet the needs of a changing society, in this novel at least, Steinbeck sees “happy-wife-and-motherdom” as the central role for women, even for those with other significant contributions to make to the world at large. Ma Joad's education in the possibilities of class action do not extend to an awareness of women's lives and identities beyond the domestic sphere, other than that which has a direct relationship on the survival of the family. The conclusion of the novel revises the boundaries of that family. In this scene, unable physically to supply milk from her own breasts to save the old man's life, she initiates her daughter into the sisterhood of “mothering the world,” of perpetuating what Nancy Chodorow calls “The Reproduction of Mothering.” Ma Joad is the epitome of the Earth Mother. Critics note that Steinbeck need give her no first name, for she is the paradigmatic mother, and this is the single interest of her life. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century metaphor of the fecund, virgin American land (women) gives way to that of the middle-aged mother (earth), “thick with child-bearing and work,” but Steinbeck holds onto the stereotypical parallels between woman and nature. In our typical understanding of that word, Ma may not be happy in her role, but “her face … [is] controlled and kindly” and she fully accepts her place. Having “experienced all possible tragedy and … mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm,” she fulfills her highest calling in the realm of wife and motherdom.


  1. I borrow from a phrase in Elizabeth Janeway's Man's World, Woman's Place (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1971), p. 151.

  2. See Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1978), p. 9.

  3. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1976).

  4. See Note 1.

  5. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Motherhood: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1978).

  6. Hester Eisenstein, Contemporary Feminist Thought (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983).

  7. Eisenstein, p. 7. This is a point of view also expressed by almost all feminist critics.

  8. Janeway, p. 13.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Chodorow, p. 9.

  11. Janeway, pp. 192-208.

  12. Chodorow, p. 179.

  13. Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North California Press, 1975), p. 4.

  14. Kolodny, pp. 5-9.

  15. Ibid., p. 9.

  16. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Peter Lisca, ed. (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 147. Subsequent references to this work are taken from this text.

  17. See the scenes in which Ma Joad explains the conditions under which wives will allow themselves to be beaten without fighting back: pp. 230, 479.

  18. Robert Briffault, The Mothers: The Matriarchal Theory of Social Origins (New York: Macmillan, 1931). Cited from Warren Motley, “From Patriarchy to Matriarchy: Ma Joad's Role in The Grapes of Wrath, American Literature, Vol. 54, No. 3, October 1982, pp. 397-411.

  19. Mimi Reisel Gladstein, The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Research Press, 1986), p. 79.

  20. Peter Lisca, The Wide World of John Steinbeck (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1958), pp. 206-7. Quoted from Sandra Beatty, “A Study of Female Characterization in Steinbeck's Fiction,” in Tetsumaro Hayashi, Steinbeck's Women: Essays in Criticism (Muncie, IN: The Steinbeck Society of America, 1979), p. 1.

  21. Even though this is the prevailing opinion among critics of Steinbeck's women, I repeat it here to emphasize my basic agreement with this reading of the female characters. Steinbeck, like many male authors, sees a close link between woman as mother, nature, and the American land.

  22. Gladstein, p. 76.

  23. Sandra Falkenberg, “A Study of Female Characterization in Steinbeck's Fiction,” in Steinbeck Quarterly, Vol. 8 (2), Spring 1975, pp. 50-6.

  24. Howard Levant, “The Fully Matured Art: The Grapes of Wrath,” in Modern Critical Views edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), p. 35.

  25. Joan Hedrick, “Mother Earth and Earth Mother: The Recasting of Myth in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath,” in The Grapes of Wrath: A Collection of Critical Essays, Robert Con Davis, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: G. K. Hall, 1982), p. 138.

  26. Motley, p. 398.

  27. Ibid., p. 405.

  28. Chodorow, pp. 60-1.

  29. See Kolodny, pp. 26-28 for an account of the high regard men like Thomas Jefferson had for the small farmer. In spite of the benefits of large-scale farming, he advocated the independent, family-size farm, and believed that those who tilled the earth gained “substantial and genuine virtue.”

  30. Ma Joad's challenge to her husband is that she be “whupped,” not beaten. A woman may be beaten if her husband thinks she deserves it, and she accepts it without resistance. To be whipped indicates that she will fight back, and that he must win the fight in order to claim that he has whipped her.

Stephen Railton (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Railton, Stephen. “Pilgrims' Politics: Steinbeck's Art of Conversion.” In New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath, edited by David Wyatt, pp. 27-46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Railton contends that The Grapes of Wrath is about change at its most fundamental—biological and organic—level.]

The Grapes of Wrath is a novel about things that grow—corn, peaches, cotton, and grapes of wrath. From the start Steinbeck identifies his vision of human history with organic, biological processes. A recurrent image is established in the first chapter, when the drought and wind in Oklahoma combine to uproot and topple the stalks of corn. In Chapter 29, the last of Steinbeck's wide-angle interchapters, it is the rain and flooding in California that “cut out the roots of cottonwoods and [bring] down the trees” (589). Tragically, even human lives are caught in this pattern of being pulled up from the soil. Farmers are made migrants. Forced to sell and burn all of their pasts that won't fit onto a homemade flatbed truck, they too are uprooted, torn from their identities. Right alongside this pattern, however, Steinbeck establishes a second one: that of seed being carried to new ground, new roots being put down. This image is announced in Chapter 3. The turtle who serves as the agent of movement in that chapter has attracted a lot of commentary from the novel's critics, but Steinbeck's main interest is not in the turtle. Chapter 3 is organized around seeds, all “possessed of the anlage of movement” (20). The turtle simply continues on its way, but by involuntarily carrying one “wild oat head” across the road, and accidentally dragging dirt over the “three spearhead seeds” that drop from it and stick in the ground (22), the mere movement of the turtle becomes part of the process of change and growth.

The Grapes of Wrath is a novel about an old system dying, and a new one beginning to take root. Movement, to Steinbeck, including the movement of history, works like the “West Wind” in Shelley's ode. It is “Destroyer and preserver” both; it scatters “the leaves dead” and carries forward “The winged seeds.” The system that is dying we can call American capitalism, the roots of which had always been the promises of individual opportunity and of private property as the reward for taking risks and working hard. Steinbeck makes it more difficult to name the new system that is emerging from the violent ferment of the old system's decay. It is certainly socialistic, yet a goal of the novel is to suggest that a socialized democracy is as quintessentially American as the individualistic dream it will replace. “Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin” he writes in Chapter 14 (206)—this list would confound a historian, but it is meant to reassure the American reader by linking socialism with our own revolutionary tradition. That was one reason for his enthusiasm about the title his wife found for the novel. He wanted the whole of Julia Ward Howe's fighting song printed as a sort of preface, because, he wrote his editor at Viking.

The fascist crowd will try to sabotage this book because it is revolutionary. They try to give it the communist angle. However, The Battle Hymn is American and intensely so. … So if both words and music are there the book is keyed into the American scene from the beginning.

(L [Steinbeck: A Life in Letters] 174)

At the same time, by tying his novel of history to the rhythms and laws of nature, the growth of seeds, the fermenting of grapes, Steinbeck tries to suggest that this coming American revolution is inevitable, organically decreed. The western states sense “the beginning change” with the nervousness of “horses before a thunder storm” (204); on the road west, separate families “grew to be units of the camps” (265; my italics).

These repeated biological locutions allow the novelist to assume the role of a Darwinian prophet, reading the political future instead of the natural past. Revolution is made to seem as inexorably sure as evolution. The novel is simply recording the process. Yet this quasi-scientific stance, while it helps account for the authority with which Steinbeck's prose tells his story, belies the real engagement of the book. Critics have accused Steinbeck of being wrong, because the drastic social change he apparently predicted never took place. But he knew better than that. If he had himself believed the stance his narrative adopts, he would have written a much less brilliant book, for the novel owes its power to Steinbeck's urgent but painstaking intention to enact the revolution he apparently foresees. Even his assumption of change is part of his strategy for creating it. And Steinbeck knew what he was up against. Despite his desire to make his vision seem “American and intensely so,” he undertakes the task of radically redefining the most fundamental values of American society. The novel uproots as much as the forces of either nature or capitalism do, though far more subtly. And, ultimately, there is hardly anything natural about the kind of change—“as in the whole universe only man can change” (267)—that Steinbeck is anxious to work. Supernatural probably describes it more accurately. Nor is change the right word for it, although it's the one Steinbeck regularly uses. The Grapes of Wrath is a novel about conversion.

You and I, the novel's readers, are the converts whom he is after. Working a profound revolution in our sensibilities is his rhetorical task. His chief narrative task, however, is to recount the story of the Joads' conversions. Thematically, Route 66 and the various state highways in California that the Joads travel along all run parallel to the road to Damascus that Saul takes in Acts, or to the Way taken by Bunyan's Christian in Pilgrim's Progress. The problem with the way most readers want to see that turtle in Chapter 3 as an emblem of the Joads is precisely that it denies their movement any inward significance. Steinbeck finds much to admire in the Joads and the class of “the people” whom they represent, including the fierce will to survive and keep going which they share with that turtle, but he explicitly makes the capacity for spiritual regeneration the essence of humanity. That humans can redefine the meaning of our lives is what makes us “unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe” (204). Con-version—to turn around, to turn together—is a metaphysical movement. This is the route on which Steinbeck sets the Joads. For, as much as he finds to admire in them, he also knows that before American society can be saved from its sins, “the people” will have to change, too.

Thus there is a tension between the novel's rhetorical and its narrative tasks. Steinbeck is writing about the migrant families, not for them; their lives have no margin, either of income or leisure, for reading novels. He is writing for the vast middle class that forms the audience for best-selling fiction, and one of his goals is to educate those readers out of their prejudices against people like the Joads. As soon as they reach California, the Joads are confronted by the epithet “Okie,” and the attitude that lies behind it: “‘Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. … They ain't a hell of a lot better than gorillas’” (301). As victims of such prejudice, and of the economic exploitation that it serves to rationalize, the migrants are treated with nothing but respect by the novel. Steinbeck takes pains not to prettify their earthiness, but the whole book is a testimony to their immeasurable human worth. By bringing his readers inside the life of an “Okie” family, and keeping them there for so many hundreds of pages, Steinbeck writes as an advocate to the migrants' claims on America's understanding, compassion, and concern. That he does this largely by letting the Joads' lives and characters speak for themselves is one of the novel's great achievements.

As his letters from the winter of 1938 reveal, Steinbeck's decision to write the novel was precipitated by his own firsthand encounter with the thousands of dispossessed families who were starving in the valleys of California. At first he could only see the migrants as victims: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this” (L 161), by which he meant “the fascist group of utilities and banks and huge growers” (L 158). There is no mistaking the element of moral indignation in the novel he started that spring; although they never appear directly in it, the novel treats the large landowners as unequivocally, allegorically evil. But he had gotten beyond his first reaction to the plight of the migrants by deepening his insight into the causes of their exploitation. Although it can be misread as one, The Grapes of Wrath is not a morality play in which the virtues of the people contend with the viciousness of the “huge growers.” The source of the economic injustices that drought and Depression magnified so drastically is in the values that the Joads themselves initially share with their oppressors in California.

Perhaps the truest thing about the novel is its refusal to sentimentalize the life in the Midwest from which the Joads and the other families they meet have been dispossessed. When their dream of a golden future out West is destroyed by the brutal realities of migrant life in California, the past they left at the other end of Route 66 appeals to them as the paradise they have been driven from. When the novel winds up at the Hooper Ranch, the place seems as infernal as Simon Legree's plantation in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The armed guards, the filthy conditions, the edge of outright starvation on which Hooper Ranches, Inc., is content to keep the pickers—Steinbeck does want to expose this as one of the darkest places of the earth. At no point in the novel do the Joads feel further from “home,” but Steinbeck also wants us to see how much Hooper's farm in California has in common with the Joad farm in Oklahoma that Tom had been trying to get back to at the beginning.

There is, for instance, a wire fence around both farms. The Joads didn't really need a fence, Tom tells Casy, but “‘Pa kinda liked her there. Said it give him a feelin' that forty was forty’” (39). And Pa got the wire by taking advantage of his own brother. That is Steinbeck's point; that is what both fences delimit. We hear just enough about the Joads' earlier life in Oklahoma to recognize that they lived on their forty acres with essentially the same narrowly selfish values as Hooper on his much larger orchard. The Sooners took their land by force from the Indians, just as the large owners in California took theirs from the Mexicans. In both places, what prevailed was the “right” of the strongest—or say, the greediest. The Joads even stole the house they are evicted from. Grampa hangs onto the pillow he stole from Albert Rance with the same fierceness that the owners display in defense of their ill-gotten profits. Steinbeck's antagonist in the novel is not the group of large owners, but rather the idea of ownership itself. It is at the Hooper Ranch that Ma, on the verge of despair, grows most sentimental about the past:

They was the time when we was on the lan'. They was a boundary to us then. Ol' folks died off, an' little fellas come, an' we was always one thing—we was the fambly—kinda whole and clear.


Given what the Joads have been through since leaving home, it is impossible not to sympathize with her nostalgia. But finally, for Steinbeck, any kind of boundary—whether it's drawn around forty acres or forty thousand, around a family or a class—is wrong. And it is “the quality of owning” that builds boundaries, that “freezes you forever into ‘I,’ and cuts you off forever from the ‘we’” (206).

Yet if owning separates, dispossession becomes the basis for a new unity. If one set of values is being uprooted, that prepares the ground for another to develop. On the one hand, the westward journey of the Joads is a moving record of losses: their home and past, Grampa and Granma's deaths, Noah and Connie's desertions. The sufferings inflicted on the family bear witness not only to their strength of character, but also to the evils of the social and economic status quo. Their hapless pursuit of happiness indicts and exposes the America they move across. Steinbeck forces his reader to suffer even more steadily. Ma has a sudden moment of insight on the road west when she “seemed to know” that the family's great expectations were “all a dream” (225), but, for the first half of the novel at least, the Joads are sustained by their dreams. The reader is denied any such imaginative freedom. While most narratives are organized around some kind of suspense about what will happen next, The Grapes of Wrath is structured as a series of inevitabilities. Each of the book's wide-angle chapters precedes the Joads, and in them we see the tenant farmers being tractored off before Tom comes home to an empty house, or the new proletariat being exploited before the Joads even begin to look for work, or the rain flooding the migrant camps before the Joads try to battle the rising water. Again and again what will happen next is made narratively inescapable. “I've done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags,” Steinbeck wrote about the novel (L 178). It is a good technique for a protest novel. The narrative enacts its own kind of oppression, and, by arousing in its readers a desire to fight this sense of inevitability, it works strategically to arouse us toward action to change the status quo.

On the other hand, however, the journey of the Joads is also an inward one. And there the same pattern of losses is what converts their movement into a pilgrimage toward the prospect of a new consciousness. As in Bunyan's book, homelessness and suffering become the occasion of spiritual growth. In several of the interchapters Steinbeck describes this process: “The families, which had been units of which the boundaries were a house at night, a farm by day, changed their boundaries” (267). They expand their boundaries. Having lost their land, the migrants' minds are no longer “bound with acres” (268); their new lives, their very losses, lead them toward the potentially redemptive discovery of their interrelatedness, their membership in a vastly extended family—the “we.” In the novel's main narrative, Steinbeck dramatizes this process; near the very end, Ma sums up the new way she has learned to define her life: “‘Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody’” (606).

As an interpretive gloss on the meaning of her pilgrimage, however, Ma's pronouncement is much too pat. Simply quoting it denies Steinbeck the credit he deserves as both a novelist and a visionary. Again as in Bunyan's book, Steinbeck's faith is neither simple nor naive. Ruthie and Winfield, the youngest Joads, remind us how innately selfish human nature is. In his representation of their naked, nagging need for place and power, Steinbeck looks unflinchingly at the fact that “mine” is always among the first words an infant speaks. Similarly, Grampa and Granma are too old to learn to redefine themselves. The disruptions, the losses by which the others' assumptions are broken up, in the same way that a field has to be broken before new seed can be put into it, kill them both. Even with the other Joads, Steinbeck admits a lot of skepticism about whether they can be converted. Although Pa has become a victim of the capitalist system, it seems unlikely that he could ever abandon the economics of self-interest. As Tom tells Casy on the other side of the fence around the Hooper Ranch, it wouldn't do any good to tell Pa about the strike Casy is trying to organize: “‘He'd say it wasn't none of his business. … Think Pa's gonna give up his meat on account a other fellas?’” (524).

Steinbeck here allows Tom, in his blunt vernacular voice, to ask the novel's most urgent question. The American Dream of individual opportunity has clearly betrayed “the people,” but can they plant themselves on a different set of instincts? Can they redefine their boundaries? When he looks at the horrors of the migrants' plight, he knows that the answer is—They must. When he writes in the interchapters as an analyst of American society, the answer is—They will. But the narrative of the Joad family deals with specific people, not analytical abstractions. And their story, while it leads to the birth of the new “Manself” that Steinbeck sees as the only hope for a failed nation, tells a different story. Its emphasis is on how long and hard, and finally private, is the labor by which that New Man will be delivered into the world. Shortly after beginning the novel, Steinbeck wrote his agent that “The new book is going well.” But then he added, “Too fast. I'm having to hold it down. I don't want it to go so fast for fear the tempo will be fast and this is a plodding, crawling book” (L 167). One reason for the book's length is Steinbeck's appreciation of the almost insurmountable obstacles that lie on the path between “I” and “we.” And time alone cannot accomplish the birth of a new sensibility. It will also require a kind of violence. As Casy replies to Tom in their exchange about Pa, “‘I guess that's right. Have to take a beatin' 'fore he'll know’” (524). Even that turtle in Chapter 3 gets hit by a truck before the seeds it carries fall into the ground.

The threat of violence hangs over the land Steinbeck is surveying from the outset, when the evicted sharecroppers wonder whom they can shoot to save their farms. In Howe's hymn, of course, “the grapes of wrath” are immediately followed by that “terrible swift sword,” and in those places where Steinbeck's prose rises to its most oratorical pitch, it seems to predict a second American civil war with all the righteousness of an Old Testament prophet: “three hundred thousand—if they ever move under a leader—the end. Three hundred thousand, hungry and miserable; if they ever know themselves, the land will be theirs and all the gas, all the rifles in the world won't stop them” (325). Yet such passages never ring quite true. They seem to be another of the rhetorical strategies by which Steinbeck is trying to work on the sensibilities of his readers: To their sympathy for the dispossessed he adds this appeal to their fear of what driven people might resort to. Organized, militant action is not at the center of Steinbeck's program for apocalyptic change. His concern is with consciousness. That is where the most meaningful revolution must occur. Even physical violence matters chiefly as a means to spiritual change.

It is because Steinbeck's emphasis is on inward experience that Jim Casy, a supernumerary as far as most of the book's action is concerned, is central to its plot. Casy's presence is what allows Steinbeck to dramatize his concern with consciousness. At the beginning, Steinbeck gives him a head start on the Joads. They are looking to start over in California; although they have lost their home and land, they still hang on to their belief in the American Dream. Casy, however, is looking to start anew. He has already lost the faith in the Christian values that had given meaning to his life, and is self-consciously questing for a new belief, a new cause to serve. He remains a preacher—long after he has rejected the title, the narrative continues to refer to him as “Reverend Jim Casy” and “the preacher”—but cannot find the Word he should announce. In much the same passivity as the novel's reader, he watches and absorbs the meaning of the Joad's attempt to carry their lives and ambitions westward. His first, indeed his only decisive action in the narrative itself is precipitated by an act of violence. In the Bakersfield Hooverville, a migrant named Floyd hits a deputy sheriff to avoid being arrested for the “crime” of telling the truth; when the deputy pulls his gun, Tom trips him; when he starts shooting recklessly into the camp, Casy knocks him out—it is worth noting the details because this same sequence will recur at the Hooper Ranch. In describing this action, Steinbeck's prose departs from its usual syntactic straightforwardness to signal its significance: “and then, suddenly, from the group of men, the Reverend Casy stepped” (361). His kicking the deputy in the neck is presented as an instinctual reflex, and his actions, here, and subsequently when he gives himself up to the deputy to save Floyd and Tom, speak a lot louder than any words he uses, but Reverend Casy has at last found a cause to serve.

That cause can be defined as the “group of men” he steps from, but it is also here that Casy disappears from the narrative for 150 pages. In this case Steinbeck refuses to allow his story to get ahead of itself. The exemplary significance of Casy's self-sacrifice is barely registered by the Joads, who still feel they have their own lives to live. And Casy himself cannot conceptualize the meaning of his involuntary action, or the values of the new faith he commits his life to, until later. When he reappears at the Hoover Ranch, he tries to explain it to Tom:

“Here's me, been a-goin' into the wilderness like Jesus to try to find out somepin. Almost got her sometimes, too. But it's in the jail house I really got her.”


What he got in jail could be called an insight into the moral logic of socialism: that the greatest evil is human need, and that the only salvation lies in collective effort. Although the novel is deliberately vague about how Casy came to be at the Hooper Ranch, and what his role is in the strike there, we could see his new identity in strictly political terms: Like the strike organizers Steinbeck had written about in In Dubious Battle, Casy has committed himself to the cause of Communist revolution. As a fundamentalist preacher in Oklahoma, he had aroused and exhorted crowds to feel the operation of grace, and save their individual souls; as a left-wing strike organizer in California, he is teaching the migrants to organize and act in the interests of their class. But, at this crucial point, the novel complicates its message by keeping its focus on spiritual rather than political concerns. The individual soul retains its privileged position. For Casy's actions at the Hooper Ranch speak much less resonantly than his words, and the revolutionary change they bring about occurs inwardly.

Steinbeck brings Casy back into the narrative at this point to complete Tom Joad's conversion. Tom is the novel's central pilgrim. The book begins with his attempt to return “home.” This works a nice inversion on Pilgrim's Progress, for Bunyan's Christian must choose to leave home before he can begin the path that leads to salvation. Tom has no choice; economic and natural forces have already exiled him from “home” before he can get there. In both works, however, the quest ultimately is for “home.” For Bunyan, of course, the spirit's true home is in eternity, while all the action of Steinbeck's novel is set in this world. It is through this world that Tom moves to find a new home; it is still in this world that he finds it. But it is nonetheless a spiritual dwelling place that he finds. Tom chooses to leave his family at the end of his pilgrimage; almost the last thing he says before disappearing from the story is that Ma need not worry about where to find him:

“Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain't got a soul of his own, but on'y a piece of a big one—an' then—”

“Then what, Tom?”

“Then it don't matter. Then I'll be all aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where—wherever you look.”


Wherever the people are—that is Tom's new home. All the boundaries around his self have dissolved. In this communion with the world soul, Tom finds a freedom that merely being paroled from prison could never provide, and a meaning that living for himself or for his family could never have bestowed upon his acts. By losing himself—to use the phrase that would have been equally familiar to Bunyan's readers and Casy's revivalist congregations—he has found himself.

As Tom's last conversation with Ma repeatedly acknowledges, Casy was the agent of his conversion. It is Casy's words (“like Casy says”) and Casy's mystical presence (“Seems like I can see him sometimes” [572]) that show Tom the way that leads to his being's true home. But this conversion is only accomplished painfully, through another act of violence that indicates how much of Tom's old self must be destroyed before the exemplary New Man that he embodies can be born. Twice in Tom's last conversation with “the preacher,” Casy asks him if he can't “see” the revelation that Casy has seen in the jail house, and that he is trying to realize at the Hooper Ranch. “No,” Tom replies both times (521, 522), not because he is stupid, but because he has always lived within the boundaries of self-interest. As Casy had predicted about Pa, Tom, too, has to take a beating before he can know. Within a few minutes of this discussion, Tom is literally clubbed in the face. The more important “beating,” however, occurs in the realm of Tom's spirit. In a scene that mirrors the moment of Casy's conversion at the Hooverville, Tom witnesses Casy's death at the hands of the “deputies” who have come to break the strike. It is out of the violent trauma of this act of witnessing that Tom's new self begins to emerge.

Steinbeck, using a club of his own, makes it impossible for the reader (who is also witnessing this violence) to overlook the scriptural power of Casy's life and death. His likenesses to Christ are established at the start, when a man with the initials “J. C.” departs for California with twelve Joads. Not only does Casy die as a martyr: twice he tells the men who are about to kill him that they know not what they do (cf. 527). As if these cues were not enough, immediately after he dies one of the vigilantes says, “‘Jesus, George. I think you killed him’” (527). And, as if even this were not enough, Ma has Tom repeat Casy's last words, then repeats them herself:

“That's what he said—‘You don' know what you're doin'’?”


Ma said, “I wisht Granma could a heard.”


The most devoutly Christian of the Joads, Granma presumably would have taken the most pleasure from the preacher's appropriation of the Word. But, for all this, Steinbeck insists that we understand Casy's death and its implications in ways that Granma never could, unless she were willing to throw off her old self as well. For if it is easy to note how Christlike Casy is, especially in death, it is crucial to note how un-Christian, anti-Christian are the values to which his death converts Tom.

As others have noted, The Grapes of Wrath contains many echoes of and allusions to the Bible. Yet the novel never wavers on the point that Casy's rejection of Christianity makes at the very start. Throughout the book Steinbeck returns to Christianity only to attack it. He exposes and condemns the several “Jesus-lovers” whom the Joads meet, the Salvation Army as a Christian relief agency, the preachers who teach Christlike submission to Caesar. One of the ways that Ma is made to change in the course of her pilgrimage is by replacing her acquired faith in God and the next world with the belief in the people and in this life that she gradually learns from Casy. Who shall inherit the earth is among the book's most urgent questions, but Steinbeck has no patience with the idea that it shall be the meek. In his last talk with Ma, Tom's vernacular sums up the novel's displacement of Christianity, citing scripture to the end that Steinbeck has consistently had in mind:

“most of the preachin' is about the poor we shall have always with us, an' if you got nothing', why, jus' fol' your hands an' to hell with it, you gonna git ice cream on gol' plates when you're dead. An' then this here Preacher says two get a better reward for their work.”


This “Preacher” is Solomon, whose words in Ecclesiastes Steinbeck converts into a socialist manifesto. Much like Melville in “The Try-Works” chapter of Moby-Dick, Steinbeck is using “unchristian Solomon's wisdom” to carry his readers beyond the New Testament to a new revelation. Christianity itself is another evil that must be uprooted. And Casy's death not only completes his apotheosis by being paired with Christ's; it also violently repudiates the legacy of the Crucifixion. The strike breakers may not know what they're doing, but Casy doesn't ask anyone to forgive them for that reason. His death may be a martyrdom, but Tom's immediate, instinctive reaction to it is neither to love his enemies nor to turn the other cheek, but to murder the man who killed Casy.

It is surprising how little notice Tom's act of violence has gotten from the novel's commentators. In a sense, Tom's crime here is a more enlightened act than the murder he had gone to prison for before the novel begins. There he had killed to defend himself. Here he kills to avenge and defend an idea—the idea that Casy and the strike at Hooper's represent. His readiness to fight and kill for this larger concept is a measure of the spiritual distance he has traveled in the course of his pilgrimage. Like Casy's stepping forth at Bakersfield to knock out the deputy. Tom's involuntary action indicates his preparedness to take the final leap into the kingdom of spirit he attains at the end. But still, Tom's act is a brutal murder. He hits “George” four times in the head with a pick handle. Steinbeck hardly expected it to pass unnoticed. “Think I'll print a forward,” he wrote about the novel, “warning sensitive people to let it alone” (L 168). He may even have been comparing himself as a writer to Tom's savage reaction when he added: “It pulls no punches at all and may get us all into trouble.”

Once we have noticed all this, however, it is by no means easy to know what to make of it. While he was writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck apparently needed to disguise even from himself how skillfully the novel works to convert rather than confront the sensibilities of his audience. “I am sure it will not be a popular book” he wrote (L 172), not long before it zoomed to the top of the best-seller lists. He was writing a “revolutionary” novel fueled by his own wrath at the moral and economic horrors of contemporary America; such a work had to be “an outrageous book” (L 172). Yet his deeper need was to reach “the large numbers of readers” (L 172) he expected to outrage. His very ambitions as a prophet of social change depended on being read by the widest possible audience. His handling of Tom's murderous action epitomizes his own divided intentions. Tom's action aggressively defies the laws of both society and the New Testament. At the same time, Steinbeck makes it incredibly easy for his reader to accept Tom's act. Immediately afterward, he retreats to the shack on the ranch, and as soon as possible he confesses his crime to the whole family. When he and his mother are left alone, he goes over the event again, and Ma—who for 500 pages has stood for love and compassion—Ma unhesitatingly absolves him of any wrongdoing: “‘I can't read no fault on you’” (535). By returning the “murderer” to the bosom of his family, and having him shriven by his own mother, Steinbeck domesticates his deed. In one respect, he disarms it of its radical power. In another, though, he uses it to further his task of radicalizing his audience's sensibilities: The reader who remains sympathetic to Tom has already been made, subliminally, an outlaw from the values of American society and the New Testament. Our willingness to harbor Tom, to continue to identify him as the book's moral hero, is a measure of our preparedness for conversion to a new vision of the truth.

We could explain Steinbeck's use of biblical typology along the same lines, as a purely rhetorical strategy. “Large numbers of readers” could not be expected to endorse militant socialism. Instead, Steinbeck shrewdly insinuates his revolutionary vision by presenting it in the familiar guise of Christianity. Just as Casy's quest carries him from the fundamentalist's Bible to a Marxist reading of Ecclesiastes, so Steinbeck's choice of Casy as the narrative agent of revelation allows the novel to find a middle ground between the conventional American's old allegiances and Steinbeck's newer testament. There would be nothing inherently wrong with such a device. Every novel of purpose must make some compromises with its audience if it wants to reach and move them. Yet explaining Steinbeck's affinity for the Bible this way would never get to the heart of his novel. His use of Christianity is more than strategic. For the private, inward operation of grace is as fundamental to his vision as it is to St. Paul's or Bunyan's.

To the doctrinaire socialist, meaning is found in collective action. Steinbeck offers his version of that ideal in his descriptions of the government camp at Weedpatch where the Joads stay for a month after being driven out of the Hooverville. The camp has a wire fence around it, too, but it only matters when the forces of capitalism try to destroy the communal harmony of the camp. The novel presents life in the camp as a Utopian but practicable antithesis to the selfishness that rules on both the Joad farm and the Hooper Ranch. In the camp happiness is pursued by owning things jointly, sharing responsibilities, making decisions by democratically elected committees. The camp's weekly square dances provide the book's most attractive image of a communal society: The music belongs to no one individual; the dancers obey the calls in unison and joy. It is not an accident that the Growers' Association and its hired reactionaries try to discredit the camp by disrupting a dance. That episode allows Steinbeck starkly to polarize the two worlds, within the camp and without: There's harmony and expression inside, violence and exploitation outside. He may in fact have meant for this portrayal of men and women acting collectively to occupy the center of the book's moral ground. But, if so, he complicates his own values by reintroducing Casy into the narrative, and shifting the drama back inside Tom's consciousness. He also betrays his misgivings about collective action as redemptive in the book's only other extended account of it. This occurs in the final chapter, when Pa convinces another group of migrants to work together to build a dam to save their campsites from the rising floodwater. Not only do their efforts fail; although they work frantically through the night with as much unison as those square dancers, their shared labor brings them no closer to true unity, no nearer to the “we,” than they had been before. To recognize and act collectively in the interests of the group, it seems, is not enough. Indeed, since the men remain divided and bitter after the failure of their dam, it seems that collective action in itself is meaningless.

Instead, what the novel presents as most meaningful are Casy's and Tom's conversions: the purpose and inner peace that each man finds, not in acting with others, but in “feeling” or “seeing” his oneness with all. Casy, presumably, is acting at Hooper's to organize the strike—but it is telling that the novel has no interest in elaborating such a role. Tom at the end does tell Ma what he aims to do: “‘What Casy done,’ he said” (571)—but again, what that means is left extremely vague, although Tom goes on to talk in eloquent detail about what he will be as the disembodied spirit of the people. The novel's two most important events, if we can call them events, actually occur in private—to Casy in jail, and to Tom while he's hiding out after killing the vigilante. Still more striking is the fact that both these “events” occur entirely outside the narrative. It is offstage, in solitude, alone with his own consciousness that each man somehow arrives at the new faith that Steinbeck is preaching to us, becomes the New Man who can redeem the waste land. Thus Steinbeck offers an essentially religious and mystical solution to the economic and political problems that inspired him to write the novel in the first place. For when we compare the rapturous accents of Tom's last speech with Ma to Pa's futile efforts to organize the migrants to battle circumstances together, we're left with the conclusion that people merely working together cannot succeed—while one person who has experienced unity with the “big soul,” whatever he or she does, cannot fail. Despite the narrative's persistent attention to external forces—natural, historical, economic, social—it ultimately points to what its own representation excludes, to an inward “act” of consciousness or spirit, as the only place the revolution can begin. And once Tom has been brought “home” to this sense of selflessness, it seems that the revolution is effectively over as well.

Of course, Tom's climactic scene with Ma, although it does bring the novel's central pilgrimage into Steinbeck's version of the Celestial City, is not the end of the story. Tom's apotheosis is followed by two additional moments of conversion, both of which are brought on by another kind of violence: the death in birth of the baby that Rose of Sharon has been carrying through the novel. Death in birth, in keeping with the pattern of uprooting and planting, destruction and new growth, leads to birth out of death. The first conversion is Uncle John's, and it occurs when he goes out into the rain to bury the stillborn infant. Up until this moment, John has been crippled by the guilt he has felt since his wife's death many years ago. But now, having been pushed around by the American economic system and knocked down by the floodwaters, John reaches a higher state of consciousness. With the wrath of an inspired Biblical prophet, he sends the dead baby down the flood as a judgment and curse on the society that produced it. In the swirling waters he has been cleansed of more than his guilt; he's been freed entirely from his fundamentalist Christian's sense of sinfulness; he's been politically radicalized. It is not he who is damned, but the nation.

Like Tom's unforgiving reaction to Casy's death, John's conversion from guilt to wrath is Steinbeck's way of insisting that his faith is a newer testament. To be saved, the nation needs to be converted, yet it will have to leave Christianity as well as capitalism behind. The novel's very last scene tries to build a bridge between the realm of spirit, where individuals find their home, and the world of action, where men and women can help each other; it redresses the imbalance of Tom's story, where the emphasis had been almost entirely on faith, by adding to that a doctrine of works. Thematically the novel's last scene is perfect. It is the moment of Rose of Sharon's conversion. Out of the violent loss of her baby (which she has “witnessed” with her whole body) comes a new, self-less sense of self. When she breastfeeds the starving stranger who would otherwise die, a new, boundary-less definition of family is born. Rose of Sharon's act is devoutly socialistic: from each according to ability, to each according to need. At the same time, the novel's last word on this scene, which is also the novel's last word, is “mysteriously”—a word that has no place in Marx's or Lenin's vocabulary. The scene's implications are as much religious as political. Iconographically, like Casy's death, this tableau of a man lying in a woman's lap both recalls and subverts the familiar imagery of Christianity. By calling our ultimate act of attention in the novel to the look of “mysterious” satisfaction on Rose of Sharon's face, Steinbeck keeps this scene in line with his focus on the private, inward, ineffable moment of conversion. Yet here we also see how that inner change can lead to redemptive action. The barn in which this scene takes place is not only “away in a manger”; it is also halfway between the social but bureaucratic world of the government camp and the spiritual but solitary state that Tom found while hiding out in the bushes. And what happens in this barn triumphantly completes the novel's most pervasive pattern: One family has been uprooted and destroyed; out of those ruins, another, a new one, takes root. Manself can change, and by change can triumph over the most devastating circumstances.

For all its thematic aptness, however, this ending has been widely condemned. I can certainly understand why adolescent readers, especially young women, are uncomfortable with the picture of a teenage girl suckling a middle-aged, anonymous man. We can see Steinbeck's divided attitude toward his readers at work in this scene too: He gives them an ending that is essentially happy, but also disturbing. I frankly find it harder to see why adult critics have singled out this particular scene to object to. Rose of Sharon's conversion does not occur more suddenly than Tom's or John's—or, for that matter, than Saul's on the road to Damascus. The scene is unquestionably sentimental, but Steinbeck's most dramatic effects are invariably melodramatic—Ma sitting with Granma's corpse across the desert, Casy's death, Tom's valedictory eloquence, the anathema John pronounces with a dead baby in his arms. The novel could hardly have the impact it does on most readers without these unlikely, outsized gestures. For that matter, almost all novels of protest try to pluck the reader's heartstrings, and homelessness and hunger in a land of plenty is an inarguably legitimate cause in which to appeal to people's emotions. Steinbeck's editors at Viking were the first readers to object to the ending. Refusing to change a word of it, he defended it on the grounds of “balance” (L 178). I find it a strange but powerful tribute to Steinbeck's faith in selflessness as the one means by which men and women can transcend their circumstances in a world that is otherwise so harshly and unjustly determined. I think it would be less powerful if it were any less strange.

In any case, whether the novel's last scene is esthetically successfully is probably not the most important question to ask. Having seen the starving migrants in the valleys of California, and determined to write a novel in response to that human fact, Steinbeck was shocked out of his modern assumption that art mattered more than life. At the end of a letter from the winter of 1938, recording in horrified detail his own reaction as a witness to the sufferings of the migrant families, he wrote: “Funny how mean and little books become in the face of such tragedies” (L 159). He wrote the novel in the belief to which the trauma of seeing the homeless, wretched families had converted him: that American society had to change, quickly and profoundly. This then leads to the largest question raised by the novel's several endings. Is conversion the same as revolution? Can the re-creation of society be achieved by an individual's private, inner, spiritual redefinition of the self?

That Steinbeck believed it could is the most “intensely American” aspect of the novel. “Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin”—those names are relevant to his vision, but the tradition to which The Grapes of Wrath belongs is best identified with a different list: Winthrop, Edwards, Emerson, Whitman. Steinbeck's emphasis on inner change as the basis of social salvation has its roots in the Puritan belief that the New Jerusalem is identical with the congregation of converted saints, and in the Transcendentalists' credo that, as Emerson put it, “The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty is solved by the redemption of the soul.” Harriet Beecher Stowe, as the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, has to occupy an especially prominent place on that list. Her great protest novel is also organized around movement as both a means to expose social evil and as the pilgrimage of the spirit toward home. And when Stowe, in her last chapter, sought to answer the many aroused readers who had written to ask her what they could do to solve the terrible problem of slavery, her response was, “they can see to it that they feel right.” It is in this ground that the seeds of Steinbeck's revolution must also grow. Tom and Rose of Sharon at last feel right when they have redefined themselves as one with the people around them. Steinbeck oppresses and exhorts, threatens and inspires, shocks and moves us to bring us each, individually, to the same point of communion.

Ultimately, of course, people's feelings are all that any novelist has to work with. Even if Steinbeck had gone on to specify exactly what Tom will do to realize the vision of human unity that he has attained, Tom could never act in the real world. He can only act on the reader, as Casy's example acted on him. Hiding out in the bushes or reading The Grapes of Wrath both occur in private. Any change that the novel might make in American society will have to happen first in the consciousness of its readers. But this doesn't answer the question raised by Steinbeck's politics of consciousness. The origins of the evils that the novel decries are, as many of the interchapters insist, social and economic. They result from patterns of ownership, margins of profit, lack of security, and the other characteristics of a capitalistic system with a dispossessed proletariat to exploit. Can anything but a social revolution change that system? Pilgrim's Progress, like the sermons Casy preached before losing his original faith, is about getting to heaven; that kind of salvation depends upon inner change. But Steinbeck wants to save the nation from its sins. Babies like Rose of Sharon's are dying because of social inequalities and economic injustices. Can the private, spiritual birth of a New Man or a New Woman—the unrecorded “event” that the novel leaves at the center of its narrative and its vision—affect that?

David N. Cassuto (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Cassuto, David N. “Turning Wine into Water: Water as Privileged Signifier in The Grapes of Wrath.” In Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney Jr., pp. 55-75. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Cassuto argues that the farmers' move from east to west—and the ultimate failure of this move—in The Grapes of Wrath is an “indictment” of the American myths of the garden and the frontier as places of refuge and unlimited potential, and that these myths surrounding the American West have historically created ecological disaster.]

Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free.

—Henry David Thoreau

The Old Testament describes wilderness as “a thirsty ground where there was no water.” When the Lord wished to punish, He threatened to “turn the rivers into islands and dry up the pools and … command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” When granting redemption in Isaiah, God promises instead that “waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert” and that “the desert and dry land shall be glad” (Deut. 8:7, 15; Isaiah 5:6, 35:1, 6, 43:20). The Garden of Eden provided the antithesis of desert wilderness, a place where water flowed freely and bounty of all sorts lay ready to spring out of the ground. This is the legacy that spawned what Henry Nash Smith termed the “myth of the garden” in the American West. At the dawn of the common era, John offered Jesus his baptism in the river Jordan. Two millennia later, Casy baptized Tom Joad in an irrigation ditch.

I will argue that The Grapes of Wrath represents an indictment of the American myth of the garden and its accompanying myth of the frontier. The lever with which Steinbeck pries apart and ultimately dismantles these fictions is a critique of the agricultural practices that created the Dust Bowl and then metamorphosed into a new set of norms that continued to victimize both the land and its inhabitants. Both nineteenth-century homesteading (based on the Homestead Act of 1862) and agribusiness, its twentieth-century descendant (born from the failure of the Homestead Act), relied on the (mis)use of water to accomplish their respective goals. And both policies resulted in ecological disaster.

The Plains were called upon to supply grain for the international war effort in 1914 and to feed a hungry nation whose population continued to multiply exponentially. Throughout the nation, industrialization held sway as the isolationism of the nineteenth century gave way to the globalism of the twentieth. These transitions required great expenditures of resources, and, in the grain belt, the resource most in demand was water. As farmers poured their short-term profits back into land and seed, their fates depended ever more on the availability of water. When the climatic pendulum swung back toward aridity, Plains farmers had to declare hydrological bankruptcy, though neither they nor the federal government would abandon the myth of the garden. As the government scrambled to dam rivers and force water into the desert, farmers clung fast to their vision of uncountable abundance amid a green world.

Water was a commodity, symbol of wealth and expanding capabilities. Admitting its unattainability involved acknowledging the limited productive capabilities of the land. Such an admission also meant conceding the limitations of the nation and its people, a prospect that remained anathema to a culture steeped in the dominant myths. Myra Jehlen notes that “the conviction that farming brought reason and nature together (since man and nature had the same reasons) inspired cultivation … but made it particularly difficult, in fact, contradictory to contemplate basic changes in agrarian policy” (73). Instead of abandoning the American dream, the dream itself underwent an ideological shift. The myth of the garden remained intact, but its form evolved from an Edenic Xanadu to a neo-Baconian Atlantis that no longer awaited manna from heaven but wrested it instead from the grips of Nature.

Water's primacy as both commodity and signifier in the Southwest arose through a combination of its scarcity and utility. Its privileged place in the biotic schema predates its commodification by the state and corporate apparatus, but the two forces are by now inseparable in the history and mythology of the American West. The social and environmental conditions in the Southwest made water an ideal unit of exchange, and this led to its concurrent fetishization. As Gregory Jay characterizes commodity fetishism, “Capitalism structures symbolic exchange so as to elicit desire, manipulate its character, and teach it to find sublimity in prescribed objects” (167). Since water is necessary to human biology, in an arid region a dominant state apparatus would need to expend relatively little effort to transform water into a commodity whose scarcity would privilege it as well as its controllers. Once established as a commodity, any item of exchange value acquires symbolic value, connoting power and wealth and thereby enhancing the prestige of its possessor. In this sense, water becomes not just a measure of economic value but a culturally powerful symbol as well.

The class stratification depicted in The Grapes of Wrath arose from corporate control over the region's most precious resource. The region's aridity, however, made water an absent signifier. Both in the novel and in the desert itself, water's conspicuous absence is what makes it so powerful. The flooding that climaxes the novel is thematically situated to provide maximum counterpoint to the drought that originally forced the Joads to migrate west. Disenfranchised and dehumanized, the Joads can only curse the rising floodwaters even as they once prayed for a deluge to feed their parched crops.

The cycle of alienation appears complete; people whose humanity was once integrally tied to the land and the weather now care nothing for the growing season or the health of the earth. Their survival has come to depend on shelter from the elements rather than the elements themselves. They have become components of the factory-farming process, economically distant from their bourgeois oppressors but closely tied to the industrial ethos that rewards the subjugation of nature. The primary difference between the growers and the migrants now lies in their respective relationships with the privileged signifier. The growers—owners of the irrigation channels, centrifugal pumps, and watertight mansions, control it—while the Okies, starving and drenched, are at its mercy.

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck presents an archetypal Plains family caught in the modernization of the American dream. Forced to adapt to the realities of a closed frontier and a desert in the country's midsection, Americans retrofit their dominant myths to encompass corporate capitalism and, in so doing, accept water's scarcity and preeminence as commodity in the western region. This shift in ideology completed the antiquation of the Joads' way of life. Ecological realities had long ago proven their lifestyle quixotic, but it took the formidable alliance of the Dust Bowl and corporate agribusiness to dislodge the Okies from their land and homes. Later in his life, Steinbeck returned to criticize the America-as-Eden myth by writing East of Eden, a novel whose very title suggests alienation from paradise. It is in The Grapes of Wrath, however, that he is most concerned with the hydrological causes for that estrangement.

Steinbeck acknowledges water's primacy in the West by documenting the social ramifications of the ideology that permits its monopolization and waste. At the same time, his abiding affection for the yeoman agricultural ideal forms a strong undercurrent throughout the novel. Donald Worster believes that this nostalgia comes at the expense of a coherent critique of the water-based oligarchy primarily responsible for the ecological demise of the Southwest and its accompanying human suffering (Worster, Rivers of Empire 1985, 229). While Worster's criticism has substantial merit, it fails to address the symbolic power attached to water that pervades the novel. From the drought in Oklahoma to Noah's refusal to leave the river in Arizona to the raging floodwaters that climax the text, Steinbeck weaves water into the novel's structure as well as virtually every thematically significant event in the novel.

This tendency to privilege water, either by absence or surfeit, appears frequently in the Steinbeck canon. Of Mice and Men, for example, opens and closes on the banks of a river; The Log from the Sea of Cortez, showing a fascination with tide pools, offers the clearest presentation of Steinbeck's ecophilosophy; and The Wayward Bus, like The Grapes of Wrath, uses floodwaters in the desert to spur its characters to action and the acquisition of wisdom. That in The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck chose to stress his affection for the yeoman tradition rather than explicitly condemn modern hydraulic society does not detract from the book's acknowledged success in subverting that same hydraulic apparatus. The reactions of the state and federal governments to the book's publication as well as that of the oligarchy-controlled media clearly demonstrate the novel's effectiveness. Vehement condemnations of the book and its author followed shortly after its publication in 1939 and continued for years afterward. That the most vociferous denunciations came from the water barons and their political allies demonstrates that, contrary to Worster's contention, Steinbeck did indeed understand the politics of water use and that his novel attacked it successfully.1


Water's dominance in the cultural and agricultural hierarchy of the arid region is neither new nor surprising. Not just in the Hebrew Bible but throughout history, the habitability of any region has traditionally been determined by the availability and accessibility of its water. The Spanish explorers who first traversed the Southwest deemed it an inhospitable wasteland, unfit for human settlement except by those savages already content to scrape an existence from the unforgiving rock. American trailblazers including Lewis and Clark and Zebulon Pike held little hope that the arid region could sustain American settlements (Reisner 1986, 20). Such criticism, however, quickly disappeared in the storm of patriotism that surged through the new United States. Parallel visions of world dominance and transcendental bonding with nature created a unique blend of ideologies that sought simultaneously to sustain an extractive economy and an unspoiled, untrammeled frontier. Not till near the turn of the twentieth century did the inexorable collision of these visions loom close enough to draw the notice of the nation's policymakers. The resulting tension between ecosystemic requirements and the modes of production caused a “transformation in consciousness and legitimating worldviews,” a phenomenon Carolyn Merchant has termed an “ecological revolution” (5).

American history shows that people traditionally settled the Plains during periods of high rainfall. When the rains subsided to typical levels, people retreated or pressed on. But by the 1920s, the frontier was closed and Americans had bought solidly into the notion that technology and God would see to it that the Great Plains became the agricultural capital of the world. Unable to accept that meeting the grain demands of a global market economy in a region where annual rainfall fluctuated between seven and twenty inches made little ecological sense, Dust Bowl residents lashed out at the weather, believing it caused their woes. There was not enough water, they complained; the weather had failed them. Such an argument is analogous to blaming the mint for not making people enough money. I do not mean to belittle the very real human tragedy of the Dust Bowl or to deny the nobility of many of those who suffered through it. Nevertheless, the Dust Bowl's ecosystemic catastrophe was both avoidable and remediable except that neither option was palatable to the region's residents (Worster 1979, 28). It is precisely this sort of stubborn adherence to traditional values while implementing ecologically pernicious agricultural methods that brought on the “dirty thirties.”

Early in the novel, Steinbeck establishes the fundamental conflict between the yeoman farmer and the land and then diagrams the imperialist maneuverings of corporate agribusiness:

Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow a little money. An' we was born here … our children born here. And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then. … Sure cried the tenant men, but it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were even born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours. … That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.

( TGOW [The Grapes of Wrath] 34-35)

The above passage reveals several of the guiding principles governing life in the Plains. First, the term “bad year” refers to inadequate rainfall and an accompanying water shortage, a cyclical reality of Plains life that formed one of the bases for the collapse of the yeoman lifestyle. Second, right of ownership was established through displacing the native peoples. That act in and of itself constituted (in the farmer's eyes) a right of title. Last, birthing and dying on the land created a blood right of succession that no financial transaction could negate. And most important, working the land formed the litmus test of possession. The quotation reveals the teller's sadness that the laws of the country conflict with the laws of the land. The agrarian ideology held that only those who work and love the land can truly own it: “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. … Even if he isn't successful he's big with his property” (39). Such feelings descend directly from the dual myths of the frontier and the garden. The frontier myth posited that land in the West was uninhabited by anybody with legal rights and that the strength of the nation lay in its boundless and unsettled western frontier.2 The myth of the garden held that the land would yield bountiful harvests to any American willing to work it. Rain would fall in direct proportion to the farmer's needs. Any failure in these natural laws was necessarily transitory and had no lasting relevance. This supposed law of nature was disproven by the Okies' experiences in both Oklahoma and California. After a prolonged drought revealed the unsustainability of their farming methods and drove them from their homes, the wet/dry cycle in California nearly caused their demise.

Not only did meteorological laws conflict with the yeoman belief system, the Okies also found their way of life colliding with the policies of a nation committed to corporate capitalism. While for agrarians land constituted a part of themselves and their culture—something for which the term “market value” lacked a referent—banks and corporations translated it into assets on a balance sheet. Where the Joads spoke of “bad years,” account managers acknowledged the reality of sparse rainfall and a semiarid climate. Historical climatic patterns decreed that “bad years” for rainfall were the norm for the Plains, a fact that made tenant farmers a poor investment. For banks, it became a matter of short-term profit at any cost. Years of drought and over-reliance on nutrient-draining cash crops had left the land ecologically devastated. Those keeping accounts looked to squeeze out every vestige of production before abandoning it for more lucrative investments: “But you'll kill the land with cotton. We know. We've got to take cotton quick before the land dies. Then we'll sell the land. Lots of families in the East would like to own a piece of land” (34). The sight of faceless corporate “monsters” intentionally destroying the land's fertility moved the tenants to violence. Yet the Joads and their neighbors had often planted cotton and were at present sharecropping in a frenzy so as to build up a stake to take west: “The whole bunch of us chopped cotton, even Grampa” (90). The differences between the Okies and the banks lay more in scale and philosophy than methodology and eventual result. Both sides participated in the capitalist mechanism, but the banks had better adapted to thrive within it.

Mining the land of nutrients and leaving it for dead demonstrate a new, production-oriented allegiance to the frontier myth. Treating the nation's breadbasket as an expendable resource necessarily assumes an infinite resource reservoir from which to replace it. Short-term profiteering, by its very nature, posits that the future will take care of itself. Such a position depends on a telos of inexhaustible plenty, a concept central to the frontier and garden myths. This pattern of behavior again shows that the onset of the Industrial Age and accompanying supremacy of corporate capitalism did not eradicate the dominant myths but simply adapted them to twentieth-century exigencies. Richard Slotkin offers an intriguing explanation for this transition. He argues that the systems of myth and ideology that developed in this country depended on a positive association with physical migration that revolved around two geographical poles: the “Metropolis” and the “Frontier.” The Metropolis must have a negative association or no one would want to leave, while the Frontier needs to offer riches enough to satisfy all of our dreams. Emigrants suffer in the wilderness while temporarily regressing to a more primitive state. The results, though, more than compensate for the ephemeral loss of civilization's comforts: “The completed American was therefore one who remade his fortune and his character by an emigration, a setting forth for newer and richer lands; by isolation and regression to a more primitive manner of life; and by establishing his political position” (Slotkin 1985, 35).

This discussion offers striking parallels to the Joads' saga. Slotkin's analysis takes the city, or the “Metropolis,” as the emigrant's point of departure, but we can substitute the Dust Bowl region without interfering with the argument. Since the trappings of the Industrial Revolution came late to the Plains, the region lacked the large, mechanized urban areas that pose such an effective antipode to the wilderness frontier. Instead, mechanization and factory farming—both consequences of industrialization—provided the major impetus that drove families like the Joads from their homes. In the Dust Bowl, wage slavery and the specter of starvation resulting from technological and economic displacement offered the negative contrast to the frontier. Not present was the traditional coupling of those factors with the dense population centers that characterized urban industry. The Okies' choices, in Steinbeck's view, were either to drive a tractor through their neighbors' homes while raping the land with machinery and cash crops or to leave.

When they attempted to settle in California, the geographical border of the once limitless frontier, they found themselves wage slaves on a privatized corporate fiefdom. Once more the Okies suffered primitive, dehumanizing conditions while attempting to exercise their supposedly inalienable human rights. The growers' cartel, however, had disenfranchised them even before they arrived, forcing them into a nomadic existence designed to destroy the homesteading instinct so central to the Frontier Myth.

Despite uncountable acres lying fallow, no land was available for the Okies, a reality Steinbeck often demonstrates (TGOW 225). Their dreams of subsistence farming were fundamentally incompatible with the market economy that allowed a select few to grow vastly wealthy from the toil of disenfranchised adherents to the old American dream. What ultimately kills Casy and exiles Tom is—just as in Slotkin's paradigm—an urgent desire to participate in the political process. They do not succeed, for the moment, because the growers' control over water rights allows them complete dominion over the local government and media. I will discuss this phenomenon at greater length later in the essay. Its relevance here stems from water's role in the third major cause for the Okies' westward migration: inadequate irrigation and a perceived drought.


Steinbeck's humanistic bent impelled him to focus on the human side of the agricultural morass that drove the Okies west. The underlying motivation for both the Okies' behavior and that of the agribusiness concerns, however, can ultimately be analyzed in hydrological terms. Rainfall in the Southwest in the 1930s fell well within historical norms; cycles of drought are more common than periods of heavy rain. Drought did not cause the Dust Bowl—a more accurate description of the region's troubles should instead focus on the Depression and local agricultural mismanagement. The Depression, though, did not seriously affect the Great Plains until the onset of the Dust Bowl. If local farmers had been able to continue planting and harvesting cash crops at the rate they had in the 1920s, the Plains might have escaped the worst of the Depression. Unfortunately, by the end of the decade, they had borrowed heavily and expanded their acreage to maximize annual yields. When the crops failed and the “black blizzards” came, the national plague of poverty and joblessness infected the Plains states as well.

By the 1930s, Plains farmers had plowed under virtually all the region's grasslands. Without sod and other vegetation to hold the topsoil in place, the land became extremely vulnerable to ecological disturbance. When the drought hit, the land had no natural defenses with which to keep its topsoil intact. The resulting dust storms stripped the land bare. Yet if the region had retained its indigenous vegetation, the drought would have had little long-term effect on the land. Profit-oriented agriculture and ecological ignorance turned a cyclical shortfall of water into a disaster.

High-yield monoculture is a dubious ecological proposition even in humid regions, but in the Southwest such methods become disastrous (Worster 1979, 13). When Grampa Joad cleared the land and put it to plow, he hoped to fulfill the traditional yeoman ideal. Barring precipitation shortfalls, the average homestead proved more than adequate for subsistence farming. The region could not, however, sustain the rigors of a capitalist-based agriculture, a task that the metamorphosis of the American dream soon demanded. Steinbeck condemns what he sees as a dissolution of the values so cherished by the people who settled the region. Reverence for the land became obsolete with the ascension of factory farming.

The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died.

(TGOW 38)

Steinbeck mourned this change in values but could offer no viable solutions. Even as they cursed the technology that drove them west, the Okies traveled in cars bought through the trade of their mules and watched with sadness as tractors did their work in a fraction of the time. The Okies formed the pivot for the western land's transition from earth mother to degraded resource. As the yeoman ideal gave way to the wages of capitalism, the Okies adapted their methods to meet the parameters of a market-based economy. Even as they clung tenaciously to their preindustrial, terrestrial reverence, they grudgingly accepted the new dominance of the capitalist shift. Muley Graves, unable to relinquish his ties to the land, cannot go with his family when they move west. Rooted to the place where he was born, Muley rages against the dual inequity of bad land and evil bankers: “‘Cause what'd they take when they tractored the folks off the lan’? What'd they get so their margin a profit was safe? … God knows the lan' ain't no good. … But them sons-a-bitches at their desks, they just chopped folks in two. … Place where folks live is them folks. They ain't whole, out lonely on the road in a piled-up car. Them sons-a-bitches killed them” (TGOW 55).

For Muley, the link with the land still stained with his father's blood is stronger than his ties to wife and family. He cannot leave even as he acknowledges that he is a living anachronism (“You fellas think I'm touched?”). Sadly, Muley's protestations held little weight with a population caught up in the quasi-divine status allowed them by technological advance. It did not matter if the land was poor because human ingenuity could and would transform it. No longer need the land yield forth its bounty; it will instead be mined and harvested. Modern agriculture provided the means to merge Henry Adams's classic juxtaposition of the dynamo and the virgin. Through this synthesis, the earth ceased to be a virgin and became a wife.3 Similar phenomena occur often both in the American landscape and in the literary corpus. The masculine, aggressive machine assaults and reshapes the idyllic, feminine landscape (Leo Marx 1976, 29).

As farmers were forced more and more to mistreat their holdings, they degraded the land further to sexual plaything and chattel. This ideological evolution progressed naturally from the dominant myths.4 As industrialism began to dominate the West, the accompanying mindset fit a unique niche in the American dream of rugged individualism and merit-based achievement.

Bacon, anticipating the Industrial Revolution, advocated reclaiming Eden through industry and science; a century later, Americans embraced the challenge as their destiny.5 Westerners could reclaim the garden, but doing so involved literally “reclaiming” their place in paradise through diligence and industry. Men would finish what Nature had begun. Eden, ideologues hastened to point out, was after all an irrigated garden. Adam fell; Americans will stand tall. The Reclamation Act of 1902 established the Bureau of Reclamation, intending to fulfill Powell's credo of “rescuing” and “redeeming” the land from its arid state. The true meaning of the word “reclamation” lost all significance in the technological assault on the region's hydrology. The verb “to reclaim” infers prior ownership; the people seeking to irrigate the desert could make no such claim. Nevertheless, whatever needed to be done would be done to get water to the land and restore it to its imagined, bountiful state.6 Any water that ran into the sea without serving some agricultural purpose was “wasted,” a Providential oversight correctable through human diligence.

Denying the hydrological realities of the Southwest while modernizing the dominant mythology permitted Westerners to reject the implication that all is not within the grasp of any perspicacious American. Henry Luce's Time magazine trumpeted the rediscovered limitlessness that irrigation technology brought to the frontier: “Irrigation experts are now convinced that the rapidly growing U.S. can expand indefinitely within its present boundaries” (qtd. in Worster, Rivers of Empire 1985, 266). This quotation is pregnant with the contradictions inherent in the American and specifically western dream of infinite abundance. The notion of indefinite expansion within acknowledged boundaries is fundamentally self-contradictory. Attributing this ability to accomplish the impossible to the calculations of irrigation experts beautifully underscores the incongruities within western water policy. Western land barons relied on irrigation to accomplish the impossible and ignored or destroyed anyone or anything that interfered with their pursuit of that grail. The Joads and their contemporaries were ill equipped for the ramifications of the growers' zeal. They clung fast to traditional yeoman values even while participating in the market economy. Caught between two worlds, they could not linger in Oklahoma and set out instead for the land where corporate growers had remanufactured the traditional Myth of the Garden to entice exodusters westward.

As they traversed the migrant highway, the Joads met many who, like themselves, had readily believed the leaflets spread by agents of the California growers. “Why, I seen han'bills how they need folks to pick fruit, an' good wages. … An' with them good wages, maybe a fella can get hisself a piece a land an' work out for extra cash. Why, hell, in a couple a years I bet a fella could have a place of his own” (TGOW 160). That the Great Plains could no longer sustain the yeoman ideal did not necessarily spell the death of the American dream for a dispossessed people, barely literate and ready to jump at any hope of salvation. The California growers' cartel, already enmeshed in a cycle of wage slavery, remained convinced that additional workers could only lengthen their profit margins. They recruited Dust Bowl refugees with promises of a vast, temperate paradise wherein they might re-create the homesteads they had been forced to leave.

This new myth of the garden presented an even more seductive exterior than the Plains by adapting the Jeffersonian ideal to a region where husbandry was allegedly secondary to the munificence of nature. Grampa, before becoming overwhelmed by his attachment to the land on which he had cleared and raised his family, fantasized about bathing in a washtub full of grapes where he would “scrooge aroun' an' let the juice run down my pants” (100). But this vision of unchecked abundance was less a cultural phenomenon than a calculated product of the growers' propaganda mills. The agribusiness consortia dangled visions of their own wealth and massive landholdings before the Okies in order to fuel their (the cartel's) hegemony. And the irony of that vision, as Steinbeck depicts it, is that the growers were as alienated from their land wealth as they forced the Okies to be: “And it came about that the owners no longer worked their farms … they forgot the land, the smell and the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it. … And the owners not only did not work the farms any more, many of them had never seen the farms they owned” (TGOW 257).

The California growers had become immensely wealthy and powerful as the result of an uneasy but mutually profitable alliance with the Bureau of Reclamation.7 Having already incarnated themselves in the image of the new garden that depended heavily on the tools of the technocracy to subdue the land, they looked to consolidate their holdings by enacting the Social Darwinism that fueled their telos of industry. They had managed to consolidate the dual definitions of “garden” into one highly profitable vision of production and wealth. No longer could “garden” signify either a region of natural, providential splendor or an area of human-created agrarian abundance (Leo Marx 1976, 85); the Edenic garden propounded by Gilpin and his nineteenth-century allies was completely replaced by its opposing Baconian definition of a human-engineered paradise achieved through work and intellect. Humans—specifically men—had invented the tools necessary to subjugate nature. Those tools had brought water to the desert via centrifugal pumping and, more important, through the diversion of rivers.

By shaping the perceived objectivity of science to fit the needs of western agriculture, an elite group's control over the dissemination of knowledge led to dominion over the region's geography (Foucault 1980, 69). The men whose schemes created this technological garden stood to profit most from its enactment, and it was they who formed the powerful growers' cartel that enslaved the migrants. Those who controlled the water controlled the entire regional economy, and that domination bled into every other facet of life.

Californian agribusiness's command over nature required large temporary workforces, while the capitalist regime demanded that this transient labor force be paid very little. The growers had traditionally indentured immigrants and other disenfranchised groups because little public outcry arose from their mistreatment. Still, the arrival of the Okies, a large, skilled, English-speaking labor force whose migrant status left them bereft of any governmental protection, appeared to be a tremendous windfall to the growers' cartel. In the novel, however, the latent power of the oppressed becomes the looming threat to the water-based oligarchy as the Okies come to embody Marx's concept of alienated labor (Karl Marx 1964, 69). Their corporate oppressors force them to work ever harder and faster in order to eke out subsistence, yet each hour worked and each piece of fruit harvested bring them that much closer to unemployment and starvation. They must further compete against each other by underbidding fellow workers in a futile attempt to participate in an exclusionary economic system. Conversely, growers must dehumanize the workers, degrading them as they do the land so that their acts of subjugation can be perpetrated on objects beneath contempt.8 In In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck treats the worker/grower relationship as a matter strictly related to class struggle. In The Grapes of Wrath, he elevates it to the realm of epistemology, viewing the schism between workers and land barons as symptomatic of the larger issue of human alienation from the earth and as a catalyst for the synthesis of humans and their surroundings into the all-encompassing organismic one (Benson, True Adventures 1990, 268-69). “Three hundred thousand, hungry and miserable; if ever they know themselves, the land will be theirs. … And the great owners, who had become through their holdings both more and less than men, ran to their destruction, and used every means that in the long run would destroy them” (TGOW 263).

The cycle of poverty imposed on the Okies contained a seasonal period of starvation during the rainy season. Water again, this time through superabundance, became the immediate threat to the Okies' survival. When Rosasharn goes into labor, the men outside labor frantically to erect a dam to keep the boxcar shelters dry. Water, priceless commodity and building block of life, endangers the birthing process and threatens to starve an entire class of people. Both attempts—the birth and the dam—are unsuccessful. As the floodwaters force the Joads to flee, Uncle John is assigned the task of burying the stillborn child. Rather than do so, he coopts the water, using it and the dead child to spread his message of despair and defiance: “Go down an' tell 'em. Go down in the street an' rot an' tell em that way. That's the way you can talk. … Go on down now an' lay in the street. Maybe they'll know then” (494). Driven from Oklahoma, where widespread refusal to acknowledge water's scarcity resulted in an unsustainable way of life, the Okies found themselves in a new region with an already intact and sophisticated capitalist infrastructure with water at its plinth. As a disenfranchised and powerless class, the migrants had no opportunity to gain control over water rights and consequently could not participate in the dominant discourse. John's act represented an ephemeral yet powerful appropriation of the preeminent unit of capital. Using water to convey a message of worker defiance strikes at the heart of the power structure: if the Okies were to gain actual control over the region's water, the growers' cartel would collapse. Legions of migrants could then seize power and redistribute the land according to need and fairness.

The dual hopes for the migrants, according to Steinbeck, are class alliance and worker control over the tools of domination. When Tom takes over the task of organizing the Okies from the martyred Casy, the class struggle takes a symbolic step forward. When Uncle John seizes control over the waters that enslave his people and threaten their lives, he takes another major step toward toppling the ruling class. Shortly after Uncle John's act of defiance, Rosasharn's gift of her maternal milk to another starving Okie demonstrates that both Tom's and John's acts will eventually bear fruit. Sheltered from the water by a barn, itself a potent symbol of the yeoman agricultural ideal, Rosasharn, by offering her breast to a fellow migrant, demonstrates the class cohesion that will ultimately topple the ruling class. While her stillborn infant rots in the town below, Rosasharn breastfeeds an old man whose advanced state of starvation has caused him to regress to a prelingual state. Her act and the old man's condition represent the succoring of the infant movement toward social change. Each act, while primarily symbolic, is also genuinely subversive. In these small acts of defiance and hope, suggests Steinbeck, lie the restoration of traditional ties between people and between people and the land. So despite their socialization into a culture in which water is both hoarded and feared, the Okies have not completely acquiesced to their role in the factory-farm mechanism. They retain their dreams of an idyllic land where the family farm reigns supreme and water and land are distributed according to need and connectedness to the land rather than according to amassed corporate capital and political dominance.

In the final analysis, however, the migrant dream of resurgent family farms reclaiming their place as the preeminent agricultural ideal cannot work in the arid lands. Water reclamation projects, because of their expense and complexity, require the participation of an elite, educated class. The projects therefore become political pawns. The family farmer, allied with a subsistence ideology and unwilling to exploit the land past its carrying capacity, cannot compete with wealthy, powerful corporate interests. For this reason, the novel, though hopeful, does not offer any quantifiable hope. Worster identifies this lack of an attainable goal as the novel's major failing. Decrying the system of land distribution without explicitly condemning the accompanying hydrological autocracy leads to the specious conclusion that simply putting the land in the hands of the migrants will solve the region's agrarian morass. In a section of Rivers of Empire titled “The Grapes of Wealth,” Worster argues: “Nowhere in The Grapes of Wrath does Steinbeck draw attention to the elaborate hydraulic apparatus that has been required to create the California garden. … Grapes, carrots, cotton and the like are the products, it would seem, of spontaneous nature, not the contrivances of advanced water engineering and the social organization it has required” (229). Because Steinbeck failed to acknowledge the inherent oligarchic nature of irrigation-based societies, he creates the false impression that equitable land distribution and a classless society will return the region to ecological stability. Historically, there are no precedents for this vision being realizable. In fact, returning the family farm to the arid region without altering the national capitalist infrastructure will, given the Plains example, cause devastating ecological harm.

Worster's critique does raise the problematic issue of Steinbeck's unrepentant affection for the family farm but does not, as I mentioned earlier, address the powerful critique of hydraulic society implicit in the novel's structure.9 That he used water throughout the novel as an absent signifier suggests that Steinbeck was well aware of its power and complicity in the region's power hierarchy. When, at the novel's end, Steinbeck suddenly introduces water as a tangible presence and powerful symbolic force, it empowers the migrants by demonstrating their class cohesion and latent strength. Structuring the novel in this manner permitted Steinbeck to criticize the extant hydraulic society more effectively than he could through overt polemics. Indeed, the novel's reception, both locally and nationally, bears witness to its powerful subversive nature, a fact that underscores the most crucial flaw in Worster's argument. If the novel caused both the government and the nation at large to reevaluate federal irrigation subsidies for corporate growers, clearly it must have effectively criticized the inequity and corruption infusing California's water-appropriation schema.

The migrants' struggle became a national cause célèbre, and the novel's verisimilitude was debated at the highest levels of government.10 The Hearst-Chandler-Copley yellow press pilloried the novel and its author throughout California. Only after a Life magazine exposé and Eleanor Roosevelt's endorsement of the book's veracity did the tide of public opinion begin to turn in Steinbeck's favor.11 The rage and furor from agribusiness conglomerates and their allies arose because The Grapes of Wrath shook the very foundations of the water-based oligarchy. Worster himself acknowledges this:

Up to the very end of the decade, both the Bureau [of Reclamation] and the Department of the Interior were placidly moving forward … avoiding any cause for alarm on the part of the growers in California … What changed all of that undoubtedly was … the publication in 1939 of The Grapes of Wrath. … Suddenly, it became rather difficult for a liberal government in Washington to give subsidized, unrestricted water to groups like the reactionary Associated Farmers, to underwrite their labor policies and their concentration of wealth.

(Worster, Rivers of Empire 1985, 245)

Nevertheless, despite a temporary surge in popular and governmental concern, neither the novel nor the reform movement it generated achieved any lasting change in western water policy. Pork barrel appropriations bills continued to subsidize corporate growers, who continued to couch their greed within the rubric of a technologically controlled Eden that they believed should form the destiny of the West. The migrants' struggle faded into the background with the outbreak of World War II. U.S. entry into the conflict stoked the fires of nationalism, and the nation turned to the West once again to fuel the American war machine. The Okies benefited from the wartime surge in production, finding work in munitions factories and other war-related industries. Relieved, the growers turned once again to immigrant labor, a class of people they could be relatively certain of keeping disenfranchised and powerless. The cycle of exploitation thus resumed after only a brief hiatus. Public interest in the issue peaked again two decades later when Cesar Chavez briefly managed to organize the Migrant Farm Workers Union into an effective national lobby.

Only in the 1990s, after a prolonged drought and numerous aborted attempts at reform, has the Californian agricultural machine seemingly run dry. Faced with a severe, unremitting drought and a recession-locked nation unwilling to finance any more quixotic reclamation projects, the growers in California now face a complete embargo on federally supplied water (Reinhold, New York Times 1992). Years of drought and insupportable agriculture in an arid land are seemingly on the verge of accomplishing what no individual person could accomplish alone: decanonization of the myth of the garden and its accompanying myth of the frontier. These two myths, dominant since the birth of the nation, eventually ran headlong into the realities of a closed frontier and a finite hydrology. Steven Goldstein, spokesman for interior secretary Manuel Lujan, aptly summed up the situation when announcing the curtailment of further water subsidy, saying: “We recognize … what a hardship this will be. But we cannot make it rain” (Reinhold, New York Times 1992).


  1. One of the most effective techniques used by the press to discredit the novel involved letters to the editor from supposed “Okies” protesting that the conditions depicted in the novel did not really exist. The letters told of friendly treatment by the growers, clean living conditions, and enough work for everybody. The papers also spread rumors of Okies wanting to kill Steinbeck for telling lies about them. Little information defending Steinbeck's version of events reached the public at large until a number of other exposés (most notably Carey McWilliams's Factories in the Field) were released and photographs documenting the migrants' conditions gained widespread notoriety.

  2. Frederick Jackson Turner's essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1892) (see Turner 1947) posited that the existence of the frontier allowed the nation's economy to expand constantly and thus allowed capitalism to dominate. His thesis was widely accepted until the middle of this century and is discernible in the literature as well as the governmental policies of the period.

  3. In To a God Unknown, Steinbeck openly acknowledges the sexual bond between men and the land. After Joseph literally makes love to the earth, the narrator matter-of-factly notes that “for a moment, the land had been his wife” (11). In The Grapes of Wrath, which postdates To a God Unknown by a decade, Steinbeck again acknowledges the sexual link—this time in the form of rape: “Behind the harrows, the long seeders—twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion” (37).

  4. Kolodny argues that the progressive deterioration in cultural reverence for the land was an unavoidable by-product of viewing it as feminine while seeking to settle it: “Implicit in the metaphor of the land-as-woman was both the regressive pull of maternal containment and the seductive invitation to sexual assertion: if the Mother demands passivity, and threatens regression, the Virgin apparently invites sexual assertion and awaits impregnation” (67).

  5. Jehlen argues convincingly that the uniquely American bond with the land and nature makes anything Americans choose to do necessarily right and natural: “The settlers' implementation of the continent's permanent contours and conditions … places the emerging social structures … in the realm of nature. Those who assist the emergence of those structures, moreover, wield the power of nature itself” (57). One of the ways Americans cast the conquest of the land within the current political climate was by classifying irrigation programs as a struggle between the forces of good and the forces of godless communists dedicated to subverting the American way of life. Robert Kerr, former governor of Oklahoma and head of the Senate's Select Committee on Water Resources, rhetorically asks: “Can a pagan Communist nation … make more efficient use of soil and water resources than the most advanced and enlightened nation in the world? Can ruthless atheists mobilize and harness their treasure of God-given wealth to defeat and stifle freedom-loving peoples everywhere?” (Kerr 1960, 323-24).

  6. Worster offers this account of the Plains mentality during the mid-1930s: “‘You gave us beer,’ they told Roosevelt, ‘now give us water.’ … ‘Every draw, arryo [sic], and canyon that could be turned into a lake or lagoon,’ wrote a clothing store manager, ‘should be turned into one by dams and directed ditches & draws until there are millions of them thru these mid-western states.’ A Texas stockman wanted to use natural gas to pump flood waters from the Mississippi River to the Plains. … An old soldier from Denver penciled his ideas on ruled tablet paper: stage sham battles with 40,000 Civilian Conservation Corp boys and $20 million worth of ammunition—the noise would be sure to stir up some rain. … ‘Try it,’ he finished, ‘if it works send me a check for $5000 for services rendered’” (1979, 39).

  7. California's water wars are far too complex to treat in this essay. Many excellent studies on the subject exist, and I have made extensive use of several, including Worster's Rivers of Empire and Reisner's Cadillac Desert. For a well-researched, highly critical history of the Bureau of Reclamation, see Berkman and Viscusi's Damming the West.

  8. The women/nature, men/civilization duality linked women to the land, and so they shared in its degradation. By viewing the landscape as feminine, the patriarchy was traditionally able to construct the cultural paradigm both of women and of the land in an image that suited its perpetuation. Damming rivers and mining aquifers in an attempt to reconstruct the landscape to fit a masculine ideal is analogous to girdling and reshaping women to fit the masculine concept of beauty. See Warren and Cheney, “Ecological Feminism and Ecosystem Ecology,” and Catherine Roach, “Loving Your Mother: On the Woman-Nature Relation.”

  9. Louis Owens contends that Steinbeck does not romanticize the agrarian ideal. The novel's harsh depiction of Okie tenant farmers mitigates any endorsement of family farms and Jeffersonian agrarianism while demonstrating Steinbeck's awareness of their ecological impracticality: “By carefully and precisely placing the tenants within the historical pattern that has led to the destruction of the land, Steinbeck is making it obvious that agrarianism alone is insufficient. In fact, the ideal of the independent small farmer, the Jeffersonian image of the heroic individualist wresting an isolated living from the soil is firmly scuttled in The Grapes of Wrath” (54).

  10. Congressman Lyle Boren of Oklahoma declared The Grapes of Wrath to be “a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind” (qtd. in WD, xxiv). Steinbeck also became the target of a whispering campaign by the Associated Farmers, including one rumor that Steinbeck was a Jew acting on behalf of a Zionist-Communist conspiracy to undermine the economy (Benson 1984, 420).

  11. After visiting a series of migrant camps in 1940, Mrs. Roosevelt told reporters, “I have never believed The Grapes of Wrath was exaggerated” (qtd. in Benson 1990, 402).

Lorelei Cederstrom (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Cederstrom, Lorelei. “The ‘Great Mother’ in The Grapes of Wrath.” In Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches, edited by Susan F. Beegel, Susan Shillinglaw, and Wesley N. Tiffney Jr., pp. 76-91. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Cederstrom argues that the final scene of The Grapes of Wrath is not derived from Christian symbolism, as has been asserted, but rather from earlier pagan notions of the “Great Mother” and traces evidence of matriarchal ideals throughout the novel.]

In his depiction of the destruction of the fertile earth and the lives of those who have depended upon her abundance, John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath presents a visionary foreshadowing of the universal ecological disaster that looms so prominently on the horizon today. Equally visionary is his evocation of the primordial alternative to the patriarchal structures and attitudes that are destroying the earth. Throughout the novel, he describes the reemergence of the archetypal feminine and asserts the importance of matriarchal cultures that understand the relationship between the cycles of their lives and the natural world. An archetypal analysis of Steinbeck's novel reveals that in assessing the economic problems of the 1930s he had, perhaps unconsciously, arrived at an alternative to the dominant structures of Western civilization.

This alternative surfaces among the people who are the first victims of the decline of the old order, the migrant families. The failure of Western civilization to provide the necessities for these disinherited wanderers leads them to establish a more primitive social order based upon feminine values and matriarchal structures. Concurrent with the development of the matriarchy is the irruption of images, patterns, and attitudes associated with the primitive and transformative forms of the matriarchal deities. Throughout the novel, patriarchal culture and its attitudes give way to manifestations of the presence of the archetypal “Great Mother.”1

The powerful closing scene of the novel in which Rose of Sharon suckles a starving man at her breast provides an iconographic image of the Great Mother: “Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. ‘You got to,’ she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. ‘There!’ she said. ‘There!’ Her hand moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously” (501-2). The haunting power of this image indicates the presence of a powerful archetype. Sensing an archetypal pattern, critics have related Rose of Sharon to the Madonna, and her nurturing gesture has been seen as a manifestation of Christian love. One must keep in mind, however, that Rose of Sharon is not a mother suckling her child; her baby was born dead, “a blue shriveled little mummy” (489). At her breast is a starving stranger, a fellow refugee from a rising flood that has already destroyed many homes and families.2 This archetypal gesture and mysterious smile are, nonetheless, the fitting conclusion to the novel, for it is in this affirmation of the power to give life and to take it, to nourish even while surrounded by the death and destruction she has wrought, that the full power of the Great Mother is evident. A detailed analysis of the archetypal Great Mother as she appears throughout the novel reveals more clearly the iconographic significance of this scene.

It is necessary to define the limits of this archetype as Steinbeck has used it, for in her many facets, the Great Mother encompasses virtually everything. “Woman=body=vessel=world,” is the formula Erich Neumann3 uses to define the all-inclusive quality of the archetypal feminine. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Great Mother appears in both her elementary and transformative characters. In the former, she can be seen as a primordial spirit behind both the positive and negative forces of nature, manifesting herself in soft sunlight and scourging drought, in gentle rain and destroying flood, in food and shelter as well as famine and deprivation. In her elementary character she is also present in the home and in the cultural activities that grow out of the establishment of facilities for sleep, food preparation, and so on. In her transformative character, the Great Mother is a force for change in the individual and society; this change may involve growth or destruction, rebirth or death, for both are within her domain.

This last point must be emphasized, for destruction is as much a part of the Great Mother as is creation; she who gives life can also bring death to the natural world or the individual. A well-known icon of the Great Mother, the nineteenth-century Indian statue of Kali dancing on Shiva,4 indicates both aspects of her character; Kali holds a sword of destruction in her upraised hand and holds out a bowl of nourishment in the other. Similarly, among the dual mother goddesses of Central America we find the Mayan earth goddess who “gives all life, all food—and then cries in the night for human blood, her food” (Sjöö and Mor 170). Even the more familiar Near Eastern goddesses like Isis, Astarte, Ishtar, Artemis, and Diana have a dark face in which they represent the “womb-tomb, abysmally prolific with children and with death” (Sjöö and Mor 1987, 184). This same ambivalence is present throughout Steinbeck's novel and is profoundly expressed in the paradoxical situation of the final scene, when the man near death by starvation and flood, two disasters particularly associated with primitive earth goddesses like the Great Mother, is given the nourishing breast, the most elementary symbol of her life-giving quality.

On the most basic level, the Great Mother as the giver of life or death appears as a personification of the Earth itself. In Steinbeck's earlier novel, To a God Unknown (1933), the earth is constantly imaged as a female presence (6), a presence that like “an ancient religion” might “possess” (7) those who come to know her. The Indian, Juanito, shares with homesteader Joseph Wayne his understanding of this ancient power: “My mother said how the earth is our mother and how everything that lives has life from the mother and goes back into the mother” (26). Joseph spends his entire life trying to understand the Great Mother as she is manifest in the earth he tends. Indeed, he can be seen as a priest assisting in her mysteries, as he works to ensure the fertility of the earth. He views these priestly duties as “the heritage of a race which for a million years had sucked at the breasts of the soil and co-habited with the earth” (34).

It is apparent from the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath that man has lost awareness that the earth is both sacred and living. Mother Earth is still fertile, but the crops are covered with dust. The land has been raped, and growing the same crop year after year under these conditions has destroyed the ability of the earth to nurture those who treat her this way. The Joad family suffers because they too have been guilty of this kind of neglect: “‘Ever' year,’ said Joad, ‘Every year I can remember, we had a good crop comin' an' it never came. Grampa says she was good the first five plowin's, while the wild grass was still in her’” (37). The novel opens many years after the last of the wild grass; the land is not even owned by people any more but by banks or corporations.

The matriarchal consciousness has also been lost, for as Neumann notes, it is dependent upon man's “participation mystique with his environment” (293). The participation mystique has been replaced by an attitude of unemotional domination: “No man touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses” (TGOW 38). The land is worked by a “machine man” who sits on an iron seat on an iron horse. Steinbeck has embodied the lack of connection to the land in a number of small details as well. Tom Joad, returning to his home, discovers that all the artifacts that symbolize a life close to the earth are askew. The well is dry; there are no weeds under its trough. The house is aslant, all of the windows are broken, and there is a hole where there once was a stovepipe. The machine man's lunch is another detail of this kind. It is wrapped in waxed paper, and all his food is processed: Spam, white bread, “a piece of pie branded like an engine part” (38). The result of this process of alienation from the earth, the Great Mother, is separation and exile. The machine man “goes home, and his home is not the land” (126); the Joads have lost both home and land.

Both the male and female characters in the novel are depicted in terms of their relationship to the Great Mother. The women are divided between those who have no relationship to the earth, land, or a natural life and those whose lives demonstrate the many faces of the archetypal feminine. The female counterparts of the machine men are defined by the objects with which they surround themselves: big cars, cosmetics, clothing and potbellied husbands. Their feminine attributes are disguised: breasts are confined, “stomachs and thighs straining against cases of rubber” (169).

These women are also distinguished in terms of their relationship to time. The matriarchal consciousness is at work when a woman lives in tune with the cycles of nature. Mircea Eliade in Cosmos and History notes that primitive peoples experience the sacredness of life by living in tune with seasonal cycles and the recurrence of crops. In opposition, our contemporary world measures life linearly, as history, a progress from one point to another, stamping masculine measurements upon feminine cyclicality. Women, even in an industrial society, experience themselves at least in terms of biological cycles. Steinbeck's nameless women on the road, however, have accepted linear time and have lost the regenerative capacity that comes from recognizing oneself as part of an eternally recurring pattern. Steinbeck is explicit about this: the eyes of these women are “sullen, disliking sun and wind and earth, resenting food and weariness, hating time that rarely makes them beautiful and always makes them old” (169).

In contrast, the Joad women are linked to the cyclicality of the archetypal feminine. Granma, Ma, and Rose of Sharon manifest the three ages of the Great Mother: hag, mother, and nubile daughter. The youngest girl, Ruthie, remains outside; she has not yet achieved her initiation into womanhood, so she merely watches and learns. Granma is shrill, ferocious, and assertive, true to her mythical forebears, Hecate, or Athene as Crone. She once shot off one of Grampa's buttocks, an act that indicates her tendency toward matriarchal dominance. Her power is apparent; she outlasts her mate, without succumbing to grief. Her acceptance of death as a part of a pattern of renewal is indicated by Ma's assertion that Granma “always et a good meal at a funeral” (265). As her own death approaches, Granma becomes “like a little baby” (191). A sense of her involvement in the recurrent cycles of life is suggested by the mysterious whisperings between dying Granma and pregnant Rose of Sharon.

Tom describes Ma as the “citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken” (79). Neumann describes numerous instances in which the primordial Great Mother is similarly depicted as an encompassing shelter. Ma is the center and source of the family and its emotions; Tom sees her position as “great and humble” (80). Her beauty arises out of her services within the family: “From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess” (80). At the center of the humble recurring cycles of family life, Ma continually reflects the many aspects of the nurturing force of the Great Mother.

The first time we see Ma she is cooking pork, food from an animal that is associated with her throughout the novel. Neumann notes that “the pig is a symbol of the archetypal feminine and occurs everywhere as the sacrificial beast of the Earth Goddess” (13). It is the pork that Ma has salted and prepared that keeps the family alive on the road. Like Granma, Ma lives in tune with recurrent cycles and is contrasted with the male characters. On the road, the men are concerned with maps, miles, and time: “From Sallisaw to Gore is twenty-one miles and the Hudson was doing thirty-five miles an hour. From Gore to Warner thirteen miles; Warner to Checotah fourteen miles; Checotah a long jump to Henrietta—thirty-four miles, but a real town at the end of it” (133). Ma sees the journey differently: “it's jus' the road goin' by for me. An' it's jus' how soon they gonna wanta eat some more pork bones” (134).

Before the journey, Ma was just one voice among many in making group decisions. As the novel progresses, Ma becomes more dominant. She forces the men to accede to the human needs of the family and decides when they will stop and go on. Pa threatens to reestablish patriarchal dominance with a shovel to the side of her head but acquiesces to her rule every time. Off the land, yet unable to relate to industrial society, the lives of the Joads are organized around primitive, matriarchal cultural activities. Preparing food and making shelter are their most immediate concerns, and Ma is the prime mover in creating the rituals of this primitive civilization. Ma also instructs Pa and the others about the importance of the family over property and the superiority of cyclic time over linear. A conversation between Pa and Ma establishes their separate priorities:

“Funny! Woman takin' over the fambly. Woman sayin' we'll do this here, an' we'll go there. An' I don' even care.”

“Woman can change better'n a man,” Ma said soothingly. “Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head. Don' you mind. Maybe—well, maybe nex' year we can get a place.”

“We got nothin', now,” Pa said. … “Seems our life is over and done!”

“No it ain't,” Ma smiled. “It ain't, Pa. An that's one more thing a woman knows. I noticed that. Man, he lives in jerks—baby born, an' a man dies, an' that's a jerk. Woman, it's all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain't gonna die out. People is goin' on—changin' a little, maybe, but goin' right on!”


Ma is also a purveyor of matriarchal folk wisdom. She knows about burial rites, for example; Grampa is sewed neatly into his shroud, coins traditionally placed on his eyes. Ma also presides at births, acting as midwife, and she initiates Rose of Sharon into womanhood by piercing her ears: “Does it mean sompin?” Rose of Sharon asked. “Why course it does, … course it does,” Ma replied (391). Everything Ma does is in accord with her function as an archetypal mother. She experiences herself as a provider of nourishment; others experience her as a source of strength. Her character has a positive effect on those around her for it is firmly rooted in the generating spirit of the Great Mother.

Rose of Sharon in her preoccupation with her pregnancy represents the transformative and life-giving power of the Great Mother. From the beginning of the novel, Steinbeck links Rose of Sharon to fertility: “The world was pregnant to her; she thought only in terms of reproduction and motherhood” (103). This pregnancy transforms her husband, Connie, as well. Steinbeck describes both Rose of Sharon and Connie as drawn together in contemplation of this central female mystery: “The world had drawn close around them and they were in the center of it, or rather Rose of Sharon was in the center of it with Connie making a small orbit about her. Everything they said was a kind of secret” (140). “Fecundation,” Neumann notes, “makes the woman into a numinous being for herself and for the male” (270).

Removal from their home and land disrupts their relationship and focus on the child to be. Uprooted, Connie and Rose of Sharon both attempt to adjust to the patriarchal structures of the larger world. Connie begins to dream of a new life in the machine age, hoping to work in a store or a factory or to learn a technical trade, and eventually, he deserts the family in pursuit of these fantasies of power in the world of men's work. Rose of Sharon hopes to have her baby in a hospital, attended by doctors, rejecting traditional female wisdom by her willingness to accept male authority over female functions. Rose of Sharon's defection is strongly punished, however, for Connie abandons her, and her child is stillborn. Her recovery is directed by her mother as she reinitiates Rose of Sharon into the female mysteries of life and death: “Ma lay close to Rose of Sharon. Sometimes Ma whispered to her and sometimes she sat up quietly, her face brooding” (496).

It is at Ma's direction that Rose of Sharon transcends her individual suffering by giving her breast to the starving man. Neumann notes that the production of milk is an archetypal transformation mystery, involving a woman's transition from nubility to motherhood and focusing a woman's awareness of herself as a nurturing force. As she holds the starving man in her arms, Rose of Sharon develops into full womanhood. She moves from the inturned self-obsession of her adolescent passion for Connie to an understanding of selfless maternal love. Her smile reflects her recognition of the Great Mother within.

The male characters in the novel also experience the transforming power of the Great Mother. Speaking of the power of the feminine to act as a catalyst in men's lives, Neumann notes that “the male experiences … the feminine directly and indirectly as provocative, as a force that sets him in motion and impels him toward change” (32). The details that surround the various transformative experiences in the novel indicate clearly that the change is brought about as characters realign their former patriarchal attitudes in accordance with matriarchal values, rather than as the result of Christian conversion or the development of social consciousness. Steinbeck has created strong patriarchs in his other novels, but one looks in vain for sustained masculine attributes in either Pa or Grampa. Grampa, for example, was a force to be reckoned with until he left the land; it took only a few days of separation from his vital relationship to the earth for him to die. Pa, too, as we have noted, off the land becomes more and more an auxiliary of Ma, indicating a consistent dependence on the feminine whether manifested in land or woman.

Pa's attitude toward the archetypal feminine remains a troubled one, characterized by fear and misunderstanding, a fault for which he pays. Although Mother Earth fed him, he did not know how to ensure the fertility of his land; the constant raising of the same crop contributed to the failure of his farm and the removal of his family from their roots. In the scene that describes the birth of his first son, Noah, Pa is depicted as someone who fails to understand the fundamental transformation mystery of birth. Noah is sacrificed to his father's impatience and fear of the natural functions of the feminine:

For on the night when Noah was born, Pa, frightened at the spreading thighs, alone in the house, and horrified at the screaming wretch his wife had become, went mad with apprehension. Using his hands, his strong fingers for forceps, he had pulled and twisted the baby. The midwife, arriving late, had found the baby's head pulled out of shape, its neck stretched, its body warped; and she had pushed the head back and molded the body with her hands. But Pa always remembered and was ashamed.


As a result, Noah is strange, aloof and alienated from the rest of the family. Halfway to California, however, Noah undergoes a symbolic rebirth, a baptism that brings him back into connection with the Great Mother. The rite of passage takes place in one of the domains associated with the feminine, a river where the men have come to wash and cool themselves. The river is too shallow to allow them to submerge their heads (223), signifying that their masculine consciousness will impede them from receiving the full benefit of their experiences in the female element and must be left behind. Noah's limited intelligence is a benefit in this case, and he is the first to respond to the call of the instinctual life promised by the Great Mother in the river. He tells the others: “I was in that there water. An' I ain't a-gonna leave her. I'm a-gonna go now, … down the river. I'll catch fish an' stuff, but I can't leave her. I can't” (229). Noah's use of the feminine pronoun is significant here. When told that Noah is gone, Pa does not understand, and his failure places him in the position of a child in the family, subservient to Ma, who seems to understand everything.

The case for the centrality of the Great Mother in the novel is challenged by the frequent and obvious association of Jim Casy with Christ.5 It is obvious that Casy not only shares Christ's initials but also delivers the Christian message of love and professes a willingness to sacrifice himself for his fellow man. His relationships with women, however, reveal him as a truer disciple of the Great Mother than follower of Christian dogma. Casy tells Tom that he is no longer a preacher because love of God and religious ecstasy led him to express that love physically. “Tell you what,” he said, “I used ta get the people jumpin' and talkin' in tongues, an' glory-shoutin' till they just fell down and passed out. … An' then—you know what I'd do? I'd take one of them girls out in the grass, an' I'd lay with her. Done it ever' time” (22). This combination of religious ecstasy and sexuality causes Casy to question how the so-called working of the devil could be present when a woman felt full of the divine spirit and leads to his abandonment of his ministry. Sexuality is, of course, perfectly compatible with the worship of the Great Goddess and has always played a part in her rituals.

Casy's concept of spirituality also departs from the narrow Christian view and emphasizes a unity between body and soul, in which sex and food reflect spiritual mysteries. His attempt to define a divine principle that includes both body and spirit leads to something akin to the oversoul of cosmic consciousness: “Maybe it's all men an' all women that we love; maybe tha's the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of” (24). He explicitly separates his spiritual ideas from Christianity, asking, “Why do we got to hang it all on God or Jesus?” (24).

Casy's views seem very similar to those that Steinbeck himself expressed. Robert Bennett, in The Wrath of John Steinbeck; or, St. John Goes to Church, reports that when Steinbeck was in college, he could not refrain, upon visiting a church, from responding to the minister's comments on the necessity of nourishing the soul: “A lot of crap,” he remarked rather loudly. “If the soul is immortal, why worry about it—it's the body that—”6 Casy, too, respects the body; although he expresses guilt at betraying his Christian principles through his sexuality, his experience of woman as a “holy vessel” leads him to take her to the grass time and again. Casy also feels alienated by the sexual prudery of Christianity and enjoys laughing at the old joke about the bull and the heifer.

Unlike the Father whom Jesus worshiped, Casy's god is a god unknown. Moreover, it is a divine principle that expresses itself through a feeling of unity with the natural world and an unqualified maternal love. Casy's rejection of formal religion is apparent in the scene when Granma asks him to bless their food. Here he explains his reluctance to participate in rituals of Christian tradition but agrees to present a more general blessing based upon a redefinition of holiness in terms of the central functions of the Great Mother, food, and love:

Sometimes I'd pray like I always done. On'y I coudn' figure what I was prayin' to or for. There was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't separate no more. We was one thing. An' that one thing was holy. … An' then I got thinkin' I don't even know what I mean by holy. … I can't say no grace like I use' ta say. I'm glad of the holiness of breakfast. I'm glad there's love here. That's all.


As Casy travels with the Joad family he becomes more and more closely attached to Ma and is initiated by her into some of the mysteries of the Great Mother. His first communal gesture is to help slaughter a pig, which is, as mentioned earlier, one of the Great Mother's sacrificial beasts. For the other men, this slaughter is simply part of their ordinary work, but Casy involves himself in the women's task of salting down the meat, thereby becoming an initiate in one of the fundamental mysteries of the Great Mother, that of food transformation. Ma is dubious about his participation at first: “It's women's work,” she protests. “It's all work,” the preacher replies. “They's too much of it to split it up to men's and women's work” (117).

In the final analysis, interpreting Casy as a Christ figure leaves out too much of his fundamental earthiness. If he is seen as the unconscious prophet of a primitive earth goddess, both his sexuality and his feeling that “all that lives is holy” (157) and “what people does is right” (233) can be taken into account. Nor do Casy's sacrifices of himself take him beyond the realm of the Great Mother, for she has always demanded sacrifices in her honor; pain and deprivation are associated with her most primitive rituals. Casy's first sacrifice was for the Joad family, the second for the family of man. Casy's last words are reminiscent of Christ's as he tells the men who are attacking him: “You don't know what you're a doin” (433). But his rationale for this remark is not that they do not know they are killing a son of god but that they do not know that they are “starvin' kids” (426), a basic concern of the matriarchs and the Great Mother.

Tom Joad is more nearly a Christ figure than Casy, but he is even more profoundly the son of his mother. He is badly abused by the patriarchy both before the novel opens and later in the work camps and rejects the hierarchies of patriarchal society as well as the violence toward the weak that sustains those structures. After each confrontation with men and authority, he returns to his mother for support and spiritual nourishment. Before he leaves the family, he undergoes an initiation into the mysteries of the Great Mother. The initiation begins with a symbolic reentry into the womb, as he hides in the maternal, cavelike darkness of a culvert. His mother brings nourishment to him, and he discusses with her his plans to aid the other migrants by organizing them. He envisions an apotheosis for himself, one in which he is absorbed into a maternal darkness, maintaining a transcendent presence at food rituals: “I'll be all aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where—wherever you look. Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there” (463). His transformation from bitter ex-con to fighter for humanity is the result of his developing matriarchal consciousness in which the needs of the family, the earth, and those who live close to it are primary.

Unlike Tom, Casy, and Noah, Uncle John has been transformed before the novel opens. He has been punishing himself with drink and celibacy for contributing to the death of his wife, suffering in atonement for his sins against the Great Mother. He remains in the background for the most part, a living reminder of the failure of patriarchal rule and values. Ma gives him a bit of appropriate and useful advice when she warns him not to burden others with his crimes against life: “Don't tell 'em,” she warns. “Go down the river an' stick your head under an' whisper 'em in the stream” (295). John does not take her advice at this point, but at the end of the novel, he performs a ritualistic sacrifice in the river that can be seen as an act of reparation to the Great Mother for all of their sins. He takes Rose of Sharon's dead baby and casts it on the stream as a warning to others that they are betraying life: “Go down an' tell 'em. Go down in the street an' rot an' tell 'em that way. That's the way you can talk. … Maybe they'll know then” (493-94).

Beyond the manifestations of the transformative power of the Great Mother in the central characters, Steinbeck's descriptions of the migrant camps also indicate a strong matriarchal principle at work: “In the evening, a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all” (213). The highlights of life in these camps, culminating in the Weedpatch camp, are the rituals that develop around the basic functional spheres of the feminine.7 Birth and death incite community celebrations: “And it might be that a sick child threw despair into the hearts of twenty families, of a hundred people; that a birth there in a tent kept a hundred people quiet and awe-struck through the night and filled a hundred people with the birth-joy in the morning” (213).

Food preparation and laundry are social events on a smaller scale. Ma, for example, finds herself feeding twenty or more waifs in one campground. She is also told about the laundry rituals: “You wait till the women get to washing … know what they did yesterday, Mrs. Joad? They had a chorus. Singing a hymn tune and rubbing the clothes all in time. That was something to hear, I tell you” (335-36). The principles on which families are established in the camps are based on the needs of women and children. The legal aspects of marriage, invented so that men can pass on their names and property, are no longer useful. The rules are simple: “a man might have a willing girl if he stayed with her, if he fathered her children and protected them. But a man might not have one girl one night and another the next, for this would endanger the worlds” (214).

This last custom, the development of a matrilinear principle, is responsible for Al leaving the Joads. Like Connie, Al had previously been a man of the new age. With his mechanical abilities he performed several small miracles in keeping the car on the road between Oklahoma and California. By the last scene of the novel, however, he has been absorbed by matriarchal principles and matrilinear necessities. His mechanical abilities fail at last, and he leaves his own family for the family of his wife, a custom demanded by the matriarchal world of migrant living. This is not regarded as a desertion of the family but a reestablishment of the basic principles on which the family can continue.

Steinbeck makes it clear that life in the migrant camps does not represent an emergent Christian communism. Rose of Sharon is frightened by a dour Christian woman who warns her against the sinful dances and wicked plays that are held in the camp, insisting that “they ain't but a few deep down Jesus-lovers left” (341). During the dancing, the “Jesus-lovers” remain aloof and keep their children under close scrutiny, safely protected from these pagan celebrations. Ma, however, urges husbandless Rose of Sharon to attend the festivities, telling her that she will be especially welcome because “it makes folks happy to see a girl in a fambly way” (372).

Thus, although the concluding scene has generated much debate, Rose of Sharon's nurturing of the starving man is the appropriate culmination of the many manifestations of the Great Mother throughout the novel. Critics who fail to see the importance of the developing matriarchal consciousness and to recognize the transformative power of the feminine interpret Steinbeck's final image in naturalistic terms, seeing the helpless humans at the mercy of the elements when the diminished family—Ma, Pa, Rose of Sharon, Ruthie, and Winfield—are driven from their boxcar home by the rising river. Other critics, unwilling to accept the implications of the ending for their theories about the Christian or communistic patterns, have tended to concur instead that “the ending is intentionally inconclusive” (French 1963, 93), albeit generally supportive of an optimism about the survival of the family of man (Chametzky in Donohue 1968, 234). In its poetic and paradoxical completeness, however, the image of Rose of Sharon nursing the stranger while the flood moves to engulf the family unites both the naturalistic and optimistic views.

Failure to recognize the culmination of the archetypal pattern in this has led to such realignments of the final message as John Ford's replacement, in the film version of The Grapes of Wrath,8 of the powerful iconographic image of Rose of Sharon with Tom's farewell speech to his mother. Although the film's final scene, perhaps at Steinbeck's insistence, focuses on Ma Joad, the young Tom Joad, portrayed by rising star Henry Fonda, is the hero. Concluding the film with Tom's assertion of his ubiquitous, God-like presence “all around in the dark … ever'where—wherever you look” (463), with its echoes of Christ's “insomuch as you do it to the least of them you do it unto me” restores an emphasis to patriarchal values and Christian masculinist perceptions of spiritual power that the novel undercuts.

Steinbeck, however, had no ambivalence about the conclusion of the novel, feeling its correctness, although he did not fully express the reasons for his decision. He certainly intended to take the predominant social attitudes to task, and whether he articulated it intellectually or not, the archetypal alternative to Western patriarchal values comes to the surface in the novel. Each of the characters is forced to choose between patriarchal and matriarchal attitudes toward the natural world and each other. Muley Graves provides an example at the beginning of the novel when he refuses to be driven from the garden by the appearance of the man on the machine.9 He will not leave the land that has been soaked by the blood of his father or the grass on which he first “laid with a girl” (54). So he remains, living in caves and eating wild rabbits, thereby aligning himself with the vestiges of the Great Mother in nature, as he haunts the machine men who ride unfeelingly over the living earth.

The Joads confront the Great Mother within: the women learn to understand themselves as a part of the natural cycles of life and death; the men are forced to atone for their sins against life and are either transformed or die in the process. In each case, the Great Mother is experienced as a dual power, a womb/tomb that can nurture or destroy. In a brief scene toward the end of the book, Steinbeck reinforces this message, as Ruthie teaches Winfield a stern lesson about the gifts of the Great Mother. When Winfield attempts to grab a flower from Ruthie, she bangs “him in the face with her open hand” (498). Winfield is learning early that the gifts of the Great Mother cannot be taken by force but must be earned by virtue of a reverent attitude toward nature and the feminine. He is also learning that she can withhold or bestow her gifts at will. The image of Rose of Sharon with the starving man at her breast expresses the paradoxical power of the Great Mother completely. Sword in one hand, bowl in the other, Kali, like Rose of Sharon, wears a smile.


  1. The term “Great Mother” is universally used without etymological explanation. Although it is a translation of Magna Mater, used in connection with the virgin mother aspect of the archetype, the phrase predates the Christian virgin cult and is used in reference to such diverse mother goddesses as Isis, Ishtar, and Hera.

  2. The most common images of the nursing mother are those of the Virgin Mary suckling the baby Jesus. The iconography of the primordial Great Mother, however, also includes images of a young woman giving her breast to miniaturized adult figures or even adult males. See the photographs of artifacts in Erich Neumann, The Great Mother—the Celtic Mother Goddess (45), the Goddess with Young God (46), and particularly the drawing of Sophia-Sapientia suckling two bearded males (174).

  3. This discussion of the archetypal feminine is indebted throughout to Erich Neumann's thorough analysis in The Great Mother.

  4. See The Great Mother, plate 65, and Manuela Dunn Mascetti, The Song of Eve, 35.

  5. There are several Christian interpretations of The Grapes of Wrath, including Peter Lisca's The Wide World of John Steinbeck (1958), 174f., and Lester Jay Marks's Thematic Design in the Novels of John Steinbeck (1971), 76f.

  6. In Robert Bennett, The Wrath of John Steinbeck; or, St. John Goes to Church. This pamphlet has no pagination. The quotation appears on the third-to-last page.

  7. Steinbeck's discussion of the primitive matriarchal structures in the migrant camps is based on his readings in Briffault's The Mothers. Briffault, like Steinbeck, asserts that matriarchies are based not upon “artificial economic control” but rather upon “functional relations” (see Briffault 1927, vol. 1, 434).

  8. To be fair, it is clear that Ford had several pressing reasons for changing the novel's ending, not the least of which was the censoring power of the Hayes Laws, which would have prevented the showing of a woman's breast. Economic reasons also contributed, for Elaine Steinbeck has pointed out that the studio intended the film to make Henry Fonda into a star, with the concomitant emphasis on Tom Joad as “hero.”

  9. See Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (1964). Although Marx's discussion of the prevalent image of the intrusion of the mechanical into the pastoral landscape of America suggests the terms of Steinbeck's imagery, Marx does not discuss the polarities of America in terms of the gender distinctions that are the subject of this essay.

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Essays and Criticism