Social Commentary in The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is a realistic novel that mimics life and offers social commentary too. It offers many windows on real life in midwest America in the 1930s. But it also offers a powerful social commentary, directly in the intercalary chapters and indirectly in the places and people it portrays. Typical of very many, the Joads are driven off the land by far away banks and set out on a journey to California to find a better life. However the journey breaks up the family, their dreams are not realized and their fortunes disappear. What promised to be the land of milk and honey turns to sour grapes. The hopes and dreams of a generation turned to wrath. Steinbeck
opens up this catastrophe for public scrutiny.
The novel is starkly realistic. With the Joads as they travel, we meet the dark underside of capitalism with its uncontrolled poverty, its inhuman greed and human cost, and sense a fractured trust between government and people. The underside contains wounded characters: the despairing Muley Graves, the strange Noah and the obsessed Uncle John, a one-eyed man self-pitying his state, the typical Mae serving in a Highway 66 cafe and the hell-bent vigilantes and deputies. This realism reaches a strange, even melodramatic nadir in the scene that closes the novel.
But such social realism crafts a point, not to allow a voyeuristic peek at the poor but to illustrate the depth of poverty and exploitation contemporary Americans are suffering. However, this realism is tempered but not compromised by the goodness of ordinary people: the Joads meet up with the Wilsons
, they are welcomed by the people at the Weedpatch camp and Casy saves Tom. The realism is still relevant to readers today.
To structure the novel as a journey has many advantages. Not only do characters develop but the settings change too; we see and hear much more in different settings and so can gain a more comprehensive view of the impact of these satanic economic forces. The reader moves from place to place and scene to scene observing their nationwide effects. As she moves from intercalary chapter to its subsequent application in the Joads' lives and vice versa, a reader can readily transfer meanings from the general to the particular. Readers are able to build up a general picture of the fraying nation out of the jigsaw pieces that are the Joads' journey.
The journey structure also serves point of view: what the Joads experience, we experience. They meet good and bad, rumours and certainties, and desert and lush valleys. The journey gives the reader various vignettes as sub-plots to complement the main one. The theme of puzzlement and despair is borne in dialogue; when the fat man near Paden (135) says: "Well I don't know what the country's comin' to", he echoes others saying the same.
Journeys also offer readings at deeper levels. In reading, not only do we journey with the Joads, we move with all migrants and even hobble with humanity. Steinbeck demonstrates that the path to justice and peace is stony and never sure; that life is fraught with trials and tribulations but in the end the wrath of a dislocated people will win God's justice at the vintage of final judgement.
This novel dramatises that wrath of the dispossessed. With strong Biblical overtones, Steinbeck's rather strident and earnest tone projects his rather incoherent social philosophy. However, the novel is not a prescription for political action but rather a loaded description exhorting us to greater social commitment, wider compassion and to formulate policies for justice.
With its stark realism and endearing characters,The Grapes of Wrath
dramatises all human life and and the march to justice. Whether America has heeded Steinbeck yet is a moot point. Perhaps a popular Democratic President in the 1990s can do more for them than a novelist in the forties. Clearly, a nation on a journey must listen to its sages who speak for its own people.