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John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the destruction and chaos of the lives of the dust bowl victims and their families. The classic novel works on two levels. On the one hand, it is the story of a family, how it reacts, and how it is unsettled by a serious problem threatening to overwhelm it. On the other hand, the story is an appeal to political leaders that when the common working-class is put upon too harshly, they will revolt. In this aspect it is a social study which argues for a utopia-like society where the powerful owners of the means of production will be replaced by a more communal and egalitarian community like the ones that spring up along the highway by the migrants seeking a higher ground. Their lives are destroyed by poverty and the dust bowl and all that matters is finding a more decent life somewhere west. Survival and getting to a new kind of life are all that matter, so much so that Ma lies next to a dead Granma all night because she is afraid the family will not get through is she seeks help "I was afraid we wouldn' get acrost,' she said. 'I tol' Granma we couldn' he'p her. The fambly had ta get acrost. I tol' her, tol' her when she was a-dyin'. We couldn' stop in the desert...The fambly hadda get acrost,' Ma said miserably" (Steinbeck 237). Throughout the novel the lure of communism lurks subtly in the background as a reminder that in desperate circumstances, pushed too far, the people will revolt.
The Grapes of Wrath depicts the degradations and abject poverty visited upon immigrants who try to survive in the face of American capitalism where the powerful land-owning companies force them into constant migration and keep them from rising above a poverty level of less than basic sustenance. The novel focuses on the sacrifices these individuals make for each other, family and friends, and the way their simple lives are inherently worthy of dignity and respect. However, in the midst of the thousands of others traveling the concrete highway barely keeping body and soul together on the road to a better promise of life in California, these immigrants form a utopia-like community. Society is recreated each evening among the migrants, where social leaders are picked, unspoken rules of privacy and generosity emerge, and lust, violence and murder breakout.
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The communal, decent, and sacrificing lives of the migrants are portrayed against a backdrop of harsh, powerful, and distant wealthy company owners who mercilessly lord over the migrants with blindness to their woes. The socialist or communist view is presented as a means of providing a better lifestyle for the migrants who not only must constantly migrate because of the power company owners, but they also are forced to work for practically nothing because the land-owners have so many migrants to choose from they use coercion to keep employers from paying any higher wages. As Thomas explains to Timothy about a reduction in wages "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'" (Steinbeck 306).
Thus, there is no way these migrant workers can ever gain some measure of lifestyle when they are continually oppressed by those who own the means of production. It is a very Marxian critique of capitalist society. In contrast to such a society, Steinbeck gives us his utopia view of the "good life" which involves equality and justice for all human beings, a decent level of wages, and a sense of the inherent dignity in all human beings who must sacrifice and struggle together for the good of all. We see this value most inherently embedded in the character of Ma who not only lies with her dead mother all night long to insure the family will get across, but she also sacrifices the small rations scraped together for her own family to help others, like when she feeds the hungry camp children her stew "'There ain't enough,' she said humbly. 'I'm a-gonna set this here kettle out, an' you'll all get a little tas', but it ain't gonna do you no good.' She faltered, 'I can't he'p it. Can't keep it from you'" (Steinbeck 267).
In conclusion, Steinbeck's appeal for a socialist or communist utopia is a genuine sentiment and based on his honest emotion and feeling for decent, oppressed, working-class individuals in society. However, he fails to understand that the system of communism or socialism that he advocates is as flawed as the system of capitalism he appears to disdain. We have seen the dismantling of communist states not because communism in its ideal sense is flawed, but because those who control the means of production in communist states rarely do so for the benefit of the working-class. Even Lenin only cared about the needs and feelings of the working-class so he could use it as motivation and impetus to bring about his own self-interested aims. Thus, despite Steinbeck's plea for a more utopian and humanitarian class-structure than capitalism, his call for socialism or communism fails to consider the equally unjust flaws of those systems of socioeconomic politics.
Steinbeck, J. The Grapes of Wrath. New York, International Collectors Library, 1967.