The Pequod Review:
John Steinbeck’s most famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is also one of his most ambitious as he uses the plight of a poor Dust Bowl family (the Joads) to explore some of the deepest themes of 1930s American politics and society: the poverty of farm workers, the fight for economic justice, and the hope and promise of westward expansion. Steinbeck made clear his intentions in a piece he wrote after the book was published:
Before the country was settled, the whole drive of the country by both rich and poor was to settle it. To this end they worked together. The menaces were Indians, weather, loneliness and the quality of the unknown. But this phase ended. When there was no longer unlimited land for everyone, then battles developed for what there was. And then as always, those few who had financial resources and financial brains had little difficulty in acquiring the land in larger and larger blocks… This condition left the great people in their original desire for the security symbol land but this time the menace (as they say in Hollywood) had changed. It was no longer Indians and weather and loneliness, it had become the holders of the land… Now, since the people go on with their struggle, the writer still sets down that struggle and still sets down the opponents. The opponents or rather the obstacle to the desired end right now happens to be those individuals and groups of financiers who by the principle of ownership withhold security from the mass of the people. And since this is so, this is the material the writer deals in…
The human like any other life form will tolerate an unhealthful condition for some time, and then will either die or will overcome the condition either by mutation or by destroying the unhealthful condition. Since there seems little tendency for the human race to become extinct, and since one cannot through biological mutation overcome the necessity for eating, I judge that the final method will be chosen.
But Steinbeck’s philosophy isn’t just a negative one; it has an underlying optimism, a faith in the common man, and a belief that the system is fixable — that democratic and economic rights can be expanded more broadly. While his narrative is melodramatic and sometimes too agenda-driven to become a truly great novel, The Grapes of Wrath captures something essential about the American character.