Arguably Steinbeck’s greatest work, The Grapes of Wrath is a microscopic narrative on the lives of poor rural farmers and their struggles during the Great Depression. Here too, the author assumes a composite role of a littérateur and social commentator rolled into one. Through an emotionally rich and detailed portrayal of life on the move, the author captures the essence of the farmers’ plight. The aspect of human dignity is a key quality in most Steinbeck’s characters. As is shown in the character of Crookes (from Of Mice and Men), here too, the Joad family display courage and tenacity in the face of hostile social and climatic conditions. However, the attitudes of Americans today are not sympathetic to the plight of Depression struck farmers two generations back. To the contrary, they believe that it was due to poor planning and unfounded optimism that the economic system around them collapsed. Although Steinbeck did not endorse any particular political ideology as a solution to the problems of the Great Depression, there are undeniable Marxist underpinnings in The Grapes of Wrath, as in the following lines:
“The tractors which throw men out of work, the belt lines which carry the loads, the machines which produce, all were increased; and more and more families scampered on the highways, looking for crumbs…The great owners formed associations for protection and they met to discuss ways to intimidate, to kill, to gas. And always they were in fear of a principal – three hundred thousand – if ever they move under a leader – the end…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.”
The protagonist of the novel, Tom Joad, evolves as a person during the course of the narrative and goes from being a victim of a flawed judicial system to one of a revolutionary fighter who pledges to bring justice to the under-privileged farmers. Again, this element in the novel is not irrelevant to the social realities of the time. The early decades of the twentieth century saw a minor revival of egalitarian political movements in America that were based on the principles of Socialism. The roots of Socialist thought within working class America goes back a century. In fact, documentary evidence shows a thriving and open working class press during the mid nineteenth century, essentially run by the so-called “factory girls”. But eventually, the small-scaled labor press succumbed to better financed and larger mainstream press and with it declined the working class solidarity; this is reflected even today by the obvious lack of labor unions in many American corporations. Hence, it is an understatement to say that The Grapes of Wrath is a realist novel. The novel surpasses such simple categorization and can reveal to a discerning reader profound truths about the evolution of American society over a course of a century.
Continuing on the relation between the Socialist movement and its imprint in The Grapes of wrath, the following passage illustrates the sense of social cohesion amid poverty and despair:
“In the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out…Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep these two families apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other…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…'”