By the time Steinbeck finished The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, the readers have already had the bitter taste of the Great Depression. The Joads, on whom the story was based, were heavily indebted tenant farmers having been suddenly pushed off their meager lands and made to adopt a nomadic way of life. They had two options in front of them – remain in Oklahoma and become servants to the mechanized farms or to head West in search of better opportunities. The family, ever dignified, chose the latter option. But what they do not know at this stage is that the prospect of a better life further west is only an illusion. Their vision of a plentiful Eden with plenty of plots available for cultivation is quite far-fetched during the Depression years. The Joad women, however, were skeptical of this adventure and their doubts were to be proved correct. After a long and tiring journey to California the family is welcomed with more bad news. As opposed to a thriving agricultural industry manned by people, they find a modern, industrialized, impersonal economic system that treats wage laborers as disposable pack animals. The family also confronts a political system that blatantly supports the rich and the powerful and that denies the farmers of their fundamental rights. The irony of the story is that a supposed work of fiction by the author has a strong documentary, if not journalistic quality to it. The form of the novel had provided Steinbeck what column-space could not provide his compatriot journalists. This is a brave attempt by Steinbeck, given the tyrannies carried out by the press and publishing houses against people who offer a different, dissident perspective to the normative one. There have been accounts of people disappearing in thin air for taking a stand against the Establishment. So, what Steinbeck had brought forth, should be seen in light of these pressures of self-preservation and survival. To gain a deeper understanding of the author’s mind-set at the time of writing the book, we need to take a look at his formative years. There are hints in the conditions of upbringing of John Steinbeck that point to the social awareness and conscientiousness that is on display in the book.
Another aspect of the two novels in discussion is Steinbeck’s interweaving of his own experiences into the fabric of the novel. For instance, Steinbeck’s father was a hard-working yet financially unsuccessful man who ran a small store. In spite of his hard work he lost his store and consequently became reclusive and depressed, before finding a job as a manager in a sugar factory. Nevertheless, his father was deeply affected by the failure of his small store and this made a strong impression on his son. Steinbeck was also quite close to his grandparents, who as first generation immigrants would tell fascinating tales about exotic wildlife, crossing the Atlantic in a ship, etc. This translates into admiration for simple things and their beauty in the novels. The author assumes the role of an Epicurean philosopher apart from the more obvious role of a social commentator in these two works. The following lines from Of Mice and Men capture the author’s sense of fascination with nature and a simple way of life that were essential ingredients of his own childhood environment,
“Whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want. God a’mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an’ work, an no trouble. No mess at all, and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want ……George, on the worker’s dream: “All kin’s a vegetables in the garden, and if we want a little whisky we can sell a few eggs or something, or some milk. We’d jus’ live there. We’d belong there. There wouldn’t be no more runnin’ round the country and gettin’ fed by a Jap cook. No, sir, we’d have our own place where we belonged and not sleep in no bunk house” (63).