The Police and other powerful members of the society harass the Joad family and thousands of other migrating farmers who do not know where their next meal is going to come from and don’t have a roof over their heads. Owners of large areas of farmland, needing laborers to pick the harvested fruits quickly during the all too brief harvesting season, attract these nomadic and desperate laborers to work in their fields with false promises of a prosperous future. Later, when there is a surplus pool of workers, the owners turn opportunistic and start paying lesser wages, which cannot even cover food expenses. To top it all, the farmers are asked to leave as soon as the harvesting is done. But there is more cruel treatment awaiting the poor migrants from government institutions. After the harvest is complete, the police steps in to expel the workers so that the land owners can continue living in a pollution free environment. Having helped the rich people and protecting their profit margins, the itinerant families were pushed onto the road in a state of hunger, despair and poverty. This sentiment is succinctly put together in the following profound words:
“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people is hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed….how can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him–he has known a fear beyond every other.”
The author adopts a microscopic approach to these novels, bringing out the small nuances and subtleties that give color and character to domestic life. The Joad family is described in great detail, with the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of its members brought forth effectively. Starting with the grandparents, Steinbeck covers three generations of rural farmers living in Oklahoma. The grandparents succumb to old age and despair. The three adult men in the family have taken their own course and have left the clan, with one of them taking an illegal path. Another member is misled by advertisements of non-existent job opportunities and abandons his pregnant wife in search of money. But in spite of these departures, the rest of the clan hold together and support each other in any way possible. This pattern reaches its climax when Rose of Sharon, their heavily pregnant daughter goes into labor. But tragically, due to the turmoil of the long travel westward and lack of proper nutrition, Rose of Sharon was too malnourished to deliver a healthy baby. In the end she barely manages to survive the ordeal of giving birth to a still born baby, by which time the torrential rain was flooding their dwelling. To escape from the floods, the family members are forced to climb a hill, where they find a man and his child in a barn whose walls have partially crumbled. In one of the most touching moments in the novel, Rose of Sharon, seeing that the stranger in the barn had not had any food for a long time, feeds him her breast milk. With it the novel comes to an end. This is certainly the most poignant moment in the whole of the novel and certainly a very powerful end to what is arguably the most influential American novel from the staples of “social realism” in the nineteenth century. And John Steinbeck’s social awareness had had no small part to play in its final impact, as the following passage illustrates
“Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the State like a great sorrow . . . . and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage….”
The Grapes of Wrath, while finding favor with most readers, was severely condemned by the ruling classes. The capitalist classes, who then had a monopoly stranglehold on the American economy, saw a threat to their way of life in this book. Hence, a campaign of banishing the book began which continues to this day. The remarkable success of the novel should be seen in light of these attempts at censorship and control. The battle for free publication and access to the book even reached the floor of the House of Representatives, where reactionary politicians heaped abuse on the book and its author and suggested severe punishment for the latter. But fortunately, the novel survived mainly because of support from the then President and the First lady, who were more sympathetic to the plight of the working classes.