The power of the human Spirit in John Steinbeck’s
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Set in America during the great depression, The Grapes of Wrath opens up with the bleak backdrop of the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, where the anguished and undernourished land is a parallel to the famine and poverty which the tenants are suffering from. Steinbeck immediately draws the reader into a dire situation where, during a transitory stage from handwork to machinery, tenants cannot keep up with the developing world of technology and hence are losing the land their families for generations back have been born on, worked on, and died on.
Like countless others of that time, the Joad family has been forced to surrender their land to bank magistrates and are reduced to homeless migrants. The reader is taken on an epic yet tragic journey across America, following the Joad family westward from their home in Oklahoma all the way to the golden state of California, in search of work and opportunity.
Through the use of interchapters, Steinbeck reinforces the concept of the Joad family serving only as a representative of the plight of the migrants as a whole, and hence zooms in on the Joad family and out again to emphasize the significance of the wider spectrum encompassing all migrants suffering the same fate. The story explores in great depth the universal themes of freedom, unity perseverance, determination and generosity through the struggle for survival against all odds. As his ultimate masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck’s exposition of the strength and power of the human spirit.
From the beginning of the novel, the reader is shown the cruelty of mankind, and the inhumanity of one man to another, in the struggle for survival. The main problems of the migrants stem not from the weather or nature, but are rooted in the selfishness of other men. Throughout the novel, recurring displays of egocentricity contrast greatly with the altruism of the migrant people towards each other, and how actions become self-perpetuating and cyclical manifestations of morality.
We learn that the greed of the wealthy landowners and business men who adopted a system of profit which result in the unemployment of thousands of tenants will ultimately lead to their downfall, as expressed in the interchapter 19, “And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with all 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. (page 249) Yet we also see how a kind act is returned, when the waitress Mae, out of pity and good heartedness, drastically reduces the prices of bread and candy so that two undernourished children can eat, and how a truck driver admires her benevolence hence leaving her a very generous tip. Steinbeck goes to great lengths throughout the novel to explore the theme of unity, and the shift from “I” to “We”. This is first seen when Tom Joad returns home and becomes a unit with his family again.
The emotive description of Ma in chapter 8, “She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken… She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone. ” (Page 77-78) expresses the importance of her role as a mother – the bearer of children and bringer of life – to keep the family together.
Once on the road, the family loses their sense of home and as gradually more and more members are left behind (albeit through death or choice of solitude), Ma’s will to keep the family on numerous accounts, yet each time she ultimately triumphs. This is particularly evident in chapter 16, when a car breaks down and Tom pragmatically proposes that the rest of the family should continue ahead whilst he remains to fix the car with former reverend Jim Casy. The family all agree, except for Ma who refuses outright to go ahead and even threatens Pa with a jack handle if he dares try to force her, saying, “What we got lef’ in the worl’?
Nothin’ but us. Nothin’ but the folks… All we got is the family unbroke. I ain’t scared while we’re all here, all that’s alive, but I ain’t gonna see us bust up. ” (Page 176-177) Tom is astonished by the transformation in Ma, who he’s known all his life as the sweetest woman in his life, yet Steinbeck shows how when a mother’s family is threatened, she will go to any length to protect them and keep them together. Kinship and love between the family, particularly a mother’s unconditional love, is seen to exceed all boundaries and outlast even in the most unlikely circumstances.
When Granma dies during the night whilst the Joad family journey across the dangerous Californian dessert, Ma silently, knowingly, remains lying next to Granma’s corpse the entire night to ensure that the family got safely across the dessert. To this the Jim Casy says, “There’s a woman so great with love – she scares me. ” Coming from a former preacher, a man of philosophy and religion, serves only to highlight Ma’s rarely seen altruistic, benevolent and strong character, and the sacrifices she’s prepared to make for the good of her family.
The strength of women is explored several times throughout the novel, where during times of hardship and in the struggle for survival, women, with their maternal instincts and great love for the family, are seen to take control of the family. Pa voices his frustrations about how his role as leader of the family seems to have disappeared and to this Ma replies, “Woman can change better’n a man. Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head. ” (Page 442)
When the family begin to lose their faith, it is Ma who strongly reprimands them not to give up – “Woman, it’s all one flow… ut the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’on – changing a little, maybe, but goin’ right on… Just try to live the day, jus’ the day. ” (Page 443) The theme of personal perseverance is symbolized from the beginning in the interchapter concerning the land turtle, where its struggles and several near-death incidents foreshadow the journey of the Joad family. The Joads embody the very nature of perseverance in their determination to push on forward and their refusal to be broken by the people and situations which work against them.
This is shown most poignantly at the very end of the novel, the climax which the entire story leads up to. Despite having suffered inconceivable losses, beginning first with the death of their dog, progressing to the decease of both grandparents, to the disappearance of both Connie and Noah, the brutal murder of Jim Casy and finally when Tom has to run away, the ultimate tragedy occurs when Rose of Sharon gives birth to a stillborn baby. Rose of Sharon, who is portrayed as the self-absorbed and naive member of the family, is the bearer of hope and promise for new beginnings with her pregnancy.
However her new born baby is discovered to have “Never breathed… Never was alive” (Page 464) all hope seems to evaporate in an instant. This is the final and ultimate blow to the Joads, whom at the same time are faced with a natural catastrophe of flooding, yet miraculously, Ma and Rose of Sharon push on forward and continue to fight for survival. When Rose of Sharon offers her breast milk in an attempt to rescue a man dying of starvation, Rose of Sharon transcends to become almost angelic.
Her kindness and generosity exceed all other acts of altruism previously seen in the novel, and the miracle performed by a mother’s body seems like a holy reference from the bible. With this rather unsettling yet astounding conclusion of the novel, we are shown that even in the direst of moments, even against all the odds, there is still hope of unity and survival. The theme of unity is not only limited within the family, but extends to all other migrant workers fighting the same battle. Chapter 17 conveys this with the description of “The twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all.
The loss of home became one less and the golden time in the West was one dream. ” (Page 202) Here we are shown that hope, help and reprieve can be found in a unit. And how no one is alone – they all share the same dreams, the same aspirations and the same problems. Taking this a step further, Steinbeck takes great pains to emphasize how alone, we are weak: “I am alone and bewildered” (Page 157) Yet significantly, the change from one person to two is portrayed as the beginning of an army, as the very foundation of strength. “Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote.
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. ” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. This is the beginning of “I” to “we. “” (Page 157) Through biological references to the division of cells, we are given a powerful sense of inevitability, as nature cannot be reversed, and Steinbeck, with mention of what history has already proven, attempts to explain the inevitable very nature of mankind – “When a majority of the people are 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. ” (Page 249). The migrants may have lost their land, their jobs and their some of their loved ones, but as long as they still possess their dignity, and as long as they can unite, they can rebel and eventually take back what was stolen from them, for it is each individual’s right to fight for their own survival. And when threatened, the strength of mankind is prodigious.
Finally, Steinbeck draws an unmistakable parallel between strength and anger, or ‘wrath’, as symbolized in the very title of the novel. In both the first and the final interchapter, a scene is depicted where “The women watched the men, watched to see whether the break had come at last… And where a number of men gathered, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief, for they know it was all right – the break had not come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath. (Page 455)
This is one of the most significant themes of human strength in the novel, emphasized in the way Steinbeck chose to depict this scene both in the beginning and ending, imploring us to understand the inevitable and very foundation of human nature – that anger is what fuels people to go on when there is nothing left, that anger and unity merging together and directed against a common enemy is the ultimate weapon, and is what will enable a man to continue fighting forever.
For as long as there is wrath, there cannot be despair, and neither will there be surrender. Through the use of colloquial dialogue between characters, numerous references to biblical statements, insightful interchapters and events which befall the Joad family, Steinbeck has effectively conveyed his concern for the human spirit, , his views on human nature and the many admirable qualities of mankind provided that they unite together to persevere.
His alternating descriptions of delicate relationships between family members and the relationship with a man in harmony and unison with the land he works on contrasts greatly to the hardships of the reality of life for a migrant who is alienated and ostracized within his own country. The Grapes of Wrath is not a story about one family’s journey across America in search of work, but a timeless embodiment for all the migrant workers and families who suffered and fought for their survival. And despite the great number of tragedies on human lives, Steinbeck is tells us that the human spirit has the potential to endure and survive anything.