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The Grapes of Wrath: A Criticism of Capitalism

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Prompt: Is Steinbeck advocating communism w/ “Grapes”?

Thesis: John Steibeck severly criticizes capitalsim in his novel The Grapes of Wrath, but is not advocating communism.

John Steinbeck took a chance when he published The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. He wrote a clear criticism of capitalism at a time when the United States was experiencing the remnants of a 1920s “red scare”. He begins the novel by showing the reader the sickness of capitalism, then reveals the greed of those men who support it. Steinbeck mainly criticizes the large landowners and banks for being insensitive and disconnected from the people. The poor migrant workers are almost always seen as better people, much more caring and generous.

Steinbeck’s criticism of capitalism reveals itself to be especially evident in the beginning of the novel. He refers to the land-owning banks as “monsters;” “If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them” (Page 42). He uses Interchapter 5 to tell the stories of the families that have fallen victim to this monster (the bank) of capitalism. The family is unable to farm the poor soil, and so the monster sees that it is its duty to make better, more profitable use of the land. The farming family protests, claiming the land as theirs, what they have relied on for generations. But the men sent by the bank counter their claims, telling them the bank must keep growing bigger to keep alive, and in the end, the farming family gets their land taken. Their lives as they know them are destroyed because a bank – a monster – exercised the freedoms that capitalism granted it.

From the dusty Oklahoma farmland, the novel moves to another part of the world that Steinbeck portrays as being corrupted by capitalism. Interchapter 19 tells the story of greedy Americans that came to Mexican-owned California in desperate want of land to call their own. “The Mexicans were weak and fed. They could not resist, because they wanted nothing in the world as frantically as the Americans wanted land” (Page 315). He then goes on to tell about the land being transformed from a treasure and home of those who live there to a posession valued by prinicpal plus interest; the farms grow larger and the owners fewer. This is an example of Steinbeck clearly criticizing the landowners for being insensitive and out of touch with the land, which he seems to feel is a common side effect of capitalism.

As the novel moves on once again, Steibeck describes the cruelty of the landowners who use their corrupt power to work men to death and manipulate them to work for slave wages during the Joad’s search for work. A prime example of how the landowners take advantage of men is their method of getting ridiculously cheap labor by sending out many more handbills than necessary so that more people come. That way, the migrant workers fight over work, offering lower and lower wages. Here Steinbeck is portraying capitalism as a disgusting system, leaving entire families with nothing more than a couple of dollars a day to live on.

Even though Steinbeck obviously has a distaste for capitalism, he is not necessarily advocating communism. He is instead sending out the message that in order for our society to be successful, everyone in it needs to work together as a community. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be able to make as much money as they want, but to be aware of how their actions are affecting their fellow citizens. Steinbeck proves this at Weedpatch camp: the community there is very successful, because everyone gives help when it is needed, kin or not. People are still allowed to make as much money and do whatever they want, as long as it is not harmful to another person. Steinbeck is truly just advocating the need of a balance between the capitalist the communist, the strong and the weak, the poor and the wealthy.

Comments/Suggestions: My teacher thought I could have explained the quote I used in the beginning of the 2nd paragraph, and used a quote to support “The farming family protests…” toward the end of the paragraph. He also thought I could have used a supporting quote somewhere in the 4th paragraph.

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