The road is the place where we put the people we don't want to see.
Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas morality tale, A Christmas Carol
, features in it’s middle, during Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present, a scathing indictment of the Victorian practice of “workhouses.” These were institutions set up for the London poor where the homeless were given hard beds, meagre food and backbreaking labor to keep them off the streets and out of sight of polite society. Early on in the story, when confronted with poverty before his face and presented the opportunity to alleviate it, Scrooge cries in his curmudgeonly way “Are there no workhouses?” During his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present, the Ghost introduces Scrooge to two allegorical children who are orphaned and will soon be dead. Scrooge meekly asks if they have any family who may alleviate their suffering. Disgusted with Scrooge’s meagre compassion, the Ghost throws his earlier words back in his face, embracing the children and bellowing “Are there no workhouses?”
In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
, the road is the workhouse. Rather than being the secret to American greatness, the road in this story is a prison. It is the place society has shuffled off those it feels it does not need so that they will not clog up the public square, or the courthouse. The refrain of those people who encounter the migrant Okies is that they should go. Go away. There is no work here. There’s no place here. Get back on that road. Get out of my sight.
And the road, like the workhouse, is the only option for the dispossessed. At each new place some reason to leave presents itself early and forcefully. The burning of Hooverville. The starvation at the weed patch. Tom’s second murder. Each leaves no choice but to return to the road.
And the road, it seems, is poisonous.
The longer the family remains on the road, the longer the great tribe of dispossessed farmers remains on the road, the more the family, or the tribe, begins to rot. The conditions will destroy the weak of constitution, like grandma and grampa. The hard life will drive away those who, rightly or not, think they can have a better life alone and settled, like Connie and Noah.
The road is poisonous to this group of people. It will kill them, and their tribe, and their way of life. The life of the sedentary farmer, who farms his own land and lives off it, will vanish, at least for a time. It will be returned to, but by those who are taking the example of this destroyed people, not its rightful heirs. Those will all have died or become the other type of people. The type the system appears to want. Consumers, if we want to inject an air of politics into the discussion.
But I don’t think The Grapes of Wrath
is a story about politics, though the language occasionally indicates a political symptom and a political cure. I think this is an essentially moral story. It is a story, like A Christmas Carol
, about compassion. All the polemic language that caused the right of the time to repudiate the book as communist propaganda, and the left to embrace it as an endorsement, is rather a broad appeal to basic human compassion.
These people are starving. People shouldn’t starve. But when saving people from starving requires the sacrifice of that which people deem necessary to their own survival, rightly or not, they will come up with excuses why these people, perhaps, should starve. They’re not really people. There aren’t really all that many of them. Many more might starve if they didn’t. But the fact remains that people are starving, and capitalists and communists alike can agree that people shouldn’t starve.