What social morals is Steinbeck teaching us?
At the conclusion of any journey, whether it’s a vacation to the tropics or a road trip across the country in a desperate search for a new life, it’s important to ask yourself what has changed; how who you are now is different from the person who began the journey. It can be something quite small, like a newfound appreciation for your home or a tan. In reading The Grapes of Wrath
as a travel narrative, we can learn a great deal by asking similar questions about the Joads’ odyssey. What do they have that they didn’t have before? What did they lose? How hav they changed?
Perhaps the most obvious lessons the Joads—and the reader—are left with are of a political nature. As I’ve discussed in past blog posts, the setting and narrative of the story are emblematic of a turning point of American history, so it only makes sense that we should be left with an idea or two about America’s social, political, and cultural identity. Steinbeck has been accused of exhibiting Marxist opinions in The Grapes of Wrath
for his apparent endorsement of unions, his depictions of elite capitalists, and his idealization of the Depression-era working class. It’s certainly true that The Grapes of Wrath
has a political message, and that message can be described as liberal. Throughout the novel, Steinbeck lays moral blame on wealthy land-owning elites, from the heartless banker who forecloses on the Joads to the plantation owners who use false promises to drive down wages to the farms that destroy and poison unused crops, starving the masses in the process. It is clear that Steinbeck sees a villainy behind the Depression, not just a natural self-correcting disaster
However, I believe it is incorrect to characterize the novel a Marxist piece for a number of reasons. Steinbeck uses the utopia (I use that term loosely) of Weedpatch to demonstrate that he believes democratic government can be the answer to the problem of the Depression, not just a roadblock to the proletariat’s revolution against the upper class. This is a classic New Deal philosophy
, in which government is seen as a guiding force, not an oppressive machine owned by capitalists. Perhaps most importantly, Steinbeck illustrates to those who would be called Communist at the time—labor organizers, unemployed migrants, etc.—in a very capitalist light. Thousands of laborers go across the country in a search for work. The migrants’ drive is not to destroy or even reform the capitalist marketplace, but to enter the capitalist marketplace. Their complaints with capitalists are not against capitalism’s system of selling labor, but their inability to do so in their circumstances. They want
to work for capitalists, even for “a cup of flour and a spoonful of lard.”
Ultimately, I believe any purely political reading of this novel is incomplete. Steinbeck’s moral code is not contained entirely even by the New Deal liberalism he supported. This is, after all, a family drama, and the family does not change their social status, uproot the political system, or get eliminated by an impersonal nonhuman entity like “Government” or “Capitalism.” Herbert Hoover is not a character in the novel. In the final paragraph we see a real transformation from Rose of Sharon, who despite a self-absorbed teenage personality, incomprehensible financial loss, and the grim tragedy of a stillborn child, is still capable of accessing a primal compassion for a pathetic stranger which brings her a “mysterious” happiness. Yes, Steinbeck wants us to have a socioeconomic order which rehumanizes those we see as unworthy. However, above all The Grapes of Wrath
prioritizes the small, the personal sense of compassion and human dignity on an individual-to-individual level that can not be lost even in the most dire of circumstances.
Below, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) attempts to assuage Ma’s fear for his safety. In doing so, he illustrates Steinbeck’s belief that in order to have a just society, individuals must look past their own personal needs and safety and recognize the importance of a collective self. This rejection of total self-interested individualism is important both to Steinbeck’s philosophy and the philosophy of the Left today.