Class Conflict and Social/Economic Issues
As I read "Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck, I wondered if this could be considered a somewhat political novel since it seemed to me that Steinbeck is supporting the migrant workers -- the laboring class in America during the Great Depression.
Steinbeck shows how the migrant workers are taken advantage of and how they must sacrifice everything, including their dignity. A clear theme in this novel is that of class conflict, in which we see the divide between the migrant farmers and the wealthy businessmen. Steinbeck shows how these businessmen (land owners, bankers, etc) are part of the problem. Yes, the dust storm has a hand in the farmers' troubles, but it is the businessmen who push the farmers off their land and cause this great migration to California.
Steinbeck even portrays the business men/bankers are inhuman and robot-like and his anti-capitalist sentiments are clear:
"The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it."
"They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat."
These quotations are from the fifth chapter of the novel. I found this chapter especially interesting, both stylistically and in its content. A bank representative kicks some farmers off their land and replaces the famers with a man on a tractor, who can do all the work on the land that would take a hundred farmers to do. Here, we see a criticism of the mechanization of labor.
I like how Steinbeck doesn’t mention any names in this chapter and how it is mostly composed of dialogue. The identities of the characters are not important – all the reader knows is that this is about the bankers and tenant farmers. Neither group considers the other group as human. The tenant farmers view the bankers as monsters and unfeeling, whereas the bankers do not view the farmers as fellow human beings with livelihoods and needs.
Another interesting part of this chapter is when the farmer threatens to shoot the man on the tractor and blames him for his troubles. The man on the tractor responds that he is not the cause of the problem, so then the farmer blames the bankers. But the man on the tractor responds: "Maybe there's nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn't men at all."
I believe Steinbeck is trying to say that there is no single person that can be blamed for the miseries of the Great Depression and that it is really the system that is flawed. Although I believe that Steinbeck sympathizes more with the famers, I think he believes that the problem does not simply lie with the bankers/businessmen.