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1939, John Steinbeck published his novel The Grapes of Wrath, and that same year the film version of the story was released. The film was directed by John Ford and was very popular, and the book and the film together reached millions of people. In writing this novel, Steinbeck reflected many of the social, economic, and political currents of the time. The story is set in the Great Depression era, and the Depression was still have its effect in 1939. What would bring about the end of the Great Depression was already starting in Europe, meaning World War II, which does not impinge directly on the story of the Joad family but which we can see from our standpoint today was about to bring about massive changes in American society. The very nature of the story of the Joads, however, links that story to the Depression and its effect on the fortunes of farmers and others in the 1930s.
John Steinbeck shows that common people like the Joads are affected by economic changes which are not of their own making. At the same time, this family is still responsible for many of its own problems. It is evident that Steinbeck is dealing with larger economic forces and ideas, and he demonstrates this with the interchapters in which he does not directly advance the story of the Joad family but instead provides increased depth and broader significance to the novel by giving background, discussing issues of the time, and offering an external perspective on the Depression. Here, Steinbeck can expand on his view of a class struggle in American society as the immigrants who have nothing move toward the landowners who have much:
The western land, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States, nervous as horses before a thunder storm. The great owners, nervous, sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change... The causes lie deep and simple -- the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times... (Steinbeck 192).
The world of the Joads exists on wheels. These are people who lived by the land but who have now been removed from the land, set adrift in a truck and pointed toward California as the promised land that will get them out of their economic troubles. This is a wrenching experience for the whole family:
Every night a world created, complete with furniture -- friends made and enemies established; a world complete with braggarts and with cowards, with quiet men, with humble men, with kindly men (Steinbeck 250).
The world of the Joad stands as a representation of the rest of America. More and more, this is a world living more rapidly, with friends made and lost in a single night, with households created and dismantled in one day. The actions of the Joads show how Americans developed their nation and how they improved every aspect of their lives because they had no choice:
The families moved westward, and the technique of building the worlds improved so that the people could be safe in their worlds; and the form was so fixed that a family acting in the rules knew it was safe in the rules (Steinbeck 251).
There is clearly a contradiction in this -- the family thought it knew the rules when it built its farm and worked it for years, and yet those rules did not bring the security these families secure at all. Indeed, the rules did change, and this left the family as it is now -- migrating from it home to the unknown, recreating itself each day, trying to hold the family together in the face of a variety of forces dedicated to tearing it apart.
Certain factors affect the Joad family. Such factors either push people from one are to another or attract them with promises of change and betterment. Both factors operate in the story of the Joads, for they are pushed off their land in the Dust Bowl and are drawn to a new life in California. In both cases, they are given little choice in what happens to them. The one thing that keeps the family going is a certain internal cohesiveness that comes to center on Ma Joad as the one constant on which they can rely, though she is given a great burden by the circumstance so that she not only has to care for her brood but also try to keep it together in the face of numerous forces trying to divide the family and disperse it across the country.
The important factor is the drought. The Joads have farmed this land for a long time and have dreamed of remaining there, working the land for generations and passing it from father to son. The drought kills that dream just as it kills the land itself. Steinbeck indicates that the people are at fault for some of what happens because they have grown the wrong crops for too long, thus leaving the land vulnerable to climatic change. When the weather changes and the crops die, the people have nothing left on which to live -- no money, no crops, no future. The banks are in no position to help them even if they were so inclined, and foreclosures are taking land away from people who have lived and worked there for their whole lives. The Joads cannot make a living on this land. Because there is a Depression on, the men cannot find work anywhere else in the area, for everyone in the state is experiencing the same economic problems and the same losses.
Steinbeck describes the change that came over Oklahoma in a way that links it directly to family structure and to the meaning of the disintegration of the Joad family. He notes how the people came out of their houses and smelled the air, finding a change coming and worrying about what it would mean:
The women knew it was all right, and the watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole (Steinbeck 7).
This is precisely the problem facing the Joads -- the men are no longer whole because their means of livelihood has been taken from them. When they reach California, much of their humanity is taken from them as they are denied basic human rights. They cannot work, they cannot feed their families, they have no dignity, and they have no standing in the eyes of the law.
As noted, Steinbeck includes interchapters that go outside the story of the Joads. Caldwell notes that there are thirty chapters in the novel and that they follow a regular pattern of alternation between impersonal and panoramic accounts of conditions or social forces and the Joad story proper. Overall, her analysis shows that the structure of the book involves the working out of a consistent plan of alternating social and economic observations with chapters of the narrative (Caldwell 115-119).
Groene discusses The Grapes of Wrath and shows that it reveals the strong influence of agrarian thinking, meaning a belief in the frontier, the myth of the garden, and the dream of an agricultural paradise in the West, ideas that can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others. The impact is obvious in the characterization of the Joads and other tenant farmers. Steinbeck's agrarian ideals are also manifested in a mistrust of mechanization and industrialization, and in the novel machines destroy the close bond between Man and Nature. The tractor in particular threatens the self-sufficient and satisfying life of the small farmer. At the same time, Steinbeck acknowledged that nineteenth century ideals were unable to provide solutions to the problems of the agricultural revolution. The Joads find that the frontier is closed (Groene 27-29). To some degree, such a view can be seen as a challenge to the view Americans have of themselves, which may also have contributed to efforts to ban the book and suppress this message.
In The Grapes of Wrath, the American Dream is perverted by a national crisis, by economic change, by climatic change, and by the despair that sets in among a people who see no way out of their dilemma. The people who moved West in this migration were escaping from the heartland of America and seeking the American Dream in a new place, in the golden land of California:
The Depression forced many Americans to redefine their goals for the future -- to imagine a life that would be meaningful in the face of lean material circumstances. They looked to former times for heritage that could offer guidance (Banks xxiv).
The Great Depression started with the stock market crash in 1929. This came after a period in which millions of Americans bought stocks as people rushed to get in on the economic boom of the late 1920s. This boom would prove to be an illusion:
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