When John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was published on March 14, 1939, it created a national sensation by focusing on the devastating effects of the Great Depression. Beyond the setting, though, which is important in and of itself, The Grapes of Wrath is compelling in its focus on society, human nature, and the hierarchical vision of "class," in a supposedly classless society. The Grapes of Wrath focuses on the 1930s, where a combination of weather (Dust Bowl) and economic downturn (the 1929 Stock Market Crash and reverberations) caused millions of Americans to lose work, become displaced, and flee middle America towards the "promised land" of California. The central characters, the Joad family, are Steinbeck's camera into the lives of the poor and downtrodden, their hopes, dreams, aspirations, and failures -- and through the Joad experience, the reader is able to juxtapose the very nature of mankind -- good and evil, greed and charity, and kindness and arrogance -- all the dualities of human nature, and what challenging times bring to the forefront in humanity. Because of the universal nature of the subject, we can review the themes in a number of ways. Two views that particularly lend themselves to the theme are those of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud -- both of which are seminal in their influence in 20th century literature, politics, and even cultural expression.
Overview of Plot -- Tom Joad, recently paroled from prison, returns to his childhood farm to find it deserted. His family, thrown to the edged of poverty by the Dust Bowl weather in the Midwest, have no home and, based on handbills distributed in the area (Oklahoma) are moving to the "beautiful and fruitful" country of California. Immediately, the Joads find the road crammed with other families, all entranced with the same idea -- new jobs, higher wages, and paradise in this warm land to the west.
Despite some tragedies along the way, loss of Grandma and Grandpa, departure of Noah (eldest son) and Connie (the husband of the pregnant Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon), they have no choice but to go forward. When they arrive, there is both an oversupply of labor and a distinct class "war" between the big corporate farmers and the poor arriving from Oklahoma. The utter tragedy is that their dream -- a house, family, steady job, new life -- is juxtaposed with the New Deal camp, "Weedpatch."
However, in response to the exploitation of labor, many of the workers begin to join unions. Tom, in fact, is inadvertently thrown into a strike that turns violent, and is forced to kill again and become a fugitive. He leaves the family, promising that he will remain a dedicated advocate for the oppressed. Rose of Sharon's baby is born stillborn, but, in a striking symbolic act that defies all the oppression and negativity put upon the family, Rose acts out of love for humanity by breast feeding a man too sick from starvation to eat. Throughout it all, Ma Joad remained steadfast, optimistic, and stolid in her belief that with faith and familial love, all will persevere.
Marx - Karl Marx was one of the most influential political and social philosophers of the 19th century. He and Freidrich Engels wrote "The Communist Manifesto" in response to working and social conditions in the Industrialized world, and their views were expanded by Russians Lenin and Stalin, China's Mao, Cuba's Castro and Guevara, and numerous other social thinkers of the 19th and 20th century (Singer, 2001). Marx viewed history as one of continual class struggle. This struggle was apparent in that the ancient world (slavery) gave way to feudalism, capitalism replaced feudalism, and eventually, the historical dialectic would allow the workers to overthrow the bourgeoisie and form a stateless, classless society called pure communism. Historical materialism says society is determined by the material conditions at any given time:
At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or - this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms - with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure (Marx, Manifesto).
Freud -- Freud (1856-1939) was a Jewish Austrian neurologist who founded the branch of psychiatry called the psychoanalytic model. He is best known for his theories of the unconscious mind, repression, and for his innovative methods of treating psychopathology through therapist-patient dialog (analysis) (Aguayo, 1986). Psychology and psychoanalytical theory does not develop or evolve in a vacuum. Instead, it is more typical that it builds upon past theories that lead to more robust explanations of what a new scholar might interpret. For instance, the psychoanalytical (aka psychodynamic) approach was developed by Sigmund Freud and focuses upon the manner in which the individual's unconscious fears, motivations, thoughts, and desires all influence the current and future personality. Freud believed there were three components of one's personality, an id, an ego, and a super ego. The id functions in the irrational and emotional part of the mind. At birth a baby's mind is "a bundle of id." It contains all the basic needs and feelings. It is the source for libido and it has only one rule, the "pleasure principle." The ego functions as the gatekeeper for the rational mind. By its very nature, it acknowledges that there is need for compromise and negotiates between the Id and the Superego. The Ego's job is to get the Id's pleasures but to be reasonable and bear the long-term consequences in mind. The Ego denies both instant gratification and pious delaying of gratification. The Super Ego functions with the moral part of the mind. It stores and enforces rules. Its power to enforce rules comes from its ability to create anxiety. Jung embellished this typology by organizing it into ways personalities live in the world -- function/attitudes of extraversion and intraversion. In addition, there are four basic personality functions that provide a model for the manner in which the individual gathers data about the work: Sensing, Intuition, Thinking, and Feeling (Sharp 1987).
Historical Accuracy and Interpretation -- While the Joad family was fictional, they are clearly Steinbeck's amalgamation of a number of stories he personally heard, or families he observed during this sad time. The 1929 stock market crash was a result of greed and unregulated speculating by banks, but the resulting collapse of the economy and "faith" in the system, plus poor farming practices in the Midwest and a series of poor harvests and bad weather resulted in the Great Depression. Steinbeck grew up during the Depression and wrote of his experiences, but with a human face (Windschuffle 2002).
Americans were so desperate for money, and had so many foreclosures of property, businesses and homes, that they were forced to move and live the best they could. Despite President Hoover's attempts at renovating American agriculture, his policies were largely ineffective. Franklin Roosevelt was elected by a landslide in 1932, and immediately, despite a vocal group of critics in Washington, promoted a "New Deal," a series of programs designed to put people back to work, aid the unemployed, create a way to improve the country's infrastructure and ailing agricultural sector, and, above all, provide hope to millions of Americans. In some ways, the character of Ma Joad echoes much of Roosevelt's psychology -- keep the faith, believe in humanity, be kind, and life will improve. For instance:
Ma cleared her throat. "It ain't kin we? It's will we?" she said firmly. "As far as 'kin,' we can't do nothin', not go to California or nothin'; but as far as 'will,' why, we'll do what we will. An' as far as 'will'-it's a long time our folks been here and east before, an' I never heerd tell of no Joads or no Hazletts, neither, ever refusin' food an' shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that asked. They's been mean Joads, but never that mean." Ma Joad (10:5).
In line with the historical nature of the novel, during May of 1939, as the Nazis were burning books throughout Germany, the people of Bakersfield California did exactly the same thing with The Grapes of Wrath. The attempts to ban the book, and then the subsequent show burnings of the material, were orchestrated by rich local growers: men who were busy exploiting scores of Joad-type families, the very men Steinbeck exposed in his novel. As a pretext, the growers cited, among other things, Steinbeck's use of foul language (bastard, bitch) and vivid scenes such as Rose of Sharon sharing her breast milk. One lone librarian, Gretchen Knief, led the charge against the censors, but the book -- by then a Pulitzer Prize winner -- remained banned a year…