The representation of the American working class in “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath" is a powerful representation of the American working class during the Great Depression. The story follows the Joad family as they leave their Oklahoma farm in search of work and a better life in California. Through vivid artistic images and details, Steinbeck captures the struggles, hopes, and dreams of the working-class people during this turbulent time in American history.
From the very beginning of the novel, Steinbeck paints a picture of the harsh realities of the working-class life. The Joad family is forced to leave their home due to the economic hardships brought on by the Dust Bowl, a time of severe drought and soil erosion in the Midwest. Steinbeck describes the desolate landscape with hauntingly beautiful imagery, "The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country" (Steinbeck 2). The dust storms that ravage the land and threaten the livelihood of the farmers are depicted as monstrous creatures, "The dust was long in settling back again. When it did settle, two men emerged from the jumble. One was a fat man. The other was his opposite, a thin man" (Steinbeck 4).
The Joads' journey to California is fraught with hardship and danger, as they encounter prejudice, exploitation, and violence. The family members are forced to take low-paying jobs in the fields, where they work long hours under harsh conditions. Steinbeck portrays the workers as being treated like animals, "The contractor and the owner and the driver were all in a row. The owner stood behind his men, and he was bored. The contractor was interested and alive, but he had to watch the owner. The driver looked down at the ground" (Steinbeck 311).
The exploitation of the workers is further highlighted in the scene where the Joads are camping with other migrant workers, "The women worked over the fire, hurrying to get the beans done, to get back to the tents and to bed. The children squatted in the dust and watched, their eyes big and worried" (Steinbeck 118). The desperation of the workers is palpable, as they struggle to make ends meet and provide for their families.
However, amidst the hardships, there are also moments of solidarity and hope among the workers. The scene where the Joads share their food with another family is a powerful example of the compassion and resilience of the working class. Steinbeck portrays the workers as being united in their struggle, "For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. 'You got to,' she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. 'There!' she said. 'There.' Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously" (Steinbeck 455).
Through vivid artistic images and details, Steinbeck captures the struggles, hopes, and dreams of the working-class people during this turbulent time in American history. The novel portrays the harsh realities of the working-class life, including exploitation, prejudice, and violence, but also highlights the compassion, solidarity, and resilience of the workers. Steinbeck's use of imagery and details creates a vivid and visceral experience for the reader, immersing them in the world of the Joad family and the other migrant workers.
One of the key themes of the novel is the idea of the American Dream and how it is often unattainable for the working class. The Joads' journey to California is fueled by the hope of finding work and a better life, but they soon discover that the reality is far from the dream. The workers are constantly exploited by the wealthy landowners and corporations, who view them as disposable and replaceable. The workers are seen as a means to an end, a way to increase profits for the owners, rather than as human beings with their own needs and desires.
Steinbeck also portrays the pervasive prejudice and discrimination that the workers face, both from the authorities and from other members of society. The workers are often portrayed as being dirty, lazy, and unintelligent, stereotypes that are used to justify their exploitation and mistreatment. The authorities are often hostile towards the workers, viewing them as a threat to law and order, rather than as people in need of assistance and support.
Despite the harsh realities that the workers face, there are moments of solidarity and hope throughout the novel. The Joads and other workers form bonds with each other, sharing what little they have and supporting each other through difficult times. The scene where Rose of Sharon gives birth to a stillborn child, but then breastfeeds a starving man, is a powerful symbol of the workers' compassion and resilience.
Through his portrayal of the American working class in "The Grapes of Wrath", John Steinbeck highlights the injustices and hardships that they faced during the Great Depression, while also celebrating their humanity and resilience. The novel remains a timeless classic, a powerful reminder of the struggles and triumphs of the working class, and a call to action for social justice and equality.