The Joads experience many hardships, deprivations, and deaths, and at the end of the novel are barely surviving. Nevertheless, the mood of the novel is optimistic. This positive feeling is derived from the growth of the Joad family as they begin to realize a larger group consciousness at the end of the novel. The development of this theme can be seen particularly in Ma Joad; from her focus on keeping the family together to her recognition of the necessity of identifying with the group. “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do,” Ma says in the final chapter.
Hope comes from the journey that educates and enlightens some of the Joads, including Ma, Tom, Pa, John, Rose of Sharon, and also Jim Casy. On the surface, the family’s long journey is an attempt at the “good life,” the American dream. Yet this is not the only motive. In fact, the members of the family who cannot see beyond this materialistic goal leave the family along the way: Noah, Connie, and Al. The Joads travel from their traditional life that offered security, through chaos on the road, and on into California. There, they look for a new way of life, and a larger understanding of the world. Whether or not the Joads live or die in California after the flood, their journey has been successful. Optimism survives, as the people survive, because they want to understand and master their lives in the face of continual discouragement.
B Class Conflict
The conflict in the novel between the impoverished migrants and the established, secure business people and Californians serves as a strong criticism of economic injustice. In fact, The Grapes of Wrath can be read as a social comment on the economic disasters of the time. The migrants’ agrarian way of life has all but disappeared, threatened not only by nature’s drought and dust storms, but also by big farms and financial establishments, called “the Bank.” At the beginning of the novel, the owners and the banks push the tenants off of their land. Later the arrival of hundreds of thousands of poor people causes conflict in California.
The migrants represent trouble for businessmen in the form of higher taxes, labor unions, and possible government interference. The potential for future conflict is understood by all the business owners: if the migrants ever organize, they will seriously threaten the financial establishment. The Joads’s travails dramatize such economic and social conflicts. In California, the conflict between the two sides grows violent as the migrants’ desperation increases. The government camps are harassed or even burned down by angry state residents with financial interests.
There are also conflicts within the family that reflect the materialistic concerns of this class conflict. Rose of Sharon is preoccupied with her pregnancy and daydreams of the future. Her husband, Connie, wanted to stay in Oklahoma, and he does little to help the family on the road. Finally he disappears. Uncle John is consumed with worry and frustration. The children, Ruthie and Winfield, are selfish and restless. The hardships of dispossessed families are made personal and individual in the account of the Joads.
Fanaticism-both as a religious fundamentalism and as a social phenomenon-is condemned in the novel. During Tom’s first meeting with Jim Casy, the former preacher talks about his discovery that organized religion denies life, particularly sexuality. He in fact had found a connection between the “Holy Spirit” and sexuality when he was a preacher. Later, in the government camp, Rose of Sharon is frightened by a fanatic religious woman’s warning that dancing is sinful and that it means that Rose of Sharon will lose her baby. In addition, the religious fanatic tells Ma that religion approves of an economic class system that incorporates poverty. She tells Ma: “(A preacher) says they’s wicketness in that camp. He says, ‘The poor is tryin’ to be rich.’ He says, ‘They’s dancin’ an’ huggin’ when they should be wailin’ an’ moanin’ in sin.’” This type of religious fanaticism is shown to be a denial of life and is associated with business in its economic deprivation and denial.
One of the most profound lessons from the story of the Joads and their real-life American counterparts is that one of the causes of the crises of the 1930s in California was social fanaticism and prejudice shown to the “Okies.” The fear of the migrants, combined with the lack of faith in the government’s ability to solve the temporary problems, often caused violence. It also led to such shameful events as starvation, malnutrition, and homelessness. In retrospect, it is obvious that World War II “solved” the migrant problem by absorbing the manpower into the war effort. How much better it would have been if California had developed emergency solutions for this period of great social transition that could have served as an historical example.
D Individual vs. Society
The novel demonstrates the individual’s instinct to organize communities within the groups of migrants in roadside camps. “In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.” The people cooperate because it is beneficial to their welfare in order to survive. Yet Steinbeck develops the concept of the group beyond the political, social, and moral level to include the mystical and transcendental. Jim Casy reflects this when he says: “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of.” The conversion of Tom, Ma, Rose of Sharon, and Casy to a “we” state of mind occurs over the course of the novel. As they gradually undergo suffering, they learn to transcend their own pain and individual needs. At the end, all four are able to recognize the nature and needs of others. The process of transcendence that occurs in these characters illustrates Steinbeck’s belief in the capacity of humanity to move from what he calls an “I” to a “We” consciousness.
The Joads are also on an inward journey. For them, suffering and homelessness become the means for spiritual growth and a new consciousness. Ma sums up this new consciousness and what it means to her when she says: “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody.” Yet although each of the four characters undergoes a spiritual transformation, each also finds an individual way to help others in the world and to take action. At the end, Tom has decided to become a leader in the militant organizing of the migrants. Ma accepts her commitments to people other than her family. Rose of Sharon loses her baby but comes to understand the “we” of the starving man to whom she blissfully gives life as if he were her child. Casy, who has been jailed, reappears as a strike leader and union organizer, having discovered that he must work to translate his understanding of the holiness of life into social action. Casy dies when vigilantes attack the strikers and kill him first.
Steinbeck makes clear that this potential for transcendental consciousness is what makes human beings different from other creatures in nature. In Chapter 14, Steinbeck describes humanity’s willingness to “die for a concept” as the “one quality [that] is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.”
Steinbeck develops extensively the theme of social commitment. Both Casy and Tom were inspired to make Christ-like sacrifices. When Jim Casy surrenders to the deputies in place of Tom and Floyd, Jim is acting on his commitment to love all people. He later becomes a labor organizer and dies in his efforts. His statement to Tom, “An’ sometimes I love ’em fit to bust….” exemplifies his commitment. In Tom, the development of commitment is even more striking. At the beginning of the novel, Tom is determined to avoid involvement with people. After his experiences on the journey and through his friendship with Casy, Tom becomes committed to social justice. His commitment extends to a mystical identification with the people. When Ma worries that Tom might also be killed like Casy, Tom tells her: “Then I’ll be ever’where-wherever you look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build-why I’ll be there.”