What follows is a research paper I wrote for my english class last year. Enjoy (ha!). Feel free to add or msg your comments.


Andrew McDaniel

December 1999

A literary comparison between "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Native Son".


Richard Wright’s Native Son and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath both provide a window into the oppression of the poor. The two novels are crafted to show the conditions and inhumane treatment of the ethnic groups the respective novels deal with. While one might expect such groups to be light years apart, a study of both works shows many common threads. In Native Son, one man struggles to define himself in a world in which his people have been historically oppressed. In The Grapes of Wrath, an entire culture of people, again, struggle to find existence after being uprooted and dispersed by a more powerful class. Both share traits of poverty, a struggle for existence and legitimacy, and repression by a ruling class. An examination of these novels reveals a common thread of repression by a more powerful ruling class or society, who oftentimes exploit the lower class for personal gain.

The realistic world Steinbeck creates in The Grapes of Wrath is one of suffering and oppression. Through the story of the Joads, Steinbeck draws attention to very real social problems of the time. The Joads are very real people, which allows the reader to sympathize with their plight. As one critic states: "In the fate of one such family — the Joads of Oklahoma — Steinbeck has told the fate of all" (Kronenberger, 24). Certainly, the tale of the Joads parallels countless numbers of migrant peoples during the depression.

The world the Joads are thrust into after being uprooted is harsh and gruesome. Without a home, and without a stable income, often they are left guessing where, if when, their next meal will come.

This world is is partly intentional, on behalf of the business community, to create a system of cheap labor. The lazier-faire capitalism has created a rampant practice of worker abuse and manipulation. One such critic describes the process:

"Throughout the Southwest hundreds of small farmers and share-croppers have been driven, by the banks and the big land owners, from their farms — to move westward ... To California, because handbills lure them their with promises of work. But the real purpose of the handbills is to flood the California market with such a surplus of workers that the price of labor sinks to almost nothing. Hungry men, by accepting lower wages, oust ill-paid men from their jobs; then, in desperation, the ousted men snatch the jobs back at wages even lower. The result is a horde of the starving and homeless, living in filth in roadside camps, forever wandering, all thought of security ended" (Kronenberger, 23-24).

Such a system as described in Steinbeck's novel is designed to lock people into a life of poverty, with no hope of escaping. This process is cruel and un-loving. A predominant theme of The Grapes of Wrath is the reform of unrestricted capitalism. Steinbeck describes one such result of the then current system in a chilling passage:

"The works of the roots of the vines, and of the tress, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. A million people hungry, needing fruit — and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains." (Steinbeck, 362-363).

In short, Steinbeck argues that the greed of the large land owners results in the suffering of untold numbers of migrant people. Their children starve, while tons of food rot, in order to decrease supply, and increase prices. "And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates — died of malnutrition — because the food must rot, must be forced to rot" (Steinbeck 363).

Steinbeck also describes an acute hatred of the migrant peoples from the land owners. The slur "Okie" is commonly heard, referring not just to natives of Oklahoma, but any migrant worker in general. When any attempt to organize a labor union is made, its leaders are swiftly arrested on trumped up charges by corrupt law officers. If that will not silence them, they are inevitably killed, as was Jim Casey.

The novel is very much a political tool. One of Steinbeck's clear goals is to raise awareness about the abuse by a powerful business sector. This accounts for much of the controversy around the novel at the time of its release, during the great depression, that still remains today. He was disliked by such people as The Associated Farmers, but hailed by Eleanor Roosevelt. It enraged business men, but was loved by social reformers and radicals. (Economist, 112).

By comparison, Richard Wright's Native Son displays many similar traits and conditions in his character Bigger Thomas. Although Wright takes a somewhat different route in his portrayal, the intrinsic characteristics of both groups (Bigger is often seen as a metaphor for urban Negroes in general) show startling similarities.

The most prominent characteristic is a exploitation by the whites for monetary gain. Such instances are easily visible throughout the novel. While it would be ridiculous to say that all racism stems from a class struggle and greed, it is a prevalent theme in many of Wright's works, and Native Son is no exception. The upper class consistently exploits the underclass to fill their own coffers. As Laurel Gardner sates:

"In Wright's fiction, nearly all whites hate black and they oppress them in order to wring money out of them. ... In a capitalist world governed by whites who have no desire to share their power or wealth and who oppress blacks through intimidation and humiliation, blacks must either give up their dreams, assuaging themselves with religion or alcohol, or strike back in acts of violence, the only recourse left to blacks who refuse to give up." (Gardner 420).

The controlling society in Bigger's world, the white institution, consistently ignores the basic human rights of the oppressed. Chicago's blacks are forced to live in broken down slums, infested by rats, cold, small, and decrepit. The illusion philanthropy of Mr. Dalton is exposed as the subtle hypocrisy it really is. The dialog during Bigger's inquisition illustrates this:

" 'Who formulates the policies of these two property rental companies?'
'Why, I do.'
'Why is it that you charge the Thomas family and other Negro families more rent for the same kind of houses than you charge whites?'
'I don't fix the rent scales,' Mr. Dalton said.
'Who does?'
'Why, the law of supply and demand regulates the prices of houses.'
'Now, Mr. Dalton, it has been said that you donate millions of dollars to educate Negroes. Why is it that you exact an exorbitant rent of eight dollars per week from the Thomas family for one unventilated, rat-infested room in which four people eat and sleep?' " (Wright 302)

Mr. Dalton uses the excuse of business supply and demand as a rationalization for repressing Chicago's black population. Wright makes no secret of his disgust for this pretend generosity. In his introduction to Native Son, he describes working at an inner city "Boy and Girls Club" and his disgust at such poor philanthropic gestures like ping-pong tables. Such pointless contributions will do little to truly help people. (Wright xxiv)

Wright also paints a picture in which characters struggle for survival and control of their lives. Throughout Native Son, particularly after Bigger flees into the urban jungle, the desire and lack of food is strongly emphasized. The constant struggle for survival and self-definition is probably the most important theme. As Andrew Delbanco puts it, "He Bigger finds himself smacked back like a dog that lifts its head to the table rather than wait for the white man's scraps to fall to the floor. Not merely exploited, he is despised;" (Delbanco 30)

What Bigger ultimately wants is control over his own destiny. Like a child who seeks attention in a class room, Bigger seeks to control the attentions of society. Once he kills, and later is captured, his face plastered in every Chicago newspaper, he feels a rush of satisfaction he never had before. For once in his life, he possess the white people, even if it is only through fear. (Delbanco 32).

The similarities between the two stories can easily been seen. Both The Grapes of Wrath and Native Son are about a oppression of a lower class by and more powerful upper-class. In Grapes, the migrant peoples are held down by powerful mega-farmers, banks, and corporations. In Native Son, the black underclass is held down by a powerful white plutocracy. Both oppressors use the oppressed to fill their coffers and maintain a comparatively lavish lifestyle. Meanwhile, the oppressed scrape by a measly existence, existing in fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

The underclass groups in these two novels are again united by a desire to become masters of their own destiny, but are unable to. Whether it is Bigger musing "Those white folks won't let us do nothing!", or the migrant workers attempting to organize into unions and democracy, but being thrawrted by corrupt law enforcement, neither has any real control over their lives. Both are simply oppressed even further, which in turn entails violence. Bigger's murder of Mary Dalton, or Toms attacking of the sheriff are such examples. Such acts only allow for the ruling class to quickly squelch protesters, and intimidate others from voicing dissent, even by peaceful means.

The upper-class chose to ignore the condition of the poor through emotional detachment and rationalization. The affluent farmers in Grapes dump unused food into the river while starving people watch. The Daltons give to charities to help the Negroes, yet still own and control the same company that charges eight dollars for a single room rat infested apartment. Both cite amorphous laws and principles of business as an excuse for behavior that under any other circumstance would be utterly reprehensible.

The world of the Joads, is a far stretch from the urban setting of Native Son. However, both novels show striking similarities in the relations between poor and affluent. The ruling class consistently and systematically exploits, oppresses, and dictates the underclass. Both works show groups struggling for existence and survival while fighting the inhumane treatment of their oppressors. In one novel, a single man struggles to survive while acting as a metaphor for a greater group of people. In the other novel, an entire culture is uprooted and forced into a life of nomads. Both barely scrape by, while trying to define themselves as something greater.



Bibliography

Delbanco, Andrew. "Early Works: Lawd today! Uncle Tom's Children, Native son". The
     New Republic. March 30, 1992. p28 - 33.
Gardner, Laurel J. "The progression of meaning in the images of violence in Richard
     Wright's Uncle Tom's Children and Native Son". CLA Journal. June 1995. p420 
     435.
Kronenberger, Louis. "Hungry Caravan". Critical essays on Steinbeck's The Grapes of
     Wrath. ed. John Ditsky. Northeastern University: 1989. p23 - 24.
"The right stuff. (anniversary of John Steinback's Novel 'The Grapes of Wrath')". The
     Economist. Nov 11, 1989. p112.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking Press, 1939.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper Perennial, 1940.

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