John Steinbeck's epic classic, The Grapes of Wrath, relates the saga of the Joad family, migrant workers struggling to make a living in Depression-era California. Their tragic experiences illustrate the failings of unrestrained Capitalism. Multi-millionaire landowners and banks monopolize the land itself in their unchecked greed, willfully damning the low-class people to near serfdom while at the same time damning their own social order to inevitable destruction. In one of the most blatantly political passages of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck outlines "the three cries of history" that betray the Capitalist system's inevitable collapse:
"...the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds throughout all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed." (Chapter 19, page 324)
Steinbeck's emphasis of unity as the greatest virtue of the working class and his Marxist reading of history reveals his advocacy of a more Socialist system. His views were considered extremely controversial in the time shortly after the first Red Scare of the 1920's and before the second Red Scare of the 1950's. Despite the unorthodoxy of his opinions, Steinbeck's skillful writing exerts a powerful sympathetic influence on his readers.
One of the central conflicts of the novel is in fact between the existing social order of Capitalism and the labor revolution. By vividly portraying the hardships faced by the low class workers and demonizing the landowners, the reader's sympathies are drawn to the downtrodden migrants. While the working class people are closely connected with the earth, squatting in the dust to ponder, "drawing figures in the dust with bare toes," (Ch. 1, pg. 6) the landowners "[sit] in their cars to talk out of the window," (Ch. 5, pg. 42) cut off from the land. Instead of pouring their sweat and blood into the earth, the landowners "[drive] big earth augers into the ground for soil tests" (Ch. 5, pg. 42) and use science and calculation to coerce more from the earth. Their tractors do not cultivate or harvest, their "iron penes... [and] orgasms set by gears... [rape] methodically, [rape] without passion." (Ch. 5, pg. 49) The methods of the landowners are a perversion of nature, not a harmony with it. "The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died." The farmers' techniques, although lacking the ruthless efficiency of mechanization, are in harmony with the land. The corporations that form the body of capitalistic society are similarly portrayed as abominations- "A bank isn't like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn't like a man either. That's the monster." (Ch. 5, pg. 45) Symbols of authority are also objects of scorn and condescension. "Did you ever see a deputy that didn' have a fat ass?" (Ch. 20, pg. 381) asks Tom Joad, the novel's rebellious protagonist. Tom, who at the novel's outset has just been released from prison after serving part of a murder sentence, also describes a guard in his prison. "Seems like ever' cop got his face," Tom says, "...Looked like a pig." (Ch. 26, pg. 500) In even more striking contrast with the hard, strong, and wholesome portrayals of the workers and farmers is a rich landowner with a million acres- a "fat, sof' fella with little mean eyes an' a mouth like a ass-hole." (Ch. 18, pg. 281) Steinbeck's almost propagandistic technique of portraying his antagonists as inhuman and disgusting turns the sympathies of his readers to his protagonists' plight, regardless of their political opinions.
Steinbeck also uses Biblical allusion to elevate his protagonists' struggle above mere politics and reform. The short 'inter-chapters'(all the odd chapters except 13, plus 12 and 14) which alternate with the long narrative chapters and provide the background of the migrants as a group, are presented in a lyrically poetic and repetitious style that echoes the King James Version of the Bible. In Robert deMott's introduction to the Penguin printing of the novel, deMott quotes Steinbeck on the inter-chapters' purpose: "with the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into a reader-open him up and while he is open introduce things on a [sic] intellectual level which he would not or could not receive unless he were opened up." Steinbeck's deliberateness is also found in his ironic choices of allusions. The Joad family's journey itself resembles a Biblical Exodus, with California the Promised Land. The Joads do not find paradise and plenty in California, however- only hardship and hunger. Rose of Sharon, the pregnant daughter of Ma and Pa Joad and sister of Tom, has a Biblical namesake denoting fruitfulness and hope- yet her baby, which is a motivation for the Joad family throughout the novel, is stillborn at the novel's tragic end. Noah, one of the Joad's teenaged sons, is unable to cope with the hardship of a new start, unlike his intrepid Biblical namesake, and abandons the family. Uncle John, Pa Joad's brother, sets Rose of Sharon's dead baby afloat in a flooded creek instead of burying it. John seems to recognize this event's ironic similarity to the Biblical story of Moses. "Go down an' tell 'em," says John bitterly, "Go down in the street an' rot, an' tell 'em that way. That's the way you can talk... Maybe they'll know then." (Ch. 30, pg. 609) These startling reversals of Biblical stories jolt the reader into feelings of pity for the migrants.
These Biblical allusions lead to the characters of Tom Joad and Jim Casy, an ex-preacher with his own sense of theological and social truth. Casy has abandoned preaching, and now entertains "a lot of sinful idears" that nonetheless "seem kinda sensible." (Ch. 4, pg. 27) He recognizes his own hypocrisy, and feels remorse that after every meeting he used to "take one of them girls out in the grass... an' ...lay with her." (Ch. 4, pg. 29) Casy has now embraced a transcendental deism that is as much an affront to established religion as Socialism is to Capitalism. "There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue... It's all part of the same thing," (Ch. 4, pg. 32) says Casy, and likewise, "Why do we got to hang it all on God or Jesus? ...maybe it's all men an' all women we love, maybe that's the Holy Sperit-the human sperit-the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of." (Ch. 4, pg. 33) Casy's theology, like Socialism, emphasizes unity. In the same way that Steinbeck uses Biblical allusion to elevate the Joads' struggle and enhance reader sympathy, Casy becomes a messiah figure, giving his message a feel of Gospel truth. Casy acknowledges his own Christ-like properties, several times saying "I been in the hills, thinkin', almost you might say like Jesus went into the wilderness..." (Ch. 8, pg. 109) Casy is also several times shown with a beatific shine on his forehead, in chapter eight and again in chapter twenty-six. Even Jim Casy's initials, JC, are those of Jesus Christ. Casy becomes a martyr, and is 'crucified-' killed by a blow to the head, after becoming a leader of a labor movement. Upon his death, he cries, "You fella's don' know what you're doin'," (Ch. 26, pg. 527) much like Christ's famous absolution at his own crucifixion: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34) Casy's messianic properties elevate his struggle for social progress to a religious plane. Tom Joad, Casy's apostle, assumes his place after Casy's death. Emerging from a cave where he hid to avoid arrest, Tom Joad is like the resurrected Christ emerging from his tomb. Tom tells Ma Joad of a scripture that Casy used to say: "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lif' up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up... Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him, and a threefold cord is not quickly broken." This passage, quoted verbatim from Ecclesiastes 4:9, reveals a basis for the "social gospel-" an influential belief at the turn of the 19th century that Socialism is the most Christian political system. Tom and Casy give the political belief in the socialistic ideal a religious aspect, making it more appealing.
Steinbeck uses the example of the Weedpatch Government Camp to provide a working model of a socialistic community. In Weedpatch, "folks... elect their own cops" (Ch. 22, pg. 390) and authority stems from elected committees that share responsibility. Human dignity, which is not to be found in other migrant camps, is respected in Weedpatch. By emphasizing the Socialist system's respect for equality and human rights, Steinbeck makes it less of a political abstraction, showing the universally appealing aspects of the Socialist system. The powerfully moving finale of the novel, although not delivering the Joads from hardship, offers an optimistic message: that self-sacrifice and humanity persevere despite hardship. The quality of perseverance also colors Steinbeck's description of social progress. Characterized by an inexorable and implacable land turtle that "[turns] aside for nothing" (Ch. 3, pg. 20), the spirit of progress is depicted as natural and righteous. Socialism, as a progressive political system, is therefore also seen as natural and righteous. The reader is made to feel that Socialism, or at least greater social responsibility, is the inevitable outgrowth of human progress. The atmosphere of impending change that permeates the work also contributes to this feeling. The social crisis of unemployment and depression is likened to weather, a natural force that will soon pass. "I know the wind," (Ch. 28, pg. 571) says Tom, the voice of the oppressed. "The western land," writes Steinbeck, is "nervous under the beginning change." (Ch. 14, pg. 204) Again, change is portrayed as inevitable. In one of the most stirring passages of the novel, Steinbeck writes, "in the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage." (Ch. 26, pg. 477) The people's desire for social change is natural, righteous, and spiritual. Through Steinbeck's association of revolution and socialistic change with optimistic, uplifting, and positive concepts, the reader gains a sense that such change is right and necessary.
Steinbeck's work gives a human face and a spiritual dimension to a largely political movement. His skillful use of allusion, characterization, and tone, among other techniques, increases the reader's sympathy for progressive and socialistic reform. The pitiful yet noble protagonists of The Grapes of Wrath remove political prejudice by tugging the reader's heartstrings. Steinbeck proves that, as Rodolfo Gonzales, a Chicano activist, once wrote: "Ultimately, there are no revolutions without poets."