Humanity's Journey in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath
As a major literary figure since the 1930s, Steinbeck displays in his writing a characteristic respect for the poor and oppressed. In many of his novels, his characters show signs of a quiet dignity and courage for which Steinbeck has a great admiration. For instance, in The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck describes the unrelenting struggle of the people who depend on the soil for their livelihood. One element helping give this novel an added touch of harmony is Steinbeck’s ability to bind these two ideas into one story: the never ending struggle to survive and primacy of the family.
The journey of the Joads serves as a suitable vehicle for the delivery of Steinbeck's message and theme on three levels. The first is literal: he uses the journey and its ever-changing environment to put the Joads through many situations. The second level is general: the journey of the Joads can be seen as the same that forced farmers to become migrants from the dust bowl westward or of any mass migration since the beginning of time. The third level is the symbolic level: Steinbeck’s novel can be analyzed by the commonly used mathematics principle of fractals. This relates to The Grapes of Wrath by enlightening the reader of the fact that many things are identical at different levels.
The first level, the literal, is simply to describe the events the Joads witness and experience. Steinbeck uses the journey to place his characters in a range of dilemmas. He is then able to draw reactions from them. As each character involved in the situation reacts, we are able to see Steinbeck's respect for the poor shining through. Steinbeck stresses the evolutionary idea that man must adapt to changing conditions. Among the worst offenses he feels one man can commit against another is that of inhibiting the process of adaptation or of causing another to revert to a former state in self-defense (French 324). The 'never say die' efforts of Uncle John to stop the rising flood water is one example of Steinbeck's unremitting struggle theme (Steinbeck 567). The constant effort of the entire Joad family to find work, although poor, oppressed, and hungry, shows that Steinbeck wants to show their tremendous courage and dignity. In this way, Steinbeck is able to use the journey structure to describe these fine qualities he sees and respects in the poverty-stricken masses of his time.
If one reads more deeply into The Grapes of Wrath, the reader may find that the journey of the Joads mirrors the journeys of other Okies and other forced migrations in history. The journey of the Joads has its ups and downs. Migrants are not always received with open arms; they are commonly persecuted and looked upon as subhuman. For them the promised land becomes the land of despair and suffering. While exposing the ordeal of their poverty, Steinbeck also seeks to affirm the sanctity of life and the unifying, clarifying forces inherent in human...